The Guelaguetza Strategy in Oaxaca

With crucial elections for control of the state legislature looming this Sunday (Aug 5th), Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO), the tyrannical governor of Oaxaca whose PRI party had never lost an election here until last year when Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s leftist coalition trumped the once ruling party in nine out of 11 federal districts in the state, mounted a wildly spendthrift electoral strategy reportedly costing 200,000,000 pesos, “Operation Guelaguetza 2007”, to maintain his much-questioned authority. The election of a left majority in the state legislature would thwart URO’s ability to continue to govern this conflictive southern state with a “hard hand” as has been his history ever since his highly suspect election in 2004 (the vote counting computers crashed three times on election night.)

The Guelaguetza is a pre-conquest tradition of gift giving that originated amongst the Zapotecs of Oaxaca’s central valleys when the villagers would dance for each other as a way of maintaining the general peace. According to Hermann Bellinghausen, a long-time writer on the indigenous dynamic in Mexico, the festival was Christianized by the Dominican priests who followed the Conquistadores into Oaxaca and the Guelaguetza became more of a syncretic ritual fiesta than a true indigenous interchange. “The Indians danced for their white masters and not for each other.”

The modern celebration of the Guelaguetza was revived in the 1930s by the predecessor to Ulises’s PRI as “a racial tribute” (sic) to Oaxaca’s 17 distinct indigenous cultures. As the PRI’s control in Oaxaca flourished, so did the Guelaguetza and by URO’s time, the transnational tourist industry was touting it as “the biggest folklore festival in the Americas”, a cash cow for both the tourist moguls and the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Indian dance troupes still pay tribute to the “Senor Governor” with live turkeys, fruit, bread, and flowers and perform their folkloric dances exclusively for the tourists. “The whites make a lot of money off the Indians in Oaxaca – it’s an old story,” Bellinghausen observes. Now the Guelaguetza is globalized – “you can buy your ticket on the web at Ticket Master with your VISA card.”

But URO’s highly commercialized Guelaguetza got a severe jolt last year during the seven month occupation of downtown Oaxaca by dissident teachers and the activists of the Popular Peoples Assembly or APPO when protestors blocked access to the Guelaguetza auditorium and forced cancellation of the “biggest folklore festival in the Americas.” In its place, protestors held their own popular Guelaguetza on the downtown streets they controlled.

With elections for the state legislature on the immediate horizon, URO was determined that the show would go on and launched “Operation Guelaguetza 2007” to turn the event into a PRI fiesta and consolidate his party’s strength in the upcoming vote-taking. The Guelaguetza quickly disintegrated into a “Guerra-Guetza.”

The traditional Guelaguetza format lists four performances, two each on successive Mondays in July but this year there were three – URO’s two official presentations July 23rd and 30th and a repeat of the APPO’s popular Guelaguetza July 16th.

Indeed, the popular representation proved so popular that the Plaza de la Danza where it was held could not accommodate the multitudes and so the participants ascended Fortin Hill where the larger Guelaguetza auditorium overlooks the city. They were met by a wall of police and military ordered out by URO’s Secretary of Public Security Sergio Segreste who insisted that the celebrants had no authorization to use the auditorium – last year, militants had burnt down the stage set. “This is my hill. My ‘ombligo’ (umbilicus) is buried here” an elderly Indian woman was caught on video shouting at the police.

A rocket fired from a nearby hotel balcony signaled a police charge on the protestors, some of whom were dressed in their Guelaguetza finery. 42 were arrested and held on $2,000,000 peso bail each and 45 hospitalized, several in critical condition. “We shall use the full weight of the law in defense of national and international tourism” Ulises Ruiz declared to the press.

The Fortin Hotel from which the rocket was allegedly fired was partially torched by dissidents as well as two city buses. Students were singled out for police retaliation – one teenager Belen Hernandez was taken off a bus and sexually abused before being jailed. Workers at a nearby car wash were rounded up. One lawyer, observing the fracas for human rights abuses, was arrested, thrashed and hospitalized. URO’s police warned him to stop defending “these dirty people” (“mugrosos”.) APPO militant Emeterio Merrino is portrayed in three newspaper photos: in the first, he is taken into custody by the police and appears unhurt; in the second, taken from a distance, he is being clobbered into the sidewalk under the clubs of the cops; in the third, he is pictured in the city hospital in a coma. In perhaps his single most twisted spasm of cynicism ever, Governor Uliawa wished Merrino “a speedy recovery” and the state prosecutor offered to drop the “charges” against the unconscious man.

With Ulises’s first “official” Guelaguetza on tap July 23rd, Oaxaca seethed with tensions. APPO activists like David Venegas were snapped up by police and drugs planted on them so they could not be released on bail. Thousands of cops swarmed over Fortin Hill to repel popular attack. A North Korean Tai Kwan Do instructor Kim Nyong Chong was contracted to lead a crash course in martial arts and Jackie Chan-like shouts filled the not-so-festive air. The police were photographed wearing “Anti-Riot Course” tee shirts and practicing the highly lethal carotid artery chokehold on each other.

