28 July 2007

The Oaxaca Times Can Do Better

It's been a little too long since I checked in at the Oaxaca Times, a free, English language newsletter popular with travelers to the city. Consequently, I had not seen this piece, which glorifies the Guelaguetza and encourages tourists to spend their money on the expensive tickets available through TicketMaster in order to see a bit of the "real Mexico."

I don't have a problem with the expression of a traditional pro-tourism, pro-business, pro-government perspective here. (Actually I do, given that the current government is shamefully and dangerously repressive. But everyone is entitled to their view.) What I take real offense with is that, given the current tumultuous nature of Oaxaca's political and civic landscape, neither writer nor editor makes any mention at all of the massive controversy surrounding this year's government sponsored Guelaguetza celebration in Oaxaca City.

Travelers can read about the Guelaguetza, in general, in every travel guidebook ever written on Oaxaca. Without a discussion of the current situation and the dynamic upheaval taking place in the city, the article just comes off as shameless promotion.

C'mon, gang. Let's at least be responsible. Thank you.

End of an Era

I am saddened, though not surprised, to read today that AYA Colorado, my former employer, has closed its doors for good. AYA (Alternative Youth Adventures) provided treatment services to incarcerated teens in the desert and mountains of western Colorado. The Colorado program was the newest in a family of programs that had at one time operated in Montana, Utah and Colorado simultaneously. One by one these programs have proved unsustainable, generally for financial reasons and because state regulations make it very difficult to provide wilderness therapy opportunities to wards of the state.

What makes the closure of AYA Colorado--the last of AYA's programs--most disheartening is that this action was taken in response to the tragic death of a student in the field. Caleb Jensen was 15 when he died of a bacterial staph infection in the backcountry under the supervision of AYA.

There are questions about whether a student prone to staph infections, as Caleb was, should have been placed in a wilderness setting where, among the cacti, granite and sandstone of Colorado's rugged Uncompaghre Plateau, it is very easy to pick up scratches and scrapes and difficult to keep them clean. My understanding is that a lot of finger pointing has gone on as to who placed Caleb in harm's way. Was it the state agency that recommended Caleb for AYA's program? Was it the state record keepers who didn't include all Caleb's pertinent health information in his medical file? Was it AYA, for admitting him in the first place and then, once in the field, not attending carefully enough to a condition they weren't aware of?

His death is shocking and inexcusable, regardless of whether blame can or cannot be assigned to AYA. Responsibility for every student comes down to the care facility, and in this case, regardless of whether this student should have been in the program or not, AYA finds itself ultimately responsible. An investigation is underway to determine whether criminal charges should be brought against either the field staff or the program administration.

I sincerely hope that Caleb's death is seen for the tragic accident it was. Nothing will be gained from criminal action against those involved. I do not believe this is a case where justice can be meted out, where society will be safer when those involved are brought to trial or even incarcerated. AYA is done. Public funded wilderness therapy is, by and large, a dinosaur. With all appropriate empathy for the family of Caleb Jensen, and with full acknowledgment that I can't begin to fathom their loss, I fail to see what can be gained from criminal proceedings. Similarly, while the state of Colorado has a responsibility to monitor and regulate youth programs statewide, there is little to suggest that criminal consequences for those involved will help make future conditions safer for wards of the state.

27 July 2007

Compromiso Cumplido

At the moment, Oaxaca is in the midst of another in what may prove to be a long series of convulsions. There will be periods of relative calm, interspersed with violence, as the armed elements of state repression battle desperately to hang on to the status quo in the face of massive civic unrest.

--Stan, Oaxaca resident

This quote, taken from a July 20 post on Mexico Premiere, pretty well articulates the state of things in Oaxaca right now. The atmosphere is not scary but is definitely tense. The Guelaguetza, the increased police presence in the city, ongoing government repression, the continuing lag in tourism compared to previous years, the upcoming statewide elections--these are the issues people are talking about everywhere we go. I don't sense panic or fear in the city, but uncertainty and a distinct lack of optimism.

Last night Jenna and I attended a showing of the documentary Compromiso Cumplido, (True to My Pledge), which unflinchingly chronicles the events leading up to last year's ultimate clash between federal forces and civil protesters. You can watch the movie online here, but only en espanol. Unfortunately I can't find a version with English subtitles online. Be forewarned that there are real-life scenes of explicit violence and death.

The film tells the story of escalating violence in the city by recounting the murders--or assassinations--of six victims of last year's violence. Survivors of the dead and many witnesses are interviewed in front of the camera. Victims of harrasment, intimidation and undue arrest tell their stories as well. At least one person interviewed, Flavio Sosa, has been imprisoned since appearing in the documentary.

The film presents a Oaxaca turned upside down. The zocalo (Oaxaca's central square) is no longer a leisurely park flanked by cafes and shops but is transformed into a massive encampment of tarps and temporary shelters for tens of thousands* of teachers with their children and families. Popular tourist avenues are devoid of visitors. Businesses are shuttered.

The streets are populated instead by groups of protesters rallying for change. Fires burn in the streets and messages of resistance appear in spraypaint on every available surface. Helicopters fly overhead, firing tear gas grenades straight down into crowds while columns of police in riot gear stand in ranks behind plexiglass shields, awaiting either instruction or provocation. Civilian patrols track the movements of police and paramilitary groups. Citywide, roads are barricaded against invasion and neighborhoods monitored by teams of civic minded residents attempting to reduce episodes of intimidation, violence and murder presented by the state police and by armed paramilitary groups sponsored by the prevailing political party, the PRI.

The movie is a sobering slap in the face for wide-eyed travelers (like me) who might be tempted to take in the mid-conflict tenor of revolutionary politics with a sort of incredulous awe. For an American, to whom the notion of interactive democracy often invokes yawn-inducing scenes from C-Span, city council meetings in badly lit municipal buildings, or bland, street corner efforts to gather signatures for petitions, the idea of actually doing something is pretty grand. Like, just for instance, effectively and peacefully crippling the economy of a city of more than 250,000 inhabitants. Compromiso Cumplido, however, quickly strips away the varnish left by 80-word news blurbs and glossy photos of inspiring political graffiti and forces a serious reconsideration of the current situation.

