Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Back in Latin America

As announced, I will try to blog from my 3-week educational trip to Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. Even though Internet connections are readily available and inexpensive ― here at Hotel Casa Cue, there is even free wi-fi in the lobby ― I will not find the time to blog every day. The programme is simply too charged. Which is basically a good thing. Gives more to experience and thus more to share.


Lëtzebuerg to Oaxaca, Sunday 26 and Monday 27 October

Some 26 hours after getting up in Rollengergronn, I went to sleep in Oaxaca. Or rather, to bed. 'Cause my head kinda had to realise and process the fact that I am back in Latin America. It's my first time in Mexico but my sixth trip in eight years to Latin America. And, incidentally my second to North America this year, completing the continent's map if you simply count countries as a whole: Greenland, US, Canada, now Mexico.

Latin America is a drug. The years I have not visited here, it's like something has been missing. And yet I have gotten so used to it that the excitement only starts (to start) once I've reached my first destination. Let's not get into details about the three flights or the long waiting times in airports. Today, I will simply share my report with you, as I volunteered to write it. Then it's done, leaving my travel companions on the Global Exchange part of my trip ― 7 USAmerican ladies of all ages as well as my roommate, a young guy from New Jersey who has Leon Trotsky's 'History Of The Russian Revolution' on our shared bedside table ― no excuse not to do the writing on the other days.

So, I will share the report and just add a few intersting and/or funny little facts at the end. Such as counting the number of Volkswagen Beetles I notice ― Mexico is Beetle Country. Here we go:

Monday 27 October

The Oaxaca reality tour's first full day started with breakfast at Trébol. Trébol means 'shamrock', and though decorated with shamrocks in all sizes and materials, there was nothing Irish about the place, nor about the breakfast. Situated in one of the city's oldest buildings, the courtyard invitingly painted in mainly blue and burnt orange tones, set the scene for an exotic mix of fresh fruits and spicy guacamole, but also more well-known things like scrambled eggs or yoghurt.

At 10 am, Dr Jorge Hernández Díaz, author of the book 'Reclamos de la identidad: Los organizaciones indégenas en Oaxaca' (ISBN 970-701-185-8; the title translates as 'Identity Claims: Indigenous Organisations in Oaxaca'), was supposed to give a presentation but unfortunately could not make it because of work. Instead, our tour leader, Juan de Dios, gave an introduction about the history, the culture, the geography and the nature of the state of Oaxaca. Quite a few interesting facts showed up on the timeline. The first signs of human presence in the area date from 12 000 BC. Interestingly for the upcoming Day Of The Dead celebrations, pottery found by archaeologists show that funeral ceremonies were held 4000 years ago, suggesting that already then, the inhabitants believed that the dead would go to 'another place'.

Monte Alban was built around 500 BC, being the first known town in Mesoamerica. The inhabitants operated with no less than three different calendars: apart from a commonly used 365-day calendar, a 260-day calendar (corresponding to the gestation period of humans) was used by oracles, and a 564-day calendar following Venus' synodic period (i.e. the time that it takes for the planet to reappear at the same point in the sky seen from Earth) was used to calculate astronomic phenomena. For unknown reasons, Monte Alban was abandoned around 900 AD, and a new capital, Zaachila, was founded.

In the name Zaachila we also find the original name for what is now referred to as the Zapotecs. 'Zapoteca' was a pejorative name given by the Aztecs ― it probably means 'traders of Zaa', Zaa being the 'Land Of The Clouds' as the inhabitants themselves called it. They referred to themselves as Binizaa, meaning the people of the clouds.

Why clouds? Well, because of the cloudforest dominating the land. But the state of Oaxaca as a whole covers almost every climate. The capital Oaxaca is situated in the semi-arid Valles Centrales (Central Valleys) municipality, between the Sierra Norte (Northern Range) and Sierra Sur (Southern Range). The great variation in climate gives the state of Oaxaca an enormous diversity in flora and fauna. Only Thailand and Costa Rica host more different species than Oaxaca!

But also culturally, Oaxaca is very complex. The state hosts 16 different indigenous languages, a few even being of so-far untraceable origin, and each with variations sometimes so different that they are not mutually intelligible. Zapoteco alone has 37 variations, and all in all some 130 variations are spoken in the state. Most of them belong to the Otomangue branch. Other branches in Mexico are Mayan and Nahua, whereas Yopi, Aguacateco and Ixtlateco are now extinct. In total, 56 indigenous languages are spoken in the country.

