Oaxaca City, Mexico, September 17–Graffiti calling for the ousting of the Governor of the state covers almost every blank wall as I wander through the historic district of Oaxaca City. The Zûcalo, or main square, and the 50 blocks that surround it have become the home of the statewide teachers strike since the end of May. Sliding through makeshift blockades of metal sheeting and barbed wire, large pieces of concrete and in some cases reclaimed government cars and buses, I enter the encampment. On either side of the street, multicolored tarps cover blankets and cardboard used at night to sleep on by the thousands involved in the struggle. In the center square a community kitchen gathers donations and prepares large pots of beans and rice. A clinic has been set up by supportive medical workers to serve those who have left their villages and are living in the encampments. Many teachers embroider, read the latest movement communiqué, and gather in circles to hold meetings. Banners from unions and municipalities from all over the state supporting this popular struggle hang between trees and light posts. Stencils depicting Mexico’s revolutionary heroes, calling for the people to rise up and demanding the release of political prisoners are everywhere. All of the amazing art of resistance reminds me of the anti-WTO actions in Seattle. This encampment in the main square marks where the movement began last May. It has since expanded, and encampments can now be found throughout the city. They now surround all government buildings and protect the four radio stations and the transmitters that have been taken over by the movement. These four channels air meeting and march announcements, discussions, alerts, and calls for backup at the scenes of government repression. This is just within Oaxaca City. At least 200 villages in the state have joined in and reclaimed their town halls.
How the Movement Began
Seventy percent of the 3.5 million people who live in the state of Oaxaca are indigenous. Over half live in abject poverty, 35 percent do not have piped water in their homes. You can’t spend a day in Oaxaca City without seeing poor native women with barefoot children in tow who have come from the surrounding villages to try and make money selling gum and cigarettes. Many of the rural communities are empty of men who have fled to the US to try and make money filling the low pay, harsh labor jobs the US economy depends on. The Mexican constitution demands that all children have the same access to education. Yet today in Oaxaca, the average person spends only 5.6 years in school, two years less than the national average. The conditions in the rural schools are extremely poor, with a lack of basic infrastructure. Children often come to school hungry, barefoot and are without desks, books, and pencils. For the past 26 years, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers has held an annual statewide strike. Some of the demands this year included raises, basic supplies and breakfast for the students. Each year the teachers camp out in the main square of Oaxaca city until an adequate compromise is reached. This year things played out a little differently. At 4:30am on June 14, while teachers and their families were sleeping, 3000 police raided the encampment; a helicopter fired tear gas, and cops beat people and burnt their belongings, leaving over 100 people injured. The teachers resisted with sticks and rocks, reclaiming the square later the same day. And they have remained ever since.
Construction of the Popular Assembly
Immediately after the government repression, a mega march was held. 400,000 people came to show support for the teachers. A new entity was formed of the 350 organizations that mobilized alongside the teacher strike called the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO). Through hours of meetings, this organization has come to represent not just the voice of the striking teachers but also the voice of all those in the state who face oppression and injustice. According to Florentino, a member of the press committee, “APPO does not set out to impose any decisions, what we set out to do is to integrate all the people so that together we can organize and govern the state.” Without leaders and using collective decision making, APPO advances daily with announcements of new actions and strategies. The indigenous people of the region have a long history with this type of organizational structure; many municipalities are still run by the general assemblies under the traditional native customs of “usos y costumbres.” These assemblies are unaffiliated with political parties and select the municipal presidents who lead by following, accountable to those who select them.
On August 16 and 17, APPO held a forum entitled “Building Democracy and Governability in Oaxaca,” with sessions covering the design of a new state constitution, creating democracy from below, movement inclusion and respect for diversity. The rich history of the people organizing in this fashion was clear to me as I sat in the back row in a room of over a thousand, watching decisions being made efficiently. Since the formation of APPO, a clear consensus decision was made to change the primary demand from those of the teachers’ to the resignation of the Governor of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. They make this demand because of his responsibility in the violent repression of their democratic teachers’ strike, because he came to power through fraud, and because as governor he has favored corporate interests and undermined social organizations.
Corrupt Governments and their Development Plans
Corrupt, exploitive governments are nothing new to Oaxaca or Mexico. In fact, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), made up of the conservative right, light skinned, wealthy class, has monopolized the governorship of Oaxaca for the past 80 years and national government for over 70 years, prior to the current President Vicente Fox’s rule. There were hopes for Fox to step out of the traditional exploitive role but his party, the National Action Party (PAN), has carried on the PRI legacy of neoliberal expansion, corruption, and repression of social organizations.
