13 November 2006

Labour unrest casts shadow over popular vacation mecca

Policia de Oaxaca

This piece was published in Sunday's Calgary Herald. It focuses on the strife in Oaxaca, but also the political implications of the unrest as it coincides with Fox's departure from Los Pinos (the president's residence.)

Labour unrest casts shadow over popular vacation mecca


Potential Oaxaca visitors frequently query ecotourism promoter Ron Mader about the situation in his strifetorn Mexican state, where over a six-month period a teachers' strike has descended into open revolt against the state government. He often demurs, though, before suggesting people read the message boards at his popular website, Planeta.com, after which, travellers can make an informed decision about going to a part of Mexico the Canadian government recently admonished its citizens to avoid.

But when asked about the impact of the dispute, which has scared off tourists and generated negative international headlines, he responded, "You've taken a poor Mexican state and made it 90 per cent poorer."

Given the backdrop of conflict in Oaxaca, drug gang-related beheadings in Michoacan and a bitter presidential election, which was never conceded by the runner up, reports of a bombing last Monday at a Scotiabank Inverlat outlet in Mexico City — along with explosions outside the nation's election tribunal and the headquarters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — seemed disturbingly routine.

Over the past six months, the news streaming out of parts of the Republic has at times been decidedly grim — if not absurd.

And it all comes with less than three weeks remaining in President Vicente Fox's term in office. He'll leave Los Pinos (the president's residence) having achieved little, spare unseating the long-ruling PRI after 71 years in power — no small feat — and improving the country's macroeconomic climate. (Interest rates and inflation have both dipped to seldom-seen low levels.)

Perhaps most disappointing, much of the old Mexico his gobierno de cambio (government of change) was supposed to supplant stubbornly endures.

Unwelcome brushes with the country's corporatist and authoritarian past also keep resurfacing, reminding an increasingly-jaded population of the failures of the Coca-Cola executive-turned-president — not to mention nearly six years of dashed expectations.

But the ongoing conflict in Oaxaca state, which the Mexico City bombers cited as their motivation for action, will most likely go unresolved until Fox leaves office and it becomes the responsibility of president elect Felipe Calderon. Depending on how the two men manage the Oaxaca situation, the conflict could spread, plunging Mexico into even deeper turmoil. Its outcome could ultimately determine Fox's legacy.

For some observers, Oaxaca — and much of the recent upheaval in Mexico — is the symptom of two of the president's biggest shortcomings: an inability to broker deals and an unwillingness to get tough when needed — perhaps due to fears of inadvertently emulating the often inglorious suppressions carried out during the PRI years.

"He's never understood that in order to rule a country as difficult as Mexico you have to use the police once in a while," said Sergio Sarmiento, a columnist with Grupo Reforma, who cited a long list of inaction dating back to 2002, when machete wielding farmers thwarted plans for a new Mexico City airport. "He often simply gives in to the demands of people who use or threaten to use violence." The Oaxaca situation started off rather quietly though after the teachers walked off the job — an annual occurrence in the culturally rich, but impoverished southern state. According to Sarmiento, "The teachers' union in Oaxaca has struck every year for 26 years." (They all have drawn paycheques while off the job.)

This time around, the teachers demanded not only better pay, but wage parity with their counterparts in wealthier parts of Mexico — something that was eventually achieved. (Teachers in Oaxaca may earn less than teachers in other states, but according to Sarmiento they receive Christmas bonuses worth approximately 90-days' pay.)

After negotiations bogged down in June and a botched attempt at dislodging the strikers from protest sites in the state capital of Oaxaca de Juarez was made, the labour dispute turned violent as the striking teachers were joined by farmers, students and leftists protesting under the name: the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO). A call for the governor's head was issued shortly thereafter.

After abiding months of protests, Fox finally ordered in the federal police after a U.S. journalist was shot to death in late October. The journalist's colleagues alleged gunmen loyal to the governor pulled the trigger. The PRI denied any culpability, but promised to protect any party member accused of the murder and keep PRI Governor Ulises Ruiz in power.

