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The Scale of it All

July 30, 2005


1.  The struggle for the soul of the Oaxaca City zócalo took a funny turn when the local superego,  (whom some might spell super ego) Oaxaca’s world-artist-in-residence Maestro Toledo, won hands-down a battle with the governor regarding the use of cement benches versus iron benches.

      When I say hands down, I mean Toledo approached the public works supervisor and asked him to help carry one end of a banished iron bench Toledo  fetched back into the wasteland. The following morning the ever-patient workers began to chip away at the two-day old cement benches. The iron visibly triumphed,  freshly painted green with the emblem of the Mexican eagle on a cactus rising on top.  As I availed  myself of an iron seat, I noticed that the area surrounding the new trees is sprinkled with pastel plastic  straws and soda bottles. Yep, trash.

      Many of us teaching in the public education system learned to look at the floor after the bell. If the decamping student hostages left behind a litter of crumpled paper, gum wrappers and broken pencils,  a teacher ignored that message at her peril. It said, in essence, You’ve got us but we don’t like it. I recall, many years ago, entering a class-room in Boston where on the chalkboard was scrawled,  Shakespeare Sucks! Likewise this message ― bigger and better.

      I wonder if the governor, Ulises Ruiz, saw the zócalo  trash. Or if he did, perhaps he said to himself: these dirty slobs they don’t deserve the modernized zócalo  which I ‘m giving them ... Nah.  He didn’t say that. If he cared whether  the citizens deserved it, he would have asked  first if they wanted it.

      Ruiz ain’t well known for following demands by  his citizens. But he never pretended to be a Zapatista, did he? On Monday, August 1 of 2005 the national newspaper La Jornada reported yet another death threat against a Oaxacan man attempting to assume the office of alcalde,  which is to say mayor, of a town which uses the old system of traditional law, Usos y Costumbres to elect its authorities.

      Usos y Costumbres  is  participatory government,  something akin to town meeting. It doesn’t always work, since in every situation power grabs occur.  When it does work, a system of donated services to the town evolves, for various lengths of time and for various needs ranging from dusting the church altar to mayor. Oaxaca State’s 418 Usos y Costumbres municipios, of the total 570 municipios,  make hideous the political parties’ struggle for local control, and create in turn their own difficulties,  locally,  statewide and nationally. A municipio  is actually a collection of smaller entities, something comparable to a county in the USA.

      Of the 2,434 municipal governments in Mexico, 570 are in the state of Oaxaca. In municipios regulated by Usos y Costumbres, municipal offices traditionally are filled by local citizens as a requirement for membership in the community. According to Usos y Costumbres, persons who fill these offices receive  no salary, and indeed typically underwrite their own expenses and forgo other means of income  during their terms. In many towns, holding an office also entails major ceremonial expenses, such as providing flowers for the church. In recent years, high rates of permanent and temporary migration  strained the capacity of many Oaxacan municipios to fill their governmental needs. It ‘s now common for citizens  of  Oaxacan communities who reside in the USA to be recalled for service,  and many do return, but often at considerable expense and hardship for their families.  Since the  border shut-down it’s less possible.

      Nowadays many send money in lieu of service, but often they decide  from afar how the money will be spent, in effect governing from New Jersey and California. Not surprisingly Usos y Costumbres has been discussed, investigated, reviled, and admired as a system of local politics.  Historically, it served as a way penniless towns could share  burdens of power and responsibility. It doesn’t seem to want to go away despite all the pushing and hauling toward “modernization”.  One of the unexpected results of the migration North is that women, children and elders were left behind. The women stepped forward.

2.   The entire modernization of the old zócalo, in a center previously designated a UN Cultural Patrimony, was undertaken with never a prior public word.  Oaxaca in many ways is an anomaly.  It’s a municipio, but one without agéncias (villages),  it’s agglomerate parts have been jiggered and renamed: haciendas, ranchos, ejidos and some even “undesignated”. Oaxaca itself is referred to by the National Institute for Statistics,  Geography and Information Technology (Estadística, Geographía y Informática) (INEGI) as a ciudad, a city, the capital city of Oaxaca state.  It’s currently ruled by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI ).

      The citizens of Oaxaca City rallied in fury to defend their old trees. Apparently nobody thought of rallying in fury over the expense, uncounted pesos to persons unknown, in a state where no laws of transparency exist.

