I love Cuba

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Of all the abuse that the term ‘authentic’ has come in for over the years, nothing can have prepared it for the outright torture it is subjected to in an advert currently showing on the metro in Rome for authenticcuba.com. Ordinary life for the average Cuban apparently revolves around a succession of five-star hotel lobbies, exclusive spa treatments and gourmet meals of the very highest international standards.

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Although Cuban society is changing, it hasn’t quite yet reached that point of being synonymous with luxury and exclusivity. Maybe the people who made the ad got it confused with Dubai. As an erstwhile/occasional radical Marxist communist revolutionary type who also happens to speak Spanish, I’d always felt slightly ashamed of never having been there when it was more authentically egalitarian. My wife hadn’t either, because early until last year she worked for a (large human rights organisation which isn’t recognised there) defending Caribbean human rights and thus always assumed that she wouldn’t be allowed in. But given that (as of May 2016) we were living not very far away (in Mexico) and that she was leaving her job after seven years, it seemed not to foolish not to give it a whirl. As it happened, the day we arrived was the day after she’d left that job, and it only occurred to us as we approached immigration that if her name was on some sort of list it wasn’t like the hyperefficient Cuban bureaucracy would have removed it in the preceding 24 hours. It’ll be fine, I blithely reassured her, just as a uniformed official stepped in front of us and asked us where we were from and what we did for a living. ¡Ih!

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After 15 or so minutes of slightly evasive light interrogation we were free to enjoy Cuba’s manifold splendors and contradictions, the most prominent of which was occasioned by our very presence there. While in Cuba we we spent about $100 a day (in CUC, the convertible dollar equivalent as opposed to the peso nacional, which is worth 25 times less), five times what very many Cubans working full-time in professional jobs earn in a month. Now, let’s imagine that where you live there was a huge numbers of visitors to whom $3,000 dollars had the same value as $20 has for you. You’d probably badger them, a bit. You’d might even learn to play the guitar, just in case they liked that sort of thing. You’d try to provide whatever services might be to their liking. So it’s easy to see why so many doctors, university professors, teachers and so on are driving taxis, renting out their flats or offering up the odd autentico sex act.

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For various reasons (some frankly superstitious and some eminently sensible, given the embargo and the dangers of suddenly spiralling inequality), there are stringent restrictions on private commerce. Some forms of economic activity are allowed, others prohibited. The fact that food is not on the list makes for a startling contrast with Mexico. If you accepted all the offers you receive for cheap and tasty food in Mexico City you’d be dead within 15 minutes; in Cuba, even with (by local standards) an infinite amount of cash to spend, you can still find yourself if not hungry then certainly a bit frustrated.

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Access to a small quantity of some daily essentials is guaranteed via a system of rationing. Every family receives a small amount of rice, sugar, matches, and oil every month. It’s not enough, but it is essential. Petrol is also cheap thanks to an ongoing (although maybe not for much longer) agreement with Venezuela, and public transport costs next to nothing. Healthcare and education are famously provided by the state. Both housing and private cars seem to be passed down and carefully maintained on a minimum of resources. People get by, some barely. A successfully waylaid tourist late in the month can mean the difference between eating and going hungry.

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The dual currency policy is a useful educational tool for tourists. In other countries, the existence of a single currency disguises the fact that there are different economies in society, some in direct conflict with others. The London housing market is a good examples of this, and the imbalances in Mexican society, between those (like us) who can happily throw around 70 pesos on a cup of coffee and those for whom that sum represents 16 hours’ hard work, would be less avoidable if the poorest and the richest didn’t share the same currency.

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One thing that actually shocked me about Cuba was the (lack of) printed media. There is essentially one national newspaper (‘Granma’) and it is absolutely dire, like a monochrome and cheaply-printed edition of Worker’s Power from 1985. Even that is not very easy to track down. Given that we unfortunately didn’t have access to TV in any of the places we’re staying, it was hard to figure out how state propaganda operates. One taxi driver was kind enough to explain it to me. According to him, political control is partly exercised through the (very) locally-based Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. The soldiers we saw knocking on doors around the country may be connected to this system. It apparently involves a lot of gossip and neighbourhood spying, like what Jane Jacobs called ‘eyes on the street’ but with a more sinister edge. Careless talk could mean an uncomfortable visit to or from the police. In the last few years Raúl Castro has unleashed crackdowns on dissent, especially in 2009 when he took power. There are numerous reports of arbitrary detentions and of those who fall out of favour losing their livelihoods.

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Although Mexico and Cuba are obviously very different societies, visiting the latter while living in the former made for some inevitable but hopefully not too misleading comparisons. In Mexico everyone complains, all the time, and quite rightly, about everything connected to the Government and the rateros who run things. There’s an extensive privately-owned media, subject to more brutal forms of censorship. In Cuba I heard no one talk about corruption. That doesn’t mean there is none; in a way Cubans are both better-placed to know what goes on behind the scenes and also less likely to be able to find out. The Internet suggests that there is a lot of bribery and theft (there are lots of references to informal ‘sociolismo’ and ‘amiguismo’), and the fact that the Government has publicly cracked down on it suggests it is an issue, but for all that people we met complained about the difficulties of their daily lives, it wasn’t mentioned.

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I did get the sense that inequality is a growing problem. Most taxi drivers were chatty and open. They are among those to have gained most from the opening up, making up, along with waiters and (apparently, inevitably, depressingly) prostitutes, a brand-new middle class. Both they and the owners of the casas particulares (licensed private guesthouses) we stayed in seemed pleased and grateful for the opportunities they’ve been given. Of course, by definition we had limited chances to talk to people who’ve been left out of the tourist boom. It is also worth mentioning that almost everyone we came into contact with through the tourist industry was white.