Ruiz, a polemic figure with a sordid reputation for corruption and thuggery, obtained power after a scandalous 2004 election. His state chapter of the PRI has always governed Oaxaca. Diego Petersen Farah, director general of the Publico newspaper in Guadalajara, wrote last week, "Ulises Ruiz is a troglodyte and the Oaxaca PRI is more a criminal organization than a political party.

"Keeping Ruiz in office will be costly for Oaxaca, costly for the country and a tragedy for the PRI."

But removing Ruiz would trigger political consequences that could jeopardize the president-elect, who disgruntled presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez

Obrador vowed would never take office. Thus, despite decades of ill-will, a sort of mutual blackmail has started flowing between the federal PRI, which was embarrassed in the federal election and won't let one of its governors fall, and Fox's National Action Party (PAN), which barely held on to the presidency.

"The reason Ruiz hasn't fallen is because the PAN has decided not to antagonize the PRI. They have no choice," Sarmiento said.

"Either (PAN) makes agreements with the PRI or they forget about ruling the country for the next six years."

For months, the Oaxaca conflict was overshadowed by the country's close election race and the subsequent post-election fallout. After narrowly losing the July 2 election by less than one percentage point, Lopez Obrador of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) screamed "fraud," began floating wild conspiracy theories — like subliminal messages being placed in pre-election ads — and assailed the country's electoral institute. He caustically commented after losing an appeal, "To hell with Mexico's institutions."

Lopez Obrador eventually launched a massive six-week shutdown of central Mexico City and had himself declared the "legitimate president of Mexico." The PRD congressional delegation has already prevented Fox from delivering the annual "informe" (state of the nation address) and according to Sergio Sarmiento, the PRD won't play ball with Felipe Calderon.

Despite being weakened — the PRD just lost a governor's race in Lopez Obrador's home state — the former Mexico City mayor recently backed the APPO protests and officially assumes the "legitimate president" title on Nov. 20 in a ceremony Fred Rosen, a columnist with The Herald Mexico, dubbed, "Pure theatre." "It's not serious politics anymore." And while targeting the PRI and elector tribunal held some logic — five leftist guerrilla groups wanting Ulises Ruiz ousted claimed responsibility — why they would target Scotiabank Inverlat remains a mystery. (Mexican banks are generally reviled after a clumsy nationalization in 1982 and a later bailout after a crony-driven privatization in the 1990s went awry — something Lopez Obrador railed against during his campaign.) Away from the political theatrics of Mexico City and conflict in Oaxaca, additional unrest is also brewing. A rash of drug-related beheadings and gangland killings in Acapulco, Michoacan and Baja California has continued unabated for months.

Even pipe-smoking bandit subcomandante Marcos reappeared recently after the EZLN established roadblocks in parts of Chiapas state in order to support APPO.

Fox once infamously promised to resolve the EZLN crisis in Chiapas state in 15 minutes. It never happened. Oaxaca might go the same way for the president, giving Fox the dubious privilege of starting and ending his regime with a crisis in Southern Mexico.

University of Guadalajara political scientist Javier Hurtado predicted the Oaxaca conflict would be resolved in the first week of December after Felipe Calderon takes office and some of the mutual blackmailing ends.

"The problem is what's going to happen from now until Dec. 1," he said.

"How many more people are going to die?"


That giant sucking sound gets louder

A decade after railing against NAFTA and infamously speaking of a "giant sucking sound" - jobs being pulled south to Mexico - the company founded by former presidential candidate Ross Perot bolted for Guadalajara, where, according to the company, Perot Systems Corporation will employ 270 engineers.

It's an obvious win for Guadalajara, dubbed the Silicone Valley of Mexico - and referred to as such far too often by the foreign press. The local technology sector slumped badly earlier in the decade as foreign competitors put the boots to Guadalajara - and much of Mexico for that matter. But things are bouncing back; HP, IBM, Flextronics and Solectron all have significant operations in the area. A friend in the industry said many companies find it more convenient to have operations closer to the U.S. - something that compensated for the lack of cost advantages in Asia. Competitiveness is an issue though as tax incentives make keeping an inventory of supplies costly and there's not a 24-hour port of entry at the Guadalajara airport.

