This is the rainy season, and nobody wants the troops to get wet. Nor for anything to be visible. Several unlucky guys loitered outside on the street to both sides, dangling their rifles and scuffing mud from their black military boots. Nobody on the street seemed to pay attention; in fact, I was the only passerby on the street on foot.
So if the struggle goes on, so does the sequestration of the Noticias building. Until when? I don’t know, somebody’s going to talk with somebody, but I can tell you that six months have elapsed since a friend’s apartment has been under legal lock-down after she and her husband complained of a civil assault.
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4. Meanwhile, the usual academics are abroad to try to bring a sense of sanity to the state’s dreadful condition. To the outsider, the political structure that prevails here requires explanation (maybe several repetitions, don’t be embarrassed). A brief review:
Within the nation of Mexico, the levels are: federal, state, municipio, agéncia and the rancherías, the villages or crossroad communities, more or less without political significance (although often the scene of assassinations). The municipio is a compound structure which coincides most nearly to a county in the USA. It contains any number of agéncias or towns. The Oaxaca capital city “municipio” is exceptional. It currently has designations such as rancho, ranchería, congregación, two ejidos (communal lands) and a dozen listed as indefinida. But according to INEGI, there are no agéncias within the Oaxaca municipio, which is in fact a city. That is, there are no lesser local political entities comparable to a town with a mayor. The 57 Oaxaca City’s “entities” are each small (up to 4,000 in population) and virtually powerless.
The municipio is where the action is, the closest contact between governors and governed. It is where the impact of decisions, good or bad, taken by the authorities on the three upper levels of government, are felt the most. The municipio has the task of managing resources and rendering accounts, although rendering seems to be largely left up to whomever’s squeezing your balls. The inequality in the distribution of wealth among municipios is a clue not to who’s squeezing, but to who’s yielded. Who’s squeezing is never in doubt. Although the PRI was defeated nationally, it hangs tough on the level of the municipio.
In Oaxaca State, keep in mind, its 570 municipios represent almost the fourth part of the national total. Unsurprisingly, the dispute for municipio power has come font and center in Oaxaca. The monopoly which the political parties previously held to access the Town Councils throughout the country is threatened most here in Oaxaca State because of the preponderance of municipios electing their local authorities in open meetings, with hands raised. Instead of winner takes all, the entity must achieve some kind of accommodation.
The guy they tried to kill? In Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca. The InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights asked the Mexican government to take measures to guarantee the life and safety of Antonio Jacinto López Martínez, elected Municipal President of the Triqui community of San Martín Itunyoso. Since December of 2004 he has received death threats, in addition to which he has been unable to assume his unpaid obligation to serve. In the public denunciation of his attempted murder, the Commission argued that López Martínez could not assume his duties because of cacique interests, which violates the federal and local constitutions, the Law of Indigenous Town and Community Rights, as well as those signed treaties among the International Workers Organization and the Mexican government. The key words in the news report are that, despite the legal election of the new Municipal President, the occupying presidente wouldn’t leave — he had been appointed directly by Governor Ulises Ruiz, in violation of the system of Usos y Costumbres.
Makes your head spin, don’t it? Back in the days before Governor Ruiz scattered the zocalo protesters it was common to see big signs held up denouncing some municipio president or other, usually called an assassin and always called a cacique (boss or lapdog to the ruling party).
So here’s a snap quiz: who’s the Presidente Municipal of Oaxaca? Ah, you don’t know? The invisible man is also locally referred to by the untranslatable chuchubolas. (Chucho means mongrel dog and Chuchu serves as a nickname for Jesús. Bolas means balls.) Still give up? His name is Jesús Angel Ortega Arias, and he’s widely thought of as having been elected by fraud. I’m shocked! The Oaxaca municipio is no small matter. It’s not governed by Usos y Costumbres, for many reasons. One, clearly, is that as it grew to a large city, those migrating in were not known to those already here. No trust sustains the base, and no system for voluntary city service can compel the newcomer population. It’s the precise opposite of towns and municipios where everything is based on familiarity and communality. Incidentally, even though a municipio may be governed by Usos y Costumbres it’s not required that all its member towns be, and furthermore many Usos y Costumbres towns may be part of non-UyC municipios.
