Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Nashvillians in Nicaragua

Hardly a new story, yet one looking back I'm perplexed I didn't jump on as it was unfolding an hour's bus ride away. At the time I had no idea the story contained a local connection.

One of my daily pleasures in Nicaragua was a leisurely second breakfast while reading the daily Sandinista rag, El Neuvo Diario, at a cafe overlooking the church where William Walker once made his headquarters. Political slants aside, the Diario was heads and shoulders above the standards of the Guatemalan and Honduran newspapers I had become used to which were essentially tabloids, so my vocabulary was challenged and I found it tough to get all the details in a piece. If subtleties were lost on me, I could pick up the gist of what I read.

One story in the paper almost every day was about a young American named Eric Volz on trial for the grisly murder of his ex-girlfriend Doris Ivanez Jimenez. Jimenez was a beautiful young Nica from the seaside townof San Juan del Sur where Eric was a player in a booming real estate market. Later also started a magazine based in Managua. At the time he was arrested, the police had drawn on reports that Eric acted the jealous lover after their breakup and had been seen on several occassions using abusive language with Doris after their relationship ended. Or so says the Diario. He was accused of showing up at the small shop Doris ran near the ocean, raping and strangling her with the aid of a thug he had paid to be his accomplice. Doris’ mother made sobbing statements to the press that she feared Eric would use his greenbacks to buy his way out of the trial. She claims he offered her one million dollars to support his innocence in the case.

The papers had daily photographs of Eric emerging from court wearing a flak jacket and led by officers brandishing kalashnikovs. The armor and firepower appeared necessary to protect him from the hysterical mob jamming the streets outside the courthouse. My first reaction was disgust for this ugly American, the photos caught his ugliest expressions, Volz looked plenty capable of murder. But perhaps some of my judgment was made in self-interest. The maelstrom surrounding his case would make it uncomfortable for any American in Nicaragua for the foreseeable future.

I tried to get more facts about the case, but by the time I had tuned in the trial seemed a foregone conclusion, and coverage focused on the minutia of the proceedings. I made the assumption he was guilty, along with most everyone else in the country. I would have forgotten about him save an article the day before the verdict was released. This story revealed that while the DNA evidence showed another person other than Volz or his ex at the murder scene, Eric’s DNA was not found. So I was a bit surprised when the guilty verdict came in the following day. Regardless of the last day of testimony, the Diario seemed satisfied with the veracity of the verdict and the 30 year sentence Volz received.

I didn't think about the case again until I got back home and mentioned it in passing to a friend in Nashville. To my surprise he knew immediately who I was talking about. He had heard much more of the story than I had gleaned from the Nicaraguan press. Volz was also from Nashville, and he had a large support network here that swore to his innocence. They fought successfully to get Eric's story out and now they are working to keep it, and him, alive.

It turns out there are call records from Eric's phone that place him in Managua, a long, bumpy two hour drive from San Juan del Sur, at the time of the murder. Also, a distinguished local journalist claims to have had lunch with Eric that day. The major point of evidence against him, used by judge during her reading of the conviction, is the scratch marks on his right shoulder. The judge believes the marks prove he was engaged in a struggle around the time of the murder. However, video shows Eric as a pallbearer in the Jimenez funeral. He carried her coffin on the same shoulder, and the straight-line marks do seem more consistent with the indentation from a wooden box than from fingernail scratches.

The Volz family was stunned by the conviction. Now Eric lives a nightmare. He has a whole country incensed that he brutally murdered a cherished daughter. The Judicial system was likely under pressure to find him guilty and is now similarly pressured to delay his appeal and keep him in prison. I’d rather not contemplate the daily horrors he faces in his Nicaraguan cell.

Anderson Cooper did a supportive piece on Eric this past summer and a follow up where he attempted to interview him from prison. Even though the CNN crew had obtained a court order to speak with Eric the Warden personally turned them away from the gates.
There's nothing you can do to help Eric but to remember that he is still in a Nicaraguan jail cell and hope that in a different political climate he might get another trial. The political climate at the moment could not be worse for Eric. Though Daniel Ortega claimed to be a new man upon election, even his sympathizers have noted that he quickly returned to the populist ways that kept his previous regime in power, a regime that was the sworn enemy of the United States. The pro-Sandinista press claims that Eric’s family is somehow manipulating the world press to cast unfavorable light on the Nicaraguan judicial system, and make a farce of their country. Until the Sandinistas have run their course a second time, Eric is screwed.

Given the evidence not considered at the first trial, the phone records and the eyewitness alibis, I do think Eric deserves another hearing. I believe the claim that he never set foot in San Juan del Sur on the day of the murder. It is not clear, however, that he is innocent. Little attention has been given by the free Eric crowd to the accusation that he paid a thug to kill his ex and then he made those phone calls and lunched with a prominent Managuan to cover his tracks. What else would have been the motive of the hit man, Julio Martin Chamorro Lopez, pinned to the murder and convicted alongside Eric, if not blood money? Lopez confessed to the murder, and though his story that Eric was there beside him does not make sense, it seems equally implausible that he killed a shop girl without the $5,000 cash motive he alleges Eric gave him. Eric’s defenders only argument is that no record was ever found of him withdrawing that sum from a bank. Impossible to prove a negative, sure, but this is less than convincing rebuttal. Also, there remains the bizarre testimony of Hertz rental employees who claim that one of Volz' employees tried to coerce them into signing an affidavit which stated Volz picked up a rental car around the time of the murder. He did in fact rent a car that day, but it was picked up by one of his employees. This alleged cover up was used by the Judge as evidence against Eric. The defense only countered that the employee had been acting on her own volition.

Even if you are swayed by Eric's defenders, a couple of ready lessons can be taken from this story: 1) stay away from business ventures in parts of the world where the United States has a recent history of bloody antagonism against the ruling government, 2) especially if it is a dirt poor country where you could draw the envy of the populace for being too successful. 3) If you must speculate, do so through local partners that share a vested interest in your success, and do make your life there.

From Eric Volz to William Walker, Nashvillians have not had much luck in Nicaragua. Click Here to Read More..

Monday, December 3, 2007

Viva North American Union!

No posts in a while, but I'm still here. I'm working on some longer pieces so please check in every so often. Also, come January, this will again be my primary travel journal site.

In a world of ever eroding journalistic standards, I am finding it is dangerous to rely on a handful of outlets to get the news. My weekly uptake includes The Economist, the SF Chronicle, primarily for the Giants coverage, and a smattering of internet sites. The past couple weeks one of my big two really let me down. The Chronicle has been running a series on the Ron Paul presidential bid, mostly to portray the motley array of disaffected Bay Area Paul supporters: anti-war conservatives, libertarian minded techies, and others fed up with run of the mill partisanship. The articles have exaggerated the impact of his Guy Fawkes Day haul of $4.2 million in internet campaign contributions while downplaying the snowball in hell odds that Paul will win even a single delegate in the primaries. I'm not criticizing the spin, journalists get bored with the status quo like the rest of us, and it is interesting to see how extremist campaigns can energize certain slivers of otherwise dormant electorate. Less acceptable is the scant coverage of his actual campaign platform. If you are going to hype a dark horse, at least inform us what the guy would do if elected. All I gleaned from these articles is that Paul is against the war, pro-drug legalization (things I would expect from a libertarian), and anti-NAFTA. Ok, but why the NAFTA slam? Is it because he is an idealistic free trader who does not believe in regional blocs and the compromises that make these pacts politically feasible? Or is he merely pandering to protectionists like the rest of the field?

