A year after it was paralyzed by protests, this colonial Mexican city of Oaxaca is putting itself back together. Daniel Kurtz-Phelan reports on the progress.
Blasius Erlinger Oaxaca
| Credit: Blasius Erlinger

Oaxaca today is just the sort of colonial Mexican city that elicits a barrage of tourist-idyll clichés from guidebooks and brochures, descriptions that usually include the words charming, enchanting, and pristine.

It’s not hard to see why: there’s the 17th-century architecture—churches, government buildings, and plazas—much of it constructed using the region’s signature green stone. Behind adobe walls with leafy courtyards, restaurants serve some of the country’s best cuisine, including rich moles, spiced hot chocolate, and freshly grilled empanadas. A growing collection of contemporary art galleries and rural crafts markets testifies to Oaxaca’s vibrant culture, while the surrounding indigenous villages and Mesoamerican archaeological sites reflect its deep history.

But for those who have known it in past years, the Oaxaca of today also feels oddly quiet. In a city that owes as much as 80 percent of its economy to tourism, the number of visitors is dramatically down­. Their absence is the muted endnote to the devastating turmoil that put Oaxaca on the front pages of American newspapers last year for reasons that have nothing to do with its charms: six months of mass demonstrations and violent clashes that paralyzed the city, left nearly a dozen people dead, and came to a close only with an intervention by the national military last December.

Fought over a complex array of issues, including charges of government corruption and economic disparity, the Battle of Oaxaca, as some have come to call it, raised fundamental questions about the basic identities of Oaxaca city and state—and their relationship to tourism. Despite its enormous tourism engine, Oaxaca remains Mexico’s second-poorest state, and many Oaxaqueños—mostly indigenous, mostly rural—are isolated from the travel industry and the cash it generates. Except for chance encounters on the zocalo, the leafy central plaza where campesinos gather on their way to and from their mountain villages, many Oaxaqueños’ paths rarely cross those of the city’s well-heeled travelers, Mexicans as well as Americans and Europeans. For years, these parallel worlds hardly took notice of each other and were rarely spoken of—that was, until the city erupted in the summer of 2006, revealing the fault lines below the surface of this colonial idyll.

It started, appropriately enough, with a plan to modernize the zocalo, in April 2005. Ringed by open-air cafés and 100-year-old laurel trees, the zocalo has long served as the city’s social, political, and economic center. Any renovations to the plaza would have been fairly risky, given its sanctity among Oaxaqueños. But when the mastermind behind them was Governor Ulises Ruíz, who took office in 2004 after an election that was considered corrupt by many Oaxaqueños and international observers, the citizenry objected.

That was just the beginning. By May 2006, a group of teachers took over the zocalo in order to extract higher wages from the state government, as they do every spring. In Oaxaca, which has a long history of protest politics, such demonstrations are fairly routine: workers protest on the zocalo, the government buys them off with a salary increase or a public works project, and life goes on.

But last year, defying protocol, Ruíz sent in state riot police to clear the teachers out. Many Oaxaqueños, already suspicious of the governor (whose critics cite his cronyism and elitism), considered that an unforgivable violation. As spring turned to summer, the city filled with tens of thousands of demonstrators, this time demanding Ruíz’s resignation (his term is up in 2010).

Ultimately, some 350 local organizations, ranging from mainstream civic and student groups to left-wing radical cells, rose up in solidarity with the teachers to form an amorphous movement called the Popular People’s Assembly of Oaxaca, known by its Spanish acronym, APPO. At one point, almost a million people came out to support the APPO, occupying the zocalo and the beautiful colonial blocks that surround it.

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."

The balance between prosperity and equality is hard to strike, even in cities that haven’t been riven by six months of protests that ended in bloodshed. There is a lot of talk of change in Oaxaca. Foundations such as the Institute for the Nature and Society of Oaxaca are looking into how to channel tourism revenue into more hands, and some business owners are also discussing giving more back—at least once the industry recovers. Groups affiliated with the APPO, meanwhile, talk about tourism development from the ground up. The obvious success stories, so far, are few, but heartening.