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The lack of Internet was something I at first found frustrating and then refreshing. Going online in any form involves buying a card for a certain number of minutes, or at least joining a queue and then doing so. Then there are only certain places where wifi can be accessed. As a result, such places are social spaces where people hang out, talk to friends abroad and use the internet as a public good. The restrictions may be motivated by political control and austerity, but for ten days I enjoyed the novelty of my enforced exile from the online world, obviously another privilege that very few Cubans share. It felt a bit like those resorts where you eat not what you want but what’s good for you, like holidaying in a high-end monastery. The temporary absence of traffic, internet, mass media, and the pressure of advertising felt like a breath of fresh air to me, but I know that for locals it is stifling, a source of immense frustration that in many cases can’t be contained, leading them to try their luck on rickety boats. The numbers leaving the island have increased since early 2013, when exit visas were automatically granted for the first time.

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I did pick up the sense, however, that people in Cuba do still share an ethic. This is not the same as subscribing to a political ideology. The only times I heard socialism mentioned was in museums, on street murals and the couple of times I read the newspaper, and in publicly-broadcast announcements. There does seem to be a patriotic spirit which takes some pride in the achievements of the Revolution. How young people relate to that I have no idea. Graffiti artists and bloggers are among those who have been swept up in Raúl’s crackdowns on dissent. Cubans also face restrictions on movement around the island, a reality probably lost of most of those who, like us, sail round for the sake of air-con, speed and convenience on buses lines which are only available to tourists.

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Not spending all our time looking at our phones means we get talking to other tourists. Some English people we make friends with on the beach are kind enough to pass on a recentish (sympathetic, but not uncritical) biography of Fidel Castro written by a German journalist in 2007. For all the drama of the Revolution itself and the immense sacrifices made to keep it going, with Cuban citizens occasionally removed to an age before the invention of the combustion engine and tales of Havana residents (illegally) farming pigs on their balconies, you’d have to admit that ideological madness was a factor in its survival. At one point in the 1960 Castro declared himself to be against all forms of private trade, right down to the ownership and exploitation of fruit trees. Even the most rabidly pro-Castro leftist would have to wince at some points in the story.

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At the time the book was written the rising star of Cuban politics was Ricardo Alarcón. He was central to the policy of opening up some areas of private trade in the face of absolute economic oblivion. I asked a taxi driver what had become of him since. He’s off the scene, was the reply. Later I learned that he fell out of favour with Raúl and now works is an administrator in a hospital somewhere to the West of Havana, presumably earning the standard $20 a month.

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Not that there’s anything ignoble about working in a hospital, of course. Cuban has some excellent medical services (I didn’t get the chance to find out how the glowing tales we hear abroad are reflect reality). But if those doctors had the chance to go and work abroad, would the system survive? This is just one of very many conundrums which a visit to Cuba opens up. I spent a great deal of my time trying to work out the relationships between embargoes, imports and exports, balance of payments, foreign currency, emigration, remittances…as for whether or not tourism is a basis for development, other Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are not inspiring examples of sustainability or stability. Decent education, and health systems, a lack of widespread violence and corruption all seem unambiguously laudable. The post-Soviet Special Period (or at least the way it’s represented in this excellent-if-a-little-too-effusive documentary) is a genuinely heroic example of popular austerity and enforced environmental sustainability, one which I’ve sometimes thought that (as I’ve argued before) Greece could have learned some lessons from had it not opted to stay inside the EU.

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Given the particular historical moment at which our visit took place, pretty much everyone we talked to told us it might be the last chance to see the country before it ‘changed’. I was and am sceptical of such predictions. The Government is keeping economic and political activity tightly controlled and I didn’t detect any signs of insurrectionary sentiment. Nevertheless, Obama in his last lame duck year did make some very significant changes in the relationship between the countries, and the pressure of big money will probably mean that even the most reactionary government in US history may not be able to reverse the momentum. Maybe they don’t feel the need. After all, Cuban Americans are neither as powerful nor as useful as they were in the 1960s.

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Visiting Cuba taught me a lot. Since it’s one of the those places where it’s hard to relax and play the role of the tourist it problematised my view of the world in a useful way. Emotionally I still feel that the Revolution was worthwhile, and am inclined to believe the sacrifices since then are to some extent justified. It’s easy to forget that in the case of East Germany the Communist regime was partly fueled by revulsion and horror at what had preceded it, and in a similar way I don’t think anyone beyond far-right Republicans is keen to return to the brutal repression of the Machado and Batista years. But then, while browsing in a tourist shop I picked up a book of photographs taken by one of Fidel’s sons of those who visited him over the last few years. There  was El Jefe Maximo with Lula, Chávez and Morales, but also with Assad, Peña Nieto, Mugabe, and Putin. Cuba’s spiritual leader was allowing his country’s legacy of radical self-sacrifice and principled international solidarity to be used as a cheap photo op by any passing tyrant. Irrespective of Cuba’s problematic-but-inevitable past dependence on Stalinist regimes, seeing Castro with Putin and Assad is particularly galling in the context of the current worldwide reactionary resurgence. Today I came across a truly bizarre pro-Assad Facebook group called ‘Love for Syria, Iran, Russia and Cuba’. Is support for Cuba now somehow part of the cause of global neofascism? Such geopolitical shifts require acts of mental contortion that it usually takes a lifetime to master. Perhaps, to paraphrase the documentary-maker Adam Curtis, given the current global political context, relations between the rest of the world and Cuba could not and will not be normalised, but rather hypernormalised. Cuba is not going to become ‘just another’ capitalist country – in a post-Trump world, such a thing no longer exists.

