Cold enough for you?

It’s been really frigid here for the last few weeks. Temperatures have dipped into the 50s at night, and risen only as high as 70 during the day. I know that’s spring weather for many of you, but for we who live in dwellings with cement walls and terrazo floors, without central heat, it’s the depths of winter.

The last couple of days have shown signs of moderating, as Mexico moves into its short Spring of February and March, leading to Oaxaca Summer in April until the rains come. Still, if you’re coming down in the next couple of weeks, I recommend that you bring a jacket…

[This sculpture, installed in a plaza in El Paso, was made by friend Roberto Salas, using “milagros” (miracles) custom made by a tin smith in Oaxaca. Photo by Roberto Salas.]

Mapping dissent in Oaxaca?

Charges surfaced recently that the U.S. Army has been running operations in the Sierra Juarez north of Oaxaca city, through their secretive Foreign Military Studies Office. This is the FMSO mission statement, taken from their website:

“…a research and analysis center under the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, Intelligence Support Activity (TRISA). FMSO manages and operates the Ft. Leavenworth Joint Reserve Intelligence Center (JRIC) and conducts analytical programs focused on emerging and asymmetric threats, regional military and security developments, and other issues that define evolving operational environments around the world. Joint Reserve Component personnel and units–operating at the Ft. Leavenworth JRIC and in distance drilling analytical teams around the U.S. and abroad–make substantial contributions to all FMSO production efforts.”

[The Artisan Co-op, looking out onto Bravo. The new monos are waiting to welcome shoppers]

Upon investigation, it appears that the project referred to was carried out by a group from the University of Kansas, under the auspices of the American Geographical Society (not, I assume, to be confused with the National Geographic Society). Here is their comment:

“The First Bowman Expedition of the American Geographical Society (AGS), called México Indígena (MI), has renewed the society’s commitment to inform the public and governments about foreign geography in support of better policy making. Specifically, AGS proposes sending expeditions to gather geographic information, conduct place-based research, and combat geographic ignorance.”

The cover for this “study” is both benign and altruistic: to help rural communities to resolve disputes among themselves, and between them and neighboring areas, as well as state and national governments, regarding land boundaries, uses, etc.; utilizing science to resolve what otherwise might be resolved by violence. The actual application appears to be far more sinister.

Local social activists claim that the real purpose is to locate, by land map and gps co-ordinate, every man, woman and child in the area; that the intelligence thus gathered could be used for pin-point bombing of dissidents; that this information is being turned over to the Mexican government, whose reputation for violent repression of opposition is well documented.

Here is a statement from a member of the Association of American Anthropologists:

“The AAA has taken a vote and made a strong statement against the participation of anthropologists in such programs as the Human Terrain Systems. which compromise the integrity of the field of anthropology and our ethical obligation to do no harm to the people we study. It jeopardizes our colleagues in the field and our relationships with the people we study if they cannot trust us not to be a spy for one government or another. It is the equivalent of doing colonial anthropology.”

Operations such as this one endanger all legitimate anthropological studies, and all anthropologists operating in rural, conflicted areas. The suspicion that inquiring academics might be deep-cover spies has always made their work more difficult for them, but these revelations – clear proof that such fears can be well founded – are bound to make things worse.

[The wall along the south side of Carmen Alto plaza is a favorite place to announce and exhort.]

Urban renewal reaching new phase?

I remember well the early 1970s, when the neighborhood I was living in near the campus of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis was facing a major renewal project. Unfortunately for the developers, their plans leaked out way before they had removed enough of the old residents. We organized and stopped the plans at stage 1 of 4.

Downtown Oaxaca is in some ways further down the development road than we were then: steady erosion in the housing base over years, lots of abandoned commercial and residential spaces, a glut of trendy boutiques and galleries, just like we had; but also buildings whose per-square-foot value is so high that no-one can afford to buy them for living space; and an antiquated set of regulations that make repairs and remodeling so expensive that they remain empty and crumbling.

Oaxaca’s designation as a UNESCO world heritage site has been a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it has preserved much of what is charming. On the other, it has encouraged the sort of development that, in the words of one group of business-people and academics, threatens to make Oaxaca a museum, devoid of daily life.

[Our friend Bertha gives a coin to a street performer “statue” in front of the Marques del Valle hotel.]