One organization that could provide a useful model for effective tourism is a small cooperative called Pueblos Mancomunados. The group, which represents a set of northern mountain villages with fewer than 1,000 people in each, was started in 1994 in an effort to bring community-based ecotourism to an area that was hurting from falling crop prices.

"The youth from our pueblo were leaving to find work in the United States," Griselda Santiago explains from her desk at the small Pueblos Mancomunados office in Oaxaca. "The idea was to bring jobs to our people."

The effort has proved to be a remarkable success. Before the protests began, the villages received several hundred visitors a month, and each pueblo created an "ecotourism committee" to help direct business and manage its cultural and environmental impact. Tour agencies used to give the pueblos a small cut, under 50 percent, of the profits; now the villages get almost everything, plus a degree of control over how the infusion of visitors affects the community.

Even as she expresses some sympathy with the overall goals of the APPO, Santiago acknowledges that the conflict had been bad for business. Pueblos Mancomunados has suffered considerably since the protests, with only a few dozen visitors arriving in each village even months after the government cleared the city. But Santiago is optimistic that business will recover—and that when it does, Pueblos Mancomunados will be able to show the rest of Oaxaca a way out. "We think that if people look at us, they will see that it can be done," she says. "They will see that fighting is not the only way." ✚

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan is a senior editor at Foreign Affairs.

Getting There

Aeromexico, American Airlines, Delta, Continental, and Mexicana offer flights from major U.S. cities to Oaxaca, connecting through Mexico City.

When to Go

The city is generally dry and warm throughout the year. The rainy season falls between June and September.

Where to Stay

Camino Real Hotel 300 Calle Cinco de Mayo; 800/901-2300 or 52-951/501-6100; camino-real-oaxaca.com; doubles from $276.

Casa Oaxaca Hotel Eight airy rooms, most with French doors that open onto a central garden terrace. The inn’s restaurant—for guests only—is one of the city’s best. 407 García Vigíl; 52-951/514-4173; casaoaxaca.com.mx; doubles from $119.

Where to Eat

Benito Juárez Market The spot to pick up local produce and blocks of Oaxaca’s famous cheese. Adventurous diners shouldn’t miss the food stalls in the meat market section. Corner of Las Casas and 20 de Noviembre; open daily.

Mercado de la Merced (also known as Democracia) A smaller marketplace off the beaten path. Churros, or sugary donuts, and meat-or cheese-filled empanadas are a must. Corner of Insurgentes and Murguía; open daily.

El Topil Drop by this homey restaurant for slow-roasted pork and house-made corn tortilla quesadillas. 104 Plazuela Labastida; no phone; lunch for two $18.

What to Do

Central de Abastos Market Rugs, baskets, herbs, fresh fruits, and blooming flowers are all for sale here. Supplies Center on Periférico; open daily (art and crafts on Saturdays only).

Mercado de Artesanías Oaxaca’s top market for handicrafts and local artists’ works. Corner of Zaragoza and J.P. García; open daily.

Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca A vast collection of cultural and archaeological treasures dating from the pre-Hispanic era to the present. Corner of Alcalá and Gurrión; 52-951/516-2991.

Monte Albán This ancient Zapotec regional capital is about five miles west of Oaxaca. The preserved city allows a glimpse into the lives of area natives from 500 B.C. to 800 A.D. Monte Albán; 52-951/516-1215.

Pueblos Mancomunados A cooperative of eight villages located in the forested Sierra Norte region outside of Oaxaca. Reserve accommodations and guide services through their Oaxaca office. 210 M. Bravo; 52-951/514-8271; sierranorte.org.mx

Teotitlán del Valle Over 150 families in this carpet-weaving village earn their living by "painting on wool." Their technique, which uses only natural dyes, dates from the pre-Hispanic era. 17 miles outside Oaxaca on Hwy. 190.