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Cancún: ¡Turistas de la Chingada!

dsc_0588The most refreshing experience you can have on Planet Earth is to dive into a cenote. In the blistering heat of the Yucatan Peninsula, particularly amidst the mega-scale tourism and traffic of the Mayan Riviera, to hurl yourself into ice-cold crystalline waters is to be reborn into a much more exhilarating universe. If you happen to belong to one of those denominations which still baptise their congregations by dunking them in water, get your budding new believers on a plane and there’ll be yours in this life and the next.

95% of tourists who visit Mexico go no further than the northwest corner of the Yucatan Peninsula. You can see why, but it shows. On our visit to Cancun we bypass the city entirely, but we do get a sense of the over-development around it, with its mammoth hotels and trumpian golf resorts. We go straight to Playa del Carmen. The bit where we’re staying is surprisingly pleasant: lowrise, backpacky. The following day we get to see the real, authentic Playa del Carmen, which is basically a gringo shopping mall with warehouse-sized discount souvenir outlets piled high with Chinese-made tat. I’m not sure how this works at the level of meaningful present-giving:

-Hey man, thanks for the gift!
– F*ck you. It only cost 20 cents.


I buy some fake Crocs, and then ten minutes later fall over and nearly break my ankle. Pinche fayuca de la chingada! I exclaim, feeling pretty sure I’m getting the swearing right. I hobble back to the sea where we get chatting to some Americans from the Midwest who are affable, chatty, and very big. I get the impression that if I ask them about the election later in the year I might start to hate them, so I don’t.
dsc_0563Just off the beach there’s a huge amount of commerce but on it there are, unusually for Mexico, no vendedores ambulantes. It’s quite a contrast from when we went to Playa Condesa in Acapulco in February, where we were approached by vendors every ten seconds. It was rather like the metro in Mexico City. They were selling beach gear, clothes, cold drinks, full meals, massages, and an hour with a massive bass-heavy speaker (thankfully there were no takers for that one). They were unceasingly polite and not particularly insistent. We know that they were taking a risk. Two weeks after our visit one was shot dead on the same stretch of sand*. The fact that there were heavily-armed (and, bizarrely, jungle-camouflaged) squadrons of soldiers running around the promenade was hard to tally with the whole lying-on-the-beach thing. A useful tip for visiting Acapulco is: Don’t talk to taxi drivers if you want to enjoy your visit, but do ask them questions if you’re at all interesting in getting some sense of how f*cking dangerous the place is if you’re not a tourist.

The fact that on the beach in PDC there are no vendors means it’s actually hard to get hold of a beer or a bottle of water. Along the beach there are chain hotels where you can’t get anything to eat or drink unless you’re a guest. Entire stretches of beach are wholly-owned. Everybody we talk to agrees that it’s a safe place to visit. It is, for tourists, mostly. The fact that the locals are absent suggests that it’s not so for everybody. They depend on tourists for their economic survival, but have limited access to them. The situation puts me in mind of promotional photos of the alcoholic folk-punk band The Pogues in the late 1980s, where all bottles, glasses, spliffs, crack pipes, etc would be removed from the scene. (I see that in relation to cigarettes this phenomenon is known as ‘tobacco bowdlerisation’.) Frantz Fanon wrote about the ‘invisibility of the colonial subject’, but he could just as well have been talking about tourism. Most holiday brochures feature no images of the local people, except those in a servile capacity, pouring drinks or dancing their wacky dances. The roots of modern tourism do, after all, lie in colonialism, in taking possession of what we see, which is why John Urry called his classic study of the field ‘The Tourist Gaze’. This partly explain why we spend so much time on holiday taking photos, like the ones I’m showing off here. 

To travel down the coast we hire a small car, a Volkswagen. I can offset this from my personal carbon budget because I’m not the one who’s driving. My wife drives it to another cenote, while I sit in the passenger seat tutting and shaking my head. 

There are hundreds of sinkholes and caves connected to underground rivers all across the region. They allowed the Mayan civilisation to survive for several thousand years, given that the northern part of the peninsula has no rivers or major lakes. Their existence is now threatened by urban expansion and the direct commodification of the cenotes themselves, which means we’ll be to blame should they get poisoned or dry up. For the Mayans they had a sacred and symbolic role, representing the entrance to a mythical underworld (they probably didn’t call it a ‘mythical underworld’). After the Spanish arrived they were also used to hide sacred objects and other items that Catholic priests forbade, like first-generation ipods.dsc_0552We drive on to Akumal. The people selling snorkelling tours and turtle visitations are numerous and quite insistent. As we drive in, pass the tourist kiosk, get out and walk across the car park, walk onto the beach, and sit down, we are badgered (or perhaps, under the circumstances, turtled) by nine or ten touts. There are snakes of pink and orange lifejackets all round the turquoise bay. I start to apply suncream but a friendly person comes along immediately and tells me not to as it damages the coral. There are kindergartens of fish in the shallows of the water, and feeling a bit sun-addled I try to compensate them for our intrusion on their habitat by giving them some money, but there’s a translation problem. The setting reminds my wife of the Comoros Islands, which are nonetheless undeveloped and very poor. We are all here to see an unspoiled environment while trying not to think too hard about the fact that in doing so we are ourselves spoiling it.

