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Can Peace Be the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel?

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Message Edward Pepe
In a few weeks, Felipe Calderón will take possession of the Mexican presidency. And things here are not likely to be pretty, since many do not believe he won the election.

The current president, Vicente Fox, who helped Calderón "win" the election by illegally campaigning for him and conspiring with television networks to defame his opponent, pleads that Mexicans should accept the decision and not make a fuss. Pontificating that "everyone loses when there are confrontations," he would probably like to add, "Why can't Mexicans be more like our neighbors up north who said nothing when George Bush stole their election?" Since the election, the Mexican government, firmly in control of the Mexican airwaves, has spent a great deal of money producing ads in which Mexicans are shown "kissing and making up." In Foxilandia (as in Disneyland)-the fantasy world in which Vicente Fox lives with his Opus Dei wife-everyone should obviously just forgive and forget. Pass the guacamole.

But it is unlikely to be that way. Mexicans themselves say they have long memories. Many people are fed up. And, in spite of the complacency or even hostility of the middle and upper class, changes are inevitable. It is only a question of how the changes will come-with more or with less blood.

Meanwhile, the state, void of any ideas or solutions, falls back on its old standby: violence. And, since surrounding the congress with thousands of troops and water tanks was not sufficient to insure that Fox gave his state of the union speech a while back (opposition members stormed the podium and Fox had to merely hand in his speech), the government is spastically trying to invent some form of security that will insure the same does not happen at Calderón's inauguration. Some have suggested that the ceremony not be televised, so as not to embarrass Calderón if anything untoward happens. The by now familiar metalic barrier is being erected around the congress building as I write this. But they are also contriving some sort of barricade (human?) inside the legislative chamber itself to prevent the stage from being taken once again. If opposition legislators succeed as they did the last time, the consequences would be greater, since they might actually prevent Calderón from being sworn in. Poor Vicente. Poor Felipe. Oh what tangled webs we weave...

Meanwhile, in Oaxaca, the struggle continues in spite of the presence of the elite federal police, who seem, in some hysterical ritual designed to exorcise the spirit of the resistance movement who occupied the town's main square for months, to spend most of their time sweeping and planting flowers. The police presence was supposed to restore security, but instead has served only to embolden supporters of the embattled governor, who feel that they can now, more than ever, kill with immunity. And the insurgency's commitment to peaceful resistance makes them easy targets. The list of dead and disappeared (all of them members of the resistance) continues to grow.

But violence breeds violence. You only have to glance at the crime pages in the newspapers to see that the presence of the federal police has not improved security. Just a few days ago, in an incident not related to the social struggle in Oaxaca, a lawyer was killed in broad daylight on the streets of the capital! Nothing like that ever happens here. So much for improved security. Well, the soldiers, after all, are busy pruning the petunias and protecting the square from such dangers as small bands of women banging pots. Just fifteen minutes ago the agents sprayed some participants in a women's march with what is being reported as pepper gas. It was eerie watching the turrets of the water tanks turn to follow the women as they retreated to another entrance to the square.

Indeed, the police themselves are now committing crimes. (This is why the women were marching in the first place.) In a not isolated incident, a woman was accosted the other day by the police as she crossed the town square (fondled and threatened). The police use the excuse that anyone crossing the main square has to be frisked. The woman, of course, had no water tanks with which to protect herself. Nor, sadly, does she have any institutions to protect her. Indeed, she said she would likely not file a formal complaint because no one would do anything about it anyways. (The soldiers taunted her, saying, "Go report it to the human rights groups. It won't do you any good.") Plus, she would be afraid for her safety and that of her family if she reported the incident.

Some in Oaxaca are happy for the presence of the police, it is true. This is especially so with the business owners and the bourgeoisie. Many of these are said to have "supported" the governor all along (the chamber of commerce would have us believe this, but it is hard to know this for sure-one or two of them at least must have some social conscience). And since Oaxaca is usually a tourist attraction, many of the businesses are hotels and restaurants. The association of hotel and restaurant owners has even produced little white flags stating that Oaxacans just want to live in peace. Whose peace, they don't say. The town's designer hotels hang them in their windows. But there may be more behind this than simply people's pocket books. Perhaps not surprisingly (nothing surprises in Mexico-some say the Oaxacan state attorney general does not even have a law degree!), the Secretary of Tourism is the owner of one of the town's big hotels, and, reportedly, although I am in no position to confirm this, the lover, or at least one of them, of the governor. It would not be a surprise. Her hotel is now serving as quarters for the upper levels of the federal police. Undoubtedly, she is being paid a nice price for the rooms. The governor is said to be helping her to build a hotel in Spain.

