Elections and Protests
by Nancy Davies

December 1, 2004

this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/Discus/2004-12-01.htm

      “Elections have become the commonplace of the modern world,” Immanuel Wallerstein begins his December 1 posting from Fernand Braudel Center at Binghamton University.1

      “Furthermore,” he states, “almost every country claims that they are a democracy.”

      Today was inauguration day for our Oaxaca “elected” governor, Ulisis Ruiz Ortiz, whose mustachioed portrait has offended every rural tree and fence, every vertical surface, and most lamp-posts throughout the state. Ruiz is the PRI candidate,2 he ran against a candidate from Convergencia, (an alliance of several parties), and Ruiz “won.”

      As a Oaxacan resident, for me the overwhelming surprise was that winner Ruiz is not as tall as the defeated candidate, Gabino Cue, and in the USA I had become accustomed to the Rule Of Height, i.e., the taller guy wins, until now. A corollary is that the winner must be not only taller but more extravagant in his dispersal of monies. In no case is merit involved.

      “If an election is free,” asserts Wallerstein, ”the losing side is expected to recognize that it has lost the election honestly and therefore is expected to accept the results as the will of the majority.” Uh huh. In this particular Mexican election four separate states appealed for adjudication to the Supreme Court of Mexico, and it was there adjudged, not that Oaxaca is free of fraud, but that Ruiz wins.

      Today was inauguration day, and automatically it became A Big March Day. To understand marches in Oaxaca, one must be aware that the sindicatos are enormously well-organized, and can turn out a thumping crowd of thousands apparently at will. Sindicatos are unions, but not unions as used to exist in the USA; they are basically company unions and most often government unions, and maybe the word “syndicate” is a better translation. Hence today we witnessed a throng of teachers taking to the garbage filled streets.

      The first group, The Suit Group, consisted of the governor’s supporters who attended the actual ceremony, which was held in the huge public stadium which also serves for the annual Guelaguetza,3 various rock groups and the Christian youth rallies. On the podium while he took the oath of office and read his promise to be all-inclusive of all the people all the time, his appointed cabinet sat behind him sweating beneath their neckties and picking their noses. Also present were the campesinos and indigenous groups whose votes are routinely purchased by the PRI party with such things as seed, paved roads, and musical instruments. The auditorium is built on the side of a hill; the sun dazed crowd descended like groupies following Moses, and streamed toward the zócalo.4 Meeting them in the town center came the usual marchers: campesinos, indigenous groups, and the various sindicatos’ contingents.

      Iron barricades had been put in place to deflect car traffic, and the bored policemen leaned negligently against it, one boot on the rail. They carry truncheons, but I have not seen them used in the city - the city cares for its tourists. One sheepish cop informed me that they were not permitted to whack anybody inside the historic center. The teachers moved some of the barricades to make room for the marchers. Nobody objected.

      The teachers arrived first and occupied the kiosk podium; their union is a government union which holds constitutionally mandated positions. Their elected leader, echoing Ulisis Ruiz and who probably will be Ulisis Ruiz in ten years, demanded a new respect for the people, decrying the hunger, misery and poverty that afflict Oaxaca. This poverty is especially egregious because Oaxaca is rich in natural resources which flow northward to the industrial areas, leaving Oaxaqueños to live off tourism and remittances.5 The state is high in its level of indigenous peoples and non-Spanish languages. The level of human rights abuse is also high.

      The previous governor José Murat initiated, by his published count, 218,000 projects. The number was scoffed at by the local press which declared there were only 24,717. Murat right up to his last day in office cleaned the facades of decrepit churches, rebuilt the earthquake damage incurred six years ago, built clinics and schools, and ordered the park benches painted. It’s very possible that Governor Murat’s official count of accomplishments enumerated one by one the hundreds of park benches. Money must have flowed into the governor’s office from some source; and an informant (who will remain nameless because I met him on a park bench) believes that the local businesses were taxed to provide the needed funds. I can partly believe that, because my informant was referring to those who benefit from tourism. I’m also certain that income from the federal government did not all vanish en route, but in fact helped support Murat’s grand accomplishment. It is rumored that Murat wants to run for president; he has relentlessly promoted himself as a man who gives, as if it were his own beneficence, his own money, his own hours sweating in the sun, that benefit the people.

      For my part I wish money had been directed toward water supplies and a new method of garbage disposal. As for the first, clearly the governor has been aiding the privatization of water by permitting entrepreneurs to pump from the common deep well and re-sell their product to those who can pay, leaving the rest of us who have no water to complain and do nothing. The latter situation, that of the garbage, well, the garbage went uncollected this week, either because the collectors are on strike or because the dump’s neighbors are blockading. Those two garbage failures are frequent. Therefore, the sick odor of rotted food on a hot day was part of the zócalo scene, ignored by organized teachers in town at the behest of their leader.