The beaches in Tulum are similarly paradisical; in fact, they are even more lovely because they have bits of a ruined city hanging over them. Tulum is also, thanks to people exactly like us, overdeveloped, but on a different scale. Beachside bungalows cover every square inch for about ten miles. They’re called things like Shalom, Ecochic, and Happy Hour. I see the word ‘spa’ so many times I start to feel like I need to lie down, shut my eyes, listen to the waves and forget about the word ‘spa’. As for the prefix ‘eco’, it loses a bit of meaning when followed by the term ‘quad bikes’. There’s also a bungalow resort called My Way, which to me makes it sound a bit like Dignitas, and actually it might be, given that this would not be a bad place at all to die.We avoid the suggestively-named Azulik, which is ‘clothing optional‘.  Once again my brain is bothering me for words to describe the colour of the water, so I trick it by taking this photo:dsc_0583
In the evening we go to a friendly German-run bar and I pick up the local newspaper. In addition to gruesome images and macabre details of those who’ve been shot dead for selling drugs to tourists, there’s an article about Akumal. A group of ecologists has reported that the coral reef is on the brink of collapse. Officially the site is only allowed to receive 250 visitors a day; it’s currently welcoming around 5,000 of us. On the other side of the main street of Tulum there’s a party taking place in the headquarters of a taxi sindicate called Tiburones del Caribe (Caribbean Sharks). The building is festooned in PRI banners and balloons and there is reggaeton blasting out. Like any Mexican town there’s a lot of competition for customers, but the notion that competition automatically leads to better efficiency is once again disproven by the fact that at the end of the night it takes our taxi driver 25 minutes to find our hotel, which is five minutes’ walk away.  Later I read about a number of assaults on tourists, and the smashing-up of cars from opposition companies. Mexico provides a lot of support for the argument that war is a continuation of capitalism by other means.

In Tulum we find it hard to track down anywhere interesting to eat. Being British in Mexico and complaining about the food is perhaps a bit incongruous, but we are, after all, kind of double foreigners here in that we live in Mexico City and the range of restaurants on offer in Tulum doesn’t begin to compare. The first question people ask us about DF (as everyone refers to the capital) is ‘is it dangerous’. Not for us it’s not, we say, smugly. Not in terms of crime, at least, although in environmental terms the city is some ways hanging por un fío. Mexico abounds in confirmation that cities can collapse, whether thanks to invasion or a range of factors. The Mayans in Yucatan were nearly wiped out by a massive prolonged drought. Although it’s not politically correct to say so, their climate changed and so their civilisation collapsed**. That can happen. In Mexico the term ecocidio is increasingly being used to describe events like that in Cancun, when an entire Mangrove forest was destroyed to make way for more tourist developments. Jared Diamond dedicates a substantial portion of  ‘Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed’ to the fate of the Mayans, who hung on for several centuries when the natural resources they had relied for millennia could barely sustain them any longer. The lifespan of their civilisation may have been shorter had they had millions of Volkswagen-driving hypocrites like us to provide for.dsc_0597

*I don’t know if it was the guy walking up and down with the speaker.

**Yes, I’m aware that I’m challenging the notion of ‘politically correct’ is. Here’s an experiment: ask the next human being you see ”How worried are you about climate change?’. They’ll almost certainly change the subject very, very quickly. 

French nudists and freak tornados on the Oaxaca Coast

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If you ever want to stay in a discreet nudist hotel, look out on Tripadvisor for codewords like ‘broadminded’, ‘especially for adults’ and ‘not child-friendly’. If you choose judiciously you may, upon walking through the door, be delighted – just like we weren’t – to see two French tourists splayed out in all their flaccid glory in the alfresco bar/reception area, umbrellas in their drinks and gallic pudenda making the most of the warm sea breeze*.

Conversely, if for some bizarre reason you don’t want to stay in such a place, do not choose places which are described as such. I.e: don’t make the same mistake that we did in Zipolite.

Like most tourist hotels and guesthouses we stay at in Mexico, the nudist colony happens to be foreign-owned. In Puerto Escondido itself we stay at a place owned by a Swiss couple, and when we move on to Mazunte the proprietors turn out to be French. The actually quite charming nudist place belongs to an Italian who got halfway to learning Spanish and then got stranded out of his depth. He flounders between the two languages in a way that’s distressing to witness. I would happily dive in and save him, but then he isn’t wearing a swimming costume. Italians love this bit of the Oaxacan coast, because it was the setting (and ‘Puerto Escondido’ was the title) of a 1989 film about a guy from Milan who looks like a young Silvio Berlusconi getting mixed up in drug smuggling, partly because of a series of misunderstandings. It’s therefore possible that the owner of the hotel didn’t know he was starting a naturist colony. It’s also possible I misunderstood the film as I was watching it in Italian and at this point, after three months in Mexico with my Italian wife, Itañol is rapidly becoming my best second language.

dsc_0694It’s certainly warm enough to strip off. We’re at the top of a cliff and the heat and wind are immense. I have to keep covered up, I tell everyone, because I’m scared of getting badly sunburnt. It wouldn’t be the first time. If you really want to know just how painful excessive exposure to the sun can be, go to Tioman Island in Malaysia at the hottest time of the year and spend five straight hours in the sun, dismissing every attempt by your sister to get you to put some suncream on. It hit me three or so days later on the bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur: I was seized by an extremely insistent itching deep beneath my skin all over my chest, back and shoulders. Fearing that I might be having a heart attack brought on by excessive exposure to all the spiciest foods that Asia has to offer, I looked up the health bit of the Lonely Planet and learnt it was probably something called ‘prickly heat’, and that I should apply talcum powder asap. When I got to KL I ran like the wind to the nearest pharmacy, where to my relief I saw that they also sold something called ‘tiger balm’. The word ‘balm’ sounded soothing, like ‘calm’. Or ‘balsam’. Or ‘balsamico’. It doesn’t matter. It made it (at a generous estimate) about thirty times worse, and I spent my entire first, last and only evening in the Malaysian capital showering my torso with cold water. Which, in turned out, also made it worse. Over the next three days I became a gibbering monkey, incapable of more than ten seconds of conversation before I would have to go back to grimacing, scratching and at some points actually screeching. I never got to the point of stealing cameras and throwing my excrement at tourists, but I can tell you it was a pretty close shave.