Obviously, something has got to change. After watching this movie I am yet more inclined to side against the government. It wasn't really a question for me, but now it's even harder to give anyone with a uniform or a government ID the benefit of the doubt. The questions that remain are what will change?, and how?, and how bad will the situation get for the people of Oaxaca before it gets better? Compromiso Cumplido offers a chilling look at where the city was as recently as 7 or 8 months ago, and makes unavoidably clear the fact that nothing is resolved.

*This originally read "thousands of teachers . . .", but that number is far too small. At the height of the demonstrations upwards of 70,000 teachers and their families were encamped at the zocalo and spilled out into the surrounding avenues.

25 July 2007

Revenge of the Guelaguetza

Hermann Bellinghausen hammers the governor and the Guelaguetza in a post-colonial look at one aspect of the current power dynamic in Oaxaca. He also provides some history I didn't know and a few acerbic observations to boot. One of my favorites:

The fact is that the Guelaguetza has turned out to be the major banquet of the political and business power in Oaxaca, hiding behind the typical hypocrisy of creole racism: using the Indian to spotlight the master.


And now, to enter the festival, one passes through Ticket Master and/or American Express.

It's not long, and it's worth a read to understand some of the complicated history behind these complicated problems.

"Todo Bien": All is Well (Not Really)

Disclaimer: My ability to collect accurate information is severely limited by my language skills. The following is offered as observation, and is solely intended to represent my impressions of the ongoing conflict in Oaxaca.

Oaxaca is quiet in the days following the first day of celebration of the Guelaguetza, a festival held annually on the last two Mondays of July. The governor, Ulises Ruiz, appeared triumphant on every television in the state, and the majority of major newspapers in Oaxaca declared that the celebration went off without incident, glossing over references to the protest march held on Monday morning and the two police officers who were briefly taken hostage Monday before being released.

Everybody I speak with here agrees that the current political situation in Oaxaca is difficult to understand, and most don't doubt that this is due in part to efforts by the government to obscure facts, manipulate the press (which is often happy to oblige) and sow disinformation and outright lies in the face of mounting public pressure for political change. Ricardo Aleman's column in yesterday's El Universal (sorry, no link available at this time), a national paper out of Mexico City, suggests--I think--that clumsy governance in the state of Oaxaca may well become a significant problem for Mexico and the administration of President Felipe Calderon.

Oaxacans agree that something has to change, but it's difficult to get a clear sense of what. APPO leaders and activists continue to call first and foremost for the removal of Governor Ruiz from power, which the government finds inflammatory and to which it responds with a very heavy hand. For it's part the government has a history of human rights violations and allegedly continues to violate the rights of the citizens of Oaxaca by going to great lengths to silence dissent. Both sides appear stolid and unwilling to back down.

While the governor may be confident enough to get on television and tell the state and the country that Oaxaca is "Todo bien," or "All good," it is evident that the tension here will not simply go away with a few hopeful words. Nobody can say for sure what will happen next, but I don't get the sense that anyone here believes this conflict is near resolution.

23 July 2007

Not So Quiet After All

A quick lesson in background checking. Always Google first. It sounds painfully obvious, and it might have saved me from prematurely posting my last.

At any rate, all was quiet today except for the little detail of a large protest march (which, seriously, I heard nothing about in my little cocoon inside the language school) which was mostly peaceful except for when protesters took two police officers hostage in response to the arrest of a fellow protester on Monday morning. I'll be interested to get more information on this as it comes out. Apparently I still don't speak enough Spanish--or hang out in the right places. More soon.

No Problems

A column of dancers follow the band in Saturday's pre-Guelaguetza parade.

*UPDATE posted below

It appears the first day of the Guelaguetza occurred without incident today. By midday I hadn't heard of any trouble, and by this evening it seems the biggest challenge was a heavy squall in the afternoon. The festivities are wrapping up at the Cerro del Fortin as I write this (I can hear the fireworks), and, if I understand my Spanish correctly--which is not to be taken for granted--the participants will march down from the amphitheater on the mountain and through the Centro Historico district in a grand procession of music and dancing.

Several people mentioned to me today that government employees were required to attend the festivities and bring 4 people with them. The Guelaguetza was broadcast live on television, and the idea was to fill the stands for the cameras. I take it as fact that the first part is true, that government workers are required to attend, though I have no idea if they were really required to bring guests with them. From what I saw on tv, and from brief glimpses of the upper tiers from vantage points in town today, the stands were mostly full.

One acquaintance, a law student and Spanish teacher, took today's calm as proof that the teachers only wanted money. "It means the leaders of APPO [he lumps APPO and the teachers together] got paid. That's all they wanted. That's all they care about. "

I'll wait for tomorrow's news to hear more. In the meantime, all is quiet here, though I suspect nothing is resolved.

UPDATE: I've just encountered this online. Not entirely sure what to make of it, though it's straightforward enough. Apparently, two police officers were taken hostage after a clash with protesters and released a short time later. I'll post more as soon as I learn anything. (Dammit I've got to learn more Spanish faster.)

22 July 2007

Tomorrow the Guelaguetza

Governor Ulises Ruiz, thronged by supporters (and body guards)
at the head of the parade. Oaxaca City, July 21 2007.

After much speculation, the procession to preview the Guelaguetza and those participating in the festivities went off Saturday afternoon as planned. There had been whisperings in town that the procession might be derailed by protests or other demonstrations, but nothing of that nature took place. The governor himself, Ulises Ruiz, stepped out of a white SUV in time to lead the procession from Parque Conzatti to Plaza de Santa Domingo. A loud contingency of supporters chanted "Ulises Ulises! Ulises Ulises!" as the man made his way through the crowd. People thronged the sidewalks around the park to see the parade get started, and except for the appearance of the governor there was little sense of the recent politicization of the Guelaguetza by both sides of the conflict.

The parade route was protected and controlled by police but there was not the heavy presence I expected to see. No officers in riot gear, no squadrons prepared to push people back or make a show of force in the event of possible protests. No doubt these were a mere radio call away.

