Everybody loves Obama:

With the inauguration fast approaching, the level of “buzz” about the new president has diminished little since the election. The average Juan loves the idea of a dark-skinned family in the White House; and even most of the bleached-out light skinned quick-to-deny-any indigenous-blood types seem pleased.

However, while everyone wishes him well, most people don’t think a lot will change. Mexicans are a pretty skeptical – not to say cynical – bunch. The “system” by which the PRI ruled for so many decades – and by which the PAN rule today – has a sad history of imitating Lucy when she holds the football and promises not to move it, and Mexicans can empathize with Charlie Brown.

Mexicans have learned to have low expectations of their government, and so they don’t have much faith in promises of change emanating from the Obama transition team. Like most people in the world, they are outraged by the Israeli bombardment of Gaza but see no hope of change from the new administration; and they are particularly disappointed by what they see as agricultural policies and immigration positions that are unlikely to impact favorably here.

[The Night of the Radishes has come and gone as it does every December 23. This year’s festival was notable for the reduced number of booths featuring carved radishes (for which the festival is named), the generally larger and more complex displays, and the overwhelming police presence. This guy is made of corn husks. I liked him so much I’m using him as my desktop background.]

Transition this:

We attended a meeting the other day, at the Lending Library, led by an expatriate, for the purposes of giving feedback to the Obama transition team’s health care task force. One of some 4,000 such discussion groups that have been meeting all over the globe, it was structured by the team, who sent out an agenda, an analysis of the problem, a suggested plan to improve things, and a list of questions / subjects for discussion.

There were about a dozen of us in attendance, most of whom are “permanent” residents of Oaxaca; ranging in age from middle-aged to ancient. Almost all were vocal, some with experience in the health care industry, and all with horror stories to tell.

It quickly became apparent that – with one or two exceptions – nobody wanted to relate to the questions as written, viewing them as distractions from what we DID want to talk about: free, universal, single payer health care, now! Our consensus – and, I’ll bet, that of virtually every other of the 4,000 groups – was that the question was not whether, but how single-payer should be implemented; and what such a system would look like. We pretty much all agreed that expats and travelers who are enrolled in Medicare should receive reimbursement for medical treatment when out of the U.S.

Will Obama revise his agenda, and move single-payer to the front? Probably not, we thought. Still, when has anyone else in government taken the trouble to ask the questions? And how will the team handle the results when – as is almost certain to happen – virtually all the groups return results similar to ours?

[This concrete cylinder bears a likeness to a real person whom we see wandering around, or sleeping on the sidewalk, from time to time. Most of the time, he wears even less than what you see here.]

An ambulante update:

From time to time, I’ve written about the struggles between the store and restaurant owners, and the hordes of informal vendors who set up their booths on the sidewalks and in the streets in front of them. Recently, the city declared that they were going to “clean up” the streets, much as MexCity has done, and much as in MexCity there is a sort of guerrilla theater taking place, with the booths popping up in one place and then another. The recent brouhaha at Soledad’s church on her feast day, with booths first being set up on Independencia, then removed by police, then appearing again in Plaza de la Danza, is just one example.

Today (Dec 31), Noticias published a report on a new “Street Law” that apparently makes the booths legal, provided they pay a license fee. The fees are listed. A single-size booth will go for as much as $2,000 dollars a year, depending on location. The fee schedule accounts for all grades of vendors: people who sell from a blanket on the sidewalk will pay a few pesos a day.

What is not clear is which gangs will get awarded which locations. Will there be warfare among the ambulante groups? The merchants are sure to howl. They pay a lot for their commercial store-fronts. The motorists do not appreciate having main traffic streets reduced to one narrow lane. Stay tuned for more updates. This is the story that keeps on giving.

[These musicians are from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. They are playing for shoppers at a big craft fair on the Alcala]

Meanwhile, we’re still investigating the situation of the Triqui merchants who currently sell their merchandise along the south side of Labastida park, after having been kicked from hither to thither to yon over the years since they were evicted from Carmen Alto plaza by Francisco Toledo’s “beautification project”. Thanks to a contact provided by a friend and subscriber who lives here, we met with one family of vendors, and hope to get more testimony. This story, long overdue, will appear in the January or February newsletter.

[This Catrina guards the doorway to Amate Books, on the Alcala.]

Squatter villages are springing up all around:

Official estimates are that over 100 new squatter villages – concentrations of shacks and tents and other temporary shelters – have become established in the far suburbs surrounding Oaxaca. 40,000 households are said to hold about 160,000 persons.

This is not new. Almost all the established exurban communities started out as squatter camps, and developed into viable communities with municipal services over time – some more served (and therefore more viable) than others. Many neighborhoods in the established communities still do not have running water, for example, or regular garbage collection.

What is new is the volume of new arrivals, most of whom are refugees from a farm economy devastated by NAFTA dictated imports of subsidized U.S. agricultural products, who have come to the city to seek enough work to feed their families.

The official census figure for Oaxaca city is approximately 400,000. That means that just in squatters alone – never mind those who actually own their homes – there has been an enormous increase in migration here.

