Can Lonely Planet save Oaxaca?

Big news this week is that the world’s best-selling tour book business has named Oaxaca one of the top ten destinations in the world. Can’t come on with bigger guns than that. Hoteliers and restaurateurs are singing hozannas, and rubbing their hands over the anticipated upsurge in bookings.

Ojala (o-ha-LA: it should only be).

[They’re tearing up the streets without me. This is Fiallo going south from Independencia. Everybody is remarking that they have seldom seen so much destruction / reconstruction.]


The largest single ecological disaster currently underway in our hemisphere is located in Columbia. It is, as most ecocides are, about water, more specifically about the pollution of the Rio Magdalena with runoff from a few gold mines, a disaster whose end could be the poisoning of the aquifer as well. Of all the countries in Latin America, Colombia is our largest recipient of military aid, has the longest lasting guerrilla war, and is host to the biggest U.S. military installation in Latin America. It is also the largest point of origin for drugs flowing north.

Mexico is second on the “aid” list, and in Oaxaca, transnationals are busily destroying a huge swath of coastal mangroves, and strip-mining gold in the mountains. It’s mining runoff has not yet reached critical mass in part due to resistance to the operation by the local populations, who are cutting off access, occupying municipal government offices, and being jailed in increasing numbers. Mexico is the second largest recipient of military aid, welcomes crews of DEA, FBI, and high-tech anti-insurgency advisers. Until recent years relatively untouched by the drugs trade that traversed its territory going north, it is now not only the main pipeline, it is also the point of manufacture for methamphetamine and ecstasy; and in the process of all this has become, in the space of a few years, a country with a big youth drug problem.

[Our favorite graffiti wall on Juarez and Murguia changes often, as new gang tags and new social commentary are added and painted over.]

Like Columbia, Mexico has an ambitious bunch of would-be drug kingpins. They tend to be younger – the trade is relatively new – and in recent times, combined with president Calderon’s ill-conceived and pointless “war on drugs”, have been redecorating the landscape with headless remains. The amount and viciousness of the killings has not had a very favorable impact on tourism.

So here’s the coincidence: two countries to our south, both with huge armies and a tendency to use them for repressing calls for change; both operating militarily in civilian security issues; both with the gap between rich and poor getting larger; and both at the top of the U.S. list of “co-operative”, friendly hemispherical powers.

If I didn’t believe in coincidences, I might believe that being open to the U.S., and the transnational capital for which it stands, might be bad for the health of the people…

[This is a new graffito on a wall around the corner on Libres.]

Tis the season…

when the lords of commerce, both high and low, make their nut or not. This is as true in Mexico as it is in the U.S. Diana and others report that the big stores (and most of the medium-sized ones) are featuring “Christmas” gifts, to the detriment of other goods. After all, there is only so much floorspace…

Christmas day is not such a big deal in Oaxaca, where the main gift day is Epiphany (January 6); but as Mexico absorbs ever more U.S. culture, jingle bells and blinking lights and plastic Santas on the patio are becoming ever more evident.

Those nearer the commercial “bottom”, the ambulantes that are already choking off the businesses along Las Casas street, are also eyeballing the Alameda (the square between the post office and the Cathedral) and the Zocalo. For over 25 years, until a couple of years ago, they would open for business on about the first of December, and stay until the 7th of January – later if the 7th was on a week-end day. For the last two years, the city – in the belief that they distracted from the architectural beauty that attracts the tourists – has made some not always successful attempts to limit their presence. This year, according to some of their leaders – there are 32 organizations, representing 1,100 individual stands – they are coming back, whether the city likes it or not; although they are willing to negotiate the when and the how long.

[Another year, another “Dias de Muertos” (Days of the Dead). This photo was taken at the Casa de la Cultura, at an exhibition titled “Color and Skeletons”]

While some folks think that any deviation from the Oaxaca-by-Disney model threatens the success of Oaxaca’s number-two industry (drugs occupy position number one), others support the return of the “verbeneros” (sellers of goods).

Primarily, the talk is of national and/or ethnic heritage and pride. Many who work in the areas of social studies and art are already lamenting the influence of the U.S. culture on All Saints Day in Oaxaca. More stores are displaying orange and black. Fancy latex masks are replacing facepainting, shouts of “boo” (and maybe a confetti egg) have given way to “Halloween!” and a lantern held up for money or candy.