According to a language teacher I spoke with (not affiliated with the public school teachers) there is talk that on Monday morning teachers will block the roads to the Cerro del Fortin in an effort to stop the Guelaguetza. (See here for background on the conflict.) The amphitheater on the hillside is already heavily guarded, but as all roads to the amphitheater lead uphill the teachers only need to pick points between the city and the campus to stage their protests. If the teachers succeed in erecting barricades in the road overnight or in the early morning, this will almost certainly draw police down from their posts at the gates of the Cerro del Fortin to remove the demonstrators and clear roadblocks. Once this happens it is easy to surmise that there will be clashes, violence, injuries and arrests.

It appears to me that part of the problem the teachers face right now is that even if they are resolved to protest peacefully there are many people drawn to the demonstrations with the purpose of inciting violence. These are the anarchists, mostly young men, who may only have minimal interest in issues raised by the teachers or even by APPO, the popular arm of the people's movement, but simply want to act out against what is widely seen as a repressive government. In many cases they may be the first to spraypaint public property, throw rocks or Molotov cocktails, or otherwise challenge the domestic order. Neither the teachers nor APPO seem able to control these fringe elements attracted to the excitement, and, by some accounts, may even support such divisive actions. There appears to be a crisis of leadership on all sides (Nancy Davies has more on this here). The governor is widely seen as repressive and corrupt; APPO leaders and Section XXII (the teachers' union heavily involved in last year's unrest) leaders may be in constant flux as the government makes arrests, rounds people up, intimidates and generally sows disorganization within the organizations.

It is difficult to get a clear sense of what is going on here.

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21 July 2007

2 Dead, 5 Hospitalized, Scores Detained Following July 16 Clash

I´m clearly not reading enough right now, or I would have linked to this sooner. NarcoNews reports 2 fatalaties as a result of Monday´s clash between demonstrators and police, raising to 24 the number of people killed in Oaxaca since June 2006 in events related to the current conflict. In addition, 5 people were hospitalized and dozens arrested and detained.

Earlier this week a local news station showed footage of protesters being beaten by police, protesters throwing rocks at police and police in full riot gear throwing rocks back at protesters. The governor has promised and already deployed a show of force to deter protests and a threatened boycott (read disruption) of the Guelaguetza the next two Mondays by APPO, Section 22 and other activist organizations. Many Oaxacans are tense this weekend as the Guelaguetza draws near. Others go about their daily business outside the city center with little apparent concern for the situation, though I think it unlikely that the events of last year, and the massive economic frustration felt throughout the city during that time, are far from anyone's minds.

More soon.

17 July 2007

Police, Protesters Clash in Oaxaca City (and the Festival Goes On)

Tear gas clears an intersection near the Guelaguetza popular.

Violence broke out yesterday in the city center as Oaxacans celebrated the Guelaguetza popular despite aggression between protesters and police. The event was originally to be held at the Guelaguetza Amphitheater along the Cerro del Fortin, the traditional site of the festival, which has historically been a commercial boon for the economy of Oaxaca City. This year APPO, the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca), vowed to boycott what they call the "Guelaguetza comercial," to which tourists are encouraged to purchase tickets at the price of $38 (U.S.) each. The government-sponsored event is scheduled to be held in the Guelaguetza Amphitheater on the next two Mondays.

Nancy Davies has a detailed account regarding yesterday's events. In a nutshell, police in riot gear refused entry into the amphitheater for
participants and spectators of the Guelaguetza popular--planned as an alternative to the Guelaguetza comercial--yesterday morning. Angry protesters then did their thing, throwing rocks at police and lighting between three and five city buses on fire. Police fired tear gas on the crowd, subdued and detained protesters and made, by some accounts, as many as 62 arrests. There is no clear line of information on the actual number of arrests, injuries or disappearances that have occurred as a result of yesterday's conflict.

We watched police use tear gas to clear protesters from a crowded intersection. Highlights from this morning's local news support Nancy's report that protesters were violently beaten. The footage showed an unarmed man, already in police custody, receive multiple brutal blows from several officers in retaliation for something he shouted to onlookers.

The conflict appeared to subside after these skirmishes early in the day and, as far as I know, the events went off as planned in an alternate location. What remains to be seen is what effect all this will have on efforts to boycott the so-called Guelaguetza comercial. Possibly the APPO, or some radical faction therein, will not simply boycott but will attempt to disrupt events, and that this will bring the wrath of the government. This is no longer simply about the teachers' strike that prompted last year's uprising, but about corrupt government, political prisoners, and repression of liberty. As one teacher explained this morning, something has to change.

15 July 2007

The Update

Guelaguetza popular, or the people's Guelaguetza, as it's being called, will be held tomorrow as an alternative to what APPO and other activist groups have called the Guelaguetza comercial. I don't have to translate that for you. While there has been an uptick in graffiti in the city, and a visible presence of state police and federal troops, the tone here hasn't much changed. We are all still waiting to see. While the Guelaguetza takes up more of the headlines here, there is no sense that conflict is imminent.

State and local elections take place August 5, and the propaganda machine is in full force. Cars wired with loudspeakers creep the city streets broadcasting for candidates; fliers, posters and banners go up day and night, wherever there is available space; fliers, posters and banners are torn down daily and nightly as crews from opposing campaigns move through the city waging a dirty political fight. A friend recounted walking out of his apartment building recently to encounter some 40 or so local police officers, in uniform, removing and defacing the propaganda of one candidate while preserving that of another. There's little pretense here that anything is fair.

In the meantime, we study Spanish, explore the city and discover Oaxaca's culinary possibilities. Learning the language is a full time job. Four hours of class in the morning, perhaps an intercambio with a student of English in the afternoon--a chance for us both to work on our skills--and then an hour or more of homework in the evening. Private lessons may be in the near future as well, as I can't learn the language fast enough to satisfy my desire to understand the local newspapers.

