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?"


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