Which leads to the inexcusable: in these two weeks of Chronicle coverage, not a single article has given me a whiff that Ron Paul is a total NUT JOB. Perhaps they figured the local readership would take it for granted that the views of a Libertarian Congressman from Texas (aside from drug legalization) would be mostly alien regardless of the specifics. It wasn’t until this weekend when an old high school friend, Clay Risen, editor of Democracy, gave me the story the Chronicle might have done better to include along with all the fluff pieces.

It turns out Paul is a believer in a latter day New World Order type continental conspiracy called the North American Union. He maintains that the Council on Foreign Relations along with a raft of lesser-known political groups are scheming for a super-national merger of the United States with Canada and Mexico. NAFTA was just the first step. He claims a NAFTA inspired 20-lane superhighway that would link Mexico with the United States and Canada is currently in the works, though obfuscated, of course, in the dense legislation of various transportation bills and by the machinations of a consortium of big business interests and rogue federal agencies. Once this continental highway is completed, however, it is a slippery slope into continental political union, our loss national sovereignty, and dread, mandatory French lessons.

Lunacy perhaps, but Paul hits a nerve among those dialed in to late night AM talk radio land. He has a rabid following among conspiracy theorists who have grown tired of waiting for the UN convoys to trammel upon our breadbasket with the aid of UFO cruisers (an actual report I heard on “Coast to Coast” in the late 90’s) and have now consolidated their wrath to blame Mexico for something other than her Spanish speaking exodus.

Paul supporter Paul Von Nothaus, founder of the Liberty Dollar, began minting various denominations of gold, silver and copper coins to be used as a competing currency that would simultaneously raise money for the Paul campaign. The Liberty Dollar dovetailed nicely with Paul’s call for a return to the Gold Standard. Thousands of coins were purchased by Paul supporters until the Treasury department took notice and the secret service began seizing the Paul dollars in circulation. You just can’t mock a conspiracy and hope to get away with it.

This is probably news only to me, proof that I’m far from my debate days when I scoured the political wire with the same relish I still mull over the box scores. I had never heard of a NAFTA superhighway nor the North America Union, but upon reflection, I am undoubtedly for both. Twenty lanes of smooth asphalt beats the heck out of the pot-hole riddled Pan American highway. One trip over the craters and the speed bumps awaiting at every three hut village from San Cristobal, Mexico to Guatemala City and I assure you you'll be happy to sign up for what sounds like a transportation-minded union.

And how exactly do these skeptics figure we’ll be throwing away any sovereignty in the deal? Will our thirty three million Canadian neighbors be writing the new rules? Ha! What about the new Southern overlords? The Mexicans have problems controlling their own country, (which at the moment is considerably more dangerous than my next destination, Colombia) and don’t forget our last war with the Sudenos was one of the quickest, most pain-free land grabs of all time. My bet is on Uncle Sam coming out king of the North American Union.

Sounds more like 21st century Manifest Destiny. We triple our landmass, plunder the resources of our hapless northern neighbors, and actively regulate our cheap labor supply to the south. Throw in some free adult language classes along with the mandatory French and Spanish in the new grade school curriculums, and I’m first in line.

So why can I only find anti North America Union bumper stickers on the web? Surely there is a pro lobby in the making. Oh right, the neo-illuminati types. So in the meantime I’ll have to look into getting a seat on one of these secret councils to assure a cush job in the new bureaucracy. Click Here to Read More..

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Reconstructing the Big Easy

New Orleans, August 2007

We took a detour on Jack’s move from Boston to Austin to spend a week in New Orleans where he had lived the majority of his adult life until running from Katrina in typical Jack style—at the last possible moment. Jack had an agreement with a buddy of his that they’d wait out any storm less than a Category 5, at which point they’d call each other and make plans to leave the city. Katrina must not have hit the category 5 threshold by the time Jack passed out on a Saturday night just over two years ago. He woke up to the calls for mandatory evacuation. Not only had the storm intensified, it was spiraling straight towards the Gulf Coast. So he called his friend to figure out their last minute escape.

“Oh, hey Jack…Sorry man, meant to call you…Yeah, I drove up to Shreveport last night...”

By the time Jack got on the road, just before Katrina’s outer arms began lashing the coast, there wasn’t any traffic to contend with. He had a smooth ride up to his parents’ place in Memphis. Displaced from his home in New Orleans, Jack is living proof that one man’s catastrophe is another man’s opportunity. I haven’t heard of anyone who made out better in Katrina’s immediate wake.

Granted, Jack is one of the smartest guys I know, his detailed memories of conversations from half a lifetime ago can be frightening, but for years it seemed like college was something that happened to him while he was busy getting on with the more important aspects of life. Then somewhere along his several victory laps of the undergrad circuit that included stops in Nashville, Tempe, and New Orleans, he caught the academic bug, and decided the University lifestyle suited him just fine. So did the Big Easy. He continued on to grad school where he had finished his first degree at the University of New Orleans, and then Katrina hit right before the start of the school year. A couple weeks later Jack was apartment hunting in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he had been accepted to finish up his Masters degree in high style. Jack parleyed a Blutowski-esque, eight-year undergraduate spree into Harvard University. Not bad, Mr. Troutt.

While the country opened its arms to many of the employable (or in Jack’s case school-able), there were tens of thousands of residents with no ready skills or opportunities that did not fare well in the transition. Houston grumbled about the hundred thousand plus refugees it absorbed (a saving grace for its slack apartment market btw), attributing new gang activity and a spike in crime to the influx of New Orleans’ displaced poor. Given the lack of funds or a coherent plan for how the city’s most afflicted districts will be rebuilt and then protected from future storms, some of the population displacement will be permanent. City officials estimate that roughly 70% of New Orleans pre-Katrina residents have returned. Sales tax receipts are back to 84% of pre-storm levels, and given that tourist sector is still far from its peak, the numbers suggest that the poorest residents have not returned in proportion to the city’s rich and middle class.

The biggest changes I noticed on the ground were demographic. Just off the interstate we pulled alongside a crew of construction workers loaded into the back of a pickup truck and laughing over a Hustler magazine. I asked, in Spanish, if I could take a picture. The driver saw what was going on and held a centerfold out of the window, somehow managing to smile for the camera, give a thumbs up, and keep the moving truck centered on the road. Every fifth person we saw on the street the first day was Latino. The rebuilding of New Orleans is reliant on immigrant labor, and naturally the construction workers doing the rebuilding have relocated to the city. Long term this infusion of fresh blood may provide just what is needed to shakeup the city’s stultified black-white politics.

Big Easy politics aren’t changing anytime soon. Corruption scandals covered the front pages when we arrived, and two high-ranking city officials resigned during the week of our visit. The Times-Picayune provided excellent post-Katrina coverage lampooning the daily shortcomings of city, state, and federal rebuilding efforts. After two years only a fraction of displaced residents have received eligible disaster relief, and a majority of the city owned multi-family housing units are waste pits with putrid refrigerators and rotting furniture, the carpets abloom with fungus and mold.