It was such a traumatic experience that I’ve never made such mistake again, unless you count once in Spain, the first few days in Thailand and pretty much any time I’ve been anywhere really hot where the prospect of getting a fabulous suntan really quickly was just too good to pass up on. That’s why, on the second beachday in Zipolite, having magically overcome my aversion to exposing myself as soon as we left the hotel complex, upon feeling a familiar deeply-buried itch in my chest I run like the wind to the nearest pharmacy, desperately garbling some nonsense about cream-of-after-the-sunshine**. Luckily they do have some, so I down it in a single gulp, give a satisfying burp of relief and go back to working on that tan.

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It’s blisteringly hot but we can’t cool down in the sea. It’s just too wild. It was actually on this beach that the wife of the Mexican-American writer Francisco Goldman was killed by a wave about three years ago, an event he describes in the heartbreaking memoir ‘Say Her Name’. We move on to another village in search of calmer waves, less violent winds and the Perfect Beach Hut, and luckily soon come across a collection of round bungalows on stilts with bamboo walls. This is perfect, I murmur as we lay back on the bed. Sorry? mouths Chiara. I say it again, this time MUCH LOUDER, but it’s no good. It sounds like we’re at the top of Mount Popocatépetl in a Force 12 gale. Using sign language I manage to communicate that we should go downstairs and change our booking from three nights to one. The Parisean owner is thankfully very obliging once I’ve explained that we have to leave earlier than expected to look for my aunt’s favourite pen, which has got blown away PAR LE VENT.

The wind might be annoying to tourists, but it’s being put to good use a little further down the coast. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (quite a challenging name for a Spanish Spanish speaker to pronounce, I’d imagine) hosts most of the country’s wind farms. Although it obviously sounds laudable (and god knows Mexico desperately needs to move away from its dependence on fossil fuels) it’s more problematic than it might first appear. Objections have come from local indigenous people, who say that the resultant encroachment on their land and fishing resources has been accompanied by threats and attempts at bribery. Although in Europe campaigns against wind power are often fuelled and funded by fossil fuel companies or their self-appointed defenders (as this clip from the documentary ‘Age of Stupid’ demonstrates), in Mexico mitigating the effects of the changing climate will be, like so much else, riven by conflict between rapacious commercial interests and people whose land is their only livelihood.

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Not that this level of wind is normal, even for the Oaxacan coast. The following day we witness our, and apparently Mazunte’s, first ever tornado. It twirls inland a mere 200 metres down the beach and whips off a few roofs, but luckily no-one is hurt. For the second time in two months I narrowly avoid becoming a victim of climate change. Over the next few days no boats can go out to sea. On the last night of our holiday there’s a power cut, but the Italian restaurant next door is on hand with candles, lukewarm white wine and burnt pizza served up to a passionate soundtrack of Neapolitan swearwords. We move on to an open-air bar where they’re playing Electrocumbia (my new favourite kind of music). It takes a while to get going but then some French-Canadian crusties turn up with their dogs and take over the dancefloor. Maybe it’s the music, maybe the mezcal cocktails or maybe just the fact of being so far from home, but the dogs just can’t contain their romantic impulses. It adds another dimension to the phrase c’est une vie de chien, but it’s nice to know that it’s not only we humans who do slightly embarrassing things when we’re on holiday.

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* Apparently the French phrase for ‘wedding tackle’ is ‘bijoux de famille’ (lit: family jewels).

** Which I’ve learnt over the years is the product specifically designed for such situations.

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Oaxaca: Tourism, Tlayudas and Terrorist Teachers

naI don’t know how many German-speaking branches of Neurotics Anonymous there are outside the Bundesrepublik. There’s probably a couple in Austria, and possibly a Geriaticneurotikenanonymous in Paraguay, but that’s beside the Punkt. We were surprised to find one in Oaxaca, Mexico. For a moment I was tempted to go entlag to one of their meetings, but I was visiting the city on holiday with my wife, herein known as Ch, who, despite my very best efforts, does not sprechen sie Deutsch, and in any case mein Volkabeln isn’t quite up to the Mark. Plus I’m not neurotic. Wirklich.dsc_0934Everybody loves Oaxaca. The first thing that Mexicans talk about whenever the place is mentioned is the food, which is indeed delicious and hard to find good versions of elsewhere. Mole is the most iconic dish – it’s actually a family of dishes of immense complexity. Coloradito, the one most associated with Oaxaca and also the most picante, is made with 36 ingredients, including chocolate, chillies, fruit, nuts, spices of various kinds, pumpkin seeds and about, er, 28 other things. Vanesa, a Oaxacan friend of Ch’s who we met up with in Mexico City shortly after we arrived, got very excited when telling us about all the eating we’d be able to do on our holiday, and then very angry when she moved on to tell us about los maestros – the teachers. Of whom more later.