Add to that roughly 2 hours of walking everyday as we navigate back and forth from our quarters in Colonia Reforma, the neighborhood where we rent a simple room, to the various points of interest we seek out daily, and our days are incredibly full. Plus there are excursions. The village of Etla, the ruins at Monte Alban, a professional baseball game . . . opportunities abound. We've been to Gigante, the large groceries-and-everything store 15 minutes to the north by foot, to get a couple of amenities for our room, such as a little mat for the bathroom and, hopefully soon, a fan.

That's our Oaxaca right now. I plan to do a food post soon, and more pictures, always more pictures. More about the Guelaguetza as it happens, too. Thanks for reading.

The Pictures

The Alcala

Graffiti and a Class Listing

The Opposition

"Black October"

"Free Flavio Sosa"


Wedding Figures

Indigenista, Turista

09 July 2007

Plavwriter Now With Pictures

Plavwriter is better than ever. Watch for pictures from Oaxaca as Jenna and I learn more about the city and the state. Click here to see the new pictures I added to a recent post.

Thanks for reading!

Call for Input

While there's much to see and hear in Oaxaca, and a great deal of exciting writing to do here, the more I learn the more I realize how little I know about what's going on. Whether it's the history of Oaxacan and Mexican politics--recent or long past--the history and values of the Zapotec and Mixtec peoples, or the current cultural views of average Oaxacans, I know enough to know I know very little.

While it may not be possible for me to truly understand what has happened and is happening for the people here, I nevertheless hope to learn more. I am in Oaxaca for six weeks this summer, and after a break in August will return in the fall to live here for six months, mas o menos. Are there travelers, students, writers, or artists reading this now? Ex-pats or Oaxacans who would be available to speak with me about events in Oaxaca and Mexico at large? I'd love to learn from your experiences.

Whether through comments on this blog, an internet dialogue or over a cup of coffee in the city, I would be very interested in meeting you and hearing your take on Oaxacan culture. Send an email to mattplav@gmail.com if you are interested. Some of you have written already with encouraging words about the posts I've put up. Thank you for those, and thank you for any help you might offer as I round out my awareness and work to make my writing as responsible as possible.

08 July 2007

Vamos A Ver: We Will See

There's a lot going on in Oaxaca this summer. Beneath the city's peaceful veneer the people are tense with unresolved fallout from last year's teachers' strike. (For background on the teachers' strike and people's uprising of 2006, see here and here.) Political graffiti mars buildings along the Alcala, a historic street paved with cobblestones and closed off from regular local traffic. "Presos Politicos Libertad!", Free Political Prisoners!, and "Vive La APPO" are two popular slogans repeated in red or blue paint on the faces of buildings and street signs. "Vive La APPO"--referring to the powerful group (Oaxaca People's Assembly, in English) that emerged out of the populist movement last summer--is scrawled in white paint across the windows of Scotiabank, a Canadian bank prominent in Mexico. The graffiti we see today is not leftover from last summer, but fresh in the past couple weeks. Those who were here last summer describe a paint war between activists and the government. The entire city was covered in political graffiti. New slogans went up every day, and every night the police whitewashed whole city blocks. While that battle has slowed, these new markings are evidence of a resistance that does not plan to go quietly away. Indeed, new tags appear daily since we arrived. Messages are painted on businesses and homes in the neighborhoods around the zocalo, the central square. Much of the content is the work of activists, though some only represents the efforts of rambunctious youth. In some cases it can be hard to tell the difference.

We had dinner tonight with Jenna's former Spanish teacher, a native Oaxacan, and her American husband who has lived in the country for seven years. When I asked about the political tone in the city, and if things were back to normal, the table went slightly tense. They both exchanged a glance and Adam, who is naturally outspoken, said, "We'll see."

Tourism appears to be thriving here, and the vendors who sell to turistas have not been deterred by last year's troubles. (Perhaps this is disingenuous; many here have little choice how they'll earn a living.) Cafes line three sides of the zocalo and maintain a steady business catering to Mexicans on holiday and foreign travelers alike. On sidestreets leading to the zocalo tourists browse expensive artwork in the high-end galleries that can afford the rent at the heart of the city. To judge by these storefronts of clean, bright new paint and sleek wooden doorways, well-lit signs and fancy window displays, Oaxaca City could be mistaken for an opulent retreat tucked away in the rugged mountains and high desert. Get a couple blocks south of the central square, however, and you'll find a different picture of Oaxaca. Narrow, crowded sidewalks give way to tightly packed storefronts on busy streets where vendors sell everything from watches to hardware to tacos to jewelry in an effort to simply stay afloat. In these neighborhoods and commercial districts outside the city center it becomes obvious that there is an uneven distribution of wealth in the city. Moving beyond these neighborhoods and into the public markets, stalls of produce, meats, clothing and trinkets literally overwhelm the senses. There is so much variety and yet so much repetition; you get an even clearer idea how difficult it is for many here to make a living.

Talking to Oaxacans about the strike, and about whether business has recovered, there is a consensus that neither tourism nor activism have returned to normal levels. In other words, tourism is still down and activism up. There is talk of boycotting this year's Guelaguetza, scheduled on consecutive Mondays for July 23 and 30. The Guelaguetza is the major cultural event of the year, a massive festival that celebrates the traditional values of sharing and cooperation cherished by Oaxacan Indians. Indeed, walking through the zocalo yesterday Jenna and I encountered a tent sponsored by APPO and Section XXII, the teachers' union, where activists handed out flyers advertising the boycott and spoke with anybody interested about the problems still facing the people of Oaxaca under Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. [Update: Today there are more tents set up, reminiscent of last year's protests. Activists play videotaped footage of the people's demonstrations last summer and the violence that broke out when state police attempted to remove protestors from the square. DVDs of the protests and violence are on sale, ostensibly to raise money for APPO and Section XXII, though I may be naive to make the assumption. Family and friends of political prisoners are on hand at the zocalo, advertising on large banners the plight of loved ones locked away. Banners calling for the removal of Governor Ruiz from office have also become more numerous and more prominent in recent days.]

