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Wealth gap tests Mexico's conservative new leader

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 24, 2007


This small community of 500 sits four miles up a mountain's steep back road, its dirt-floor homes sprawled across rocky fields in the northern highlands of Oaxaca state.

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There is neither a health clinic nor high school here, and families are fragmented as nearly all the young men, and many women, head to the US to work as dishwashers or construction workers for years at a time. The only modern homes, simple cement blocks, are built with the money they send back.

For most residents in towns like these in Mexico's impoverished south, the opportunities of a more prosperous north and a Mexico City flush with luxury cars and mansions are out of reach. In a country with more billionaires than Switzerland, according to Forbes magazine, most Oaxacans live on the opposite side of the nation's stubborn rich-poor gap.

This summer residents across the region joined an annual teachers strike in the state capital, which erupted into a massive social movement of fierce protests that paralyzed the city for months.

To stem a growing restlessness among the nation's poor – almost half of the population – Mexico's new president Felipe Calderón faces the delicate balance of tackling poverty's roots while also addressing its symptoms. He has moved quickly to promise aid for some of the most fundamental problems facing the poor, targeting everything from drinkable water to health services and schools. But Mr. Calderón has made it equally clear that none of that will matter unless social order is maintained, showing a firm hand that some have interpreted to mean disruptive protests will no longer be tolerated.

"This is Calderón's big dilemma," says Luis Felipe Lopez-Calva, who is to be the United Nations' new chief economist for Latin America and the Caribbean. "If he doesn't do something to undermine the objective of social dissent, he may feel tempted to use force. There is the risk of him gaining legitimacy through the use of force against social dissent, instead of attacking the causes of what is really going on."

Calderón's 'tough hand'

Nowhere is the balancing act tougher than in Oaxaca, which voted heavily for leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who barely lost this summer's disputed election. It's one of the poorest states in Mexico, and home of the most contentious protests this year, when the annual teachers strike in the capital led to a reported dozen deaths and ultimately the deployment of federal police.

The protests were fueled by a demand to oust the state governor, who, opponents claim, was elected fraudulently and has used repressive tactics to stifle dissent. But for many, it was a demand for equality and social justice, too.

One of Calderón's first moves after taking office as the "law and order" president was to sanction the arrest of the Oaxaca protest movement's leader, Flavio Sosa. It has proved to be controversial in the region.

Experts caution that while Calderón's efforts to bring order to Mexico, including a major military operation against drug traffickers, has won him public support, he runs the risk of alienating foes. A phrase being repeated in Oaxaca, with disdain, is mano dura, or "tough hand."

Aside from promptly arresting Mr. Sosa, Calderón named former governor of Jalisco state Francisco Ramirez Acuña – widely considered to be a hard-liner – to head the Interior Ministry. Analysts say the move sent a clear signal that he intends to take a tougher approach to dealing with potentially violent protests.

"Appointing [Acuña] sends a strong message about where he wants to go," says Rolando Gonzalez, coordinator for The Center for Human Rights, Ñu'u Ji Kandii [Land of Sun] in Tlaxiaco, the closest service center for many in this part of the state. Mr. Gonzalez says another plan by Calderón, to unify autonomous forces into one federal police unit, will intensify an atmosphere of repression. "More than addressing the profound changes that the country needs, Calderón is finding a way to shut us up, to dissolve the protests."

Many community members in San Isidro Vista Hermosa, where residents live off the beans and maize they grow and often can't afford meat, say they don't think Calderón has their best interests at heart.