Oaxaca (pronounced waHAca) is the name of both the city and the state. The latter is vast, and cut in half by mountains. After we leave the city it takes us 12 hours by bus to get to Puerto Escondido on the coast and it’s only 85 miles mientras el cuervo vuela. The rugged terrain isolates communities, which means that Oaxaca is the country’s most ethnically diverse state, with an indigenous population of 48% (mostly Zapotec and Mistec), the second highest in Mexico after the Mayan Peninsula, where most of the population are…Welsh (just testing). corbyn2A wander around the Museum of Culture testifies to this. ‘Oaxacan’ culture unifies all sorts of traditions with their own belief systems, cultural artifacts and artisan technologies. The many local markets and the makeshift stalls spread on the ground in the town’s squares by people from often distant villages show off handcrafted and painted wooden sculptures called alebrijes, and intricately woven and brightly dyed tapetes, huipiles, sarapes and the ubiquitous rebozos. Some of these artefacts we have seen elsewhere in Mexico, but we get something of a surprise on entering the adjacent church and former monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzmán when we see an image of someone we recognise from home (see photo). It’s by no means the only connection Jeremy Corbyn has with Mexico. His wife, Laura Álvarez, is a human rights lawyer who also runs a business importing chocolate made by indigenous communities. Little else is known about her (except, presumably, by him), so it’s not completely beyond the realms of possibility that she did some sort of deal over local produce and insisted that a stained-glass window image of her husband be installed as part of the agreement. Certainly there is no shortage of chocolate and chocolate products on sale in the UNESCO-approved colonial centre, along with hundreds of varieties of mezcal, of which I sadly only get to try about half.

In the Zócalo (the main town square) most of the people selling things seem to be of indigenous origin, and so do most of the people protesting. The centre of the plaza has been turned into an Occupy-style camp. These are the famous teachers. I’m still trying to clarify what the situation is with them as their activities inspire a considerable amount of revulsion and rage amongst Mexicans I’ve met elsewhere. Reading their banners and the sheets they’ve hung up setting out their case and briefly chatting with some of them helps to make things clearer. Their movement, led by the dissident teachers’ union CNTE, has been fighting for decades for decent wages and proper schools and over the years their struggle has to some extent become instituionalised, particularly under the leadership of the phenomenally controversial Elba Esther Gordillo. One key date in the long history (detailed here) was May 2006, when police fired on striking teachers in Oaxaca. This led to a seven-month state of siege in the city. State forces unleashed massive repression, which to some extent continues – police vehicles armed with enormous machine guns are a regular sight around the city centre – and was stepped up in response to furious protests after 43 poor indigenous students from the neighbouring state of Guerrero were kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the army in September 2014. More recently teachers from Oaxaca, Michoacán and Chiapas have been striking and protesting against President Peña Nieto’s asinine education reforms, which seem partly designed to provoke and destroy the unions; they also attempt to sabotage the carrying-out of elections by attacking and burning polling stations, and very regularly sequester road-toll booths and block major highways. It is this kind of action which enrages locals like Vanesa, who are simply unable to go about their daily lives as a result. I sympathise with the frustration of people like her – I have never had to live with such massive and constant disruption. But I also grew up in a country with a decent school system where there were properly-remunerated teachers, plentiful materials and classrooms with roofs. Plus I’m aware that at least some of the opprobrium towards the teachers is at least related to racism; that certainly has been the case among members and supporters of successive national governments. This is one of those issues on which I have to bow to the greater wisdom of people who properly live in Mexico.justiceSo, Oaxaca is a complex place. Maybe a third eye would help make sense of things. In the market I buy a t-shirt featuring an image of Maria Sabina, the Queen of Mushrooms. She became an international celebity in the 1960s, attracting seekers of ancestral cosmic wisdom such as (it was rumoured) Dylan, Lennon, Jagger and Richards. She herself wasn’t impressed by the hordes of new arrivals. She was a curandera, for whom the point of taking psilocybins was not to find the divine but to heal sickness. Although we don’t visit her dsc_0616village, it is still on the tourist trail – every time I wear the t-shirt over the next few months, from Havana to Angkor Wat, I receive masonic nods and winks from those who share my apparent knowledge of arcane hallucinogenic rituals. We do, however, end up taking a trip: a bus excursion to Monte Albán to look at Some More Pyramids. We are lucky to be assigned a tourguide with some alternative theories to explain why some of the stone carvings depict people with deformed limbs, the upshot of which is that archeologists are all liars, historians are full of shit and we ourselves are a bit thick and should go to infowars.com if we can bear to learn the real Truth about the world. We also visit the jaw-dropping petrified waterfall and the hot springs at Hierve l’Água. Afterwards we share a collective taxi with some other tourists in order to rejoin the main bus. Halfway along an otherwise deserted track, the truck comes to an unexpected stop, and a representative of a small contingent of men requests that we all get out of the vehicle and into another one with no immediate explanation. Some of us start to suspect that something a bit kidnappy might be underway, but thankfully the new driver reassures us, explaining that the place where we got out marks the boundary between two taxi concessions, and that there have been ‘problems’ in the past when drivers from one village have encroached on the other’s territory. This makes me wonder if the preponderance of recovery groups in Mexico might be somewhere related; perhaps one cartel controls all the Narcotics Anonymous groups in a given town and another armed gang rakes in the income from the meetings in the adjacent pueblo. I can’t imagine that such a situation would be particularly good for anyone’s sense of serenity.carvingAfter we’ve tromped up and a fair few pyramids in the 40 degree heat, taken more photos than we will ever have time to look at and visited enough artisanal workshops to last the lifetimes of several Aztec gods, we are all keen to get back to Oaxaca, sink a couple of mechiladas and echar una siesta. So we’re delighted to hear we’ll be taking in one more attraction: we’re going to see some black pots being made. The black pots turn out to be useless, at least for their primary purpose of containing liquids. If you put water in them, it apparently goes all murky and you can’t drink it. They are nonetheless very pretty decorative objects, with their black sheen achieved by polishing them before firing them. Oh. It turns out that I am the only person in the world who finds pottery boring*. Everyone else wanders round the shop cooing at the crockery on display, or at least they do until the heavens intervene. Unfortunately the shop is open to the elements, which is a shame because the elements are in a very bad mood; like us, they’re probably a bit tired and just want to be driven back to the hotel. They descend on the place and smash bits of it to pieces while we cower in the corners and try to avoid getting lacerated by shards of falling pottery. In fact the weather gods have done us a major favour, because as soon as the torrent ceases we wade across the car park and get back in the van.