As we toured language schools last week and spoke with Oaxacan Spanish teachers, there was a general understanding that nothing is yet known. "Vamos a ver," they said. We will see. This year could still be very difficult in Oaxaca City. If the boycott is successful and the Guelaguetza is not held in the Cerro del Fortin, the large amphitheater on the northwest side of the city, then government will suffer a setback. The director of one of the schools we visited pointed out that the money raised from the Guelaguetza does not benefit the Oaxacan people. Tourist tickets for the Guelaguetza are on sale at the local TicketMaster outlet for $38 US. He does not know where that money goes, but suspects the profits line the pockets of those who already have money: big businesses, promoters and politicians. This is hardly in keeping with the spirit of the event. In the meantime the governor has promised that the festival will go on as scheduled. This likely means that an army of state police, paramilitaries--armed men sympathetic to the PRI, the governor's political party--and perhaps even federal troops will descend on Oaxaca City for the last two weeks of July, as Oaxacans from other parts of the state converge on the city in an annual journey for the celebration--or for protests.

According to our friends here many US newspapers did not do justice to the strife in Oaxaca last summer. The government targeted teachers and activists, broadcast their names on the radio, and intimidated, menaced and arrested those who spoke out against political corruption and the unfair distribution of wealth in the state. By some accounts the government tortured and disappeared people. Political prisoners remain in custody today.* Many protestors who were picked up by government troops in the final raids to reclaim the city were immediately flown to prisons on far sides of the state, out of reach of their family and friends. Police helicopters circled the city, shining lights down on protesters, on vehicles and into homes. Activists set out roadblocks throughout the city at night with whatever they had, buses, automobiles, furniture, old appliances or bricks, to keep state vehicles from following people into the neighborhoods. Drive-by shootings occurred in what appeared to be assassinations of political targets. To those who were here, Oaxaca City in October and November of 2006 felt like a city at war.

The course of this summer has yet to be determined. As I posted earlier, the Mexican Supreme Court is investigating accusations of human rights violations that may have occurred during last summer's events. Governor Ruiz has not been to Oaxaca City since the events of last summer. Mexican President Felipe Calderon, who was soundly defeated across the state of Oaxaca in last year's national election--despite widespread suspicion of vote tampering--has not been to Oaxaca City since he took office on December 1, 2006. It is unclear whether APPO and Section XXII are planning demonstrations similar to those staged here last year. There are rumblings that the government is preparing for a fight. The next couple of weeks may tell us a quite a lot about what is in store for Oaxaca in the near future.

*I have been unable to verify this figure.

CORRECTIONS: The governor has been to Oaxaca City as recently as June. See here. Thanks to Zoe for passing that on. Going through my pictures last night showed me that the slogan painted on the window of Scotiabank actually says "Presos Politico Libertad," not "Vive La APPO" as I state in paragraph 1.

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Sorry, moms, but this is interesting. By my very unscientific method, Oaxaca may be due for an earthquake. According to Lonely Planet Mexico, Oaxaca City was leveled by a large earthquake in 1854. The city was rebuilt and maintained its status as the largest and most active city in the state. Another earthquake hit in 1931, destroying 70% of the buildings and infrastructure. 1854 to 1931 is a span of 77 years. And 1931 to 2007 . . . is actually only 76 years. So we should be alright, right?

UPDATE: Oaxaca got walloped on September 30, 1999. So it shouldn't be an issue. Carry on.

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Investigation Into Human Rights Violations in Oaxaca, 2006

This is slightly dated, at this point, but new to me tonight. Nancy Davies reports that the Mexican Supreme Court voted 8-3 to review actions taken by the state in response to last year's teachers' strike. Stay tuned.

Also, check back soon for a long post on the palpable political tension in the city. (Apologies to Nancy Davies for tagging her three times in one post. There are others writing, but none as carefully or consistently, as far as I can tell.)

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06 July 2007

Locating Ourselves

The road to Oaxaca leads out of Mexico City amid the sprawling slums and climbing hillsides of central Mexico.  Small cars and motorcyclists vie for position among the buses and trucks bent on long hauls in short time.  Beyond the population centers, central and southern Mexico opens onto vast plains of desert, interrupted to the south by the striking bluffs and volcanic mountains of the San Madre de Oaxaca.  At one point on our climb, traveling slowly across a section of new bridge spanning a massive arroyo, hundreds of feet down, the  steady clouds relented and showed us the snowy top of a weathered mountain.  Tall specimens of saguaro cactus point to the sky in this part of the high desert.  Yucca plants mature to great size, the spindles that display their blooms falling over seasonally from height and age.  We climb beyond the saguaro and the yucca, then level out on the crests above the Valles Centrales, or Central Valleys. 

Oaxaca City lies in the northwest of the Valles Centrales.  Ringed by hills and mountains, the city expands across the valley floor in steppes and stages.  From the roadway above the city I make out what a Oaxacan passenger tells me is the second class bus terminal, the corrugated awnings of the bus ports spread in a large circle, nearly complete, unfolded as the shape of a paper fan on the valley floor.  We descend gradually into the neighborhoods on the outskirts of town, and then into the city itself. 

Traffic in Oaxaca is crowded and bustling, but not so much as Mexico City.  The city hosts a population a little over a quarter million, and though there is a certain busy-ness about the place there is not the overt crush of people and traffic that I experienced, briefly, in the capital.  Right away I notice greater numbers of indigenous Indians, descendants of Zapotec and Mixtec tribes, than in the north.  The farther south we travel the shorter many people seem to get.  Already I have seen some of the shortest women in the world here.  More vendors sell simple food and crafts than where we stayed in Mexico City.  The closer we get to central downtown and the zocalo, the more abundant are the vendors at their tables, under tarps, on bicycles equipped to sell corn, fruit or tortas, or simply walking the sidewalks with tortillas or sweets in hand.  

