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When political unrest and mezcal collide

This is not a post to try and explain the current upheaval in Oaxaca, or go into the long history (and more recent) of why the teacher’s are striking. It is a highly complex and sensitive issue with people losing their lives and livelihoods. This is merely to look at the situation through the mezcal lens, given the boom in Oaxaca and the increased awareness of the city, state and culture because of it.

In 2006, when the uprising in Oaxaca closed down the city for months on end, the impact was very localized. Businesses closed, tourism halted, and it took years for the city, and much of the state to recover. Additionally, social media was not as developed as it is today so word was slower getting out to the world about what was going on. With this current situation, it remains unclear how long it could last, but there have been calls from several high profile people asking the government to end the violence and for the different sides to come to the table to resolve this in a transparent way. No one wants a repeat of 2006.

The rebuilding of the economy in Oaxaca after 2006 came in fits and starts. Not only did the city need to recover and rebuild businesses, it also had to do this during a time when the country became embroiled in the drug wars, the SARS epidemic, and the fluctuation of oil prices. International travel to Mexico plummeted, particularly from the US and Canada, and overall international investment slowed. But the mezcal industry chugged along, fueled by increasing domestic interest, and then increasing demand from the international market. Much of the demand was focused on Oaxaca, primarily because it has been the predominant mezcal producing state, and also because it was a state that was not having the same kind of cartel war violence as seen in other states with agave and mezcal production like Guerrero, Michoacan, and Durango. Its perceived stability also attracted Mexican nationals living in war zones in the north (Monterey, Chihuahua, Tijuana, Sinaloa, etc etc) with financial resources to start businesses. And money began flowing from Mexico City as more people with means became interested in starting mezcal brands. By 2011, pieces fell into place and the beginnings of the boom took root.

There is no doubt that the mezcal boom has been beneficial to the state of Oaxaca, with production growing exponentially since 2011. Road construction projects have been realized, support services increased, and huge promotional efforts from the state’s tourism office focused on the natural beauty, culture, and food and beverage of the state have made Oaxaca a primary destination. It was possible to put aside the tumultuous history of 2006 and move forward.

Except of course the underlying problems that sparked the 2006 uprising were never really resolved. And so here we are today with roadblocks on the key highways in and out of Oaxaca keeping goods stuck on the road. Reliable sources on the ground have told me of emptying store shelves, of shortages of medicines, of people being stuck and unable to get home, and of trucks full of mezcal unable to get either to bottling facilities or out of the state. In comparison to the lives lost, this seems a minor detail in the overall scope of the situation.

With more than 30 businesses already closed in Oaxaca’s historic Centro district because of the teachers strike, traveler’s canceling plans, and the concern being raised over the upcoming Guelaguetza and the impact if it is canceled, the economic situation in Oaxaca is tough. If this situation is not resolved, not only will more businesses be impacted, but it could slow and disrupt investment dollars coming into the state. The one positive is that the mezcal industry is in a more maturely developed place and it could help cushion a total economic free fall.

On a personal note, I am heartbroken by what is happening. Oaxaca has been my second home since 2003. I am worried for my Oaxacan friends, as I know the toll this takes on them personally. I remain hopeful that there will be resolution and that peace will once again prevail. And I hope that some of the long needed benefits that mezcal has brought to the people do not disappear with this latest turn of events.

If you are interested in keeping up with the events as they unfold, the following news sites have been covering the situation:

La Jornada – http://www.jornada.unam.mx/

Proceso Magazine – proceso.com.mx

http://www.sinembargo.mx/

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