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Days of future past in Oaxaca

15 June 2011

Oaxaca has always been the most complicated of Mexican states.  Where the rest of us make do with municipalities (roughly equivalent to a U.S. county, and usually doubling as a federal congressional district), the challenge, since Colonial times, has been to impose a centralized governing system on a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, geographically fragmented political sub-division.  In modern (post-Revolutionary) times, the state has been divided into eight regiones that correspond to various traditional ethnic communities, the regions being further divided into distritos, which have any number of municipios. Complicating the political situation, with the recognition of “usos y costumbres” added to the Federal Constitution in 2001, and to the state constitution, local government and elections may not conform to the standards of the modern state, but follow time-honored practices for better or worse.

Over the past few years, the state has been best known to outsiders for the sometimes violent confrontations between an entrenched PRI state machine and  various opposition groups.  With the electoral success of an opposition coalition in capturing the governor’s office last year, the state’s political troubles seem to have dropped off the radar for most of us, who forget that with the complicated governing structure in Oaxaca, there are still opportunities for  heavy-handed machine politicians to maneuver, on a less noticeable scale.

In San Francisco Tlapancingo, a municipio of about 1250 people in the Silacayoapam distrito of the Mixteca region, the same election that saw the end of the PRI’s 80 year dominance of the state government and put a Convergenia candidate running as the head of the anti-PRI coalition, Gabino Cué Monteagudo, into the Governor’s office, also returned a PRI municipal government.

Claiming Governor Cué did nothing about the alleged fraud in the local election (San Francisco Tlapancingo’s presidente municipal, Pablo Abelardo Vargas Duran enjoying the backing of two powerful PRI deputies [state legislators], as well as having his own armed bodyguards, 200 or so citizens walked into the municipal palace and “went native”.  They simply declared the community would be run by “usos y costumbres”, locking out the elected (and they say fraudulently elected) officers, installing their own, and informing the state elections commission that an assembly of the people would be running the community from now on. 

The new municipal government is rejecting any state interference, including development, in their community, planning to go it alone through self-financing and “tequios” — compulsory communal labor.  Oh, and by the way, that state interference includes the state courts, the state police and the federal army.

This may not be one of those types of events I mentioned in the post below.  Or it may be.   Mexico is not a primarily agrarian society (and hasn’t been in a very long time), so the happenings of an indigenous rural commune may not be all that important.  Nor is  San Francisco Tlapancingo exactly on anyone’s political or cultural radar, and what happens in Oaxaca generally stays in Oaxaca.

What makes it worth noticing is that here, the people are turning to tradition — history — to find a way out of what they see as a failed political and security situation.

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