The capital city of Oaxaca serves politically as the hinge linking the central state PRI power to the regional forces. It’s also the principal conduit for receiving federal funds and hence controlling the state. It elects its president and delegates by party vote. Thus, control, i.e. votes and the payback dispersal of funds, remains in the hands of the PRI governor as long as the three-level interaction of nation, state and municipios remains unchallenged within the same party. Problems erupt when one of the three offices lies in the hands of another party (Partido Acción Nacionál (PAN), Partido Revolucionario Democrata (PRD), or Convergencia). The invisible Ortega Arias retook the municipal presidency for the PRI, and serves as its puppet.
But disaffection is everywhere.
During July the number of tourists rises sharply. I attended one of the favorite Guelaguetza events and was surprised to see the stadium surrounded by riot police. It took me no more than a nanosecond to figure out that if pickpockets were fleecing the tourists that in itself wouldn’t require riot troops, heavily armed and carrying shields. Offended by the ugly reception to the show, I flippantly and loudly remarked to my companion, “What, are they expecting a rebellion at the auditorium?” And then of course I realized that an uprising was exactly the worry, or at least demonstrations.
Ulises Ruiz took it on himself to disperse all the state government offices, emptying the government palace in the zocalo, and constructing government buildings in remoter and less accessible neighborhoods. Ruiz has a genius for rendering invisible the demonstrations, encampments, marches and protests which along with the street vendors have, in the past, made palpable Oaxaca’s poverty and anger. Nationally, Oaxaca ranks next to last — only above Chiapas —, in the indices of human development; and according to UN statistics its inhabitants have a standard of living lower than that of the Occupied Territories of Palestine.
And as an aside: this year (2004 statistics) fewer tourists came than previously. The reason given is that the traffic is dreadful.
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5. The smaller municipios are more or less autonomous, if by that is meant they elect their municipio and/or town authorities by local Usos y Costumbres. The election of delegates to the state and federal legislatures is a different matter — the state guys may or may not be bribed, individual voters may or may not be bribed, the town may or may not be bought entirely. My spy Javiér told me a story about one candidate who, ahead of the election, obtained copies of all the citizens’ voter registration credentials. He then voted them himself, for himself, on election day while the voters were away at an obligatory town event he had scheduled.
Electoral questions like the municipio terms of office, the possible re-election (not possible with Usos y Costumbres) of the members of the Town Councils, the professional civil service, the entities which compose the municipios (agéncias, rancherías) — all these are chaotic. In the Oaxaca situation statewide it’s necessary to construct from the ground up essentials like political representation of non-community residents and members living outside of Mexico, and the distribution of municipio resources. Should community members who send money to their home communities from the USA be permitted to control the expenditures?
On the other hand, the Usos y Costumbres municipios (and agéncias) in Oaxaca stand as close to the idea of Zapatista-style autonomy as anything in Oaxaca.
This explains the resistance of the communities to losing this political category, as happened in 1983 when then-governor of the state, Pedro Vásquez Colmenáres, sent an initiative to the state congress to reduce the number of municipios from 570 to 100, consolidating several of them. The initiative didn’t prosper, and the governor backed off hastily before the threat of a true municipio revolt. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that horizontal representation runs into trouble in a large arbitrary county in which people don't know each other.
So the municipios carry on, but many do so badly. Instead of the “good government” of the Zapatista communities, the Oaxaca communities are battered and bent by elements trying to divide the population in disputes which open pathways for political partisanship. The state PRI government incites violence between communities in the form of land disputes, along with support — or lack thereof — for schools, roads, hospitals, and the provision of water and sewer systems. Now the infamous Puebla-Panama highway construction is well along, and although personally I enjoy barf-free travel, it represents another cut into the autonomous rural heart.
Obsessed by the search for regional and state control, the various political actors have seized on the municipios as bases from which to advance to higher political positions, or failing that, wealth. The interaction between PRI operatives on the state and federal levels remains fiercely loyal, despite, or maybe because of, the PRI ouster from the Mexican presidency after seventy years, by Fox of the PAN party.
