Bloqueos in Oaxaca

31 August 2017

I learned a new word this morning: manifestódromo. A rough translation would be “center of chaos-provoking public protest actions.”

This morning’s newspaper, Noticias, Oaxaca’s most popular and the one that I read online every morning and buy in “hard copy” once a week (to line the cat litter tray) proclaimed that Oaxaca is Mexico’s major manifestódromo. Cautioning that the data is still preliminary, and citing only “the sources that we have consulted,” the newspaper’s tally of 2,890 disruptive actions for the first seven months of this year in the State of Oaxaca included:

478 occupations of public buildings

475 blockades of highways

210 marches

241 blockades of city streets

137 occupations of city government offices

123 occupations of highway toll booths (with tolls, presumably, going into the pockets of the occupiers)

107 seizures of vehicles that are used to block roads (trucks and buses, mostly)

Many hundreds of miscellaneous seizures, acts of destructions, temporary seizures of public officials, etc.


2,890 disruptive actions. Statewide that is 3-5 blockades, 2-4 occupations, and 3 other disruptive acts per day!


For folks like us it is mostly just a nuisance. Disrupts the day’s activities. Makes planning difficult (we keep our calendar in pencil). And it doesn’t overweigh the numerous joys of living in Oaxaca —the beauty, the cultural diversity, the fabulous cuisine, the art scene, the awesome archaeological sites, the rich fauna and flora, the rich community of friends and colleagues— but it is frustrating. For the state as a whole, it is a disaster. Small businesses struggle, and frequently go belly up. Larger businesses move out of the city and out of the state, not in. While much of Mexico has developed a potent industrial base —Mexico City, the whole Bajío from Querétaro to Guadalajara, Puebla, Monterrey and Saltillo, to name a few places — why would a major industry want to establish a plant in Oaxaca?


In the absence of any apparent significant government action to even try to mitigate the problem, disruptive protest seems to increase weekly. In my naiveté (and my limited experience as dean and provost working with employees, clients, and unions in the rarified atmosphere of quasi-rational research universities) I believe that there are ways to balance the principles of free speech and the right to protest, the obligation of government to be responsive, and the public’s right to freedom of movement and to make a living. One could designate a large venue or two as places for protest (the new soccer stadium comes to mind – and it will hold 20,000 or so). Then prohibit and enforce the prohibition of blocking public thoroughfares and centers of commerce. When a group has a petition or wants to protest some government action, have government officials show up, listen, and in a reasonable time show up again to respond. If the government, with its competing interests and finite budgets, can’t agree to all the requests (always couched as demands), explain why and lay out ways in which the parties can collaborate in accomplishing at least some of what is requested. Stress that democracies provide conduits (i.e., elections) for redress of wrongs and disaffection with the government’s priorities and actions. Like I said, naiveté.


And in the meantime, we cope. 


I took our young cousin Jasper down to the coast for a few days while Linda was in the States for her monthly clinical trial monitoring. 250 kilometers, a 6-hour drive, over the whole breadth of the Sierra Madre Occidental, with altitudes from 0 at sea level to 2600 meters at the highest point. Rained nearly the whole time, probably an edge effect of Harvey. Still, two extended periods of sun and breeze allowed us to cavort on the sand and in the breakers, and to tour the endangered turtle breeding facility and a coastal lagoon. On our return trip, the sky cleared again when we reached the SW edge of the city. It should have taken us a half hour to get from there to Jasper’s host family in San Felipe del Agua, but the blockades on Niños Héroes, one of the city’s major east-west arteries, jammed us and forced us to corkscrew through the cobbled alleys of the Jalatlaco neighborhood until we found an un-picketed crossing point. Took us an hour and a half. The protesting groups occupying crossroads in various parts of the city: the teachers union, the moto-taxis union, the transportation workers union, and two squabbling villages that have blocked all access to the Central Valleys’ regional sanitary (allegedly) landfill facility.


After leaving Jasper I had to get back to the Etla Valley, on the other side of the mountain from San Felipe del Agua. All the efficient routes involve an end run around the mountain, but that required crossing or driving on Niños Héroes. I tried to get to the Fortín Loop, but commandeered busses blocked the entrances to all the intersections. It took me another half hour to extricate myself from the traffic jam. So I decided to go over the mountain, that is, if I could find a way to climb the nearly 350 meters (1,000 feet) over the semi-paved and dirt roads that zigzag through the scruffy, less affluent houses that cling to the steep slopes. Which, by asking people at every choice point, and with the help of a taxi or two, I managed in a little over an hour. Met some nice people. Interesting architecture. Beautiful views. A little park shaded with huge laurel trees. A market that might be fun to visit on a sunny day. Got home at nightfall just as the skies opened up again.


Next morning I left early to go pick up Linda at the airport. Not a bloqueo to be seen.


Life in pencil in Oaxaca. What frustration! What a privilege and a delight!




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