There’s a limit to what we can see in and around the city in three or so days. You could easily spend a month in Oaxaca State and not even get round to a third of the places you are recommended to visit. It is the fourth most visited state in the country, and also happens to be the second poorest, with 76% of the population living in extreme poverty. In my English language examining job I often pose this conundrum to candidates when the topic of tourism arises. It suggests to me that tourism is not a good or fair strategy for developing a region. Oaxaca does not suffer from a lack of promotion or even a shortage of visitors, and it’s rich in terms of both natural and cultural resources. It has a range of outstanding natural landscapes and no shortage of well-preserved ruins reflecting its historical complexity, the range of civilisations that have existed there. However, while most images of Oaxaca depict things of indigenous origin, whether archaeological sites or local products, in tourism-related jobs indigenous people themselves are rarely seen. This must be partly because of racism, but it is also clearly related to education. People whose schools do not have books and roofs are far less likely to acquire the skills necessary to obtain such jobs. Compared to a national average of 26%, only 5% of Oaxaca’s indigenous population reaches middle or higher education.cartoonThere is also the question of who has money to invest to take advantage of all the visitors. Most mid-range places we stay in happen to be owned by foreigners, and at the level of higher-end tourism, it’s international money that dominates – indeed it often physically displaces both local investment in addition to causing the eviction of local people and the destruction of natural environments. A recent and spectacular example of the latter were the mangroves in Cancun. Where tourism does create jobs for local people, they tend to be of poor quality – short-term, badly-paid and often very exploitative. Betting on tourism as a development strategy also has an opportunity cost. It replaces other forms of development and means that everything is valued in terms of its potential appeal to visitors. This is something I hear all the time in IELTS exams, regardless of the topic: parks are good because tourists like them. National cinema is useful because it promotes the country and might encourage tourists to visit. Museums and galleries are important because tourists seem to like them. The success of this ideology is demonstrated by the fact that to many people it seems to be a natural way of thinking, a common sense point of view. Drawing people’s attention to the fallacy of it (not exactly my job, but what the hey) is like the joke about one fish remarking to another on the temperature of the water. It’s an ideology which lends itself to exploitation by private interests. In ‘The Shock Doctrine’ Naomi Klein detailed how after the Asian tsunami of 2004 fishermen along the coasts of Sri Lanka and Thailand were displaced by hotel developments. In the case of Mexico, we learn of a similar situation towards the end of the film ‘Y Tu Mama También’: the young family who the three main characters have become friends with on the beach (filmed in Huatulco, Oaxaca) will soon be forced to leave their beachside home because of a new holiday resort. The same dynamic is in operation around the world, and not just along coastlines, but also in major cities, as the urban geographer (and my personal friend) David Harvey explores in some detail here. As he explains, tourism is a great product for capitalists to invest in because, unlike a vacuum cleaner or a mobile phone, it is instantly and infinitely consumable, with no product cycle. There is no limit to the amount that tourists can consume. Meanwhile local people are locked outside this endless festival of superfluous consumption, and in many situations are left with no other available means of survival but to sit on the pavement and try to sell whatever they have to the tourists. As for how people excluded in this way feel, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze tries to put herself in their huaraches in her brilliant poem ‘Third World Girl‘:

Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze poem: ‘THIRD WORLD GIRL’ from Tilt Spoken Word on Vimeo.

The poem also addresses cultural appropriation. Oaxaca is important to Mexico in a similar way to how the Northeast is important to Brazil. In both cases the region provides symbols and icons which are central to national identity, and in both cases the people of the region are amongst the most deprived in the country. One such Mexican national emblem is the rebozo. In summer 2015 the Franz Mayer Museum held a special exhibition on Frida Kahlo’s use of the garment, titled, revealingly in English, Made in Mexico**. (The same exhibition had been held in London a year earlier). We learn from the information on display that this outfit is “one of the feminine Mexican garments par excellence … it has (much) meaning in the creation of the identity of women and the country.” The text that introduces the exhibition does not speak mainly of the rebozo, but of national identity:

‘Mexico is a rich tapestry in which multiple threads are interwoven. Its long and tumultuous history, from the ancient pre-Hispanic towns to the modernity of its urban culture, has brought many influences and ideas to the country, adapting to a cosmovision and way of life singularly Mexican. The decorative arts, an integral part of Mexican culture, reflect the intersection of traditional culture, colonial legacy and contemporary and political life. The rebozo has been – and continues to be – a resistant emblem of Mexican identity.’

In the words of Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, what the Mexican state and its elite values is not its indigenous population, but an image of it. It then sells Mexico on the global market using images of indigenous people and indigenous products, but denies the people themselves the education that would give them the chance to exploit those things for themselves if they chose to do so. It’s comforting and flattering to think that our visit to Oaxaca helped develop the region in some small way. We certainly found it a deeply enriching experience. But I don’t believe that tourism is a equitable or sustainable way to develop a region or a city. Social and economic policies should focus on improving the living standards and human potential of the people who live in a particular place, and not the experience of those who are merely there on holiday. To which I suppose the only logical corollary is: if I ever go back to Oaxaca, I very much hope that I have a worse time than I did on my first visit.