To further sour the Guelaguetza as an international tourist destination, the threat of attack by the newly-revitalized Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) which demands “the presentation with life” of two of its historic leaders “disappeared” from a hotel in the Oaxaca city market May 24th, transformed the Guelaguetza auditorium into “a strategic installation” and troops from the 28th Military Zone were called out to prevent sabotage.

With an ambiance not very propitious for voluntary tourism, URO had to fill the Guelaguetza auditorium with 8000 government workers who were obligated to attend under penalty of losing their jobs. To pad out the crowd, thousands of PRIistas were bussed in from the countryside – busloads of dissident teachers and APPO supporters from Mexico City were turned back by URO’s police.

Although the table was set for a classic police-protestor donnybrook, violence was miraculously averted July 23rd. In a magic realist tableau of parallel mojo, thousands of protestors marched peacefully into the city’s elegant plaza from which URO’s police had brutally evicted them last November after a seven-month occupation of downtown Oaxaca. Meanwhile, up on Fortin Hill, thousands of PRIistas qued up at metal detectors, raised their arms and removed their sombreros for the mandatory pat downs before they were allowed to enter an official Guelaguetza that featured more security agents than dancers.

In the end, the PRI Guelaguetza proved a photo op for the much-maligned governor who was shown fists pumping in the air in triumph superimposed against a background of an overflowing auditorium in full-color, double-truck ads taken out in every newspaper in Mexico the following day.

As might be anticipated, URO’s second official Guelaguetza July 30th was an anticlimax to all this hoopla and essentially boiled down to a large PRI rally one week before the critical August 5th elections. Once again, the two forces kept their distance – the popular movement which is expected to vote strongly for the left this Sunday once again took to the streets in the city down below and while there were shouts of “Cerro! Cerro!” (“Take the hill!”) from younger firebrands and a few unexpected veers uphill, the marchers eventually returned to the plaza. Tempers had cooled during a week of behind the scenes negotiations that produced the release of many of those arrested July 16th.

Up on Fortin Hill, Ulises whipped up the PRIistas for yet another photo op. Meanwhile, Emeterio Merrino continued in coma at a local Oaxaca hospital. Hotel occupancy, which, after all, is the point of this show, was reported at either 25% of occupancy (the left daily La Jornada) or 40% (URO’s first Guelaguetza) to 60% (the second) by the local hotel association. Many of the rooms rented were paid for by URO to house the PRI “accariados” (bussed-in ones.)

Will the Guelaguetza Strategy work? Ulises utilized the folkloric spectacle to consolidate his “voto duro” (hard vote) at the same time pimping the fear vote (“voto de miedo”) to fend off a second straight “voto de castigo” (punishment vote) by the left opposition. A low turnout generally favors the PRI – and if all else fails, the vote counting computers could crash a few times on election night to insure another PRI victory.

Into this cauldron of election, repression, and social tension jumped Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan who visited Oaxaca July 31st on “an urgent mission” to meet with human rights groups and present Governor Ruiz with a just-issued AI report “Oaxaca: Clamor for Justice” which holds URO and his administration responsible for arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, systematic denial of medical and legal attention, fabrication of evidence, and torture among other high human rights violations, allegations that Ulises huffily dismissed as being “partial.” The Governor accused Amnesty of compiling testimony exclusively from the APPO side of the barricades and his party dissed the report as “foreign intervention” in the Oaxaca electoral process. “Clamor for Justice” was similarly critiqued by Interior Minister Francisco Ramirez Acuna as “exaggerated”, a sentiment also expressed by National Human Rights Commission ombudsman Jose Luis Soberanes.

Khan was quick to respond, questioning the government of President Felipe Calderon’s willingness to see justice done in Oaxaca. One key reason the Calderon government has failed to remove Ulises Ruiz for such egregious abuses is an unwritten deal with the PRI to deliver its hundred votes in the lower house of congress to the administration’s legislative package which contemplates the opening of the national oil corporation PEMEX to private investment.

The Amnesty International report is one of several issued by international human rights organizations since the conflict began, among them Human Rights Watch and the largely European International Civil Commission for the Observation of Human Rights which recently appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Commission to intervene in Oaxaca. The Organization of American States’ InterAmerican Human Rights Commission (CIDH) has also been active in demanding the protection of individual guarantees and will visit Oaxaca later this month. Last month, members of the Italian parliament questioned Mexico’s commitment to human rights as mandated by this country’s free trade pact with the European Union.

One day after the diminutive Khan presented “Oaxaca: Clamor for Justice” to Governor Ruiz and across the street from the hotel where they convened, the EPR took credit for blowing off the front door of a Sears department store in an upper crust Oaxaca shopping mall. The guerrilla attributed the bombing to the EPR’s “national campaign of harassment” of the Calderon and Ruiz governments in its search for the two disappeared leaders, Eduardo Reyes Amaya and Alberto Cruz Sanchez. As with many EPR acts, whodunit remains cloudy but the bombing is being pumped up by Ulises, his party, and his friends in the big media, and the Calderon government to stimulate the vote of fear.

JOHN ROSS is headed north to have his dead eye adjudicated. He can be reached at:


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