New Orleans may not have earned any civic leadership awards its past couple years, but City hall should receive some sort of recognition for innovative public relations. Mayor Ray “Chocolate City” Nagin is up for the Marion S. Barry spin for entertainment award. He held a press conference the day we arrived and put a positive light on the second double murder in the city within a week. Addressing the murders of the Phillips brothers, who were linked to 18 murders in the city, Nagin said, “It is unfortunate that they had to die, but it did kind of end the cycle that we were struggling with.” In other words, sometimes the hood has a way of taking care of itself.

Tuesday the paper reported yet a third double murder, and it sounded like a miracle that there were only two fatalities. At the conclusion of a basketball game at an indoor rec. center, 25 players and spectators were filing out of the building when a man carrying an AK 47 burst from the shadows between two shotgun homes and unloaded a magazine of bullets into the crowd.

Neither victim was a suspected murderer, so Nagin needed to find another angle for positive spin besides hoods ridding us of hoods. Sure enough, at his morning press conference he found the silver lining, explaining how New Orleans’ ghastly murder rate was actually a “two-edged sword.” Huh? The full quote: “Do I worry about it? Somewhat, it’s not good for us, but it also keeps the New Orleans brand out there, and it keeps people thinking about our needs and what we need to bring this community back. So, it is kind of a two-edged sword.”

Good point Ray, you’ve got to keep that New Orleans brand out there. It makes sense to a point. I’ll take my po-boy deep fried with a double on the rocks and a beer back, hell, I might even scrounge a pack of smokes while I’m at it if tomorrow I might be handing over my wallet to muggers who might shoot me afterwards anyway. Let the good times roll.

Given the news reports and my preconception of the storm damage, I was surprised that so much of the city was back to normal. Save a scattering of shuttered businesses, the stretch of New Orleans I am most familiar with, the sliver of Uptown between Tchoupitoulas and St. Charles that runs from the lower Garden District out to Carrollton just past Tulane University and Audubon Park, has almost completely recovered. Magazine Street is livelier than before the hurricane, though the upscale restaurants and boutiques that have moved in are interchangeable with those of any yuppified district from D.C. to Dallas. While this strip of the city sits on the high ground least affected by the storm, it is not the exception. On the other extreme, the Lower Ninth Ward is still something of a ghost town, though even in that neighborhood there are signs of progress. The rubbish and debris have been cleared, and on every other block there is a crew working on one of the gutted houses.

By early August, it appeared quite a few schools, windows still boarded up and walls covered with graffiti, would remain shut down this year, though it’s hard to tell without asking whether a school in New Orleans is closed or merely dilapidated. In my year spent teaching for America, I visited a fellow corps member assigned to an Orleans Parish middle school. Since I arrived late on a Thursday night, I had time to visit her classroom on Friday, yet with my first look at the place I figured I had gotten the address wrong. The grim, cement block building was set behind an eight-foot high fence topped with razor wire. I pushed through a mob of students competing for the attention of a distant eyed secretary talking on the phone at the front desk. I waited for a few minutes to see about a pass or an escort to Emily’s classroom. The secretary made eye contact, put down the phone, shooed away the kids, and then dialed another number. The conversation did not concern me. Apparently a grown man-- unlikely a school parent-- did not need permission to walk these halls. Nor did the children. There were kids running wild in the dingy corridor past the school office where all but a couple of the florescent bulbs needed replacing. The ceiling dripped into puddles that the kids splashed about in a free-for-all game of tag. More kids were hanging on the metal banister at the end of the hall and I saw the shirttails of at least two more hiding under the stairwell. I did not see a single teacher on my way to Emily’s second floor classroom. Two girls and boy, all with their uniforms tucked in and sitting up straight, were waiting on the bench across from her door.

“Where is your teacher?” I asked them.
“Miss went on an errand.”
“Then why are there kids in her classroom?”
“They locked the door so they can play on the computers.”

Her presence did not exactly restore order. When she returned just ahead of the bell the same kids were still locked inside, and now one of them was trying to keep her from unlocking the door by holding onto the knob. Eventually she threatened her way through the barricade. Her fleeting victory was dashed by a girl named Crystal who opened class with a savvy estimation of my relation to Miss that set the classroom roaring right through the bell. She did not seem bothered, as like me she had probably given up sometime before Thanksgiving. I no longer envied her big city placement. Lee High, where I taught special ed in the Delta, was a model school compared to this penitentiary-in-training. And should New Orleans ever succumb completely to its festering urban decay, know the seeds were sown long before Hurricane Katrina.

If not for the staggering crime rate, abysmal civic institutions, and an almost complete lack of vegetarian options, New Orleans is the kind of place I could make home. It is a city abounding in juxtaposition and enigma. There are few places I’ve seen in the world where the streets are so democratic, and where high society is so utterly inaccessible. Where rich and poor, black and white crowd to the same dive bars and tuck in to the same French fry sandwiches, and nearby another world lurks unseen past high walls hedged by orange trees and hanging carpets of Bougainvillea. Where jagged sidewalks rise and fall along streets of antebellum mansions that abut rows of shotgun shacks along the crooks of equally jagged sidewalks. Where wide boulevards shaded by gnarled live oaks and Spanish moss run past blazing neon liquor stores. Where the broiling summer heat stews decrepit sewers into a stench of evil and death that reach your nose just as you pass by the iron gates outside above ground tombs. Where people still practice Vodoun and believe in Vampires. A city so hopelessly broken and corrupt you can’t help loving it. Click Here to Read More..

Wednesday, July 11, 2007


The shame about Michael Moore is that he is a fat slob. In an era where there are a dearth of recognized figures advocating the plight of the less fortunate in our country, Moore has amply filled a void, but in the process become the all too easily lampooned poster boy of the American left. Even when making a good point, he finds a way to come off as either bullying or smug, and one loses the message in sight of the jackass messenger. As someone in full support of more stringent gun control, I wanted to enjoy Bowling for Columbine. Yet after his tangential swipe at the US bombing in Serbia—in my opinion the most successful case of limited intervention in the post-war era— his humiliation of a middle manager at K Mart headquarters, and his bullying of a senile and confused old man who had invited him into his home (ok, it was Charlton Heston), I didn’t want to listen to the guy, much less agree with him.

So I went to his latest film Sicko prepared to cringe at his tactics, hoping the interesting topic would rise above the smug. Surprisingly, Moore used more argument and less antic than in his previous films. He provides a thoughtful, on point attack of a health care system that falls short of the rest of the first world and which is shamefully bested by our communist neighbor to the south. Sicko is the best Moore film since Roger and Me way back in the Reagan era.

If that whets your appetite to see the film, go see it, else you’ll find spoilers in the rest.