Like the ambulantes, these camps tend to be run by caciques (bosses) who make their living as fixers and enforcers, working with (for) the ruling PRI party. Of course this perpetuates the corruption and impunity that characterizes Mexican power relationships, a lamentable situation, but there seems to be no viable alternative for the dispossessed, and like the Tammany organization, the system does work on some levels.

Meanwhile, the new arrivals keep coming…

[Back in 1996, the folks in Loxicha, a municipio in the southern sierra of Oaxaca, were marching for the release of their neighbors, held as political prisoners by the state government. Here, 12 years later, they are still seeking justice.]


**What goes around, comes around:

The head of procurement for the ministry of the interior resigned his job recently. This amid rumors that he is under investigation because he approved the contract with the company that maintained the Lear jet that crashed last month, killing his boss, the minister of the interior; and that records show that the company falsified maintenance reports and pocketed the money.

The theory, should the rumors be true, is that he got paid off to overlook irregularities, as so many officials do. If it’s true, as many believe, that the corruption goes all the way to the top, then Juan Camilo Mauriño, the deceased jefe, was getting a cut of the bribe that resulted in the poor maintenance that contributed to the crash that killed him. Irony is ever with us.

**Another nice overview from Planeta:

Ah, to be young again, and have the energy of Ron Mader. His website (I’ve jokingly called it the General Motors of web sites for its sheer volume, but that was ten years ago when GM was still thought to be viable) is just jam packed with little nuggets of info. Here’s a gem that I pass on to those of you who are interested in “how to get around, and in and out of, Oaxaca: Click here

**Some statistics:

About 30 million Mexicans survive on less than 30 pesos per day – not quite $2.50 at current exchange rate. The minimum wage is 45 pesos per day. The Mexican federal government estimates that 37.7 percent of its 106 million citizens – 40 million people – live in poverty. Of those, some 25 million, or 23.6 percent, live in extreme poverty. In rural Mexico, more than 10 million people have a daily income of less than 12 pesos – a little less than one American dollar.

**As of today, the peso is hovering around 14 to the dollar. In my usual blythe and inimitable fashion, I predict: the peso will eventually settle at 15 / 1.

**Cemex has announced that it no longer has money to spend on construction of one of the major wind farms in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Since the land was procured through questionable means, and since like most of the transnational land grabs going on in the area it was opposed by indigenous groups, it seems fair to say that the ill wind of the financial crisis has indeed blown some good.

Teaching Rebellion:

Subtitled “Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization In Oaxaca”, this collection of photos and testimony from leaders and other participants in the uprising that took place in 2006 is inspiring, informative, transformative and – as the title implies – a primer for “organizing from below”. Diana Denham and her collective, CASA, a group of facilitators and witnesses in the struggle for social justice, have produced a moving and informative oral history, and in so doing have provided a coherent analysis of the events.

This is a story that is still being told as Oaxacans continue to struggle against the corruption and repression of the current state and national governments. When you finish the book, you will know a lot more about the uprising, and the spirit of the people; and you will be inspired to practice Zapatismo where you are.

The great prognosticator:

I checked back on my predictions for 2008, in issue two, and I pretty much got it right. UABJO is still in conflict, although relatively quiet at the moment; the licensing of taxis and moto-taxis by authorities anxious to pocket the fee and indifferent to established drivers is being played out in street confrontations and blockades; the teachers have a new – but, according to many equally corrupt – leader, who is threatening more work stoppages and marches. I’d have to say I bettered my average this year. And next year?

2009 is a major election year, with a lot of federal and state offices up for grabs. The parties are already jockeying for alliances. Lopez Obrador is complaining about the PRD, to which he nominally belongs, with-holding financial support. PRD has imploded, and appears to be about to become irrelevant to the political process. PAN, always a hard sell to the average Juan, has further damaged itself by pushing for extremely unpopular privatization schemes, particularly of gasoline and electricity, and by its abject failure to reign in drug gang warfare. In consequence, conventional wisdom has it that the PRI will continue its comeback this year, with substantial gains at every level. In this case conventional wisdom is, as it often is not, on to something.

I predict that with some exceptions, such as perhaps in Oaxaca if the teachers and the APPO (whoever they are) make a serious effort to get out the vote, it’s gonna be a red-white-and-green year for the PRI.

[Two new galleries have opened in our neighborhood, Biulu at Juarez 503, and Azul on Abasolo near Juarez.]

We are about to enter our 14 th year of Newsletters:

We want to extend our thanks to you all for your support – some of you, for more than ten years – and hope that in these times of falling employment, fading consumer confidence, and unnecessarily scary articles about safety in Mexico, you will still be with us a year from now.

During the coming year, we will attempt to put out at least fifteen editions: twelve regular monthly numbers, and three “extras” which may take the form of e-mails with breaking-news and analysis , or photo essays. Hopefully, at least three of the regular letters will contain major articles on travel, either here in Mexico or abroad.

As always, we welcome your suggestions, questions, praise and cavils. Enjoy!