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.