Bill Wolf dead at 60:

Our good friend Bill took his own life last week. He had been suffering from lung cancer for some time, and decided to forego the final stages. He didn’t inform anyone, either of his condition or his decision. We will miss him terribly.

Most of you know of him through our writings as the guy who founded and directed the Frente Común Contra el SIDA (The Common Front against AIDS) here in Oaxaca, but that was only part of who he was.

[Bill outside his studio, painting a sign which was meant to replace a regular street sign during a recent march and demonstration in Oaxaca]

Starting in the 1960s, Bill had a long career as an actor, director, producer, publicist and artistic director in many aspects of performance art from street theater to adult entertainment to television. He was a painter, a historian, an advisor to local groups struggling for change. Much of this history is available on his personal web site, “Bill Wolf, the Personal Archives”. Included is his own narrative of how the “bad government” of Oaxaca state forced the closing of the Frente, and its condom store “CondonMania” because the Frente exposed the ineffectual “official” agency known as COESIDA.

[When this diorama was put up during Muertos (days of the Dead) in early November 2006, the APPO still had control of the area in front of Santo Domingo. Still, it was not safe for Bill to be identified as an APPO supporter. Designing and constructing this memorial to those killed and disappeared during the struggle was an act of bravery for him and for the street theater collective that put it up.]

The Media attack on “usos y costumbres”:

There has been a spate of articles lately focusing on the alleged abuses of “usos y costumbres” (u/c) as a form of governance in Mexico. Oaxaca contains a significant number of municipios (a sort of cross between a township and a county) and “agencias” (small towns within a particular municipio) that rule themselves by u/c. U/c communities make decisions at open public meetings, and forbid the open participation of political parties in their deliberations.

[A new style of graffiti has been showing up lately: large collages that leave room for – and integrate – the gang tags, while making less obscure cultural and political statements. The slogan at the top reads “only the people are sovereign”]

Critics say that u/c is nothing more than a device by which a few families exercise control over the rest of their neighbors; that lack of secret balloting makes decision making dangerous for anyone who wishes to disagree; that women and other “minorities” are denied participation. There is no doubt that in may instances they are right. Unfortunately, what they offer as a substitute – the current Mexican electoral system, with its bosses, corruption, vote stealing and violence – is no improvement; and while some u/c communities are “guilty as charged” (leaving many who run their meetings in on open and transparently democratic fashion), there are few polling places in the party-based pretend “democracy” that are free from fear, violence and fraud.

The growing media focus comes at the same time that the president’s party is introducing legislation to rescind some of the Constitutional guarantees that protect the c/u process. The consequences of such an action could be enormous, because some of the u/c communities (which comprise one out of every five in Oaxaca) have been using this practice since way before Cortéz invaded.

Faced with the possibility of even more social disruption (the army is violating human rights in the “war on drugs”; the miners are moving toward a national strike; the teachers and the APPO continue to disrupt political business in MexCity) why would the “powers that be” go to all that trouble? To get the vote for indigenous women? Don’t make me laugh. Perhaps it’s all those natural resources; the ones that u/c communities tend to want to control – or withhold for themselves.

URO goes to the woodshed:

Starting with an article in the national daily “El Universal” about the 20th of January, the story flew around the Mexican media: the new Interior Minister (the second most powerful politician in the country) called Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz one night, told him to present himself at 9:00 the next morning, and gave him a dressing down.

“Move back into the state capital building on the Zócalo”, minister Mauriño is alleged to have said, “and make your peace with the teachers and the APPO. Or better yet, take an ambassadorship and resign. We don’t want Oaxaca to be so noisy just now.”

[Balloon sellers on the street between the Alameda park and the post office]

Ulises denies it all. He says the meeting was no different than others he has held with past and present ministers, to inform them about what is needed to improve the lives of Oaxacan people. Thing is, hardly anyone believes him.

The rumors have even gone so far as to name someone, a crony of ex-governor, now senator Diódoro Carrasco, as his likely replacement.

I think rumors of URO’s imminent demise are a little exaggerated, perhaps more wishful thinking than reality. First, there has been a working agreement between the president’s party, PAN, and URO’s party, PRI. The PRI has promised to help pass changes in the natural resources regulations that will make it easier for international corporations to enjoy the rich fruits of “privatization”. In exchange, the president has promised to turn a deaf ear to the cries for change at the top in several states including Oaxaca. No protection, no deal on cutting up PEMEX. Second, even if URO’s voluntary abdication could be arranged, why would the administration want to take on PRI strongman and king-maker José Murát, a blood enemy of Diódoro and the one who picked URO for the job?

What all the ballyhoo does signify is that URO is still wildly unpopular, among Oaxacans and among much of the political class. APPO and the teachers will not let up on the pressure, and the annual mid-May march by the teachers is rapidly approaching. Hardly anyone wants a repeat of the summer of 2006.

[The triqui vendors who used to be in Carmen Alto plaza before Toledo had it redesigned, and found themselves relegated to an obscure location alng the north wall of the Santo Domingo complex, have now come full circle. They now appear to be permanently ensconsed along the south side of Labastida park. These rugs are being displayed in a prime location, around the corner at the head of 5 Mayo street]

Conzatti Park is completed:

The last – and perhaps the most necessary – of the park remodeling projects is more or less completed. Many contend that replacing the terrible sidewalks would have been enough, but URO’s pals needed more money, I guess, and so the entire park was made over. Given that it was a boondoggle, it is nonetheless a pretty good job, with the benches replaced and a minimum of tree removal. The masthead picture is of the “new” park, taken from in front of the Conzatti hotel looking north toward the public health clinic.

