Bloqueos, 2

June 20, 2016

Bloqueos, Part 2: The Effects


The traditional form of protest in Mexico —as it is in much of the world and is recurrent in history— is to march in the streets and to camp in front of government buildings. In Oaxaca, marching in the streets is expanded to blockading the access roads to the city, and there are lots and lots of government buildings.


As I’ve written before, the geography of Oaxaca’s central valleys makes exerting a strangle hold on the city relatively easy. The mountains on all sides are high and tangled: roads wind in, but few go through. While the valleys are broad, in several key places hills encroach and constrict them to create choke points. Four busses parked sideways across the national highways at the choke points means that no traffic enters the city from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (and Central America), or from Puerto Escondido (and the Pacific Coast), or from Tuxtepec (and the Gulf Coast), or from Mexico City and the industrial north. The control point that blocks the Pacific Coast road also conveniently blocks the entrance to Oaxaca’s airport, though usually the police have kept open the route from downtown to the airport. All the unions (students, taxis, moto-taxis, health-workers, you name it) sometimes will set up a blockade in a thematically appropriate part of the city in support of their position on some particular issue. On cell phones around here you can access 2 different “blockade apps” that will help you plan your route or plan your day.


Blockading, marching, or camping in front of a government building are all meant to combine a show of force with an imposition of inconvenience. All these public acts raise ‘request’ to the level of ‘demand.’ Traditionally these are couched as a demand to be listened to, a demand that decisions must be taken in consultation with those affected by them. Almost always the demand for consultation is really an ultimatum that things have to be done the way WE want, not the way YOU want. “Negotiate,” in this game, is code for “You capitulate.”


Mostly the protests demand change. In the CNTE fight, however, the demand is against change—or, more accurately, these specific changes— and pro the status quo. Some people believe that the subtext of the teachers’ union’s position seems to be that it prefers the status quo both because change is scary and because the current patterns of corruption and lack of accountability in Mexico’s education industry are making the union —or at least the Sección 22 of CNTE leadership— rich. The many threats boil down to one: until you capitulate to our demands, we will make you miserable, and we will hammer you in your purse, whether we hurt individuals or the general economic welfare of the state of Oaxaca.


Sección 22 has turned blockading into an art form. It’s methodology of obstruction is well on its way to becoming a generic verb: a tethered donkey that has stretched its rope across a dirt road to get to the better grass on the other side, thus impeding cart traffic, is “doing a Sección 22.” (I am tempted to draw a parallel with the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives, but that would be a cheap shot, so I won’t.)


Key choke points in other parts of the state of Oaxaca also facilitate the snarling of traffic. Sunday mornings’ news on line (Noticias, en línea) details the blockades at pinchpoints on every one of the state’s dozen or so major transportation routes. One of the related stories narrates the complaints of people stalled in lines of traffic for double-digits of hours, and sometimes entire days. “But my baby needs food.” “But my 96-year-old father is waiting for these medicines.” “But this truckload fish that I’m supposed to deliver to Abastos (the wholesale produce market) is spoiling. I’m telling you, it is going to stink!” Another related story reports that the blockaders are letting the “ordinary” populace through with only trivial delays, claiming that they are only impounding busses that could transport police and other ‘repressive forces’ and trucks of ‘transnational corporations’ (the news reports do not address the logic of this choice).


The chokepoint at the north end of Oaxaca City is the junction in the Etla Valley where the road down from Santa Cruz and San Pablo meets the Pan American Highway. It is just inside the exit from Mexico City toll road into the city of Oaxaca. Fortunately, most of us in Santa Cruz know some unpaved back routes that will let us get onto the main road to Oaxaca relatively untrammeled. Except that ... well, the main road from Santa Cruz and San Pablo to downtown Oaxaca is, for unrelated reasons and exquisitely bad timing, undergoing reconstruction. The normal 3 lanes on each side has narrowed to only one, condemning commuters to creep behind garbage trucks, underpowered Volkswagens, and colectivo taxis trolling for fares, and reducing our options for dodging the as yet unrepaired potholes in the remaining lane. Normally the drive to town from Santa Cruz takes from 20-30 minutes. Now it takes from 30 minutes to an hour and a half, depending. In the late afternoon, when it rains hard and the road temporarily floods, well . . . .


It’s a Nuisance, capital “N,” and for businesses that depend on free flowing transportation, a crippling impairment. The tent city that has completely choked the Zócalo and the three streets closest to the Zócalo, is an even bigger problem. “Completely choked” means flap to flap, with guywires stretched form every tree and lamppost. The spider web of interwoven tent lines is hung at just above hat level for most native Oaxacans and at chin level for most foreign residents, which forces them to duckwalk or risk losing their hats, ears, or glasses.