* José Saramago’s novel ‘The Cave’ (which I also mentioned yesterday, oddly enough) is partly an essay In Praise of Pottery. Those bits of it are profoundly dull.

** I wrote a piece in Spanish about it in Spanish here (it’s in Spanish).

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Frida y México: Imágen, identidad e ideología

La imágen mejor conocida y mas difundida de México en los últimos uno o dos decénios es la de una mujer colorida, bella y fuerte con trajes y rasgos aparentemente indígenas. Sin embargo, con un poco de reflexión queda claro que esta imágen en nada corresponde a la realidad en la que viven las mujeres y (especialmente) las mujeres indígenas en el México de hoy. Hace mucho que la prensa internaciónal habla de un ‘pandémico’ de violéncia contra las mujeres en México, y no solamente en el ya tristemente celébre caso de Ciudad Juarez. En cuanto a los indígenas, no es por acaso que en la mayoria de los escandalosos masacres de los últimos años las víctimas eran de origen indígena.

Parece entonces que El Comandente Marcos tenía razón cuando dijo que en México lo que se valora de los indígenas no es su realidad, pero sí una foto suya. A fin de cuentas se trata de una imágen, producida por una industria cultural. Nada anormal. Todos los países tienen sus industrias culturales. Pero esta imágen es tan difundida, y los valores que promueve tan ubícuos, que alcance el nivel de una ideologia naciónal. Nos basta un ejemplo: este verano el Museo Franz Mayer luce una exposición especial sobre el esbozo, titulada, reveladoramente en inglés, Made in Mexico. Aprendemos de la información expuesta que este traje, es “una de las prendas femeninas mexicanas por excelencia … tiene (mucho) significado en la creación de la identidad de la mujer y del país”. El texto que introduce la exhibición no habla principalmente del rebozo, pero si de la intentidad naciónal:

‘México es un rico tapiz en el que se entretejen múltiples hilos. Su larga y tumultuosa historia, desde los antíguos pueblos prehispánicos hasta la modernidad de su cultura urbana, ha traído múltiples influencias e ideas al país, adaptándose en un cosmovisión y modo de vida singularmente mexicanos. Las artes decorativas, parte integral de la cultura mexicana, reflejan la intersección de la cultura tradiciónal, el legado colonial y la vida contemporanea y política. El rebozo ha sido — y continúa siendo — un resistente emblema de la identidad mexicana’.

También en la exposición aprendemos que hoy dia hay ‘planes gubernamentales…que se han creado para fomentar la producción de rebozos de alta calidad (y) cooperativos para ayudar a las comunidades a elaborar rebozos y para aconsejarlos sobre la manera de comercializar los textiles y volverse autónomos’. Nos presenta una imágen muy positiva, y no poco consoladora. Deja la impresión que en este pais se valora las tradiciones indígenas y el trabajo de las mujeres indígenas, en la orgullosa tradición de Frida Kahlo (quien de paso no era indígena, pero bueno…). Es una idea que (en principio, dada la caída del peso…) vende muy bien en el exterior (hay que recordar el nombre de la muestra, dirigida a un público o bien gringo o ya sea suficientamente malinchista…). Es una imágen que legitimiza la violencia y la desigualdad, el rebozo transparente de un estado que quiere continuar a ser visto como esencialmente liberal y progresista (y, demás importante, inversionable) al mismo tiempo que brutaliza, ensclaviza su población indígena al punto de encogerse de hombros y lavarse las manos cuando un niño indígena de 12 años que estába nomás comprando pañuelos es asesinado por un soldado que evidentamente no estába disparando “hacía el aire”; enseña la imágen de un estado que se ríe cuando 43 estudiantes indígenas son matados, que es liderado por un presidente responsable de la violación de decenas de mujeres indigenas por sus policías…

Hablar de la industria Kahlo, de su papel cultural, economico e ideológico no implica, evidentamente, echar la culpa a la rica y compleja obra de Frida…aunque cabe recordar que ella tampoco era indígena, pero sí urbana, de clase alta, que en su tiempo, en el acto de hacer valorar las culturas indígenas, tambien les exproprió, mezclando vários elementos de diversas culturas que no tenían ninguna conexión entre sí y “mexicanizándolos”. A fin de cuentas, una nación necesita una cultura. En todo los casos subyace a esa cultura un mundo sordido de contradiciones y contrastes, que apenas vislumbramos, un mundo, además, que puede ser explotado fructíferamente por los artistas – como, por ejemplo, Frida Kahlo. Pero en México estas contradicciones son brutales, y vivas. La mayoria de los turistas que están dispuestos a desembolsar 200 pesos a cambio de una playera con una imágen de Frida Kahlo en la que lleva pusto, junto con sus adornos indígenas, una playera del Daft Punk (indígeneidad y modernidad en perfecta sinfonía!) por cierto desconocen que en el Estado de México diez veces más mujeres han sido asesinadas que en Ciudad Juárez en los últimos 21 años sin que el Estado mexicano ni pestañeara. Pocos fuera del país entiendrían que en el caso Iguala la indiferencia de las autoridades se debe en gran parte al hecho de que eran indígenas los que fueron (presumiblemente) masacrados. Pero en el México de hoy, una mujer indígena es la más vulnerable y menos visible de todos. A no ser que sea colorida, bella, y muerta.