As predicted in these pages (I have to crow about the ones I get right, as opposed to the many I get wrong), the Friday market has not returned, remaining at the north end of El Llano park, where there are more puestos than could possibly fit back into the old location.

Speaking of markets:

The organic market at Pochote is looking a little empty these days, since all the puestos selling prepared food were evicted by Toledo a few weeks ago. You may recall that his excuse was that the smoke from the cooking fires killed one of the trees. Even if you were inclined to accept this statement at face value – I am not – why exile the vendors of cold food? Or the women who sold coffee prepared using electricity?

The women who vend tejate and fruit drinks, Adriana who sold only cold food, and the Korean lady with the bruschetti, are all back after initially being bounced. Rosa, who sold baked goods, and the organic veggie sellers from Tierra del Sol, have dropped out. Politics. Go figure…

Most of the hot-food vendors appear to have moved over to the railway museum on Sundays and Tuesdays. When we were there, none of the organic veggie sellers from Pochote participated. There was one puesto selling purses made out of recycled newspaper: pretty interesting…


[These youngsters are performing on a stage erected at the Sunday market. The folk dance tradition is still alive in Oaxaca.]

Traffic news:

*License plate removal has been outlawed. The city government of Oaxaca has issued orders to the transit Police that under no circumstances are they to remove the license plates from a vehicle. In the past, it has been standard practice for the police to take the plates off a car for parking or even moving violations as an “assurance” that the driver would pay the fine. In most cases, the “fine” was negotiated on the spot with a cash payment to whomever held the plates. From now on, the motorist will be issued a paper ticket (which of course might not be necessary providing a “fine” in cash is paid on the spot). One note of warning: this is only true in the city of Oaxaca…

*In the latest in a series of now-they’re-in, now-they’re out, flip-flops, the extremely unpopular and probably impractical parking meters installed in the center of Oaxaca have mostly been removed (the rest are being either vandalized or ignored). The city has decided that they are just too controversial. No doubt the company that was awarded the sweetheart contract will sue for non-compliance, but it appears that this decision is final.

*More pedestrian streets: The city has revealed plans to expand the “no circulation” streets in the center, and the merchants are howling. On 5 Mayo street, the barriers to traffic are sometimes up and sometimes not, adding to the confusion and frustration. The affected merhants and residents (many have their cars garaged inside their homes and would be forced to leave them on nearby streets or pay for lot parking) are accusing the city of catering to tourism at the expense of local residents.

Of those who favor such a system, many say that the city is not ready for the changes, pointing out that thousands of on-street parking spaces will be removed with no current plans for replacing them with ramps or lots; and that no comprehensive plan for re-routing traffic has been announced. Pollution is one of Oaxaca’s most pressing problems, and the vision of even worse traffic jams is not a pleasing one to contemplate. The specter has been raised of a city center full of boutiques and expensive restaurants and hotels, while local folks are diverted to the suburban malls with their large parking lots and big-box stores.

Predictions for 2008:

As you probably know, much of what I tell you comes from my readings in the local and national press. Of particular note was an article appearing in “Noticias” on January 6, discussing the likely “flash points” of the coming year, the gist of which I pass on here, with my own comments where I deem it appropriate.

*The state University (UABJO) will break down into sometimes-armed conflict between rival gangs known as “porros” who work for rival factions among the administrators. This will continue until one group or another becomes clearly dominant.

In fact, recent shootings, bus burnings, and other incidents have already occurred as the university attempts to replace college deans whose terms have expired. Particularly affected are the colleges of Law, and Social Science, as well as Business.

[Independencia, one of Oaxaca’s main arteries, closed to traffic in front of the locked doors of the law school. The rat, put up by one faction that claims the other is corrupt and illegitimate, is a symbol of the chaotic situation at UABJO.]

Of course the main casualty will be the education of students who are hoping that their degree will help them find jobs – in spite of the shrinking job market, a factor that helps to explain why many students involve themselves in these conflicts: they don’t see any future for themselves anyway. Still, the vast majority of students, who are serious about “getting ahead”, are forced to sit out the closures and conflicts.

*Taxi wars will continue and perhaps sharpen as the price of gasoline keeps rising without any increase in the fare structure, and as the state government continues (whether by incompetence or by corruption) to deal ineffectually with the hundreds of illegally licensed taxi cabs that ply the streets: Oaxaca is supposed to have limited licensing.

In fact, there have already been highly publicized “sweeps”, which have netted a few dozen pirate cabs, hardly a dent in the problem.

*The teachers are far from placated and will continue to disrupt life in the capital with their demonstrations, blockades, etc.

In fact, there are massive marches planned for the rest of this month, and threats of more pressure, particularly since the (see above) rumor surfaced that the feds want the Oaxaca authorities to give in to many of their demands. With a sophisticated system of check-offs to make sure their members show up when and where they are ordered to do so, the union has a powerful club to use against the state, and has shown no hesitancy to put it to use.

*The conflict about “whose Oaxaca is this, anyway?” will grow as the average Juan gets more restive over changes that he sees as not to his benefit. This is something we alluded to above. Also yet to play out is the anger over the increase of bus fares from 3.5 to 4.5 pesos.

All in all, it would seem we’re in for an interesting year. Probably nothing like 2006, but worth following. We’ll try to keep you informed as things develop.