The streets near the Zócalo are impassible to cars. The half-dozen parking garages near the Zócalo and the Cathedral Plaza have been forced out of business. Pedestrians can choose to zigzag through the narrow lanes that have been left between the tents, but it takes every ounce of attention, so no one even looks at the store window displays somewhere over there beyond the rippling nylon walls of the encampment. We’re in the second month of now of this plantón, what the people Wall Street protestors called an ‘occupying,’ and garbage collection hasn’t been all that regular. A stroll through the center of town is not pleasant. Proprietors of the stores on the streets near the Zócalo are reporting up to a 90% drop in sales. They’ve had to lay off staff. Some 30 of them have had to close temporarily. At least they hope it is only temporarily. Soup kitchens and predator lenders have set up booths in the Zócalo in the few small spaces between the tents.


The economic hit affects more than just the stores in those few streets. The Historic Center of Oaxaca lives on tourism. Hotel occupancy is down. Way down. The restaurants in the center, those still maintaining a skeleton staff, are nearly empty. The National Chamber of Restaurant and Food Workers reported that losses to date in that sector in the Historic Center have been 24 million pesos. The Guelaguetza festival, the month-long folk music and dance extravaganza that showcases the State of Oaxaca’s dozens of ethnic communities, their costumes and artisonry and cuisine, is in July. Normally it is hard to make airplane reservations to Oaxaca in July. Normally there isn’t a hotel room to be had. This year . . . ?


And the long-term economic hit is even bigger than that. Oaxaca doesn’t have heavy industry: there isn’t enough water to support it. That’s not going to change. But climate is the least of Oaxaca’s problems. Oaxaca doesn’t have much light industry because the multinationals looking to site their new assembly plants prefer other parts of Mexico that offer less likelihood of hassle. Neither does Oaxaca have much high-tech industry, because at least in recent years the schools haven’t been open often enough to train the people who would be its employees. Rumor has it that the basic literacy and numeracy skills of the recent crop of Oaxacan graduates are so low that that staff recruitment companies in Mexico City hang signs that say “Oaxacans need not apply.”


And the blockades and school closings affect not just the state capital. Sunday morning’s Noticias carried a report on conditions in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, that forms our southern border with Chiapas. Because of the blockades, it says, trucks haven’t been able to replenish gasoline supplies. The lines at those gasolineras still functioning stretch for blocks. Banks have run out of cash. ATM machines have been shut off. Waiting rooms at the intra-city bus station are empty because the busses have stopped running. Taxis, too. Truck drivers, afraid of their cargos being stymied or, worse, sacked, have gone idle. While state and federal police have tried to dissolve a few of the 12 blockades on highways in the Isthmus, they have been met with barricades, piles of burning tires, and in a couple of places with sticks, stones, machetes and Molotov cocktails. Authorities removed the barricades in Tequisistlán and Jalapa del Marqués, but when the police left, the barricades went back up. The feeder college for the state university, UABJO (the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca), has shut down.

In some places local townspeople and parents of students have joined the protests on the side of the teachers. As a comment to an article in Monday morning’s Noticias put it, “The Government mostly does nothing; when it does something, it is corrupt. The government is the enemy of the people, and the teachers are the only ones with the balls to stand up to it.” In Nochixtlán, more than a thousand citizens helped block the highways. But in other areas, people have counterprotested against the teachers. In one village, out in the Mixteca, people complained to regional authorities about being fined 650 pesos by the village administration if they did not take part in the protest marches. They were told that would be 500 pesos for the teachers’ union, and 150 for the Town Hall, presumably for administrative purposes. But the complaintants said they were not certain that the people who came to collect from them were from the city administration or whether the extortion was by a third party.


Wednesday afternoon, in separate actions, two Catholic priests went out to the barricades to say mass for the protestors and endorse the blockades. In Oaxaca city, the bishop lamented events and tried to sketch a middle ground, sympathizing with the strikers’ legitimate concerns but descrying their methods of obstruction that are leaving poor families without resources even to buy food. The takeaway: “Peace can only be achieved when it is the fruit of justice and brotherly love.” Well, yes, of course. But . . . .


Calls —in the streets, in newspaper editorials—for the government(s) to act, to use whatever force is necessary to dismantle the blockades and send the occupiers home, seem to be increasing. But perhaps an equal number of people are calling for restraint, reminding everyone that repression (even justified?) creates martyrs, that while few will applaud arrests for criminal acts, those same acts, when labeled political, are likely to have a shelf-life of decades. 


It is, as Yul Brynner once famously remarked, “it’s a puzzlement.”


At yet, here on the porch as the clouds gather in the late afternoon, with a few rays of sun spotlighting the pyramids across the valley on Monte Albán and Atzompa, a distant rumble of thunder announcing what we hope will be today’s hour or two of rain, and one lone helicopter dragonflying its way south toward Fortín, Santa Cruz Etla seems like a bubble of tranquility. And we feel, with the exception of some personal health issues and the inconveniences wrought by the feuding over education reform, happy and contented. People in these valleys have been feuding over these and similar issues with these very same methods for generations, and the place still has an aura of enchantment, and excitement, and a heart of mostly gold.


And perhaps Oaxaca will escape the curse of the wonderful one-horse shay ...