GOURMET SHOPPING COMES TO OAXACA:

All the old timers are shuddering and muttering “…San Miguel Allende…”. None of the newcomers get it. The rest of us have mixed reactions. Just opened, across the street from Cafe Gekko and Milenium (cybercafe) on Cinco de Mayo: Madre Tierra (Mother Earth), a restaurant, deli, bar, music patio and food shop complex in an old colonial style hacienda.

Aside from the quiche lorraine on the menu of the restaurant (not the first in Oaxaca, but the ones I’ve tried so far have not outstripped the stuff you buy in the cartons – let you know about this one later), there is balsamic vinegar, 100% extra virging olive oil, lots of dried fruits and nuts, imported Italian pasta, prosciutto, and cheeses available for take out. Scary stuff, if you take it as a sign that the tourists have reached mass sufficiently critical for such a venture to find support; wonderful news if you have longed for an occasional taste of truly international food, or are weary (and wary) of asking friends to schlepp gallons of olive oil down to replenish your dwindling supply.

Of course, this all means upscaling – and up-costing – for us residents: a clear sign that the tourist boom has indeed found our little backwater, and not just at the three traditional holidays: christmas, holy week, and guelaguetza. Like it or not, we are now mainstream, and our favorite portales (sidewalk cafes) around the zocalo are crowded even in off-peak times. So, if you’re thinking about coming back again, you might want to do it sooner rather than later…

SO LONG PAULINA, HELLO RICKY:

Last weekend, yet another hurricane battered the south Oaxaca coast. Hurricane Rick put only about 10,000 folks out of their homes, as opposed to Pauline’s 300,000, but wind is wind, and rain is rain, and mud is mud.

Once again, the hardest hit was Puerto Angel, particularly Zipolite beach. I got an email the other day from Ana Johansson, the directora of Pina Palmera, and she reported that they were pushed back to square one on the cleanup board, although the ample (two day) warning and the advance preparation of shelters, emergency supplies, etc. meant no injuries, loss of life, or loss of personal possessions. Still, the electricity failed, the grounds are littered with garbage once again, and the mud returned to the floors of buildings where roofs were once more dislodged.

The biggest victims appear to have been the roads. Bridges and culverts collapsed on the Sola de Vega (Oaxaca) and Pinotepa (Acapulco) roads, blocking exit to the north and west. The easterly road to Oaxaca through Salina Cruz has been cut in several places, and what with having to get out of one bus, wade across a river, and board a bus on the other side, the trip recently took 17 hours (instead of a normal 9). The airports are open, and the hotels and restaurants are functioning in Puerto Escondido and Huatulco.

PESO’S FALL MAKES MEXICO AN EVEN BIGGER BARGAIN:

The US dollar broke the eight-peso mark last week, at the casetas de cambio in Oaxaca — and has not receeded. As of today, there are offerings at 8.2, and the papers and the tv are all saying that we haven’t seen the end of it.

The end of the year is the traditional time in Mexico to deliver the fiscal bad news: the 1994 slide started at the end of November. That this one is a little early may reflect a hope that it will be more gradual, and that by spring the fall will have been less grand. Indeed, there are many signs that this will be so. For one thing, there is no giant outflow of domestic capital, as in ’94. For another, there is a net inflow of foreign investment.

On the other hand, the 12-peso dollar is still haunting the bankers, who have not been able to stem the current trend even though the national bank has purchased over half a billion dollars worth of pesos so far this month. Current predictions of huge deficits (see next article) are also producing unease.

Whether the peso exceeds nine to the dollar this year may well depend on the government’s ability to collect its’ taxes. Some legislators are throwing around figures like “40% of taxes due are never declared and never collected”.

