Lessons from Oaxaca

During most of the month of June, my brother and I traveled together throughout Central and Southern Mexico.  It was a memorable trip, both because of the great people, things, and places that we saw and also owing to the tragedy of certain injustices that took place while we were there.  In particular, the teacher’s strike of Oaxaca province stays on my mind.  The strike has been in effect almost two months now, and has survived at least one large-scale confrontation with the state security forces, which was unprovoked and took the lives of several people, at least one of them a child

We weren’t there for the attack itself.  However, we did witness the aftermath in the wake of the attack, the repeated and total denial of any sort of confrontation with the striking teachers by the governor of Oaxaca province, and the complicity of the Mexican channel TV Azteca in deliberately ignoring the conflict and towing the governor’s line before the entire nation.

Some readers probably think that whatever happened in Oaxaca, Mexico (besides Nacho Libre) is more or less irrelevant to them.  It is true that it’s just one of many examples of conflict in the world, and definitely not on the scale of a Sudan or an Iraq.  It is possible that if I myself had only read about the strike in the New York Times online (as I later did), I would have read it over once and then forgotten about it, barring later coverage.

I guess it is just different when you see something like this happen in person.  I have always believed that it is important to bear witness to injustice, but on that day, I did not envy Oaxacans, tourists, or anyone else for having been present when the 4 a.m. assault took place, and I did not envy those who by staying in town were facing the very likely possibility of dealing with a later, potentially lethal attack by the state security forces.

One look around the city center gave us an idea of the scale and devastation of the conflict.  We arrived several hours after the battle to find the entire city locked up and closed.  The places not protected by metal doors and gates had been severely damaged: sidewalks were smashed, streetlamps knocked down, windows broken.  The whole city appeared to be visibly traumatized.  The looks on people’s faces, the body language, the tenseness in the air — one could tell that the attack had opened the door to a new, scary reality for everyone to consider.  It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before.  It felt as if at any moment, something terrible could happen to the city and to us.

Today, almost a month after we left Oaxaca, I am enjoying the breeze in my backyard, thinking about what has or hasn’t happened since that day.  It worries me that the situation could be getting worse and there would be no way for the average person to know about it.  The way that it was totally ignored by the mainstream media in Mexico and minimally covered in the States makes it hard for someone who was not an eyewitness to contradict Governor Ruiz Ortiz’s lie: “No hubo ningún enfrentamiento” (there was no confrontation).

Now that I have with my own eyes seen a small piece of how such a comparatively small conflict (as opposed to Haiti, Columbia, the Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere) can affect people’s lives, I take stock of the tragedy brought about by the confrontation on June 14th in Oaxaca.  At least three people were killed, at least one of them a child.  A little more than 50 were injured.  The town was damaged, and many people lost their trust in the government that was supposed to represent and protect them.  As of July 11, 2006, it has been 28 days since the first act of violence took place.  So no, this is definitely not an Iraq.

What Iraq is, as far as we know, is as follows: more than 38,960 documented civilian killings have occurred since the invasion (*).  A Lancet medical journal study, based on the same methodology as what the UK and US accepts for estimating deaths in countries where they are not directly involved in military conflict (**), estimates at least 100,000 invasion/occupation-related Iraqi deaths (the “vast majority” civilians) total since the invasion. 

It has been 1208 days since the US/UK invasion of Iraq.  Since there is no running tally of injured civilians stemming from the inception of the invasion that I know of, I will not venture a guess of my own.  Nor is it possible to compare occupation-related occurrences of gang-rape, torture, extradition to other countries for torture, summary execution, wrongful imprisonment, restriction and/or elimination of access to medical and civil services such as drinking water and electricity, and other crimes, as I am not aware of their occurrence in Oaxaca.

The unrest in Oaxaca since the attack would need to run 45 times as long as it already has in order to endure as long as Iraqi conflict since the invasion.  In terms of documented civilian deaths, Oaxaca is 7.7e-5 of Iraq; in terms of estimated total deaths, it suffered a low-estimate death toll 3/100,000ths the size of Iraq’s.  It would take 12,987 equivalents of the June 14th battles to catch up to the documented civilian death toll of the Iraqi invasion and occupation, and 33,334 of them to equalize fatalities with the conservative estimate of the total death toll of Iraqi citizens; in short, Oaxaca is nothing compared to Iraq.

Still, it is very sobering to know what it means to understand the consequences of a struggle which is a fraction of the size of violence elsewhere, analogous, for example, to 3/100,000ths of the current war with Iraq.  One realizes how ugly, how crazy and terrifying armed conflicts are, and how fortunate it is for one not to be forced to live through them in daily life.  On a personal level, it not only reminds me of Iraq but also of the unresolved and dangerously unstable situation with Iran.  It makes me want US soldiers to come home even more than I did before, and leave Iraq to the Iraqis.  It makes me fear even more for the safety of my family and countrymen in Iran.