As many indigenous people speak limited or no Spanish, they often feel discriminated by national or state authorities. During three actions in August and September 1996, both police and army troops came to the 30 000-inhabitant community of San Agustín Loxicha in the Sierra Sur municiplaity. The troops gathered indigenous inhabitants on the main square and picked out some 500 men whom they said were members of the guerrilla group Ejército Popular Revolucionario (Popular Revolutionary Army, often referred to as 'EPR') that had attacked a police station and a police convoy, killing several officers. In addition to the 500 detained during the police and army operation, 90 inhabitants of San Agustín were killed and another 15 disappeared.

Probably all of the detained were taken to prison and tortured. One of them was Estanislao Martínez Santiago, father of two and married to Laura Hernández who kindly joined our group to share her experience with us. Estanislao was jailed for a month in Oaxaca. Beatings by police officers were part of everyday life. Accused of being one of the main EPR members behind the attacks on police, he was then taken to a high-security prison in Mexico City. During his 11-month stay, Laura could only visit him three times. The first time, prison officers told her that Estanislao was not there, and she had to go back, not knowing what had happened to her husband. The second time, she did get to see him, but the visit was interrupted after half an hour although one hour's visit is allowed officially.

When Estanislao was brought back to the prison in Oaxaca, it became easier for Laura to see him. In principle, every Friday and Saturday are visiting days. However, she cannot always afford to go the 200 km from San Agustín. What's more, the children ― aged 3 months and 6 years by the time of Estanislao's detention ― had grown afraid of meeting a father they could barely remember.

Estanislao Martínez serves a sentence of 13 ½ years and is among 11 alleged EPR members of San Agustín who are still in prison. According to his wife, the authorities have no evidence of the crimes against the United Mexican States for which he was sentenced. Before the verdict, he was asked to sign a blank document. This, like the daily beatings, is common practice according to the indigenous ― many of which speak poor or no Spanish and therefore would not be able to plead their cause.

After the detentions 12 years ago, villagers went to Oaxaca to protest against the injustice to their peers. For almost five years, they basically lived, cooked and slept on Zocalo, the main square of the state capital, visited by many tourists. The villagers also protested in front of the local congress building but no result has been obtained. On contrary, despite promises month after month, the prisoners have not even been released for good behaviour as they could according to official practice.

Apart from spreading the word, members of the Global Exchange group initiate donations for juridical help to Laura and Estanislao, and encourage writing to Estanislao in prison.

Among the 15 disappeared indigenous following the operation in San Agustín was today's last speaker, Juan Sosa. He told how we was taken to an unofficial prison in the mountains and tortured for 25 days, and added that according to him, authorities wanted to present him as one of the EPR commanders, based on his physical appearance alone. He thinks the attacks on police in 1996 were used just as a pretext for the police and army to go into San Agustín and take prisoners, as the government was worried that the community was going to change to the 'usos y costumbres' system. Usos y costumbres is a way of organising the community, respecting indigenous traditions, as an alternative to for example city councils. Such system would jeopardise the government's control, like it happened in the state of Chiapas two years before.

In other words, the government tried, and still tries, to split the Zapotec communities to prevent them from gaining autonomy. Their interest is, as so often in our society, money. A land holding a lot of iron and rare minerals, the state of Oaxaca is one of the areas planned for economic development under the Puebla-Panama Plan, which is linked to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Another example is the promotion of eco tourism without as much as consulting the people who actually live there as to how they suggest this could be done, let alone whether they think it is a good idea.

Out of prison, Juan Sosa now studies law in Oaxaca. His story and statements about the authorities' actions and reasons behind gave rise to a number of interesting questions from group members. Like Laura Hernández, Juan Sosa encourages to spread the word about the injustices towards indigenous people. They both kindly joined the group for lunch before the rest of the afternoon was left free for each to further discover the city of Oaxaca, presenting itself from a sunny but also windy side on this inspiring and educating day.

New word: trébol (shamrock)

Beetle count: 30 (thereof only 2 'New Beetles')

Quote: 'They privatise the profit and socialise the loss.'
(a fellow traveller, with years of experience in the US financial sector, about the US government's reaction to the financial crisis)

Tip: Huautli is a highly nutritional grain, cleansing and with many proteins, recommended not least for elderly people. It is also known as amaranth.

Fun: Instead of a room 13, my hotel has a room Y2K (remember?) between the rooms 12 and 14...

That's it for today. And please, do vote for me ― 5 logos (it's easy, takes just two clicks but they gotta be in the right place). Every day. Thank you.

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