While the camera closes in on a man in his living room sewing his own stitches to close a gash in his knee, Moore’s voice over tells the audience that the film it is about to watch is not about the 50 million people in this country without health insurance. Rather, the film is about the millions of Americans who, despite having insurance, struggle to receive the care they need. Moore investigates how insurance companies, driven by a profit motive that creates incentives to refuse service, routinely deny coverage or employ after the fact investigations to invalidate policies. Thousands of ‘insured’ Americans die every year because their insurers refuse procedures. Meanwhile, managers for these companies are rewarded for the extent to which they minimize payouts vis-à-vis their peers.

The second part of the film takes the audience on a tour of the single payer systems in Canada, the UK, and France. The modern facilities, short waiting lines, and customer satisfaction that Moore finds wherever he turns up contrasts with the agony and frustration of the Americans he portrays who Though tinted with his trademark smugness, the comparison of the European model to the American does yield some arresting statistics that reinforce the anecdotal evidence. The life expectancies of the poorest cohorts of the UK, Canada, and France are now significantly longer than that of the richest in USA.

One shortcoming of the film is that it consistently downplays the costs involved with a single payer model, and the challenges the depicted national governments have faced in providing adequate services to all. Again and again Moore interviews patients of national health systems who are delighted that their services are free. Comparing the tax rates between the US and these countries will show that national health is definitely not free, nor is it cheap. Several voices in the film do set up what could have been a meaningful debate about the relative costs involved. First, the doctors interviewed in Great Britain and Canada state with pride that they have never had to contemplate denying care. The British doctor goes on to say he would not consider working in a system like the American one, that his family has two cars and a nice home and that they do not need four cars and a mansion. This contrasts with the earlier footage of a congressional testimony where a teary eyed physician has come forward during the debate about HMO regulations with the heart wrenching admission that she made a decision to deny a procedure to a patient whom she knew would die as a result. Her decision was never questioned, though her reputation as a cost manager was secured and she was vaulted onto a fast track career path in her managed health firm. In addition to this distraught doctor, Moore interviews several managers within the insurance industry who have suffered the guilt of enriching themselves and pleasing their companies at the expense of their customers. Psychological stress is not limited to the under provided.

The film’s final sequence was a brilliant piece of political theater. Moore catches up with several of the rescue workers and clean up crew of the 9/11 disaster. Hailed as heroes 5 years ago, many of these men and women can’t get proper medical attention for the litany of respiratory illnesses they now suffer after breathing toxic fumes from the fallen towers. Moore fills up three motorboats with these patients and sets sail from Miami to Guantanamo Bay in search of the top notch medical care the government has boasted it gives to the terrorists held there. They have no luck getting into Gitmo, but upon arrival in Havana the Cubans offer medical care to all of Moore’s companions. Again, the shortcoming in this sequence is that costs—political and economic freedom and a cash starved society for starters—for the seemingly cheap and ubiquitous health care Cubans enjoy are not fairly presented. At a Cuban pharmacy the Americans marvel at the drugs they can buy for 5 cents a prescription. Cheap for them, but given the scarcity of currency on the island, the cost to ordinary Cubans in adjusted terms might well prove more draining on their incomes. Then consider that anywhere from 20-50% of pharmaceuticals found on third world shelves are counterfeits, Walgreen’s is not looking so bad in comparison. Nonetheless it is a glaring indictment on the inequities of our health system when a poor country like Cuba can afford first-rate health services for its entire population. America, on the other hand, does not adequately provide for its heroes, though according to Bill Frist excellent care is still available for those captive terrorists.

Universal health care is a costly proposition. Though our current system has priced millions out of comprehensive coverage and left millions more at the mercy of the all-powerful insurers, national health care, sadly, is not likely the answer in this country. Besides the obvious objection that it is not politically viable on the order of gay marriage in Mississippi, a national health scheme in a land that prides itself on the power of market based solutions would be doomed from the start. Those with the means would invariably choose private care and as those in power opt out, the system is doomed to stagnate into the dingy halls that the right conjures to mind with its collective shriek ‘socialized medicine!’ And maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Look no further than public education to see how a universal model slides from the ideal when the elite does not participate in the system.

If single payer is not the solution, Moore’s film should at least sound a challenge for policymakers to come up with better alternatives than the status quo offers. The market failures that Moore points out in his film, the perverse incentives that save companies money at the expense of lives lost, must be addressed if a market based system has any hope of being palatable, much less equitable. There are no magic bullets. Many advocate medical savings accounts as a quick fix, but it is only a half fix. MSA’s will not address the perverse incentives insurers have for denying individuals services or insurance outright. Without the benefit of pooling, individuals with poor risk profiles will be left out to dry in the open market, and an MSA would quickly evaporate if a high deductible policy is terminated when an insurer deems a customer has become undesirable. Even with better rules in place protecting individuals in this intimidating environment, the galloping rate at which medical costs have been inflating the past two decades would seem to outpace the average individual’s ability to save for increasingly costly care.

If we can find the public money to spend trillions making bombs and patrolling war zones our disastrous foreign policy has created, surely a comparable amount could be found so that the residents of our nation do not fear the consequences of seeking medical attention when they need it. Kudos to Michael Moore for making a film that, if not providing the answers for our health care system, provokes the questions we should be looking to answer.

And thank you Michael Moore for reining your bull in a china shop gag. You even look less slovenly this time around. Perhaps more people will be compelled to take you seriously now. Click Here to Read More..

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Kill Your Television

It's not that I believe everything I see on TV. If I was putting millions of dollars into a reality program, I'd damn well expect some professional writers on the payroll. Even documentaries are prone to exaggeration; people just don't act the same way when you put them in front of a camera. Still, it's a bummer to watch something meticulously staged being presented as real life. The Discovery Channel is in Granada doing a travel show for a series on Central America. Most of the show is a rundown on where to stay and what to see, but they also do some color pieces on the places they visit. One of the segments is going to be about baseball, Nicaragua's national pastime. Rather than go to a scheduled game, the TV crew decided it would be easier to just put on a game of their own.

I stumbled through my Sunday morning fog and met Stephan and Charlotte, a Dutch couple now volunteering in Granada and whom I had met last month in Antigua, at 9:30 in front of church near the mistress' house. It was one of the the many churches, now restored, that Walker had burned to the ground before leaving the city for the last time in 1856. A group of us had decided late Saturday night that it would make a nice Sunday outing to visit a village and watch the kids play some baseball for the Discovery people. The Dutch couple and some of the others at the party were volunteering at the village school, and the producer on the Discovery crew had asked their volunteer office to send some of the teachers as a cheering section for the kids.

I had imagined a little field behind the school and a grassy spot in the shade, a nice a place as anywhere to ride out a Mojito hangover. The village was a good 40 minute walk from town. Men and women of all ages were out on their rocking chairs, and the streets were full of people heading to the market or mass. The road was paved up to the cemetery with its magnificent granite tombs more comfortable looking than the shanties that straddled road starting where it changed to dirt. A pickup headed towards the village stopped to give us a lift, and we jumped into the truck bed. We got dropped off in front of a couple of corrugated shacks slouching amidst the trash drifts and a few hungry pigs. The camera crew was setting up behind their van on the side of the road, and they spun around to get an action shot shot of the hitch hiking gringos jumping out of a truck bed. The field was behind the shacks. There were no trees for shade, nor was there grass, or anything green for that matter on the dusty, uneven pasture mined with horse manure. There were four bases that barely stood out from above the droppings, and there were two faint chalk lines that ran from home plate to first and third bases. The only kids were watching from the sideline with their moms. The players on the field ranged from their late teens to early thirties, and they were wearing a hodgepodge of uniforms, some with local place names, most of the rest had filtered down from American high schools and AAU teams.