It's a short walk from the bus station to Hotel Las Mariposas.  A little more expensive than several of the hostels in town, Hotel Las Mariposas is worth the extra pesos for the quiet, clean rooms, quiet courtyards away from busy streets, and attentive staff.  In the mornings there is coffee heavily spiced with cinnamon.  Free wireless internet keeps me in blog posts, and the hotel's location northeast of the city center offers a break from the heavily touristed areas several blocks to the south.  We made a tour of less expensive locations where we might stay over the weekend until we rent an apartment or rent rooms with a family, but we quickly realized the value of being a little outside of things.  The extra pesos we pay each night gets us off the busy streets and prices us out of the bargain backpackers' range, which means less chance of young Americans getting drunk in the courtyard and making noise late at night.  We spent the morning talking about the importance of saving our money.  By mid-afternoon we congratulated ourselves on the benefits an extra ten dollars will buy.   

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05 July 2007

Oaxaca . . . At Last

Mexico City to Oaxaca is about 460 kilometers by bus. After a leisurely breakfast featuring good strong coffee and bacon scrambled into the eggs--without even asking for it--we checked out of the Hotel Isabel and made our way down the busy streets to the nearest subway station.  Two blocks from our hotel we came on a side street that was completely torn up from one end to the other.  The concussive staccato of the huge Caterpillar jackhammer spilled out from between buildings.  This was our jackhammer from the night before, all night, on and off as crews worked to make a mess and then clean it up before making more mess.

We found the train station no problem and figured our direction from the route maps.  Each stop has a corresponding picture, so we got on at Isabel de Catolico with the picture of the duck and rode past the cake, the apple, the horse (I think) and got off at the image of the train in order to catch our bus.  At ten forty in the morning we were able to by tickets for the eleven o'clock autobus to Oaxaca.  We thought it would take between five and six hours.  Once on the bus we learned it would run about six and a half.  An hour into the ride, and still pretty much in the heart of Mexico City due to traffic and construction, we started to wonder how long it would really take, and when we might be able to stop for lunch.  Lucky for us coffee drinkers there was a bathroom on the bus.

The buses are a pretty nice affair, which is good because they're not very cheap.  Most of the first class buses ($36, Mexico City to Oaxaca) have a toilet on board and a dvd system, and the seats recline.  When the monitors dropped for a movie while we were still in the city I thought it would be a welcome break from creeping and standing in traffic.  After several slow kilometers of signage and graffiti the colors of Mexico City began to blur together.  Garish green, bright orange, washed-out pink.  Spray paint covers every available surface.  The handful of empty walls are newly coated in white or gray or green, but it's likely only a matter of days until they are tagged all over again.  I'm watching the artwork and the city go by while nine lanes of traffic are slowly being strangled into one single-file southbound passageway.  It was incredible to see the trestles and spans erected by work crews, but maddening to see it from the seat of the bus.  During the delays vendors came out between the lanes selling Coca-Cola, bottled water, fruit, tortas, windshield wiper blades, rubber hosing, screwdriver sets, emergency flashers, gorditas, water filters, nutritional regimens, racing gloves and stuffed animals.  Finally, after an hour, we get through the bottleneck and begin to gain ground. 

The movie showing on this route is "The Dark" with Sean Bean and Maria Bella.  Instead of playing in English with Spanish subtitles the soundtrack is dubbed.  Which is pretty funny when you consider Sean Bean is an Irishman.  The sonorous baritone of his new Latino voice was incongruous for the entire ninety minutes of the movie, which I watched intermittently while the countryside went by.  The problem with the movie system is that everybody on the bus has to listen to it whether you want to watch or not.  For the first movie it was alright, but by the third I was pretty much out of my gourd.  The trip was taking forever, there were incredible construction delays, and by three in the afternoon there was no indication that we would stop for anything more than five minutes at a convenience stand.  Jenna and I felt like neophytes for having gotten on the bus without sandwiches.  Vendors approached the bus and I bought a tamale, which was good and filling but badly misshapen due to the gnarly, knuckled end of a chicken leg inside the corncake.   

Oaxaca finally came into view twenty minutes into the fifth movie.  I'm not kidding.  In fairness, though, Adam Sandler is still very funny en Espanol.  The ride took so long we even got to see a dubbed version of "The Planet's Funniest Animals," which is when I pretty much wanted to start crying.  The mountain scenery was beautiful but I couldn't escape the soundtrack piped over the PA system.  Our driver was cautious, which is a good thing on the narrower stretches of road, and I never actually wished we were on a dangerous third world chicken bus but I would not have minded picking up the pace a little bit.  These coaches actually have governors on that sound an alarm when the driver passes a certain preset speed.  The gentleman next to me leaned over and started on about how long we'd been on the bus.  I got that it was normally a five hour trip but the traffic and construction were awful.  He also said we were twenty minutes from the bus depot, which was music to my ears.  I grinned and nodded and did the stupid American thing--pretend to understand perfectly without understanding much at all, and he let it drop.  Later he would lean over an say to me, in excellent English, that he recommended the Hotel Real Santo Domingo, and that if we wanted to take a tour of the old church we should do so in the morning, early, when it's quiet before the tourists come out.   

The bus ride took eight hours but we got here.  I had a nice mole dinner and now we're in a clean room with hot water and a wireless internet connection.  I can't really complain, although I do still feel a little like I'm in the jouncing bus on the mountain roads.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot.  We felt a tremor beneath us shortly after sitting down to dinner in the zocalo.  First I thought it was a piece of heavy equipment coming down the road, but then it kept up, and we tilted just a little with the earth.  My first time.   

Thanks for reading.  More on Oaxaca very soon. 


04 July 2007

Bienvenidos a Mexico

Mexico City, 11:30 pm.  Our windows open onto the city street, Isabel de Catolico, and the sounds of traffic, catcalls and the persistent jackhammering, despite the hour, of a nearby construction crew.  Hotel Isabel, is located in the Centro Historico and not far from the bus station we'll need tomorrow to head down to Oaxaca.  No complaints about travel today.  No flight delays, no bags gone missing, no hassles at the aeropuerto Benito Juarez.  Hiring a cab is pretty straightforward here if you go with an authorized company.  Walk up to the window just outside the terminal exit, tell the woman behind the glass where you're going, and pay a flat fee.  Jenna and I were escorted to a large Ford Econoline van.  It took us a minute to realize we would be the only passengers.  Guilty feeling tree hugging global warming believing Americans.  It doesn't take long to get over all  that at 110 km/h on the crowded city streets.  Safety conscious Americans, of course, we found our seatbelts. 