Attempts to hold onto political and financial control of the municipios have sharpened in the last years: attempts to impose an anti-constitutional Municipio Law; arbitrary disappearance of municipio powers; the imposition of municipio administrators or the illegal suspension of municipio participation, are all designed to damage municipal autonomy to the benefit of the national political parties. How could Ruiz decide and implement an overhaul of the zocalo (and the transparent banishment of all the protesters and vendors) all by himself?
Besides these blows, the municipios defend themselves in miserable conditions; most of the 570 Oaxacan municipios live in extreme poverty and marginalization. If the capital city appears prosperous in the tourist center, walk out into the outlying neighborhoods or to the communities surrounding the city. A friend who earned a university degree told me her salary at a clinical assay business is 50 pesos daily — less than $5.00. She’s middle-class.
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6. Calls for discussion of municipal reform are scary. They talk of reforming the system, introducing innovation, good government, citizen participation and rendering of accounts. Those “Mom and apple-pie” proposals sound swell. But to what extent will they mask further diminution of the municipios’ autonomy? The call to debate the fundamental functions of municipios on the national and state stages makes me suspicious. Why not debate the impunity of the state and federal political parties within municipios? Why not require that delegates to the national Congress live in the districts they represent? Why not have a state Law of Transparency as Maestro Toledo suggests, as well as municipal auditing? And what laws restrict the vendors, the ambulatory and usually indigenous people who formerly sold blouses and balloons in the downtown, and are now stashed in special buildings like zoos? The city is changing quickly, from an interesting third-world site to an uninteresting third-world site. As much as one can admire the cathedrals, something at the heart of Oaxaca life has been torn out.
In Oaxaca, it’s a normal experience to stand in the valley and watch the rain on the mountains. Oaxaca’s population is basically sunny in spirit and often kind and generous toward others. The standard comment goes, Oaxaca is muy tranquilo. Don’t believe it. The city and its adjacent municipios are floundering, and the outlying mountain communities fester in neglect. Some ghost towns have been created by the poverty which pushes populations north. Rebels, as rapidly as they are murdered or arrested in the campo, like other peoples who don’t want their lands occupied, simply multiply. Perhaps the city seems foolish in its preoccupation with trees and benches. I look at the trash and ask myself, Where is that coming from?
It’s likewise becoming normal to see from the corner of one’s eye the Zapatista ideas, and indeed here come the Zapatistas themselves, according the their Sixth Declaration, to organize the Left in Mexico. Civil organizations have been asked to send delegates to discuss the “other” options with the Zapatistas. Let them step forward. Those that organize in free association, like the campesino unions, may yet wrest from the government some measure of control. “Leading by obeying” sounds more appealing every day. It’s a helluva better option than armed rebellions and guerilla warfare.
Anyway, it’s not like Oaxaca isn’t half-way there. It was half-way there after the Revolution. It just has been stalled, undermined, and literally placed on the firing line.
Chiapas certainly was stalled, and it may be the two states (or three, counting Guerrero) are extra-handicapped by the feudal history of large landowners and subjugated indigenous populations. Without an income base beyond agriculture, they’re like the US South after the Civil War. Carlos Salinas, former president of Mexico, went all-out to eliminate the protection of communal lands: he altered the constitution so as to empower agribusiness. But the big landowners fought the wrong battle. They fought the indigenous ejido idea instead of fighting NAFTA. Now the agricultural base, whether ejido or private haciendas, is screwed. So it goes — neoliberalism and privatization come round and bite you in the ass. Like the Zapatistas say, Ya basta.
Note: Unknown to the would-be “renovators” the heavy paving blocks of Oaxacan green granite which were to be replaced served to hold the broad but shallow root systems of the trees firmly in place. When the backhoes removed these massive blocks, visible as debris heaped up in the foreground, the roots were no longer secured, and the first tree affected, shown in the photograph, toppled.
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first posted 2005-07-30, last update 2010-10-16