THE FINAL THREATS
There is no question the
Common Front Against AIDS has become another casualty of the corrupt and
repressive government of Oaxaca. High officials in the health
department have no interest in the health of the people. The current
Secretary of Public Health, appointed by Ulises Ruiz, in one short year
has become one of the wealthiest men in Oaxaca, recently buying an
enormous mansion in San Felipe de Agua, the rich enclave a dozen miles
north of Oaxaca city. The director of COESIDA, Gabriela Velàsquez, is
the wife of the largest contributor to the
political campaigns of both ex-governor José Murat and current governor
Ulises himself was head of
security for José Murat during the first wave of political killings that
swept Oaxaca several years ago. In the past year alone,
34 opposition figures have been assassinated in the state. Five indigenous leaders were killed on the
very weekend we
received the final threat from COESIDA.
This is not a government to
* * *
On Sunday was the incident.
We later met and it was agreed I would sign a document with the
government promising to have no part in the national convention, to
cease activities concerning HIV/AIDS in Oaxaca, to not speak with the
media, and to not mention the above "incident."
* * *
Shortly after, there appeared the following comments
from Internet Website, RealOaxaca, by Stan Gotlieb:
" ...Whether in the streets of New York by
uniformed police, or Oaxaca's state university by
unidentified "porros" (non-students hired to go in and
kick ass), against demonstrators, dissenters, or
journalists, the goon squad is a standard response of
tyrannical bosses aiming to bust up unions, secret
governments suppressing dissent, or any one of a hundred
different kinds of "troublemaker". Dictatorships and
would-be dictatorships all honor similar terroristic
methods for controlling their populations. Hardly a
country in the world that doesn't unleash the dogs (figuratively
and/or literally". We all "know" such things go on.
However, there's "knowing" and then there's "knowing".
When the knock comes on your very own door, your world
changes forever. Last month, they came knocking on the
Frente's door. They showed up at Condón Mania, the
highly successful store that sells condoms at just
enough over cost to stay in business. They gave a
little demonstration by smashing the windshield on one
of the workers' car. They gave everyone some advice
about how to avoid these kinds of visits in the future.
* * *
At this point we do not
know the future of our organization. Our activities have been greatly
reduced during the past year and look to be further diminished. If need
be, the organization is well prepared to discontinue its existence at
* * *
I feel bad that we can not
continue our important work in the way we would like. But perhaps I can
mention some of the positive accomplishments we have noted and feel a
little better about where we are and where we have come.
It must be said we observe
in Oaxaca an educated public. The discussion about HIV/AIDS has been
opened and opened wide. People, and especially young people, speak
openly and positively about AIDS here and the work being done.
Surely one of the most
important achievements of the Common Front has been the positive and
enthusiastic involvement of the press and communications media. Our
early “Agreement of Five Points” laid out the responsibility of a
truthful and helpful public debate, the importance of verifiable
reporting, and the complete avoidance of negative terminology, all
raised the public discussion and awareness of AIDS to a high
respectability in the community. Lengthy and thoughtful articles, radio
and television interviews, and graphic promotions on billboards and
street posters had an enormous impact on the general population.
Recently a visiting health
worker devised a simple survey to evaluate knowledge about AIDS in young
people. For a period of one month, our education program made
arrangements with a number of schools where we were giving our talks. A
short questionnaire of some ten questions was distributed to the class
before and then again, after, each talk. We were happy to see an
increase in knowledge on each question as a result of our presentations.
However, the more notable aspect was the high level of correct AIDS
information that the survey showed in the pre-talk results. We realized
we were speaking to a youthful population already becoming informed and
involved in the movement against AIDS.
The following year another short survey
was conducted to look at the population in general, the “man on the
street.” On one Saturday, five teams of volunteers were sent out to
busy intersections and commercial hubs of the city. With yellow
clipboards and a smiling face, our people asked passers-by to answer
eight simple questions. Fully seven hundred persons responded. The
survey examined mainly “name recognition” of our organization and of our
various programs and campaigns. A whopping eighty percent knew of the
Common Front, and 85 percent of all men knew our campaign symbol of the
condom and heart. More women than men were able to identify our famous
“AMOR” poster, and an impressive, we believe, 18 percent of all
responders said they had attended a Common Front talk on AIDS.