Though overlooked by most media, Oaxaca is in fact relevant to all of us, in that it allows us to glimpse, if even for an instant, something akin to the everyday horror that Iraqis experience, something that if you multiplied a thousand times over, over one thousand days, you might begin to understand as roughly similar to the environment that most Iraqis live in.  Oaxaca gives us the opportunity to imagine exactly what some of us are willing to put our friends and family through by supporting military intervention in Iran– at least a fraction of it anyway.

(*) Number of civilian deaths according to www.iraqbodycount.net

(**) From http://www.unknownnews.net/casualties.html#methodology

The city center of Oaxaca, or zócalo, is a beautiful example of Spanish colonial architecture blended with indigenous aesthetic touches, especially the old churches.  Normally, the city center is closed to automotive traffic and pedestrian-friendly, except today the streets are covered by hundreds and hundreds of tarps, under which many more people are talking, listening, napping, and drawing.  We come upon a group of adults drawing a picture of a man with devil’s horns, fangs, and a forked tongue: the governor of Oaxaca province, answers a bystander.  The government is proposing to take funds away from already financially struggling schools for the purpose of privatization, and it seems that every teacher in the province has arrived and camped out to demonstrate their difference of opinion regarding what to do about Oaxaca’s educational woes.  We have come to Oaxaca in the midst of a teacher’s huelga, or strike.

We pass out in the afternoon and awake to fiery speeches, and after midnight we hear live music and the din of the receptive crowd before they head to bed in their tents and under their tarps.  They have been living in the city center, many with their families, for the last three weeks.

This strike is by far the longest and most aggressive that I have ever seen with my own eyes.  The governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (or URO, as he is often called here), is vilified in placards and posters across town as a fascist, and many want him out of Oaxaca.  The artwork depicting Ruiz Ortiz and President Fox varies from bitingly humorous to downright hostile; you get the idea that many people are prepared to do more than simply strike if things don’t change soon.  You see it in the pictures showing Ruiz Ortiz in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle, getting the shit squeezed out of his bowels, or being beheaded.  This strike is also as much about corruption as it is about educational policy: the people whom we have spoken with all note that educational funding, whatever its amount, rarely reaches its destinations here.

We have just arrived from the coast of Oaxaca province; it is around two in the afternoon.  From the moment we set foot from the bus station, Oaxaca, now eerily quiet and suffocating with thick, hot and dirty air, seems an alien city, unlike anything we saw and experienced in the first few days we spent there.  The number of people around the normally packed market stalls by the bus station has been reduced drastically, and as we approach the city center, almost every business is locked up with metal gates and doors.  The only activity, it seems, consists of various people loading poles, tarps, and other equipment onto buses and trucks.  There is a smell in the air of burnt plastic, and as we come closer, we find smoke winding through the air in several parts of the city, along with… barricades?  Buses sprayed with anti-URO slogans, as well as toppled portable bathrooms, pickup trucks, and piles of burning garbage are everywhere, blocking off street intersections, behind which teacher and citizens mill.

Near one of the buses, we see a mass of men and some women, carrying everything from metal poles to machetes.  Some wear red bandanas across the lower half of their faces.  At the right rear tire of the bus, we see a handful of glass soda bottles filled with sand and liquid, their necks stuffed with rags.  We see an old man standing at the corner, a metal pole on his hand and a distant look on his face, and ask him what happened.

At four in the morning, the state security forces came in and forced out the teachers from the city center.  They dismantled everything, threw out the teachers… they burnt the tents and shot (tear) gas.

[He goes on to say how it was an attack on the city itself, in that many civilians not involved with the strike were injured and the historic city center was severely damaged].

Was there violence?

There was violence.  Adults and children were killed.

Now there are teachers coming from different states to reinforce the teachers here.

Were there negotiations with the teachers?

There were no negotiations before the attack.

[We asked him if there had been negotiations at all, to which he responded yes, in the weeks leading up to the attack there had been negotiations with the state]

When there were negotiations, what were the teachers demanding?

[Resolidificación of Group 2 and Group 3, no idea what he was referring to]… an increase in salary, more funds for the construction of schools and repair and improvement of existing schools… the teachers were in negotiation with the government with respect to these issues, but the government simply stopped negotiating.  Not only that, but they also tried to push privatization.

Is there anything that you want the world or the mainstream press to know about what has happened here?

Come and see what is happening here.  Come and see so that people realize what is going on

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