      Less than 50% of the registered voters voted for the winner, boomed the teachers union Secretaria General Enrique Rueda Pachico sounding now like Barak Obama,6 holding his microphone on the kiosk. I gazed around at the crowd and the steady influx of marchers. In the streets milled the balloon vendors and the popsicle vendors, intent on business. This is a culture where middle-aged men may honorably gain a living by selling candy bars on the street. The Secretary General demanded a new respect. He did not specify for teachers, but teachers are the most powerful sindicato in the state and perhaps in the nation. The vendors strolled and the protesters ate popsicles.

      If I was grief-stricken at the inanity of John Kerry, he did no worse than Ulises Ruiz, or, for that matter, George Bush. Politicians before a large crowd avoid mention of any small particularity, such as paved streets or potable water, and go right for highways and dams. They each mention health care and education. Wonderful phrases like “dignity for all”, and “progress”. All sides exploit a myth of grand development, some illusion always appealed to, like going to heaven. Development for Oaxaca never has to do with industry – there is none here, no more than in Detroit – but there’s lots of talk about benefits and jobs that will accrue mysteriously to those who stand by the side of the new highway when it crosses their fields. Governor Ruiz didn’t mention the steady loss of rural jobs to northern agriculture, nor the steady loss of life by murder in villages where the Oaxacan government has not adjudicated land boundaries since the Revolution, and may never do so, since the boundary murders serve to maintain the bitter feuds between rural villagers, effectively preventing a cohesive front.

      The Plan Puebla-Panama 7 development remains high on the agenda of politicians in the part of Mexico directly affected. Both Murat and Ruiz give it high priority. It is a simple plan to permit foreign (USA) traffic to traverse the continent from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, scooping resources as it goes. This “development”, which Murat furthered as best he could with roads and bridges, suggests to the imagination a highway smoothing huge distances by leaving on the ground a strip of hot dry cement.

      One wonders why, if election fraud in Oaxaca happened (and who would think otherwise) there is usually no call for another election, regardless of who won? Maybe it requires too much energy and effort from people already on the margin. Too expensive. Maybe people don’t object seriously enough to “an authoritarian government centered on administrative acts”, as Secretary Rueda described Oaxaca’s recent four year term. Wallerstein points out: “There have been a series of elections with contested results: for example, Iran, Venezuela, the United States, Georgia, and Ukraine in 2004, and Iraq and Palestine, upcoming in 2005 and already being contested in advance.” Inside the USA one can read more about Ukraine than about the USA. Wallerstein himself makes no mention of Mexico in his essay on elections, but as he remarks of the others, “maybe outside forces were at work”. There’s a big market-basket of goodies to be found around here, and most resources – oil, wood, biodiversity – are made available to developers.

      What we’ve heard from the world’s leaders, who sit on a throne above the multitude and swear allegiance to their respective constitutions, is the avowed benefits of capitalized “progress”. Tranquility and health care punctuated the discourse, along with the benefits of the Oaxaca version of “No child Left Behind”. These promises cross all boundaries and all political stripes, they are universal, catholic, Biblical: just pray and wait, the loving Father will do you right. All humans desire the same outcomes, it seems.

      Neither in Mexico nor in the USA does an elected official endorse making the solutions possible with adults working in cooperation or consensus. More important than the fake opposition, this is the grand lesson of elections.

      What I say is, if the garbage union despises you, it must be because your “leadership” message really stinks. All teachers know that when the class throws candy-bar wrappers and broken pencils on the floor, you’ve lost. The wary teachers are already on their feet when the bell rings.

Notes (added by G.S.)

1 "Elections, Elections, Elections" is the 150th of Immanuel Wallerstein's semi-monthly Commentaries, at http://fbc.binghamton.edu/150en.htm.

2 PRI is the acronym, in Spanish, for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the totally corrupted party that ran Mexico for 70 years until 2,000, when a business-based right-wing party, PAN (National Action Party), also totally corrupted, defeated it.

3 The Guelaguetza is the major cultural festival in Oaxaca. It takes place on the first two Mondays after July 16th. Each year one city or town in each of the seven regions of the state is selected to make a presentation of the customs and dances indigenous to that community, with emphasis on authenticity in representing the ethnic traditions.

4 The zócalo is the main public square common to all Mexican cities.

5 Money sent by Oaxaqueños working for extended periods outside of Oaxaca, principally in the U.S., but also some in northern Mexican cities.

6 Barak Obama, former Democratic Illinois state senator, became on November 2nd the fifth black U.S. senator in history (info and inference from Amy Goodman's Democracy Now program). Chosen to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, his feisty, dynamic oration created a stir at the Convention.

7 Plan Puebla-Panama is a mammoth neo-liberal project to develop commercial infrastructure all the way from the Mexican state of Puebla through Central America to Panama, opposed vigorously by many inhabitants in the areas to be impacted, especially by campesinos and indigenous groups, but also by those in the anti-globalization, anti-capitalist movement.

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