One coffee house in town, not content with the little white flags (who knows if the owner also sleeps with the governor), produced a large banner stating that "everything fits in a peaceful society except that the few impose their will upon the majority." Well, I agree. But not in the way in which the banner, which is a clear rebuke of the insurgency, was intended. First of all, the math does not make sense. Surely the 70,000 teachers who were on strike (they have returned to work, but still call for the resignation of the governor), plus the thousands who are members of the APPO (the constitutional assembly alone recently had 1500 attendees), and the many tens of thousands who actively support them and turned out to try to prevent the federal police from entering the city and successfully prevented the police from illegally entering the university, plus the health care workers on strike, plus the town workers' union, plus the 200 and more municipalities throughout the state who have aligned with the APPO are more numerous than say, for instance, the hotel and restaurant owners? The question of course becomes why the hotel and restaurant owners should impose their will on Oaxaca? I suppose we are back to that Secretary of Tourism.

Secondly, and much more importantly. The one sure way to start the reconciliation process in Oaxaca and to eventually bring peace would be for the governor to leave. If the hotel and restaurant owners are so intent on peace, why do they continue to support the governor? (The Secretary of Tourism?) No one actually likes the governor. He is not likeable. For instance, right after getting into office, he dumped the wife who had worked so hard to help elect him. (Again, the Secretary of Tourism.) The outgoing governor, who was also not very popular, said about Ulises Ruiz as he was leaving office, "someday you all will miss me". He meant of course that Ulises Ruiz was going to be far worse than he had been, and his prophesy has come all too true.

But now that Oaxaca and Mexico in general are on the US's travel warning list until January 18, it seems unlikely that those customers that the hotel and restaurant owners are looking for are going to return any time soon in large numbers. As one graffiti put it "Dear Tourist: Oaxaca is closed until there is Justice." Sounds reasonable. It's polite at least. Others express a similar, but much more menacing, attitude towards foreigners. The right-wing radio station supporting the governor has actually called for people to attack and kill any foreigners they see who are taking pictures! (This is a clear reference to the American reporter Brad Will who was killed in Oaxaca a while back while photographing a confrontation. See for remarkable pictures Will took of a man pointing a gun directly at him and who seconds later would pull the trigger and kill him. In spite of the evidence, the state government, unbelievably, is claiming that it was actually Will's friends who killed him in order to frame the government and internationalize the incident!)

The governor recently stated (in the same speech in which he said that only God himself could depose him) that non-Oaxacans should keep quiet about the situation here. The reason for this, of course, is that many human rights groups have intervened in Oaxaca, and many of these arrived from abroad and with the experience necessary for helping social movements protect themselves from their governments. Indeed, in the absence of any official Mexican entity that would seek to control the behavior of the governor and his supporters, the only people who can attempt to do so is the international community. And the governor and his supporters understand this. And they don't like it. (Governments never like it when people reach out to each other across obstacles. Governments want people to believe that other people ARE the danger. That is supposed to make us think that we need the government to protect us from those other people.)

The governor, clearly, wants to have his cake and eat it, too. He would, needless to say, like the tourists to come and spend their money, but without having any effect on local politics. To the governor, this means that he should be able to intimidate, abduct, imprison, beat, torture, kill without interference. But even the governor's anti-foreigner sentiments, which, on the face things, at least, would seem to be detrimental to tourism, do not appear to make the restaurant and hotel owners question their support for him.

Meanwhile, the federals seem to have shot their wad with sending in the troops. They really have no idea what to do with them now that they are here. More prone to pandering to special interests than to leading, Mexico's government, like so many others these days, has nothing left to offer. And with only two weeks until the change of presidency, Mexico is naturally in a kind of limbo. It is unlikely that anyone is going to find a solution in that sort of climate. Meanwhile, thirty million Mexicans, mostly indigenous, subsist on tortillas with lime and salt. Political prisoners continue to rot in jail. More people disappear. Human Rights groups assail the government's record. Business as usual, here, as in many places in the world.

Certainly tourism will decline in Mexico, if only because tourists are afraid for their own safety. Some will actually refuse to come out of conviction-through distaste for Mexico's human rights record, in particular. (Hopefully, by the way, some are choosing not to visit the United States for the same reason.) Others, unfortunately, will continue to come without any awareness, or concern, for what is going on.

But change is just a matter of time. Well, not just a matter of time. There will be a great deal of suffering meanwhile. But if, with the change of leadership in government, the path of violence is already beginning to be repudiated in the United States, hopefully it will catch on here soon, as well.
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Edgar Pope is an artist, musician, writer who is old enough to remember when the world really was, or at least seemed, a kinder and gentler place.
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