February 27, 2007

American apathy clear with Oaxaca

Not many have heard, but there is a tiny nook of Mexico called Oaxaca (pronounced Wahaka) that experienced a small skirmish recently. Sure, it involved thousands of people marching through the streets, many dying, and even more getting sent to prison, but we all know that this is not why something becomes big news. See, the key rules about “important” news items are that they have to be timely, they have to involve ideals, and, most importantly, they have to involve Americans, because really, why should we care about the rest of the world? After all, in many of those foreign places they don’t even speak English.

To fill in those of you who are coming late to the party, a teachers’ union in Oaxaca staged a strike last May. Oaxaca is one of the 31 states in Mexico. This was the 25th straight year that the teachers had gone on strike. Typically the strikes last for about a week or two in May, the teachers get a small raise, and then everyone goes back to business as usual.

This time around, things were different. This time, about a month into the strike, over 3,000 of the Federal Preventative Police were sent in to “handle” the situation. (I imagine the government was annoyed that the strike was taking so long to wrap up this year.) When the police arrived at a June 14 protest they fired shots and tear gas into the crowd. Although no one died in this round of protests, 100 people were hospitalized. Over the following weeks, the people banded together to form La Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO, Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca), expanding their demands to call for the removal of Oaxaca President Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, whom they felt had abused his power.

They soon began to barricade the roads against the police. All the walls were painted with graffiti, cars were set on fire, and Oaxaca was thrown into chaos. I can’t speak to how many people died in the protests since there is still not a clear number. I have read numbers ranging from only three l to over 20 people being murdered in illegal executions as well as many others dying in the protests themselves. In any case, I know that President Ruiz still denies that anyone died. I also know that quite a few people were sent to prison, but again exact numbers are strangely unavailable.

The truly sad part of all of this is that no one appeared to be particularly bothered by it. Not the American people, who thought Oaxaca is either a new style of hot dog or the location for the new season of Survivor. Not the American press, who refused to report the situation to the American people in newspapers, television, or any other available medium. Not the American government, which completely ignored the people of Oaxaca’s plea for help. Not even a lot of Oaxaca’s citizens, who did their best to pay as little attention as possible even as their province was used as a battlefield. The only people who really paid attention were Ruiz and his government. They were absolutely focused on jailing or killing protestors.

I realize that Oaxaca is not America and that our primary focus cannot be on other countries. I also get that this situation is pretty much finished by now. What keeps bothering me is the complete apathy of America as a whole. We have the right to vote for our government, yet less than 65 percent of those eligible actually cast a ballot on Election Day 2004. Meanwhile, the people of Oaxaca were desperate to have some say in the control of their state. President Bush has declared a “war on terror” (which many sadly still believe to be an actual war) in an attempt to democratize foreign governments, yet when the people of Oaxaca were protesting in the streets for five months to remove their President from power, the American government did nothing. The American press successfully made the Duke “scandal” headline news for many months (not to mention making the death of Anna Nicole Smith a half-hourl feature on CNN), yet could not manage to report on a strike that involved thousands of people. The only thing that seems to explain this is that we as Americans are so self-centered that anything which happens outside of our direct sphere of interest is irrelevant.

By the end of the year, the government of Oaxaca had “taken control of the dispute,” and on December 28 cleaning crews were clearing up the mess left in the streets and painting over the graffiti on the walls. Tourists are once again invited to enter the state, which I suppose is good for American vacationers, although it is hardly positive for many of the people of Oaxaca. Still, we need to keep our sights on what is really important here—the University of Chicago study abroad program in Oaxaca is open again for next year.