OAXACANS AND GRINGOS MARCH FOR PEACE

Every Saturday starting on February 1, there have been demonstrations against the coming “war” in Iraq. Centered on the office of the “Consular Agent”, Mark Leyes, who does business in the Plaza Santo Domingo, cater-corner from the church of the same name. All have had similar goals but different tactics.

Most of the marches have been organized by a group of University students gathered under an “anarchist” banner. These tend to be noisy, with lots of graffiti spray-painted on buildings along the route, “Yankee Go Home” speeches, and digressions into “free the political prisoners”, “more money for students” and a host of other legitimate complaints. Since the connection between neo-Globalist economic policies and poverty, corruption – and up-to-recently the slavish obedience of President Fox to the dictates of the U.S. is clear to some but not to all, it is important to raise these issues. The theory is, the “war” may be unstoppable, but the occasion of the “war” may provide a bully pulpit for fighting Fox’s “Plan Panama Puebla” (PPP), for example. PPP includes plans to destroy major portions of the last remaining rain forest in Oaxaca to build a fast freight train system for hauling goods from coast to coast across the narrow Isthmus of Tehuantepéc, thus by-passing the Panama Canal.

Picasso’s “Guernica”, an anti-war painting inspired by the Spanish Civil War, is a good backdrop for this demonstration. The sign quotes JFK, who said that unless man can bring an end to war, war will bring an end to man.

On March 1st, we joined a demonstration that was notably different. Organized by high school students, it was a “silent” march and vigil. There were no speeches, no graffiti, and no side issues. Marchers bore signs and flowers to the Consul’s office, where they were taped on the building with scotch tape. Scotch tape leaves little residue when removed: it was a “clean” demo.

Many gringos were present. Like their hosts, and most of the rest of the nations and peoples of the world, they oppose this “war”. As in your city, we hardly talk about anything else these days.

TRANSITIONS

Al Bernstein died last week at age 93. He had suffered several strokes over the last couple of years. Along with an affinity group of old east-coast radicals, he and his wife Sylvia had been coming down every winter for a while, staying at the Parador Guzman apartment hotel up on the Alcalá.

I admired Al a lot. He had gone through the bulk of the twentieth century being an activist in racial, labor, and human rights causes, much of it at times in which such activity could easily cost one years of life in prison or even death, and he did it without blinking.

For a few years, we were privileged to be a part of a “discussion group” that held weekly meetings to talk about various issues that were current in the U.S.: national health, election reform, economics to name a few. Al usually sat back without saying much, mostly because he had trouble hearing. But one afternoon, someone suggested we all tell about our past political activity, and I discovered that Al had actually been subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and upon doing so spent his time telling them off for their own very un-American harassment of people exercising their constitutional rights – and that he’d gotten away without being cited for Contempt of Congress, a funny charge since HUAC showed such contempt for the civil rights of American citizens.

With Al’s passing, we get closer and closer to having only the historical establishment left to tell the tale. That’s one reason why I’ve undertaken my Memoir project, which by the way has a couple of new pieces to be seen.

RANCHO ESMERALDA UPDATE

Being involved as I am with travelers and tourists, writers and reporters focused on Mexico, I have been getting a lot of inquiries about current developments on Rancho Esmeralda. Here is my report:

Rancho Esmeralda is a guest-house / resort property next to the ruins of Toniná, just off the main road between San Cristobal and Palenque, in Chiapas. The nearest town of any size is Ocosingo, a regional center and a place where there has been much contention between the official government and the Zapatistas. The owners of Rancho Esmeralda are foreigners.

There were months of confrontation and aborted negotiations between the owners and a group from Nuevo Jerusalén, renamed Primero de Enero (First of January) by the Zapatista stalwarts that declared it a new “autonomous community” last year. January first is the day, in 1994, when the Zapatistas rose up to occupy many Chiapas cities including Ocosingo and San Cristobal. Ultimately, the owners were forced to abandon the property, which was then annexed by the community, which is just 300 yards from the front gate.

The sign, held by a San Franciscan residing in Oaxaca, says I am ashamed of my government; gringos do not want war.

There has been much posturing and propagandizing by both sides of the issue, and I have been following it as best I can over the internet and in the local press. It is important not just because apparently sincere, hard-working and successful foreigners lost their land, but rather because it casts – as it should – a pall on the whole issue of investing in Mexican real estate. I will attempt to describe the situation as I have come to believe it.

Toniná is a “new” ruin, whose development over the last decade has created a lot of opportunity and a lot of friction between neighbors. It is way smaller than Palenque, and easily accessible from nearby San Cristobal. The Wursch couple who own Esmeralda bought their property next door to Toniná with the idea of raising nuts commercially, something they had had some practice at during a Peace Corps stint in a similarly tropical country. They are not by nature rapacious exploiters. They worked hard and long, with the help of local employees. They were, by all reports, as good to their employees as any other rancheros in the area.

Being so close to San Cristobal, they decided to try horse-back riding as an income source, and eventually added a guest house, which became quite popular with visitors to Toniná as well as equestrians. They developed a path between the ruins and their compound, thus running afoul of the national antiquities commission, INAH. INAH is in the business of uncovering and preserving old ruins, historic colonial and revolutionary sites, and cathedrals. They understandably try to control access to sites, as well as to the individual buildings within them. INAH began the process of trying to close off the road from Esmeralda, but with only horses and pedestrians coming in they were having slow going.

