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Rebuilding Oaxaca, Mexico

Blasius Erlinger Oaxaca

Photo: Blasius Erlinger

Their demands were varied. Women’s groups called for general equality while more radical student organizations demanded the end of capitalism. In some ways, they were united only by opposition to Ruíz. But underlying this sentiment was a more basic lament: that Oaxaca’s government was fundamentally unresponsive to the needs of its citizens, too complacent about the poverty and inequality that existed—and all of this amid the tourist boom. According to Gustavo Esteva, a self-described activist intellectual at the Universidad de la Tierra and a prominent figure in the APPO, the protesters’ main target was the "whole [political and economic] system that bases itself on social polarization."

The center of Oaxaca was shut down by peaceful protests through the summer. But as they dragged on into the fall, the situation turned violent: a few dozen bloody-minded APPO-linked demonstrators began clashing with police and, in some cases, shadowy anti-demonstration paramilitary outfits. A number of government buildings were set on fire (and the city’s finest hotel, the Camino Real, was smashed up), prompting a heavy-handed intervention. In early December, Mexican president Felipe Calderón ordered the arrests of several major APPO figures and sent in federal security forces to clear out the remaining protesters. In the aftermath, Oaxaca was left eerily empty not only of demonstrators but also of travelers.

The conflict showed just how much of the economy is dependent on tourism," says Beatriz Rodríguez Casasnovas, the state’s secretary of tourism. She ticks off indicators of the impact: hotel vacancy rates rose, businesses closed, airfares were discounted, and flights canceled. At the end of 2006, tourism was down a full 70 percent. And although the state government, with the help of local Oaxaqueños, embarked on a frantic campaign to cover up the signs of battle—graffiti ('Ulises Asesino', or "Ulises the Murderer," was a popular line) was scrubbed, storefronts repaired, riot barriers dismantled and stacked in alleys—tourism has still been slow to recover.

The downturn has prompted a flurry of accusations. The government has charged the demonstrators—even those with the most peaceful and moderate intentions—with cutting off the city’s lifeblood. Some of the demonstrators, meanwhile, have shot back that the government and the business community were guilty of managing the tourism industry for the benefit of the few.

"Tourism doesn’t have to be a destructive force, but too often the people of Oaxaca are excluded from it, or they get only a marginal benefit," says Juan José Consejo, the head of the Institute for the Nature and Society of Oaxaca, a nonprofit advocacy group sympathetic to APPO that analyzes the effects of tourism. His words were echoed in a research project sponsored by a local university, which concluded that tourism "has, with the support of the authorities, appropriated the cultural expression and popular traditions of Oaxaqueños," while giving them little in return.

Casasnovas has no sympathy for suggestions that the travel industry might have been a catalyst for the protests. "Tourism is not the problem," she says, bluntly. The APPO, she says, was controlled by "opportunistic partisans."

Similarly, many who own and manage major tourism businesses talk about the protesters with unconcealed outrage. At the Hotel Marqués del Valle, which was shut down for half a year and is still struggling with occupancy well below average, manager Eugenia Castro takes a dim view of the leaders of the APPO: "They put the city under siege, and now it is empty. They have sacrificed Oaxaca."

With the travel industry—and much of Oaxaca, by extension—reeling from the fight, many on both sides of the line have come to see the truth as somewhere in between. The key question, in Esteva’s words, is how to make sure that "tourism does not stop but instead serves everyone and does not damage our communities." An APPO activist named Gaudencio, who has gone back to his job waiting tables at a zocalo café, put it this way: "I’ve realized that we want tourists, we welcome them, but we just need to find the models that help benefit everyone."

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