The sky was darkening from the direction of Lake Nicaragua. Sharp gusts strafed us with swirling, turgid dust clouds. The Discovery crew, not in the mood for a rain out, began to scramble. A camera man stood right behind the mound, and the producer choreographed the action. She arranged the outfield to fit in the shots and bunched the spectators together with the players on the sideline to give the appearance of a larger crowd than the 40 odd people who turned up. The group I was with was asked to cluster about 25 feet down the third baseline. We stood facing a second camera in shallow right field. We were dangerously close to hits down the line and pointed us directly into the onslaught of shit-dust. The producer peppered the field with instructions like a coach hitting fungo. Before opening her mouth, she seemed exasperated by the European cheering section (who were dumb enough to stand where she had placed them between home and third base).

"Does anyone here know anything about baseball?"

No response. The Europeans shuffled a little closer together.

"OK then. When the camera turns this way, I want you all to chant like this 'We want a pitcher, not a glass of water!'"

Fortunately, not wanting to take a line drive to the head, I had slinked away from the oncoming producer. I watched the rest of the filming with the pigs, in between the sheds where I had some shelter from the wind and dust and the embarrassment of those stupid cheers. After filming the crowd, the producer cut the top half of the inning in order to ensure some shots of the other team's defense ahead of the rain. Before they could be taught another painful chant, I convinced my friends it was time to leave. We were nearly back to town before the rains broke.

I learned afterwards that in addition to scheduling the game, Discovery had donated money for the uniforms. Intended for the school kids, the proceeds made their way to the fathers and elder sons and the result was the two motley dressed teams slinging bats and losing grounders in the dust. No doubt Discovery scored a segment infinitely more palatable than the ball scratching and rum drinking they would have gotten had they showed up unannounced.

There was an interesting article in the paper this morning witha brief sketch of baseball's history in Nicaragua. Nicaraguans have played baseball for over a century, yet the country has only produced nine (according to the article) major leaguers. The writer concluded that the lack of developmental infrastructure makes it almost impossible to cultivate local talent. I guess in this regard the pasture provided a realistic view of the state of the Nicaraguan game. With all the money MLB pours into scouting and player development, this country would seem seem an ideal place for a baseball academy. Vincente Padilla, who might be the only active Nicaraguan in MLB, has just agreed to donate a portion of his new contract for a foundation that will promote Nicaraguan youth in sports. Good for him. Click Here to Read More..

Friday, February 16, 2007


On our way to Tikal, Lika and I took a detour to visit the Guatemalan coastal village of Livingston, which is only accessible by boat as it is situated on a delta island at the mouth of the Rio Dulce. Livingston is a long haul from Guatemala City. By the time we arrived at the transit point for Livingston, Puerto Barrios, it was too late to find a launch so we had no choice to stay the night.

Puerto Barrios is a rough town, nearly a half a century past its hey-day as the principal port for Guatemala. It has long since slid back into a tropical torpor. The most prominent features of the town are the towers of Dole shipping containers stacked four high behind fences topped with razor wire. The containers are painted with the failed Dole mascot, Bobby the Banana, who never took hold in the States. At least it was the first I had heard of him. There was something indecent about the enthusiastic Bobby depicted cruising along on his skateboard happily peeling himself.

We made our way through the muddy streets to Hotel del Norte, the only game in town for the handful of people who miss the 5 pm ferry, or who for some inexplicable reason might want to linger and contemplate the town’s layered bouquet of port water, diesel, and excrement. Del Norte is a dilapidated two-story mansion with wood siding that is warping under a yellowing paint. Its screened hallways, wide enough for a locomotive, were nostalgic for past glories. The veranda still breathed the cigar smoke from the Banana moguls who lounged about sipping rum, plotting intrigue. Easily a centenarian, the hotel groaned under the burden of every footfall over its sloped and cratered floors. A once glorious mansion mired in the general malaise.

After dinner at the town's recommended restaurant, a cocktail of cheap Guatemalan beer and fumes off the bay had inhibited my judgment to the point that I agreed with Lika that it would be a good idea to stretch our legs down the dark streets to the hotel. We soon found ourselves walking beside another long stretch of containers. Opposite the storage yard, there was a makeshift bar, what had also once been a container with the side cut out so that it opened to the street. The novelty of a bar inside a shipping container was enough reason to stop for a beer, though a local youth who was twirling a large, angry snake he had just caught by its tail just up the pitted road from the bar provided some additional incentive to hang back depending as I did not have much trust in a boy slinging a large, pissed-off snake. There were two men seated at the plastic table in front of the bar, and one of them asked us, in English, to join them for a beer. His name was Gerry. He was wearing a baseball cap with the American flag and spoke with an accent that sounded almost Jamaican, though he had a bizarre and anachronistic cadence of an early blaxploitation film. Gerry was a Garifuna who had immigrated at the age of seven to New York and was back in his homeland for the first time after 38 years in the States.

I was amazed to hear that after four decades he still did not have permanent residence status. It didn't seem to bother him, and he spoke as if he might never return to the States. He had been back in Guatemala for 7 months, though his eyes lit up and his face broke into a broad smile every time he mentioned the move. He said he was still meeting cousins and nephews he had never known existed and was touched by how many of these new relations, long before having met them, had his picture on their walls. Gerry was the boy who went to America and made good. Raised in Harlem, he went to college and studied to become an electrician. He then spent a good portion of his career based out of Houston while working on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

His Spanish was shaky. It is a second language for many on Caribbean coast, and though he learned it as a child, he lost it growing up in New York. He sounded fluent in the other language-- my first guess was French Creole-- he spoke with his uncle. They were speaking Garifuna, a unique blend of West African and indigenous Caribbean language with a twist of French, his first language growing up. After leaving Guatemala, his mom was his only link to his native tongue, though he tenaciously held on to it to the point of talking to himself in the years he lived alone so he would never forget. He has even taught it to his two American daughters who have never met another Garifuna.

"That's culture man, you hold onto that. Dig-it?” Gerry said, reaching his hands behind his head with a satisfied grin.

Before we arrived, Gerry and his uncle had bled the container’s cooler dry, so when they finished their beers we said goodnight. We stopped by a container-corner store for some beers which we drank on the veranda where we watched the carnivorous mosquitoes fly in formation through gaping holes in the screens. Flanked on three sides by a thousand self-skinning Bobbies and their demented grins, we to get some sleep under the heavy blanket of port air.

Daylight did not flatter Puerto Barrios. Mosquitoes played in the dust clouds of the steady stream of big rigs lumbering towards the terminal over unpaved roads. Haphazard slabs of concrete sidewalk partially covered stagnant sewer water that was slowly cooking into a retched broth by the late morning sun. We had waited some time for a launch to Livingston after missing the morning ferry. After half a shipping container's worth of beer Gerry had given us the wrong time for the regular service.