Meanwhile, the owners were beginning to have political troubles. When they first bought the land, they were dealing with the established PRI state power system. They took care to maintain friendly relations with local officials. As the Zapatistas began to expand their “autonomous region” to include the nearby village of Nuevo Jerusalén, questions began to be asked about just how friendly the owners had been with the anti-Zapatista formations. People from Nuevo Jerusalén, renamed Primero de Enero, came forward to say that the ranch had become a training ground for U.S. and Israeli “counter-insurgency” advisors, training murderous pro-PRI paramilitary death squads such as those responsible for the slaughter of forty-odd women and children in a church in the town of Acteál a few years ago. Angered that this clandestine activity was going on just up the street from their village, they build a gate across the road and refused all access to Esmeralda.

This young Mexican of U.S. and Dutch parentage reminds us of one of Mahatma Gandhi’s sayings: An eye for an eye, and the whole world is blind

With their normal access blocked, the rancho began to use the ruins as a transit point. INAH workers began to complain that convoys of military-type jeeps containing men in military style dress were disrupting their work and harming the site. At this point, the site was closed to all transiting vehicles.

Recently, the besieged owners abandoned the rancho and took up residence in Ocosingo, where they continue to petition the Chiapas government for help, and try to drum up support through an Internet campaign. They claim that they were forced to abandon their home and flee to safety without taking anything of their possessions with them, leaving a couple of their most senior helpers to maintain the property, which had not at that point been entered by outsiders.

In early March, about a hundred peasants from Primero de Enero surrounded the property and declared that they would enter to save the orchards and other facilities from falling into disuse. When they did enter, they brought reporters and video cameras with them. Each building was inventoried and filmed. According to their representatives, the place had been pretty well stripped, a clear contradiction between themselves and the owners. A day or two later, the Army intervened. There is a major Army post next to Ocosingo, at the foot of the road that leads to the village and the rancho. The villagers were told to leave Esmeralda; to lock it up and go away. They complied.

A day or two after the occupation, La Jornada’s prize-winning investigative reporter, Herman Bellinghausen, who along with Blanche Petrich pretty well owns the “Chiapas beat”, entered the compound, after receiving permission from both the Army and the villagers. His report confirms what the occupiers had filmed.

With claim and counterclaim being aired in the press and on the internet, it is difficult to get at the “truth” of this particular situation. However, when added to all the other incidents that have occurred over the last eight years, it does give one cause for extreme caution when buying rural property, especially newly subdivided Ejido land.

One of the claims of the villagers is that the title to the Esmeralda property was never clear; that the land was illegally sold. Similar claims have ruined other buyers, both wary and unwary. It can take decades to get a final decision on property rights, and most run out of money and patience long before the decree comes down. Even “bank trust” purchases, where the bank holds title and the owner pays the bank an annual fee, in return for which the bank agrees to defend the title at its own expense, have been successfully attacked in Mexican courts, resulting in loss of purchase price and improvements for the hapless owner.

Using a savvy local Notario (a super-lawyer) is no guarantee of tranquility. Post-purchase suits by former tenants or owners is common when Mexicans are concerned, and even more so when the defendant is a foreigner.

WATER SHORTAGE STRIKES IN OAXACA

Yesterday, the government authority in charge of doling out the water declared a state of emergency. Because of near-drought conditions last rainy season, the flow of water from the depleted reservoirs and wells in the mountains above Oaxaca has been cut by 20%, from 650 liters per second to 500.

With temperatures already unseasonably high (over 95 yesterday), this spells bad news for the general smell of the place: more sweat, fewer showers.

In some areas, water delivery has been cut from three days a week to two, and those days for only one hour. In other areas, it won’t matter because the lower pressure caused by reduction of flow will prevent the water from getting up some of the hills: central Oaxaca has what appears to me a weird delivery system. Instead of branching off to residences as it flows downhill from the mountains, it first goes all the way to the bottom and them is piped back up. We seem to be blessed with a good location for water – it varies from neighborhood to neighborhood and block to block – and have never had our cistern go dry…so far.

Added to this is another year of bad forest fires, five burning at the moment. Three years ago we suffered a similar season, and it was not at all pleasant. If you are thinking of visiting before the rains come in June, you might just want to rethink.

This young woman was one of the major organizers of the march. She is a senior in high school.

SOME TRAVEL ADVISORIES

From traveling pal Dan McWethy comes the following warning: count your change if you are driving on the toll roads of Mexico. He was short-changed three times, each on different roads and in different parts of the country. In fairness, the vast majority of toll takers were honest, but be advised that there are some out there who are not.

We are going back to see Diana’s great grandson in California next month. Yesterday I went out on the Web and, using Sabre’s on-line service, looked for the lowest price tickets from Oaxaca to Tijuana. According to the Sabre site, our tickets were to cost 247 dollars with the senior citizen discount. Off we went, with our INSEN (Mexican senior citizen) discount cards, to purchase our passage directly from the airline, Aviacsa. I was fully prepared to do battle over what I was sure would be a higher price from the airline.

What a surprise! The fare at the airline office was 2,165 pesos, which at current exchange rate of about 11 to 1, turns out to be about $197. That’s fifty dollars cheaper than on the internet. The lesson is, pays to crosscheck: you never know where you might find unexpected savings.

JOHN ROSS REPORTS FROM BAGHDAD

In a series of reports extremely critical of the Human Shields organizer and of the actions of the Iraqi government, Mexican correspondent and shield volunteer John Ross has reaffirmed his intentions to remain in place in spite of all that is wrong.

According to Ross, about a third of the Shield volunteers have left Iraq to pursue the cause of Peace in their own countries, after being literally forced to board buses that took them from hospitals and schools to military and industrial locations – a move that in their opinion transformed them from shields to hostages. In his last report, Ross intimated that the rest of the Shields could not now leave, even if they wanted to; that they are now captives of the Iraqi government.

Still, his resolve is undeterred: to die of U.S. bombs rather than have to witness the destruction they cause, broadcast on CNN.