Looking to the example of Mexico City’s “Centro Historico”, proponents of the new development want to see the abandoned and marginal buildings transformed into living spaces and an infrastructure of shops, stores, services, etc. that are needed to support a “neighborhood life”. However, there are several points that need to be made about the MexCity model:

There was an “angel” involved, Carlos Slim, the richest man in Mexico (and, on some days, in the world). He isn’t a philanthropist by nature, and everyone expects him to recoup his investment and then some before it’s all over. His cousin, billionaire Alfredo Harp, could take that role, but so far things are quiet on that front.

Rehabbed apartments have begun to appear in central DF, but service businesses have been lagging behind. High original costs and subsequent speculation have rapidly driven the price of habitation up to levels unattainable by all but the very well off. There is little sign that many of the businesses that have moved to the cheaper and in many ways more convenient suburbs are thinking of moving back; and of course there is no way that the people who have been moved out, mostly being poor (much of the centro historico was, after all, a slum), can afford to move back in.

Still, the point of the planning groups should be taken: that a “city of museums” is not an outcome that should be sought; and that without residents and services neighborhoods such as Oaxaca’s centro historico will suffer from an irretrievable loss of spirit.

Everybody loves Barak (part 2):

The inauguration is over, and everyone was watching down here in chilly (this has to be the longest spell of cold temperatures in our 18 years here) Oaxaca. There were watching parties all over town, ranging from the pricey 250 peso brunch organized by the Library crowd, to the free show in the big-ticket appliance stores. We, as many did, watched with a few others at a friend’s house.

All the local folks we talked to were hopeful but guarded in their attitude. Almost everyone had one question in common: now that he’s sworn in, what’s he going to do about Israel, which they see as a destabilizing force in the middle east and in the world. Our answer was consistent: vamos á ver (we’ll see). The pro-Palestinian graffiti is scrawled on the outside of the Plaza Santo Domingo, which houses, among other things, the office of the U.S. special consul.

Reverse migration may be over-rated:

Earlier this month, the Migration Policy Institute reported that the rate of Mexican reverse migration, expected to increase dramatically due to the economic downturn in the U.S., has remained fairly steady so far. It was certainly a surprise to me: along with just about everyone else, I had been predicting a tidal wave of returnees. Where did we all go wrong?

Several factors may be in play here, starting with the knowledge that there are no jobs awaiting returnees to Mexico. The difficulty of re-entering the U.S., once over the border, also looms large. However, an interesting “positive” shows up: illegal immigrants are more willing to relocate – to chase employment opportunities – than are U.S. citizens and foreign holders of green cards; more willing to work for less when they must; and more willing to shift from semi-skilled (construction, for instance) to unskilled (such as harvesting) jobs.

While the figures are up dramatically when it comes to returnees, the report cautions that this is due to the growth in arrest and deportation of undocumented workers: involuntary, not voluntary, repatriation. At the same time, due to more fences, border patrol, and intelligence “improvements”, the flow north has indeed been slowed down; and that the result is that, far from the picture the xenophobes paint of ravening hordes swelling the number of Mexicans who are in the U.S. without official sanction, their population size has remained fairly steady for some time.

Of course there is no reliable way for me to predict what the coming few years will bring; and it may indeed get ugly if the economy keeps shrinking. But for now, “the brown peril” appears to be exaggerated, both in its growth and in its shrinkage.

[Doorways are such fun in Oaxaca. At any time, you can encounter the most surprising things. Even “average” doorway scenes like this one are captivating.]

Marcos slams López Obrador:

Subcomandante insurgente Marcos, speaking at a celebration of 15 years of EZLN resistance, took pains to diss Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), the man who by most accounts won the presidency of Mexico in an election then stolen from him by the actual president, Felipe Calderón.

“We are sometimes accused of sectarianism and intolerance”, Marcos said, “but I say to you that today, no movement in Mexico has exhibited the degree of intolerance, sectarianism, and hysteria, than that which is headed by AMLO.” He went on to accuse the “intellectuals” in the AMLO camp of believing that they are “unique”, and that only they know what is good for Mexico.

Marcos also had some choice words for Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard, an AMLO protegé often accused of running roughshod over his constituents. Marcos savaged Ebrard for his role in stifling the voices of dissent – in the form of street protests- a charge that Ebrard would no doubt defend against as merely trying to keep the streets open and the traffic flowing.

Since 2006, we have been following the implosion of the “official” Left in Mexico in the wake of the stealing of the presidential election from the PRD-dominated coalition and AMLO. As I noted recently, there is a lot of realignment going on within – and between – the PRD and what used to be a relatively small ally, the PT (Partido de Trabajo: Labor Party). In the new alliance (off-year elections are scheduled for July, and the PRI appears to be the party to beat: from sheep to goat in only 8 years) Convergencia and PT have joined forces, and begun raiding the PRD.

