January 2, 2002
By the time we reached the Plaza del Danza at noon, the inauguration celebration was over. The huge banner still draped on the wall outside the municipal offices, advertising el partido con sentido. The party with sense? with sensibility? with feeling?
A uniformed policeman leaned against the stone wall overlooking the grand courtyard below. Crews were busy folding down the rows of chairs. The loudspeakers still broadcast a Mexican tune, and one man in the bright orange pinny of the cleaning squad began to dance. He held his broom up and twirled the handle, clearly mimicking the twirling dance of calendas. His huge invisible puppet inspired a second cleaning man to join him, and so the dance went on below us.
While we watched I asked the policeman what he thought would be in store under a brand new political party, the Convergencia por Democracía, and a new Municipal President. The policeman responded, “Well, we’ll see.” He breathed alcohol fumes toward me – I guess he toasted the inauguration.
From the campaign’s outset Cué Monteagudo assured the press that with his coming to power a new historic opportunity would open for inhabitants of Oaxaca de Juarez: finally attention will be paid to problems that retard municipal development. Whatever that means. Oaxaca is a city of vendors, and the area is heavily tourist dependent. Before September 11 new hotels were constructed all over the central area. Many shopkeepers think the biggest issue is cleanliness.
Nationally in the 2001 elections, four governors, 1,002 municipal presidents, and 265 local deputies were chosen. The PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucionál) maintained 42.7% of the posts, the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) 31.5%, the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática) 17.7%, and other parties took 8.1%. Cué ushers in a new Oaxacan political party. For Mexico, just coming off its long domination by the PRI, that’s pretty amazing.
If there’s a fatal flaw in the argument, it’s that many people accuse Cué of being a second Carrasco, the former PRI governor of Oaxaca state and a not much admired man. According to Cué, he will usher in a new bipartisanship. In English that means two, not three parties; but of course there are three other pre-existing parties besides the new Convergencia, unless one takes the Convergencia for PRI by another name. However, we need not quibble. Cué claims a new political culture will represent the diversity of Oaxaca.
One change toward “cleanliness” took place before Cué’s inauguration: the encampment in front of the government palace in the zocalo disbanded after four years. With Christmas festivities immanent, the Loxicha women always are obliged to yield to the puestos that sell arts and crafts. Tourist dollars provide Oaxaca’s main source of income. But now the Loxicha women and their children have moved to a shelter a mile away. For the children’s sake, it’s impossible not to applaud bunk beds, bathrooms and a yard in which to play. The kids received bicycles – I don’t know who donated them. Or bribed the mothers.
The women’s human rights struggle to free their prisoners arrested for supposed collaboration or participation with EPR rebels, has been a long weary process. Living in the zócalo, the women bathed kids in buckets, hung laundry on bushes, and importuned tourists to buy their baskets. The zócalo always has some ongoing demonstration, but the Loxicha encampment involved little kids. The kids begged, looked sallow and thin, and embarrassed the middle class tourists.
The prisoners were either federal or state detainees. Oaxaca state under Carrasco’s successor, Governor Murat, freed the ones it held, under an amnesty. The amnesty troubled those who wanted a clear admission that the arrests were wrong in the first place and the prisoners innocent. The men apparently wanted out. So they accepted.
Federal prisoners must be released by the feds. The sticking point is that those men were convicted (rightly? wrongly?) of common civil crimes. For now, there seems no way to get them released without them serving their terms.
The plans of Cué Monteagudo are spelled out: “Firm application of the law, zero tolerance for corruption, broadened democratic and social participation. A policy of open doors and direct communication with the citizenry, modernization and efficiency in governing.” Now, according to Cué’s rhetoric, is the time to return political power to the people. How? With a new political culture, of co-responsibility between society and government. His will to serve Oaxaca is so great, effuses the local newspaper Las Noticias, that Gabino Cué Monteagudo will chat with reporters the very moment new actions are contemplated.
Cué lists his priorities as strengthening public security, improving public services, promoting social well being and giving attention to marginalized groups.
Some of those marginalized groups sit on the sidewalks in the tourist centers. They beg, in a high repetitious whine. Children sleep next to their mothers on the sidewalk, or nurse. An elderly woman sits on the sidewalk in front of the bakery. An old man with shaking hands leans against the wall on the main street. They are thin and appear both ancient and infirm, although after the inaugural festivities I spotted the old woman skipping across the street before the traffic light changed. Two old blind men play guitar and sing. Many street musicians play accordion while their children hold out cups. The shop owner in favor of cleaning up the city would be surprised to know that for many tourists, especially Americans, seeing little children begging on the street at ten o’clock at night is half the thrill of traveling to an exotic country like Mexico.
The other new coalition afoot is the Alianza por Mexico, which won the governorship in Michoacán. Its big base is the PRD. Surprise, surprise, the new governor is the son of the Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas (former municipal president of Mexico DF, and PRD candidate for president) and the grandson of Lázaro Cárdenas, a well-liked president of the 1930s. It’s not so different from the USA, the political dynasties.
And I heard it said that Cué’s first step toward becoming of governor of Oaxaca is his election as municipal president; and Murat’s first step to running for president is his position as governor.
But here’s another alarming surprise: many people don’t vote! Abstensionism is the highest it’s ever been. 70% of the population eligible is registered; 57.8% voted. Equally serious was the number of votes annulled, either because the citizen voted for a candidate not on the ballot or wrote in the Mexican equivalent of “none of the above.”
Meanwhile the Oaxacan worker enjoyed the raise in minimum wage. At the beginning of 2002 the new minimum salary will be 38.30 pesos. That’s per day, not per hour. In Oaxaca, it comes to an increase of 2.45 pesos per day - roughly four cents. Hardly enough to buy half a kilo of tortillas, the main source of nourishment for most of the working class. Unfortunately the government, like all those before, maintains low salaries to protect the businesses. Theoretically it also protects against inflation. We can hope the commercial enterprises don’t raise prices, as they do every year, adding fuel to political fires that every day burst out in front of the Chamber of Deputies and the Government Palace.
The Loxicha women, hidden away, give place to newer groups. In the USA a living wage is not the same as minimum wage, and neither is it in Oaxaca, nor anywhere else in Mexico. The Mexican president earns 170 minimum salaries. The president of the USA earns closer to 250 minimum salaries.
Of course, their expenses are higher.