We arrived in Livingston early afternoon. While exploring the town met a local musician/historian by the water who was waiting to engage the few tourists willing to ignore the trickling sewers and sullied beaches on the backside of the peninsula. We hardly noticed. The breeze off the water was a pleasant contrast to the pestilential stench of Puertos Barrios.

Polo is a man of at least 60 judged by his cottony curls and dark sunken eyes. He is a jack-of-all-trades, a teacher (and advocate for the first Garifuna language primary school in Guatemala), drummer, historian, and master storyteller. Once we showed some interest in his community, Polo leaned back onto a cinder block wall abutting the shore and started from the beginning.

The Garifuna people come from the Island of St. Vincent, where, in the early years of the slave trade two ships loaded with Africans wrecked off the coast. The surviving slaves mixed with a local population of Carib Indians, according to Polo, the Arawaks from the Orinoco river basin in present day Venezuela. This was a fortuitous union, as the African blood of the escaped slaves lent the population immunity to the Old World diseases that elsewhere decimated local indigenous populations by 90-98 percent in little more than a generation. Historians say that the Arawaks were completely wiped out by the twin scourges of disease and, depending on the extent one accepts the thesis of the Black Legend, the brutality of the Spanish in their single-minded pursuit of bullion. Polo, however, contests the extinction of the Arawak as he claims the Garifuna are direct descendants. Because this African-Carib community, the Garifuna, had resistance to small pox and a fierce martial tradition, the Spanish were unable to conquer St. Vincent. For over two hundred years then, the Garifuna were an independent community that prospered by trading with the Spanish Convoys that stopped for provisions en route to and from the Spanish mainland. English pirates took advantage of this autonomy and used St. Vincent as a staging point for attacks on gold and silver laden Galleons, a disruption to the Garifuna trade with the Spanish. In time English naval power took command of the Caribbean from a sclerotic Spanish Empire, and the Garifuna cast their lot with the new rivals to English domination of the Caribbean, the French. After several unsuccessful attempts, the British subdued the Garifuna in1797, nearly two centuries after the shipwrecks that brought the Garifuna into existence. The British decided to exile the remaining Garifuna to the Mosquito Coast island of Roatan off of modern day Honduras.

Here Polo colored the story with touches reminiscent of West African folk tales. After the British left them to starve on a barren isle with only the poisonous manioc, the Garifuna had to find a means of subsistence. They noticed how snakes ate the island's poisonous toads by squeezing out their toxins before swallowing. The Garifuna did this with the manioc, stuffing the tubers into sacks that the women, "with their large buttocks", sat on until they had drained away the toxins. It's a nice children's story even if the facts are less enchanting. Anthropologists and historians have found evidence of Arawak's consumption of manioc and yucca long before the arrival of the Garifuna on Roatan, and sadly, many of the original exiles did succumb to starvation.

A fraction of the displaced Garifuna did eventually adapt to the hostile island. Others migrated to the coast of mainland Honduras, and today Garifuna villages are scattered along the Caribbean side of Central America from Southern Belize to the Honduran stretch of the Mosquito Coast. They are a people proud of their heritage and, and like Polo happy to share their culture and history with visitors.

After the history lesson, Polo took us on a tour of the Garifuna section of Livingston, mostly shanties, cinder block bunkers, and overgrown yards with subdued kids and scraggly chickens. The thatched houses that once predominated here had been blown away hurricane Mitch. Families sat outside and played dominoes on plastic tables. Polo invited us into a single room home where several generations of women were watching a Spanish football match on a TV that was the one decoration in the room. We finished the tour at a local hangout community center where kids were practicing on various sized hand drums. Polo complained that the kids were tearing up the drums, but he was pleased that so many of the youth here are engaged in the traditional music.

Before leaving us, Polo recommended a Garifuna restaurant, though I was little wary when we were the only customers on a Saturday night at 8 pm. The waitress slowly shuffled towards the table, perhaps annoyed that two customers would extend her workweek by hour. I ordered tapada, a coconut based seafood soup, and she took my order with a wry smile. The tapada arrived with the head and tail of a whole fish protruding from the broth. The shrimp and crab swam in their shells along with a whole baby squid, conch, and the fish. After dinner she returned the same eerie smile which widened when she said, "After tapada, a good siesta," which brought maniacal laughter from the women watching us on the stoop just down the street. The taunt made me nervous, and the residual spices left me sweating for much of the rest of the night. Fortunately system failure did not ensue. Click Here to Read More..

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Legal Stuff

All content of this web log is owned by me, William Wilson (henceforth
Bill W.). All intellectual property created and communicated via
Blogger and Myspace web log technology is solely owned by me, Bill W.

2. You may not distribute this information, communicate or edit it
without the express permission of me, Bill W. However, I authorize all
people to look at my writings, i.e. intellectual property, and discuss
the ideas therein. Note: if ideas are property, than my ideas are my
property and are in the process of being trademarked, copyrighted,
patented as needed. That is, all content of this site that was
produced, created, and labored on by me, is the sole property of Bill

3. As a resident of San Francisco, CA, I am aware that I have many
rights as a consumer, writer, and citizen living and residing in San
Francisco, CA. Many of these rights may conflict with other state,
federal, international, laws. Anyone who has a problem with me or the
content of my web content may discuss the matter with me in SAN
FRANCISCO, CA. Should any legal issues arise, all disputes will be
settled in the City and County of San Francisco, State of California.

4. The content of this web site is NOT journalism and should not be
used by Journalists in their reporting. The content of this web site
is the SOLE opinion of its creator, Bill W., and is protected by the
First Amendment's Freedom of Speech clause. Click Here to Read More..

Monday, February 12, 2007

Walker in Granada and a Nicaraguan Homestay

The Nicaraguan cities of Leon and Granada have had a rivalry only possible between competitive siblings. Granada has been the historic home of conservative politics in Nicaraguan history, and is proud to claim itself the cultural heart of the country. Leon, with its universities and strident intellectual atmosphere, has always sheltered the vanguard of the liberal-left. Granadan's look down upon the Leonese, the latter deriding the snobbery of their southern neighbors.

The impetus for Walker's arrival in Nicaragua was the long-standing power struggles between the conservatives of Granada and the liberals in the colonial capital of Leon. During the Nicaraguan Civil War of 1854-1855, the Leonese invited Walker to intervene on their behalf against the conservatives. Walker arrived with an army of 300 adventurers and from the lake shore of Granada launched a surprise attack that took control of the city. Instead of trying to win the support of Ponciano Corral, the gifted politician at the head of the conservatives and the potential key to national unity, Walker had him executed. This was the first of the many political blunders the filibusterer-in-chief would commit in his 20 months in Nicaragua.

The second of Walker's mistakes was a clumsy power seizure whereby he rigged elections to proclaim himself President. This disillusioned his liberal support in Leon. His forthcoming presidential proclamations, issued from Granada, not the capital, wore out what was left of his welcome even among the closest of allies. The unpopular mandates included making English an official language of the country, legalizing slavery and opening up to the slave trade, outlawing vagrancy as a means to gain the power of impressing labor, and sanctioning the absolute right of private property. Of all the missteps, the worst may have been his seizure of Cornelius Vanderbilt's railway and shipping lines. The furious Commodore was determined to make Walker pay, and he poured resources into the coffers of all the opposing governments of Central America. Walker compounded this problem when he declared, with his rhetorical 5 or None, that his aim was the conquest of all territory between Mexico and Columbia.