Lower wages in Mexico was cited as a reason for the Guadalajara expansion. Many university-educated Mexicans speak English, but there's also a glut of professionals, which, in part, drives down wages.

In an interesting twist, Perot will rent space in the local World Trade Center, which has been sparsely occupied since its completion. Despite the abundance of space, new offices keep being constructed and rents stay stubbornly high.

12 November 2006

Should travellers avoid Mexico? Depends on who you ask

David Agren
Calgary Herald
Friday, November 10, 2006

November 10, 2006 - With newspapers splashing headlines from Mexico about bombs, beheadings and barricades, many travellers might think twice before jetting south. And yes, avoiding Oaxaca state, scene of a teachers' strike gone awry, might be advisable--the Canadian government says it is. People in the area, though, say going to Oaxcaca at this time isn't an entirely foolish proposition either.

Oaxaca-based ecotourism promoter Ron Mader advises, "As long as you're not a tourist pretending to be a journalist, taking photos of gunfights, I think you're going to be pretty safe."

He recommends reading the discussion boards on his website Planeta.com, where potential travelers can pose questions for knowledgeable locals. Mader also points out that for people experienced in Mexico travel (read: people who actually put down their margaritas and leave their all-inclusive resorts), the uproar in his state wouldn't be a large deterrent.

"The people that are here in Oaxaca and are traveling to Oaxaca ...are people who love Mexico and love Oaxaca and aren't going to cancel their plans."

With last Monday's bomb blast at a Scotiabank outlet in Mexico City, the Canadian government once again emphasized its running advisory, which admonishes citizens to take precautions when visiting the capital.

All of it is sensible advice, yet I've disregarded much of it on my five trips to Mexico City this year. Although sketchy in parts and horribly polluted, it's an endlessly fascinating place and the site of everything imaginable--good and bad.

The reality is that with the exception of Oaxaca, rural zones populated by dope growers, some of the northern border cities like Nuevo Laredo and certain Mexico City neighbourhoods at night, the country is generally safe--not to mention quiet.

Canadian-educated columnist Sergio Sarmiento quite accurately points out that most of the country is perfectly safe.

However, he cautions that "it's riskier to be here (in Mexico City) than in Toronto or Calgary.
"Mexico City's not much riskier than it was a year ago and Cancun is not riskier either, [but] Oaxaca, it's not a tourist paradise right now."

Having traveled from Tijuana--a place with an undeserved bad reputation--to Veracruz over the past year, I've yet to encounter trouble beyond a few dishonest cab drivers and contaminated taco dinners.

I regularly flag down green Volkswagen taxis in Mexico City--despite warnings not to--eat street tacos and ride the chicken bus to some of the country's less glamorous pueblos.

Perhaps, I've just been lucky.

08 November 2006

Congress clips president's wings

President Vicente Fox leaves office with a whimper in less than three weeks and now, perhaps in a final act of spite - or pettiness - Congress denied him permission to travel to Australia and Vietnam. (Fox has a daughter living in Australia. The APEC summit goes later this month in Vietnam.) In Mexico, the Congress and Senate must approve all presidential trips - a mere formality in the old days of PRI rule.

"I regret that lawmakers from the PRI refuse to listen to the voice of the people and aren't capable of acting responsibly to resolve local conflicts," he said, jabbing the PRI over the party's ongoing support for embattled Oaxaca governor Ulises Ruiz, whose resignation would surely help resolve the conflict in the southern state.

With Oaxaca smouldering and last Monday's bombs in Mexico City, an argument could be made that Fox should stay put, although, quite frankly, he's accomplishing little and seems to be just biding his time until Felipe Calderon takes power on Dec. 1. Going abroad wouldn't really change much.