WILL MEXICO’S 32nd STATE BE BORN BROKE?:

Mexico City (the Federal District of Mexico) is in deep trouble, even before it becomes officially real on Decmber 5. When newly elected governor Cardenas and the new legislative body formerly known as the ALDF accept the transfer of power from the Executive branch of Presidente Ernesto Zedillo, they will also accept a deficit of 13 billion by the end of 1997. The charge for servicing this debt will exceed 3 billion, and the debt is expected to rise to 20 billion by the end of 1998.

Since most of the money MexCity receives goes to improve transportation and water delivery systems, public safety, and pollution control programs, there isn’t much that can be sliced without futher deterioration in the quality of life. If that weren’t bad enough, Cardenas himself has precipitated a fiscal crisis which may cost the city a slice of what little money it does get from the federal government.

The central plank of the PRD, Cardenas’ party, in the election that won him and his minions control of the city, was a reduction in the IVA (value added tax, a sales tax) from 15% (where it was raised to by Zedillo and the PRI) to 10% (where it was before Zedillo). Since then, the PRDistas have been slowly backpedalling to a compromise rate of 12%. Zedillo is holding firm, and openly declaring that a reduction in the IVA will have disastrous results for the economy in general, and the social services programs it runs in particular, and most particularly will it be harmful to MexCity. So Cardenas is in a nasty slot, and it will take a lot of political savvy to get out of it. Either he gives in on the IVA, or he condemns his new state to draconian reductions in funds (almost all taxes collected are distributed by the feds; one issue in the campaign was that mexcityans pay more taxes propportionally than they receive).

VIOLENCE WATCH MEXICO CITY:

Mexico is a violent country, we are told. Dangerous for the unsuspecting tourist. And so it is, in certain places and at certain times. But compared to where?

I cannot recall an incident in this country, such as occurred in Karachi this week, where four US citizens were deliberately executed simply for being US citizens. Nor can I imagine any future scenario in which this might happen. We are, after all, inextricably intertwined with the Mexican people. They have relatives in the US, and we trade here as their number one trading partner.

It is said that it is advisable not to wander around MexCity at night alone, because of the danger of armed robbery or molestation. Clearly this is somewhat true, yet how to compare MexCity with Mogadishu, where, a BBC correspondent recently told me, 8 men armed with machine guns are a necessary requisite for venturing from one’s hotel to a nearby restaurant.

So when you hear scary stories about Mexico, just remember that we walk the streets of Oaxaca at midnite, alone, with tranquility and pleasure.

RUIZ SHOT AT IN CHIAPAS:

A car carrying archbishop Samuel Ruiz, of San Cristobal las Casas, Chiapas, and other visiting bishops, came under fire last week while touring northern Chiapas, where there have been a lot of actions against local indigenous leaders in recent months.

Perpetrated by elements thought to belong to the Guardias Blancas (white guards) and the reactionary organization “Desarollo, Paz y Justicia” (development, peace and justice), the attack resulted in injuries to accompanying locals but no injuries to the clerics.

The next day, in an incident which has yet to be related to the attack on Don Samuel, his sister was beaten with a hammer by a young man identified as his godson, and taken to hospital with her skull severely fractured.

It is still not clear whether the attack was personal or political. The godson got whisked off to a maximum security nuthouse.

The folks blamed for these attacks, the white guards and peace/justice, are a pack of vicious killers who have been offing local indigenous leaders in what has been described as an officially sanctioned and protected low level dirty war against land reform and indigenous rights in Chiapas. While it is not clear that they were in fact to blame, it is clear that the atmosphere of terror and impunity from punishment in which they move is unofficially encouraged and supported by the present state and federal governments.

THE DISAPPEARING RAILROAD BLUES:

The one-car, glass-in-only-some-of-the-windows daily train to Taviche from Oaxaca by way of Ocotlan has been killed. To those of us who spent so many wonderful Fridays going to the Ocotlan market through the countryside and stopping every time someone stepped up to the tracks and waved it down, and especially I am sure to the lovely woman who climbed aboard around Xoxocatlan to vend the best tamales this side of heaven, its passing is a terrible loss. In Mexico, as in the US, the bus wins again…