      Teaching school in the USA, I knew to the dollar how much the school board voted and for what. Here, not so. The federal government “allocates” money for the various municipios’ local schools,  and somewhere between the budget and the classroom the money often vanishes. There’s no accounting system.

      My friendly “spy” — a nice guy who works in the lower echelon of the state government and thus is privy to common gossip — explains to me that when somebody enters a government office,  they depart with cash in hand. The highest priority is first to enrich oneself, and then to reward friends.

      This traveling money might buy vacations or outings, or buy votes, or buy residences and cars. Whatever. At the close of the fiscal year the head of that department will sign a note saying “$50,000,000 spent for public works”, and that’s it. No accounts, no records to audit, no problems. Even Maestro Toledo, whose domain is art and architecture,  is after them on this one.  Some states after all do require accountability.  Not Oaxaca.  I said to my spy Javier, “Find out who’s getting the money for the zócalo renovation.”  He hasn’t yet reported back. But it’s not a simple thing: whoever is getting the contract money also pays somebody to pay workers who,  in an impoverished state short of jobs, will vote correctly for the PRI, also known as The Dinosaurs,  in the next election. And of course in the process receive a bribe from another PRI official,  as well as take home a new home.


3.   The daily Oaxaca newspaper Noticias is a victim of assaults by the governors (the previous governor Murat and the present office-holder,  Ruiz) who undertook to destroy Noticias in retaliation for its opposition to them,  the PRI, and whatever corruption might have been interfering with their own corruption. — I don’t hold Noticias to be pure of heart, regardless of being, in this instance,  a victim on the side of freedom of the press.

      As punishment for opposition, a series of events occurred, including invasion and destruction of Noticias’ storage facility, harassment of its vendors, theft of  printed newspapers, and most recently a trumped up union strike. This strike was on the part of workers who in fact don’t work for Noticias at all, but are linked by a parent union. The “strikers” held hostage  Noticias workers for four weeks while well-wishers smuggled in food and water, and finally the “strikers” invaded the news building and the Noticias folks were physically, literally, vanquished. The invasion came by order of the leader of the “strikers”,  who could also pass for thugs. The Noticias staff retreated to another city and continue to print the paper and fly it in. Finally, the invasion made national and then international news, with the result that the federal government “intervened”, i.e. mentioned that something was going on.

      Complaining of a crime is the same as soliciting that your property be held under legal occupation by foreigners. I walked over to Los Libres Street to see for myself, innocently expecting the yellow plastic rope-off I recognize from crime  scenes on television. Instead, the handsome front of the Noticias building, with its electronically-triggered sliding glass door (like wow, do those exist anywhere else in Oaxaca?) is completely smothered by colored plastic drop-cloths and canopies.

     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.


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 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 ‘s 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  manages  resources and renders  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  a  fourth  of  the  national total. Unsurprisingly, the dispute for municipio power has come front and center in Oaxaca. The monopoly  in which the political parties previously held 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.

      But wait.

      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 between  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 was 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 zócalo  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 considered to have  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  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.

     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 the state government offices, emptying the government palace in the zócalo, 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 street vendors have,  in the past, made palpable Oaxaca’s poverty and anger. Nationally,  Oaxaca ranks next to last — only above Chiapas —, in indices of human development; according to UN statistics its inhabitants have a standard of living lower than that of the Occupied Territories of Palestine.

      As an aside:  this year (2004 statistics) fewer tourists came  than previously. The reason given is that the traffic is dreadful.


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 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 with  disputes that  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, various political actors  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  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 zócalo (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.


6.   Calls for discussion of municipal reform sound scary. They talk of reforming the system, introducing innovation, good government, citizen participation and rendering of accounts. Those “Mom and apple-pie” proposals seem  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  vendors, the ambulatory and usually indigenous people who formerly sold blouses and balloons  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 was  torn out.

      In Oaxaca, it’s a normal experience to stand in the valley and watch  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  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 their Sixth Declaration,  to organize the Left in Mexico.  Civil organizations have been asked to send delegates to discuss  “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.  Then it stalled, undermined,  and literally  was placed on the firing line.

      Chiapas certainly was stalled, and it may be the two states (or three, counting Guerrero) are extra-handicapped by a feudal history of large landowners and subjugated indigenous populations. Without an income base beyond agriculture, they’re as crippled as the US  South after the Civil War. Carlos Salinas, former president of Mexico, went all-out to eliminate 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  around 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 India Laurel 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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