The element of pettiness, though, is tough to ignore. Fox has bickered with Congress repeatedly. Legislators previously deep sixed plans to visit Canada and the United States back in 2002.

06 November 2006

Oft Underestimated Calderon Could Accomplish What Fox Couldn't

Felipe Calderon isn't really the most inspiring figure, but the man shows good political instincts. He also seems to think before speaking - unlike President Vicente Fox. He might actually accomplish a few things in his sexenio - like work constructively with congress. I penned an article on the man and his ascent to power for World Politics Watch. Check it out here.

05 November 2006

U.S. election stirs passions among ex-pats in Ajijic


Photo by Steven H. Miller

El Universal
Domingo 05 de noviembre de 2006

AJIJIC, Jal. - Wanting to cast a vote in the upcoming U.S. midterm races, St. Paul, Minnesota, native Mary Jo Oberg dropped in at a voter-registration drive being held at the Lake Chapala Society (LCS) in Ajijic to fill out an absentee ballot request just three weeks before election day.
She had requested a ballot previously, but it failed to arrive at her La Manzanilla, Jalisco, home in a timely fashion. While filling out the forms in the lush LCS garden, she described the cumbersome process as "not complicated," but "very legal."

Although the voting-abroad process generated a seemingly endless stream of complaints in Ajijic, passions flared when talk turned to the parties on the ballots - more specifically: the direction the United States is heading, the war in Iraq and the U.S. president.

"I´m very interested in the election because I´d like to see some changes in the policies coming out of the U.S.," Oberg said.


Like the 2004 contest, which produced a charged atmosphere in the Lake Chapala area (Lakeside), the 2006 election is also generating immense interest, even though it´s a mid-term election and the campaigning has been less intense.

Last time around, George P. Bush, the U.S. president´s nephew, and Diana Kerry, the sister of Democratic candidate John Kerry, stumped for expatriate votes in Mexico. U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza drew criticism after delivering a speech in Lakeside that many Chapala-area Democrats considered partisan. Friendships reportedly dissolved over political differences.


This time around, opinions are split once again - not so much along partisan lines, but instead about U.S. President George W. Bush and the war in Iraq.

"It´s easier to identify the pro-Bush and anti-Bush people," said Clifford Rogers, an independent voter, who resides in Ajijic.

"And the two groups aren´t speaking."

New York state native Phil Pillsworth took that description a step further, saying, "I think you could say it´s war versus anti-war."

Pillsworth, who along with his wife Mary were previously Peace Corps volunteers in Brazil, figured left-leaning voters outnumbered their conservative counterparts in Lakeside.

"There´s a certain kind of person that would live abroad and they tend to be liberal," he explained.

His assessment was echoed by Debra Lattanzi Shutika, an English professor and ethnographer at George Mason University in Virginia, who studies migration between the United States and Mexico.

"In general, the (expatriates) I encounter tend to be more liberal than conservative," she commented, referring to the migration trend for all of Mexico and not specifically Lakeside.


Norm Pifer, chair of Republicans Abroad at Lake Chapala objected to portrayals of conservatives as non-travelers. Supporters of his party, he said, generally keep their political views and affiliations to themselves. After his chapter was founded in 2004, Pifer recalled, "A lot of people discovered they weren´t the only Republicans at Lakeside."

Both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad are well represented at Lakeside. Gauging which party draws more support is difficult to ascertain.

"It´s a real mixed bag," Pifer said, adding that local Democrats tend to be more "vocal" and have been organized for longer. "It´s a small fringe group making all the noise."

An Ajijic resident since 2003, he figured most long-time denizens tilt toward the Democrats or, "Whatever party extends Medicare benefits," while the more recent arrivals have diverse political views.

Even with Republicans arriving in larger numbers than before, fortunes for the party at Lakeside, like those for their counterparts north of the border, may be sagging in the short term - something Pifer acknowledged.

"A lot of people, including Republicans, are leaning away from the Republican Party."