[This “Tapete de Arena” (sand carpet) is huge. Note the size of the man. Constructed yearly in the atrium of what used to be the governor’s palace, now turned museum cum performance place, it is protected from the weather, and much finer than the next one, which is outside in front of the Cathedral.]

Likewise Christmas. A few years ago, then-Governor Murat’s wife decided to team up with Coca Cola. Plastic trees with bottle caps as ornaments; a jolly Santa peering out the window of a plastic “log cabin”. That proved to be too disgusting for the folks to bear, and Francisco Toledo easily brought enough people out on the street to get the Coca Cola stuff removed – but only as far as a corner of Llano park.

“Now they want us to deny the tianguis, a central part of our culture, in order that the tourist dollars keeps us afloat. And if we win, we get a few hundred people cluttering up our favorite outdoor space so they can make a lttle money selling goods made in China and Mexico City”, a neighbor who is a social activist told me. “Do you see, we can’t possibly survive as a culture. Our choice seems to be to give up the festival, or watch it being subsumed by the transnationals.”

Oaxaca is a state of artisans. Every village has suffered heavily from the drop in tourism since the uprising of 2006. Any given village is likely to be pretty thoroughly organized when it comes to self help, but not much interested in working with rival villages in other districts. It puts them at a disadvantage.

The verbeneros are also well organized (as much as fascism can be seen as an ideal form of organization), and based in the central Mercado de Abastos. At any given moment, they can put 50 or 60 “demonstrators” on the street, complete with padded jackets and axe handles. Furthermore, they are PRIistas as is the mayor, and the governor. The odds are definitely in their favor vis a vis the artesanos.

[Tall and skinny.]

Politically, the battle is between the vendors and the tourism people, and on that level the outcome is less certain. The tourism folks came out on top in the last two years. This year the crashing economy (a recent government estimate placed 41% of Mexicans below the poverty line) and increasing desperation make it likely that this year it will be the verbeneros.

Where I stand on all this is just exactly where I always try to stand: it’s their country, whatever they decide is all right with me. Still, I really do wish they wouldn’t put that really loud puesto – where they play bad heavy metal covers – right next to the Primavera where we like to take our late-morning cappuccino…


*According to a government report, the current live birth rate among indigenous women in Oaxaca is 5, with the first born before the mother is 15. The cause, it is said, is twofold: lack of access to affordable condoms, and having no sex education in the schools.

*A while ago, I reviewed a new newspaper in town, “El Despertar”. At the time, as I recall, it was a mixed bag. I liked the articles I had read; thought they were a little daring. Still, as I mentioned then, it was hard to pin down the editorial attitude, which seemed at odds with the reporting.

It was revealed earlier this month that my concern was not unwarranted. A fired reporter or two have been singing. Turns out that the owners, one of whom is the general manager (GM), are long time PRI apparatchiks. The GM has taken feeds from Ulises and arbitrarily attached bylines to them. In some cases, the first a reporter knew about it was when a friend called saying “why are you writing this crap”. Articles are routinely killed when they cross the political line. If the stories are true, the GM is a complete thug.

So why do I keep reading it? Because useful information occasionally seeps through; and because neither of the other dailies are likely to be without hidden agendas of their own.

[One of the fancy gold jewelry shops along the tourist corridor adds a little Muertos color.]

*International investment rater Fitch, just downgraded Mexico a quarter of a point. This will not result in massive capital flight, but it doesn’t send a very happy message to the Mexican government. Mexican petroleum production is dwindling, and future production is likely to continue to fall. Petroleum pays for most of the Mexican economy. Ipso facto…

*Who needs bread when they can have circuses? Mayor Marcello Ebrard of the Federal District has stepped up to meet the challenge of a tanking economy, with unemployment and the number of people below the poverty line increasing strongly. He has declared a 36-day festival along the Reforma, stretching out for miles and containing, among other things, at least one giant outdoor skating rink. The ultimate act will be a concert by Placido Domingo at the Angel of Independence monument. Fix the water and sewer systems? Build more affordable housing? Nah. Let ’em eat rink ice…