Too quiet in Oaxaca

This Mexican city's volcano of popular unrest has cooled -- but further eruptions are expected
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By John Ross
OAXACA, OAXACA (May 27th) -- On the first anniversary of the beginning of last summer's feverish uprising here, the city's jewel-box plaza which had been occupied for seven months by striking teachers and their allies in the Oaxaca Peoples' Popular Assembly (APPO) from May until October when federal police forced them into retreat, shimmered in the intense spring sunbeams. The only massive police presence on view was the city police department's orchestra tootling strident martial airs to a shirt-sleeved crowd of gaffers. Here and there, handfuls of burley state cops, sweltering in bulletproof vests and helmets in hand, huddled in the shade quaffing aguas frescas (fruit water) and flirting with the senoritas.

Evidence of last summer's occupation has been obliterated. Surrounding government buildings have been scrubbed clean of revolutionary slogans and no marches were scheduled to commemorate last May 22nd when the teachers first established their camp in the plaza. Indeed, militant members of Section 22 of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE) were not encamped in the stately old square for the first time since the section's founding 27 years ago. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO), the object of their fury, was still the despotic governor of Oaxaca.

Despite the relaxation of U.S. State Department travel advisories and the apparent calm, few tourists were strolling the cobblestone streets of Oaxaca's historic center and the cavernous colonial hotels around the plaza were virtually deserted.

The 2006 uprising has put a serious kibosh on the international tourist trade, the backbone of the local economy. If the experience of San Cristobal de las Casas after the 1994 Zapatista uprising is any lesson, the tourist moguls will take years to recoup.

"Apparent calm" is a euphemism oft utilized to describe the uneasy lulls that mark social upheaval in Mexico. True to the nation's volcanic political metabolism with its fiery spurts of molten fightback and sullen, brooding silences, the Oaxaca struggle seems to have entered into a period of internal contemplation.

Government repression, which featured death squad killings and the jailing of hundreds of activists, slammed the lid down on the social stew but did not extinguish it. Discontent continues to brew and fester, the bad gas building down below. The structures of the Popular Assembly and the teachers union, which served to catalyze this discontent throughout 2006, remain intact.

To be sure, the social movements that lit up red bulbs as far away as Washington last year are not enjoying their best moments. Section 22, which itself is a loose amalgam of left factions, is wracked with division and dissonance, and its titular leader, Enrique Rueda Pacheco, is held in profound contempt for having forced the strikers back into the classroom last October and abandoning the APPO to savage government repression.

Moreover, in response to the 70,000-strong Section 22's rebellion against the leadership of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE), union czarina Elba Esther Gordillo, a close confidante of President Felipe Calderon, chartered a new Oaxaca local, Section 59, to diminish the control that the militants exert over the state's classrooms.

The division has put a dent in the teachers' usual aggressive stance and instead of walking out this past May 15th, National Teachers Day, when new contracts are negotiated, Section 22 tentatively accepted a 4.8 percent base wage increase (above the 3.7 percent Calderon had conceded to other sectors) and 122 million bonus pesos to "re-zone" Oaxaca for cost of living increases in this tourism-driven state.