November 2006

‘The Grand Problem’ absorbs Oaxaca, Mexico

By Phil Hall

Editor’s note: Phil Hall is traveling in Mexico and sent this report about political unrest in the southern state of Oaxaca. A few days after he sent it, a freelance journalist for Indymedia.com and two other people were killed in riots there, and at press time Mexican President Vicente Fox was sending in troops.

PEDESTRIANS IN OAXACA, MEXICO, WALK PAST A BURNED VEHICLE AND OTHER DEBRIS LEFT DURING PROTESTS.There are no police visible in downtown Oaxaca (Wa-ha-ka), Mexico. None. The city seems to function on a kind of automatic power. The buses run, the taxis run, people come and go. There is a protest going on, not only in the city of Oaxaca, but throughout the state.

The motorcycle in front of me, one of those pizza delivery bikes with a pizza box on back, always ridden by someone very young, dodges agilely between a truck tire and a manhole cover. The tire marks the edge of a large ditch, as though construction of a water main was under way and suddenly abandoned. There are piles of rubble everywhere: chunks of concrete, large rocks, trash, mounds of dirt. People pick their way through the debris, through the traffic.

The cyclist dodges right around a taxi, then takes the narrow lane around a bus. He rides with hips and shoulders; he is very quick. The quick and the dead.

On some streets cars are triple-parked. Sometimes the streets are very narrow, traffic backed up: five, six, 10 buses in a line. Everything is a fight for space, precious space. In many parts of the city whole neighborhoods are blockaded with buses across intersections, burned-out cars, whole blocks of sheet-metal roofing tied into place. The blockades are very effective. Five o'clock traffic is a zoo of unimaginable proportions. The tigers are out of the cages; the elephants are stampeding.

There is no school for Marc Anthony, 12, and his sister Veronica, 14. There is no school in the remote village of Ixtepeji in Oaxaca´s highlands; there is no school anywhere in the state of Oaxaca. There is no school for 1,300,000 students, according to the Oaxaca daily, Noticias.

The crisis, which Oaxaqueños call “The Grand Problem,” centered on conflicts over Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortis´s education policies and a salary dispute. It all started in May, when teachers said that without a raise they´d go out on strike. On June 7 Oaxaca saw more than 120,000 people protesting against the government.

Then on June 14, more than 3,000 state police and special forces police using tear gas and weapons evicted teachers from the town square in Oaxaca where they had been staging a sit-in. The teachers retook the square within a few hours.

The strikes and unrest have been a regular part of life in Oaxaca for years, but this year’s seem considerably more serious. Unhappiness with Ortiz, who has been in office about a year, is intensifying.

In addition to higher salaries, the teachers want free textbooks and uniforms for students, plus better classrooms, but have been told the money isn’t available.

The Mexican government has been cutting funding for public schools in a push to privatize education. Meanwhile, Ruiz plunged ahead with expensive renovation projects in the area and spent money on political campaigning.

I talked to one of the teachers in Oaxaca’s zócalo (town square): Clemente Antonio-Hernandez. “We went to the governor with our concerns,” he said. “He did not show us any respect.” Ruiz flatly refused the raise; the teachers, with a great deal of community support, especially in the rural areas, went on strike.

A teachers’ union spokesman, Ezequiel Rosales, said about 60 percent of members had voted this week to end the strike. Protesters want Ruiz removed from office. But Rosales added that the union would not agree on a return date until it had received guarantees from the Mexican government, including security for returning teachers.

However, other protesters are reported to have said they will continue in their efforts to unseat Ruiz.

This is a weekend, which means that Adriana, Marc Anthony and Veronica´s aunt, a dentist in Oaxaca, will be up here in the mountains operating a makeshift clinic where she provides dental care for the community. Adriana and I make the 10-kilometer ride from her parents´ house on my motorcycle. She´s never been on a motorcycle before. The last six kilometers are over a crushed-rock road. It´s a breeze. My bike loves that kind of thing.

While I waited for Adriana I gave English lessons to the two young people. Basic, but necessary stuff: alphabet, numbers, vocabulary, pronunciation. They have no basic English skills. There is no Internet in this community, there are few telephones, the only computers are at the school and the school is closed. Nevertheless, these Mexican kids, like Mexican kids I met everywhere I traveled, want to learn English.

Noticias carries daily stories about the Grand Problem. Oaxaca seems consumed with it. I was up in the pueblo of Ixtlan this morning. Teachers were organizing a protest and driving a caravan to Oaxaca, an hour away.

In central Oaxaca, the streets are crowded with burned-out hulks of cars and buses parked sideways across intersections. There were places where I had to ride my bike on the sidewalk. Graffiti is everywhere. Hardly a building in the city center is without graffiti; it is painted on the taxis, the buses. There are placards and signs on all of the buildings.

“There will be no peace until Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz resigns,” one protest organizer said at a rally in the city´s zocolo. They are calling Ulises Ruiz a Nazi and comparing him to Hitler.

Ruiz called on the federal government for help, but the crisis fell in the middle of Mexico´s highly-contested and hotly-debated presidential election. There was, for a time, a shutdown of Mexico´s government.

There has been no cessation of the struggle here in Oaxaca. Despite threats and intimidation, even after five months, passions run high.

“As long as we have breath, we will fight,” one of the teachers said.

Meanwhile, Ruiz has intensified his efforts to force a compromise. Recently the government shut off water supplies to 150 families of protestors in one neighborhood here in Oaxaca.

Catholic Cardinal Norberto River said, “Without classes, Oaxaca doesn´t have a future.” He insisted in a petition that students return to school. He said, “Classes are absolutely indespensible to Oaxaca´s future.”

Although the final tallies are not in from the rural areas, an election was held to decide if teachers will return to school. There is no evidence in Oaxaca´s city center that protestors have slackened their pace or their grip on the zócalo.

Protests and speeches go into the night and apparently will continue until the battle is won or lost.