On the way across town we smelled onions cooking and fried fish, and those smelled delicious.  Driving like in the Middle East, only en Espanol.  Our driver raced along, pushing the van up against little Puegots and motorcycles, ignoring the well-posted 60 km/h signs on the crowded streets, flashing highbeams at pedestrians far ahead who might mistakenly assume they have time to cross.  Our taxi van bears down on two police officers and flashes brights on them the same as anybody else.  Cruising the streets, braking hard, riding on top of the cars in front of us, even laying into the curves where signs warn "Conserve Su Velocidad"; Watch Your Speed.  Jenna finally breaks her silence to show off some of her good Spanish: "Senor! Cuidado por favor!? Muchos gracias."  Sir! Careful please!? Thank you very much. 

At a stoplight men come out to wash car windows, ignoring the taxi.  A shirtless fire breather sips a little fuel and steps out in the lanes between cars, blowing great bursts of flame once, twice, three times and a sputtering fourth, then puts his matches away and walks up and down the rows of waiting cars looking for pesos.  Green light, round the corner--fast--and there are two whores in a doorway, one heavy and tattooed, the other in black fishnets all the way to her thong.  Across the street a group of 18 or 20 men simply wait, some leaning back against the wall painted in popular logos, others on the curb ready to step out.  At the speed we travel, even after Jenna's cautious request, the images are there and gone in an instant. 

Hotel Isabel is old, comfortable enough, quite clean.  The bed is small but firm, and it's probably the latter that matters most to me, because in a soft bed we'd just sag our way to the middle no matter how big the thing was.  We've got a private bath, all in tile with a curtain across the back third for a shower.  I love the plain utility of it.  The room is thirty dollars, pretty rich for a budget listing, but fine by us tonight.  We'll have to thank Aunt Emily for sending us down with enough pesos to cover the cab ride and our first night.  The restaurant served chilequiles con pollo because we asked for it, not knowing what it was, and chips with avacado.  The guacamole was excellent: rich, savory, spicy.  The chilequiles turned out to be more chips, served wet, smothered in hot green chile and topped with shredded chicken, half a tub of sour cream and ample crumbles of rubbery, mildly yeasty white cheese.  This after I declared in the car this morning, on the way to the airport, "The thing about authentic Mexican food is that you can order a whole meal and not see any dairy, whereas in the States anything you order is likely to have sour cream and cheese all over it."  How could I have known?  I've never been to Mexico before tonight, but that doesn't stop me from speaking with authority.  Will have to find out if the cheese and sour cream are on account of the turistas.

That's enough for now.  I've got the sweet sound of jackhammers to lull me to sleep.  More from Oaxaca.     

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Today we leave for Mexico.  I'll update the blog as often as I can from Oaxaca.  Look for items on travel, culture, language, politics (if I understand what's going on) and as many pictures as I can get.  Here's hoping I find free wireless internet (or kick the habit entirely). 

More soon.  


03 July 2007


Digby tests the impeachment climate against previous impeachment proceedings, and she isn't encouraged.

The executive privilege claims are going to take forever to litigate. And, of course, the conservative judiciary is likely to back them, if only by helping them run out the clock. During Watergate, the judiciary committee had the work of the Washington Post to go on ---- and then John Dean and the tapes --- in an easily understood narrative. Ken Starr gave Henry Hyde a nice little case about dirty sex all wrapped up in a pretty little pornographic package. Nobody had to do any investigation. The job of the congress, in both cases, was pretty much just seeing if impeachment applied to acts that had already been revealed. Things moved quickly.

This requires much more original investigation, particularly on those national security issues, which are going to be very touchy subjects and nearly impossible to get evidence or testimony on. (I think the national security stuff is going to have to be investigated in a different way, a la the Church committee, after Bush is out of office.)

Finally, there is the most important and indisputable fact that Bush and Cheney will never be convicted in the Senate. This isn't the GOP of 1974 and they will never cross over in enough numbers. They won't do it even if video tapes of Bush personally giving hush money to Scooter Libby turn up. Let's not kid ourselves about that reality. The fact is that impeachment will probably bring their caucus together.

I hate to say it, but I totally agree. One thing we've seen is that today's GOP is prone to rally around the lowest common denominator, even though they may talk big sometimes about change and bipartisanship. These politicians are incapable of standing against the reelection machine, and let's face it, there's still safety in numbers.

The best we can hope to do is further vote corrupt Republicans into the minority in 2008, and hope that another splash of cold water will sober up the GOP. In the meantime, I'm all for oversight and abuse of power investigations. I hope Democrats in Congress understand that, even if their investigations can't beat Bush to January 20, 2009, those investigations are nonetheless important to the rule of law and the integrity of the Constitution.


BBC Reporter Alan Johnston Freed

This is good news.  Alan Johnston, the BBC reporter who has been held hostage for four months by a fringe Palestinian group, has been freed.   According to BBC News, Johnston was released early Wednesday morning and received at the home of deposed Hamas leader Ismail Haniya.  Johnston is "looking forward to being re-united with his family in Scotland."

So does Hamas gain ground by effecting Johnston's release?  Is Hamas less a terrorist group because they've secured the reporter's freedom? 

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"We Want to Get to the Bottom of This"

TPMtv has a great montage highlighting how seriously George W. Bush and the administration take security leaks.  Normally I wouldn't link to a highlight reel, but it seems like we've got to keep items like this front and center.  The problem with scandals these days is that in a couple of minutes we've found something else to focus on, whether it's work related, home and family, or recreational or entertainment oriented.  That's exactly what this administration is counting on: that outrage is nothing more than a flicker at the edge of our vision, like when somebody steps in front of the tv screen during the ballgame.  We yell about it for a second and then forget. 

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Conditions at Oaxaca

Current conditions in Oaxaca, Mexico: 80 degrees and balmy with a 20% chance of rain.  That's relief after yesterday's 100 degree afternoon in Denver. 