Deputies to the national congress have begun shuffling across the Party divide, and – under the influence of Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, one of the founders of the PRD and one of the earliest of its defectors – the PT appears to be collecting the most progressive elements of the PRD and shedding its own conservatives. During all this, AMLO has been not-so-quietly going about his political business – barnstorming the country’s small towns – and while there is some reason to believe that he will eventually align with the new PT-Convergencia conglomerate, this is far from certain. Two reasons for this are named Muñoz Ledo and Gabino Cué (leading light of Convergencia), both hungry for political meat in their own right.

There is, however, no chance whatsoever that AMLO will join the PRD, which has been taken over by a “tendency” that favors co-operation with the Calderón regime in some areas, and rejects the notion of a “legitimate president” whose initials are AMLO.

In identifying AMLO with the PRD, Marcos appears to be incorrect. Whether or not his entire statement is flawed is a matter to be pondered. In my ear, Marcos’ remarks about AMLO sound needlessly harsh and provocative.

The Zapatista analysis of the current political system as being completely corrupted and incapable of fundamental reform seems correct enough, but if all politicians are tainted, and the only solution for true progressives is to drop out of electoral politics, then what will emerge from the July elections? Surely, the PRI is far from being the best of all the available bad solutions.


***Mexico’s monthly magazine “Inside Mexico”, has merged with “In and Out Mexico”. Both are written in English, with the bulk of present distribution in Mexico City (but with national coverage) and lots of plans to expand their markets. Margot Lee and husband Aran Shetterly founded Inside Mexico, and now oversee the operations of both entities.

A free handout supported by advertising, Inside Mexico can be picked up at the Oaxaca Lending Library, or viewed online.

***What was formerly the gallery and school “Sachmo”, at 116 Melchoir Ocampo, has been reborn as a gallery and multi-use space anchored by the art collective ASARO. ASARO was the pre-eminent poster chronicler of the 2006 uprising. They do fantastic prints. We own the one in the photo.

***The Viento II wind farm was dedicated a few days ago. The president and the governor were on hand at the mega-project for the ceremonies. The entire output of this 176-unit development will go to multi-national conglomerate CEMEX, producing about a fourth of its energy needs. A laudatory article from one or more of the companies involved was printed in Die Welt online in English, an excellent example of how handouts get published as “news”.

Missing from the article is any mention of the social justice organizations and individuals who have been stomped on in the process. Ignored is the fact that much of the land was acquired through fraud, misrepresentation, and outright extortion.

Next up, a hydroelectric project that will sink villages, farms, and a whole way of life that goes back hundreds of years — in spite of the protests of those affected…

***If you read Spanish, take a look at the magazine “Techio”, produced by the organization “Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations”. It’s available on line

***The government of Colima, in response to a rash of extortions by telephone and in person, as well as a sharp increase in kidnappings and assassinations, is offering a “security package” to its put-upon citizens. For only 30,000 pesos (about 2,200 dollars), one gets a security camera, an “emergency button” hooked into the state’s GPS, and training for one’s bodyguards. Aimed mostly at businesses, the plan has received mixed reviews. Many have pointed out that people are already being taxed to finance, among other things, law enforcement and security, and expressing frustration that they now have to pay for something that they have already paid for. Since by some estimates, less that 1% of crimes ever end in a conviction, one can see their point.

[A simple vegetarian tlayuda on a table at the Primavera. Tlayudas are uniquely Oaxacan. The large corn tortilla is hard baked.]

Some Housekeeping:

Our thanks to all of you for your feedback, your encouragement, and of course for your financial support. This is the first issue in the fourteenth year of the Newsletter, a cause for celebration and no small amount of wonder. It’s also a good time for you to let us know what changes, if any, you’d like to see going forward.

In keeping with our policy of twelve monthly issues and at least three supplements per year, we have realigned Newsletter renewals to conform with the 12-issue schedule. They were on a fifteen-issue rotation, and this created some confusion on this end, so we changed it. Few of you will notice the difference, and that’s as it should be.

I haven’t added to, or updated, the Glossary, in some time. While the info in it is good, it’s dated. It’s a lot of work to maintain it, and it’s gotten unwieldy anyway, so while the Glossary will remain in place, I won’t be referencing it much – as I haven’t for a few issues now.

I will, however, be updating both the Links page and the Book and CD listing, before the next issue comes out.