Local Democrats, on the other hand, were decidedly upbeat about their prospects. When asked how things were going, Kathie Coull, chair of the Democrats Abroad at Lake Chapala, responded, "Fantastic."

"I´ve gotten beyond excited to just plain giddy."


To facilitate voting, Democrats Abroad organized a voter registration drive open to all U.S. citizens in the months leading up to the election. Many people, though, waited until the last minute to request ballots - and wound up disappointed.

"We bend over backwards to do whatever we can," said Madelyn Fisher of Democrats Abroad, who helped organize voter registration in Ajijic.

"But there´s only so much we can do."

The ease of voting seemingly depends on the state - or in some cases, the county - involved. Some jurisdictions stopped accepting ballot requests almost a month before voting.

"It´s a very messy and confusing process," said Luis Miranda, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, which established a web site that simplified voting for expatriates.

"You have to walk people through it."

Miranda added that his party was actively courting expatriate voters. "We can´t take a single thing for granted," he said.


Despite the presence of approximately 1 million U.S. citizens in Mexico (by some estimates), the Chapala chapters of Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad both seemingly arouse little attention within their parent organizations. Local Democrats tried to lure the 2007 Democrats Abroad conference to Lakeside, but lost out to Heidelberg, Germany.

"There are more Democrats Abroad in Europe and they´re working," Kathie Coull explained, adding that unlike most Lakeside Democrats, "They´re not retirees."

Fundraising and membership events are also low key, usually consisting of speeches by local speakers or, in the case of the Democrats, documentary screenings, which, according to Norm Pifer, have included offerings from Michael Moore.

"They recycle that film so many times," he commented.

He said Republican functions at Lakeside "default to the social because we simply can´t afford US$25,000 to bring a speaker down here."

But even with both parties diligently organizing their adherents - Pifer defined his organization´s mandate as "getting Republicans to vote" and not to "change minds" - he said some expatriates simply tune out and stop following U.S. affairs after spending so much time abroad.

"A lot of people here leave the U.S. back at the border."

01 November 2006

Lopez Obrador reappears

Fresh off a stinging defeat in his native Tabasco, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador surfaced in Mexico City yesterday, lending support to an APPO demonstration in Mexico City. (Lopez Obrador will be pronounced, "Legitimate President," of Mexico on Nov. 20.) APPO minimized his role, though. The Herald Mexico reports that Lopez Obrador offered to help lead a march to Los Pinos (the president's residence), but was turned down.

Lopez Obrador, could, according to University of Guadalajara political scientist Javier Hurtado, take advantage of the Oaxaca unrest, using it to delegitimize the incoming regime of Felipe Calderon.

"It's unfortunate that Lopez Obrador is getting involved," he said, adding that with Lopez Obrador on the scene, "The conflict isn't going to be resolved."

The PRD has already called for Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz to resign - like the teachers' union and APPO - and its congressional delegation won't be a party to the mutual "blackmail" being carried out by the PRI and PAN. (The PRD won Oaxaca in the presidential race along with the state's two directly-elected senate seats.)

The politics underpinning the entire Oaxaca situation are downright unseemly. The congress and senate recently passed resolutions urging Ruiz to resign. But will the PRI actually force him out? That's highly doubtful. The PRI has an inglorious track record of closing ranks around losers and all sorts of oily characters - most notably: Failed presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo and Puebla Governor Mario Marin, who tried to railroad journalist Lydia Cacho last fall.

The PAN might not want to act too quickly either. As Hurtado pointed out: "If Ulises Ruiz leaves office, Felipe Calderon won't come to power," adding that an environment of ungovernability worked in Lopez Obrador's favor.

Publico columnist Joaquin Lopez-Doriga V. followed a similar theme in today's paper, writing, "Lopez Obrador isn't organizing this conflict. No, he's taking advantage and putting himself in charge.

"The opportunity is presenting itself for becoming president from the street through the advent of ungovernability."

As for Ruiz, he pledged to continue, even though he's by all accounts unable to govern and is thus often out of the state.