Another one of our “indirect”
indicators which we sometimes note concerns the wide proliferation of
our over-sized street posters. In Oaxaca, many buildings have an old,
wrought-iron “cartelera,” a frame for posters and announcements.
They’re about three feet by four and ostensively the only place it’s
legal to put up posters. Over the years we’ve designed a dozen or so of
our “safe-sex iconography” the size of the street frames and plastered
the town. The image features a big condom. Now one might expect, in
this little, dusty, conservative town in southern Mexico, a certain
amount of opposition or at least some resistance to a blatant symbol
such as this. Never have we received a negative word from our (quite
vocal) public! On the contrary, many say, “Hey, saw your new posters!”
of “I like the Christmas condoms, Bill!” or “”I see AMOR is sweeping the
The press too, always give us a good
A few years ago, we noted
that to buy a condom in the corner pharmacy, the lady behind the counter
always had to go looking around in the back room, and sometimes yelling
out about Where are the prophylactics, Joe? and such. It was a barrier
for young people and kids if they wanted to pick up a condom, like, well,
We staged a workshop
specifically for agents and workers of pharmacies in Oaxaca and had a
good group show up for the theme “How to sell a condom.” Today, in all
the pharmacies of Oaxaca, the condoms are proudly displayed next to the
cash register, next to the aspirins and candy. We feel good about that.
We have a little game, or
exercise, we do occasionally, or ask our friends and visitors. We’ll
mention casually to taxi drivers or waiters or such, that we are here in
Oaxaca, helping out the work of the “Frente Común Contra el SIDA,” being
careful to always say the complete name. And then gage their reaction.
Often, in this world, the reactions to AIDS can be a bit grim, a shudder
or shaking of heads. We’ve found, on the contrary, the locals here know
about our group, about AIDS and about the efforts to fight it in this
town. They smile and congratulate us. “Good for you!” they’ll say.
One young visitor told a group of ladies he was working for the Frente
and they stood up and applauded.
* * *
Then too, we can look at
the numbers. They say numbers don’t lie. In the Common Front, we’ve
always been well documented, always noting our activities and our work
and counting our achievements. Our little organization gave 3,744
talks about AIDS in schools and workplaces throughout the state of
Oaxaca (BELOW). We distributed 2,850 of our complete AIDS Education
Packets, in our state and elsewhere, in Mexico, Latin America and to
many organizations in the United States with work in the Hispanic
community. We were particularly pleased when one even went to Kenya.
Our little popular store,
Condón-Manía, sold fully 345,288 quality condoms, everyone a potential barrier against the AIDS virus. And of those who
bought our condoms, an impressive 14 percent were women, an interesting
fact given the anatomical nature of the product, one must admit.
* * *
Finally, my friend, Russell
Ellison, relates a simple story that happened to him one day while he
was sitting in the zócalo drinking a coffee and reading the paper.
Under the spreading laurel trees, he could enjoy himself and watch the
lovely people strolling by. Out of the corner of his eyes he spied a
young couple walking his way, a boy and girl, teenagers, perhaps. He
smiled as he noted their gentle flirting, the boy, a handsome young man,
leaning in to the pretty girl and whispering into her ear. The girl
smiling and enjoying his comments, rewarding him with her big eyes
twinkling up at him.
As they passed Russell’s
table on the edge of the path, he heard one small sentence the boy was
saying to the girl. He said, “Come on, let’s go to Condón-Manía …” and
they walked on past.
Nobody knows the rest of
that story, of course. Did they go to Condón-Manía? Did the boy get
the girl? Were the happy then, and are they happy still? And we’ll
never know of course. We don’t even know their names.
But a few things we can say,
at least. What a nice young man. And what a nice idea to suggest to
his girl. And how nice that that young couple can mention condoms, and
protection, and prevention, already, in their relationship. They’ve
opened the conversation and they are speaking with each other about
important things, things that are often missing from a discussion
between a couple. Sometimes people will say things like “Oh, come on,
you don’t have to worry about that with me!” or “Hey! Look at me, I’m
no fairy! I don’t have to use no rubbers,” or “You can trust me,
such, as we all know.
No, that day, in the shade
of the old laurel trees in Oaxaca, one couple of fine young people were
making the right decisions in their lives, to take control of their
bodies, of their lives, to protect themselves and their loved ones, and
making a relationship based on honesty and realism.
We wish them all the best in the world.
* * *