Bolstered by Vanderbilt’s war aid, the combined forces of Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador drove Walker into an untenable position in Granada. He evacuated the city and sent orders to have every house, business, and government building--even the churches--burned. Walker's soldiers raped and pillaged, and after leveling the town to ashes, the filibusterers left a sign on the town square- Granada was Here. This last part is what most people on the street can tell you if you mention his name. A very bad man, they are almost sure to add.

Throughout his first Nicaraguan adventure, Walker never lost a decisive military battle. The Battle of Rivas, now remembered as the crossroads where the Central American forces won the decisive campaign of the war, was actually a military rout by the filibusterers. For every 100 casualties suffered by the united armies, Walker’s army lost one soldier. Cholera and dysentery were the more effective enemy. The twin scourges had thinned the ranks of both forces, and after Rivas, Walker decided his 250 men "still able to walk" did not have the means to keep on fighting. Walker negotiated a surrender by which he and his men could obtain passage back to the States. The 5th of May, 1857, they sailed for Panama and from there on to New Orleans.

I decided to take a couple hours of Spanish classes here in Granada, mostly to brush up on vocabulary for my research. Schools are also a great way to find a family to stay with, a very affordable and comfortable means to get to know a town. The family I was put with is not so much a family but the 29-year-old mistress of a local tycoon. He runs the only real option for cable television and high speed internet in Nicaragua. With his enormous belly and white suit he looks like the Nicaraguan Boss Hog. He comes around a couple times of week, once to take the mistress to his island in the lake, another time to hand her a wad of cash. Both visits he sits on the porch while one of his bodyguards mixes his vodka tonics from a well stocked cooler in the tail gate of his Land Cruiser. Another guard stands a few feet behind his chair with a very conspicuous gun on his hip. I drink a beer with him and we both laugh when he pinches the mistress' friends that suddenly materialize when he comes around.

The mistress likes to watch me from the porch while I eat my breakfast. I might need to find another family soon.
Click Here to Read More..

Monday, February 5, 2007

William Walker- Fusilado

That’s what it reads on his gravestone--shot.

The Mosquito Coast is absolutely blowing my mind. In my search for the stories of my distant ancestor, I will start with his ending. In August 1860 he made his last, and by far most haphazard, attempt at conquering Central America. He would never again have the opening that the Liberals of Nicaragua had given him with their invitation to intervene in that country’s civil war in 1855. How he convinced a crew of mercenaries they had any chance of success, after 5 consecutive defeats, leads me to believe he must have had a snake oil salesman’s personality and the voice of a revivalist preacher. My most accounts that on his last adventure, his crew mutinied before they even arrived at his intended launching point on the Honduran Coast. He set himself at the mercy of a British frigate, whose Admiral, after assuring his safe passage, handed him over to Honduran authorities in the port town and former capital of Trujillo. He was shot by firing squad on the 12th of September, 1860, in a fortress overlooking the bay’s turquoise waters which lap at white sands overhung with dense green jungle that run around the town and up into the mountains.

I visited Walker’s grave yesterday in Trujillo and can say that I received the welcome fit for a distant ancestor of that wayward adventurer. First I stopped by the fort where he was executed. Built by the Spanish in 1546, the old stone walls are patched in places where over the years rocks were borrowed to build the rest of the town. What was a defensive wall that ran 3 kilometers down to a lagoon in the deepest curve of the bay is now only preserved as a perimeter for the fort and adjacent prison. The marker that indicates where Walker was shot is now outside this perimeter and on the back steps of a laundry and several small apartments. The residents now empty their bedpans a few feet from the marker. Another smaller plaque inside the gates fortress gates tells the story of the Hondurans dramatic victory and subsequent capture of Walker and his army. This is almost certainly a fiction, though the guard on duty who showed me around seemed proud of the tale so I didn’t interject. He also gave Walker the motive of a man driven mad by a lost love. This is a story I’d like to hear more about, it seems as plausible a motive as any for why a well-bred doctor and lawyer would go off and try to conquer five countries on his own initiative (Note: A book I found on Walker in Nicaragua provides some detail about the death of fiancee while he was in New Orleans).

When I arrived at the old cemetery the gates were locked so I jumped the wall rather than wait for two days when they would open again. I spent some time taking pictures and soaking in his outstanding view of the jungle and the bay below. When I turned around after paying my respects, there was a crowd at the gates. Mostly stern faced women and their wide-eyed kids, though there were also some young men in the group. They all stood there, staring at me. A bolt of ice hammered down my spine. I have never had quite the same feeling or terror in my life, including the time, at age 16, when Eric Anderson and I were held at gunpoint by a lunatic landlord who had just foiled a harmless Halloween prank, a knee planted on each of our chests, the gun pointed between our heads as we lay face up in a mulch bed, unable to breath out of fear and because of the knee. That was a different kind of terror. There is something about the instinct of the crowd, especially in the heat, that is further from reasonable thought or deliberate action than a (mad)man with a pistol.

So, I got to experience, if just for a second, what it might have felt like to see a lynch mob at the front door. My first instict was to run. Instead I walked towards the crowd, then angled to the left to get the wall between me and the still staring Hondurans. Once obscured, I quickened my pace, ok, a dead run, and cut back towards the rear of the cemetery. I grabbed a tree branch and with a crumbling head stone as my springboard, I vaulted the wall and hit the other side on all fours. Still out of view of the crowd, I moved as quickly as I could without looking absurd, and did not look back until I hit the beach a couple kilometers down the bluff. I traded my hat for a jacket packed in my day bag, and zipped up the jacket over my inconspicuous Black Panthers shirt. I hid out in the back of a sea side bar until dark, caught the first half of the Superbowl, and then crept back to my hotel up the dim light streets.

I caught the 430 am bus the next morning and headed towards La Ceiba. Click Here to Read More..

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Oaxaca II

The past eight months have been tumultuous for Oaxacans, and some say a sharp divide remains amongst fellow citizens. There is disagreement even within some families in the quiet now after the unrest. It is unclear at the moment to what extent the protests will continue. In the meantime, the streets are quiet and a heavy police presence remains (This written yesterday, today a group demonstrators who entered the city clashed with the riot squads still stationed in numbers).

The interviews I will share are not intended to reconstruct a day by day of past events. I think it more interesting to hear some different voices and sort the facts later. I have done my best to capture the residents´ perspectives who did share their experiences and opinions. Many people are reluctant to open up to an inquisitive outsider, and are suspicious of interest, however innocuous, in a political climate that has included too many crackdowns and arrests. Others, whose tales I deemed too paranoid- consistently attributing astoundingly precise execution of ´black ops´ to a government that was inept at every other juncture- to be real, would add little aside from the suggestion that whatever did happen took a heavy toll on the collective psyche.