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Testing Qumana

I've had a hell of a time getting a blog manager up and running with either of my Blogger blogs. Bad luck with RocketPost and W. Bloggar. Now I'm on to Qumana with high hopes. I'll let you know how it all works out.

Powered by Qumana

02 July 2007

Scooter Madness

Everybody's blogging about Scooter. I count 21 out of 23 posts at Talking Points Memo, since 5:45 EST, dealing with the Libby sentence commutation (no, it's not a pardon--a pardon would mean Libby would not be able to invoke the 5th amendment and would therefore be a liability to the administration were he to be called to testify in future investigations; see here, here and here for more). And the other two posts did make mention of Libby, as in "Just so it doesn't get lost in the Libby avalanche," and "I hate to rain on the all Libby all the time parade . . . . "

TPMmuckracker runs close behind with 9 posts about Libby since the news broke. FireDogLake has 6 posts on the Scooter events, and a 7th just before news of the commutation broke about the judge's denial to delay prison while Libby appeals (which is quite the moot point now).

Washington Monthly shows only 3 posts on the subject, but Kevin Drum is on vacation--and posted anyway--and Steve Benen is pulling double duty covering Kevin's desk and keeping up his own at The Carpetbagger Report.

Matthew Yglesias posts a meager 2 items on the subject, while his colleague at The Atlantic Online, Andrew Sullivan, posts 3 items, the most interesting of which ushers in a breath of fresh air and a reminder that this isn't just about liberals and conservatives.

Is it now the conservative position that only left-wingers actually object to people getting away with perjury? . . . It seems to me that real conservatives - not the lawless hoodlums now parading under that banner - should be as outraged as anyone.

Daily Kos has 8 posts on Libby, if you don't count the multiple updates to each post which would jack that total to about 17. Atrios has a couple or three, and easily more comments than anyone else (how does he do that?!). Digby also has three, and I just realized I don't have her on my Voices list, a mistake to be remedied promptly. I love her chagrin:

Just in case Bush's Fourth of July "fuck you" to the American people wasn't emphatic enough, here's a double "fuck you," with a twist . . . .

She goes on to discuss Karl Rove's continued--and questionable--roll in the White House as "Bush's Brain," pointing to a Washington Post article on Rove's security clearances given his role in and around the Valerie Plame affair.

And oh yeah, Drudge has Scooter coverage too. The first 11 items on the page are Scooter related. Go figure.

Anyway, that's what I've been doing with my time since the news broke. Almost more fun than writing about Scooter myself. Just wanted to share.

Presidential Prerogative

George W. Bush, February 11 2004:

"If there's a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is," Bush told reporters at an impromptu news conference during a fund-raising stop in Chicago, Illinois. "If the person has violated law, that person will be taken care of.

"I welcome the investigation. I am absolutely confident the Justice Department will do a good job.

"I want to know the truth," the president continued. "Leaks of classified information are bad things."

George W. Bush, July 2 2007:

Mr. Libby was a first-time offender with years of exceptional public service and was handed a harsh sentence based in part on allegations never presented to the jury.

. . . I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby’s sentence that required him to spend thirty months in prison.

There you have it.

UPDATE: As Christy Hardin Smith pointed out:
The sentence as laid out carefully by Judge Walton was well within the sentencing guidelines — in fact, it was mid-range in the guidelines. The President may well feel that a 30 months sentence is excessive for someone who has been convicted of multiple federal felonies — but, it is entirely false to say that the sentence is excessive within the guidelines. It is an attempt at spin and shold not be allowed to stand unchallenged.

Scooter Gets a Pass

I'm reluctant to blog about Scooter Libby, because so many people who know much more than I do and wax angrier than I can are already doing such a good job. My favorite post so far? Jane Hamsher captures the outrage:

. . . George Bush thumbed his nose once again at the very concept of democracy and the Beltway Brahmins are cheering. The dirty unwashed masses who populate our juries are fit to judge each other, but evidently not the ruling class. David Broder can breathe a sigh of relief that People Like Him are safe from those overly zealous US Attorneys who might want to hold them accountable to the same absurd standards that the little people must live by.

Getting Into the Mix

Via Juan Cole, Turkey is planning a military invasion into northern Iraq to root out members of the Kurdish guerrilla organization PKK. That is, if US and Iraqi forces forces don't do something about it first.

Turkey is putting pressure on the US and Iraqi governments to reduce the presence of the Kurdish group, seen as a threat to Turkey's borders, or prepare for Turkish air strikes and a possible incursion.

In a fresh bout of sabre-rattling on Wednesday, the chief of staff, General Yasar Buyukanit, asked the government in Ankara to set the parameters for an incursion across the border. "Will we go to northern Iraq just to fight PKK rebels, or, for example, what will we do if we come under attack from local Iraqi Kurdish groups?" Gen Buyukanit said.

Sounds like your average, run-of-the-mill preemptive warfare if you ask me. I hear the US has no problem with that sort of strategy.

Meanwhile, to the south, CNN reports that an Iranian backed Hezbollah leader is in custody and is connected to the January 20 Karbala attack that killed 5 American troops. I don't have any problem with the details, but I do question the timing. Does anybody hear a little summer sabre-rattling?

01 July 2007

Obama Bucks

According to the New York Times, Barack Obama's campaign website reports raising at least $32.5 million in the second quarter. That's huge. What's even bigger, though, is that $31 million of that is for the primary alone, which means they raised all that money and can still go back and ask donors to contribute toward the general election should the race warrant such action.

Watch the Clinton camp's numbers. The Times goes on to report that Clinton raised $27 million, but only $21 million of that is for the primary. She can't touch the other $6 million until she wins the nomination, and if she doesn't win she has to give the money back.

This fundraising quarter indicates that Obama-mania is not just holding but picking up steam. They will be feeling very confident and very electable, assuming money has anything to do with it. What is most interesting to see is that Obama has raised money from 258,000 individual donors this year.

The Times:

In the last three months, an average of 1,500 donors a day contributed to the Obama campaign, many through the Web site or in response to more unusual appeals, including a contest to have dinner with the candidate.

1,500 donors a day. Just over a donor a minute. That's got to feel good.