My reply to Ceci Connelley's Washington Post travel story on Oaxaca.
Here's the link to her story.
Here's my reply. (also posted as a comment to the Wash. Post online version of the story).
Ironically, Ceci Connolly’s article “Oaxaca: One Year Later,” is published on Nov. 25th, 2007, exactly one year after thousands of federal police carried out some of the worst human rights abuses in recent Mexican history; detaining, torturing, and raping men, women, and children who had taken to the streets demanding social and economic justice.
But according to Ms. Connolly, what happened in Oaxaca, in 2006, was nothing more than “riots.” She uses the term repeatedly. Here are some dictionary definitions for “riot”:
1) …form of civil disorder characterized by disorganized groups lashing out in a sudden and intense rash of violence, vandalism or other crime.
2) a disturbance of the public peace by three or more persons acting together in a disrupting and tumultuous manner in carrying out their private purposes.
3) three or more people acting with a common purpose and in a violent and tumultuous manner to the terror of the public.
None of these definitions even begin to capture the unprecedented popular uprising that swept through the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, during 2006. For over six months, a broad-based, non-violent social movement maintained popular control over the city of Oaxaca and large parts of the state. Tens of thousands of women, children, schoolteachers, doctors, indigenous communities, and farmers took to the streets in massive acts of civil disobedience. Their demand? The resignation of a corrupt and repressive governor. These “rioters,” as Ms Connelly would call them, maintained non-violent protest encampments for months, despite regular paramilitary attacks that took the lives of over 23 people. They walked from Oaxaca to Mexico City (almost 600 km), and upon arrival initiated a hunger strike. They reclaimed and celebrated the indigenous cultural festival, “Guelaguetza,” that for many years had been appropriated by local governments.
Ms. Connelly expresses her despair that she was unable to find “authenticity” during her recent visit to Oaxaca. Like many tourists, she wanted the “authentic” Oaxaca experience…smiling Indian women selling her crafts for dirt cheap prices, steaming cups of Oaxacan chocolate, merry musicians marching through the streets…. What she fails to consider is that, for decades, the Oaxacan people have also longed for “authenticity,” but in their government. For years they have demanded a government that “authentically” takes the needs and interests of the Oaxacan people into account, and not the government they’ve had… a government that systematically uses brutal repression and outright corruption to manage the state and its resources in the interests of a privileged few.
Had Ms Connolley done her research about what was happening in Oaxaca (something that wouldn’t have been that difficult, as it appears she was in Mexico City for much of 2006), she would have found that the only moments that truly fit the dictionary definition of “riot,” were those moments when police forces (uniformed or plain-clothed) attacked movement participants: when tear gas and bullets were fired indiscriminately into crowds; when individuals were dragged from their homes, beaten, and detained without charges; when plain-clothed police opened fire on protest barricades, killing several people including New York indymedia reporter, Brad Will; and when federal police held detainees out of airborne helicopters threatening to throw them into the abyss.
To her credit, Ms Connolley gives voice in her article to Oaxacan small-business owners and craftspeople who are suffering the profound economic crisis that has gripped Oaxaca since the 2006 conflict exploded. Yes, things are harder economically now than they’ve ever been in Oaxaca. But let’s not forget that state governments in Oaxaca have systematically used public money for everything but the public good for decades. Public money has been spent on outright buying of votes; on arming and defending land bosses who orchestrate paramilitary attacks on indigenous communities who stand in the way of their economic interests; and on the personal frivolities of state politicians- their mansions in Mexico City, their private jets, etc. The majority of the people in Oaxaca have lived in poverty for decades, if not centuries, while their governments have lived in obscene opulence.
Oaxaca does need tourism. People are encouraged to visit Oaxaca and spend their money with local, independent vendors (avoiding the large chains who are among those who called for police repression). But Oaxaca also needs justice. As long as American travel writers continue to wring their hands over Oaxaca, implying that a non-violent social movement is to blame for the city’s lost charm, beauty and “authenticity,” while neglecting to educate readers about the true situation in this poorest of Mexican states, the discontent will continue to stir just below the surface, as it has done for 500 years.