Going in with the little knowledge I could glean from the press, and with no contacts, I was free to imagine a romanticized version of APPO (The Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca), the decentralized coalition in the demonstrations against the governor. I pictured teachers, students, and artists manning the barricades like the Parisians in the summer of 1830, though even the limited coverage the protests received back home suggested the reality of APPO was less than the ideal. I have found people who have maintained most sympathetic views of APPO despite some of the needless mayhem to which they made a contribution. These broad brush stroke accounts, though at times poetic, left little room for subtleties.

It is a strong possibility my less than proficient Spanish detracted from ability to take in the complexities. This is a big reason I left Oaxaca earlier than planned to get my Spanish skills up to speed in one of the ubiquitous and supposedly excellent schools in Guatemala.

By the accounts I gathered at the home of Raul Herrera, a local painter and supporter of APPO, there was no need for nuance in understanding the Oaxacan conflict. A noble battle had been fought, and for the time being, the good guys had lost. Raul´s home and studio that he shared with his wife, also a painter, and two photographers, is situated around a pleasant interior courtyard which seems far removed from the city center at their front door. Herrera´s slightly paunched frame, silvery hair, and deep meditative facial lines, jarred my mental image of the typical protester I expected to encounter from last October’s riots. This graying revolutionary would make a worthy protagonist for any story about a revolutionary movement. Herrera had been in the front line facing the riot shields, and as he brought himself back to the event a fire began burning in his eye.

He delivered his account with the command of an artist in command of his medium. He spoke little as he preferred to let his sketches drive his narrative. The deliberate words he did choose acquired the weight of Zen koans. The Chinese and Japanese influences in his paintings along his speech, appearance, and manner- in which he spiraled around the events in question- all lent him the air of an eastern esoteric. It took some time to get to the subject of the protests. We spoke about Oaxaca and its charms, the galleries, his studio. He’d move closer to the topic of demonstrations, and then would back away.

After explaining that an art movement springing up around the anti-government demonstrations, Raul talked for some time about his methods and influences in art. A few cigarettes later, Raul went for a book that contained his sketches inspired by the demonstrations. His sketches, in ink and charcoal, were in a neatly bound hardcover book. The drawings were minimalist though they captured an astounding range of action and emotion. The first scene showed the masses of demonstrators in a bulging formation that surged towards the fraying police line. The officers were shown holding their shields to protect their backs as they scrambled in disorderly retreat.

¨First we retook the square. Then, they returned in their chariots, ¨ Raul said as he turned the page to show a monstrous armored vehicle from the perspective of the crowd. The reinforced riot squad returned with overwhelming force. The following sketches were busier than the first. The pen strokes were more fragmented. He showed me image after image of broken limbs and writhing bodies. You could hear the bones crunching; smell the teargas as the pages turned.

The more people I talk to, the more I am piecing together something of a consensus that can be drawn from the citizens of Oaxaca. I will attempt to recount this common ground in a later post. In short, the governor has no support, APPO had little organization, let alone leadership, in the streets-- it became a good cause gone awry-- and the presence of hundreds of federal troops is little better than the preceding anarchy. The middle ground here is limited. There are some bitter disagreements over crucial moments in the days leading up to the violent clashes between the federal troops and the protesters.

One of these points, where an American is concerned, is over the death of the American independent journalist Brad Will. The account that Reuters provided, and what was also posted on indie media sites, is that plain clothes officers shot Will while filming at one of the barricades. There is some speculation, however, that he may have been shot by APPO to escalate the crisis.

Later on I’ll provide reflections from two residents whose contrasting stories diverge from the ´consensus´, yet both shed interesting light on the some of the contentious issues as Oaxacans reconstruct the recent past. Click Here to Read More..

Oaxaca Part I

All is quiet in Oaxaca. At the moment it is closer to a ghost town than a traveler’s Mecca, as the preceding months demonstrations have kept the tourists away and sent many locals seeking refuge with friends and family elsewhere. Some hotels have boarded up for the season, and the restaurants that remain open are lucky to have two or three tables’ worth of customers at peak times. The craft bazaars were bereft of buyers. Amazingly, this did not seem to affect market equilibrium. Listless merchants, once engaged in a haggle over a rug or a shirt, sprung to action with a steely enthusiasm that made me look over to shoulder to see if there were really were a dozen other shoppers after the same item.

The only element Oaxaca is not in short supply of at the moment is a police presence, both local and federal. All of the access points into the zocalo, the old town’s main square, and varying intervals along the major roads into the central city are manned by a half dozen flak-jacketed, machine gun bearing troops, with riot shields and batons stacked against the piles of eight foot steel barriers at the ready to cordon off the streets. Last Saturday, on Dia del Reyes, the Mexican day for their equivalent to Santa Claus, the barriers were up. All streets into the zocalo and six blocks around the Santo Domingo church were cordoned off by groups of twenty troops per check point, their riot shields and tear gas canisters in hand. All this bravado for a march of 300 or so men women and children, on their way to a toy giveaway for the children of political prisoners, those who lost their parents, and the kids who live in the public housing complexes around the valley.

It is hard to really get off the beaten track these days, and though Oaxaca is mainstay on the Gringo trail, I have had the rare chance to imagine myself as a solitary wanderer far removed from the backpacking crowd. I had several museums to myself the last few days, and it was nice to take them in as one might a private collection. I was walking to breakfast this morning when I heard the sound of frantic sandals slapping down on the cobblestones behind me.

¨San Francisco Guy, Wait! ¨

I turned to see a set of gangling limbs flailing in my direction. It was a woman from New York I had met at the vegetarian restaurant the day before yesterday. A block and a half beyond her was the cab she must have sprung from upon seeing me, its back door was still open and it was idling in the middle of the street.

¨I thought you might want to check out one of the villages today, you want to go? ¨

I explained that I was on my way to breakfast but she insisted I could just as easily grab a bite at the bus station. The cab dropped us off at the second class bus station where there is line of colectivos, shared taxis that service different villages outside of the city. We found the one marked with our destination in the front window and hopped in the backseat. Normally a colectivo would cram in as many people as possible before setting off, but as there was no one around we only waited a few minutes before he started his engine and the three of us set out. The mountains seemed a lot closer once we got out of the city, and the light and vegetation was not unlike the mountains of southern California. We picked up a few villagers on the way to Ocotlan, and Lia and I chatted about her job in New York, she’s a researcher for a quiz show, and some of her other travels in Mexico.

The driver let us out at a dusty zocalo ringed by dingy shops and a somewhat attractive 16th century church. We wandered into the church and looked at the various saints and ornamentation. In a side chapel there was what looked to be a fake tree wrapped with vines that several women were praying around. The rest of the town was very sleepy. We decided to walk off the square until we hit dirt road. This took three blocks. Before the end of the pavement there was an entrance to a graveyard. Most of the tombs were elevated, the cheaper ones built up with tile, but most had nicer stone, granite and even marble finishes. Some of the structures with columns, porticos, and resident angels and saints, approached the size of the shanties we had seen on the road into the village. There were many elaborate plots for children who didn’t survive their first year. Well over a year’s median income went into many of these displays for the departed, and after a few minutes we ran into what looked to be a grounds crew. In Ocotlan, the dead seemed to sleep more comfortably than the living.
Technorati Profile Click Here to Read More..