With help from the leaders of the Central American countries, Fox initiated Plan Puebla Panama, PPP, a neoliberal development mega project praised by the United States. This project, claims one of its main goals is to improve the conditions for the people of the region. In actuality, it is stealing land from indigenous people for infrastructure projects to move resources more quickly into the hands of multinational corporations and commodifying their culture for the tourist industry. One of the projects with huge implications for Oaxaca is the creation of a super highway at Mexico’s skinniest point, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in order to move resources more readily across the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This transportation corridor will be lined with sweatshops, without labor or environmental laws. “For all of these objectives, the government of Oaxaca is key to the realization of the project,” explained Florentino.
Ulises Ruiz Ortiz is a carbon copy of the most corrupt PRI leadership, which exploits and represses the majority indigenous population. PRI serves the interests of foreign corporations–a perfect match to prepare the region for the implementation of the PPP. Unable to be elected democratically, Ulises stole his position through vote buying, ballot box tampering, and computer fraud. On December 1, 2004, his first day as governor, 40 armed men including PRI municipal leaders with police support occupied the Noticias, a major newspaper for the region which covered the illegitimacy of the election. The newspaper has been operating out of a different location ever since. In the 21 months that Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz has been in power, 37 people have been killed for political reasons. With this record, his response to the democratic teachers’ strike on June 14 comes as no surprise.
Government Repression Continues
The repressive tactics against the movement have continued since June 14. Arrest warrants have been issued for at least 80 movement “leaders” including members of the teachers’ union. Four have been abducted from the street by unmarked vans; photos of one, a biologist severely beaten, were seen in the local news. The faces of the four political prisoners and a strong call for their freedom can be seen wheat pasted downtown. In response to that repression a march was held on August 10. With only one day’s notice, I was shocked to find over 20,000 people at the gathering point. Half way through the march I decided to skip over a few blocks and try to get further ahead, closer to the front of the march. As I ran around the block to rejoin the masses, I heard shots ring out, and I was suddenly joined by others running to get closer to the front. When we arrived, the march was at a standstill and chaos abounded. In front of me a 50 year old woman picked up a piece of concrete and was dropping it on the curb to make smaller rocks. I realized people were scrambling to pick up sticks and rocks for defense, and some were running for cover in a nearby church. A man lay dead in the street. Government goons had shot randomly into the crowd, killing José Jimenez Colmenares, a mechanic and the husband of a teacher. Clearly this was meant to intimidate and create fear. Yet, the movement remains dedicated to not taking up arms. Instead APPO has used the main strategies of creating a situation of ungovernability in Oaxaca, preventing the state government from meeting, orchestrating state wide strikes, blockading bank and wealthy business, and controlling transportation through highway stoppages.
In late August the federal government finally agreed to negotiations with APPO and 28 representatives, half teachers, went to Mexico City. These negotiations are not likely to go anywhere because the federal government refuses to back down and the movement is unwilling to compromise on the resignation of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. A teacher living in an encampment outside one of the radio stations explained, “Some compañeros want to accept the crumbs that the federal government is offering us and say that maybe we better return to class so that this can end peacefully, as if nothing has happened, but there are a lot of us that say no, because this would imply forgetting the reality that we have been living until now. I insist this type of repression before has not been seen in Oaxaca and if we allow it, believe me when I say, that we would condemn the state of Oaxaca to live like this. Something that would not only affect the teachers but every social group that would want to rise up in the future.”
Power of Community Radio
Radio has played a very significant role in this movement, giving new voice to the voiceless. A radio station created by the striking teachers with community support was destroyed by the police during the June 14th repression. In response, students from the Autonomous University of Benito Juarez reclaimed their radio station, Radio Universidad, and it became the means of communication for the movement. It too was shot into by government goons and acid was poured on the transmitter, destroying the station. On August 1, a 3000 woman march moved through downtown clanging pots and pans, in the spirit of the march of “cacerolas” in Chile, calling for the resignation of the governor. Leila, a member of the women’s coordination committee of APPO explained, “The pots and pans reflect that in Oaxacan homes, there is no food. In a country where there is no justice, no equality, where there is no respect for human rights, these pans are not only empty of food but also of these basic principles.”
After the march ended in the main square, a contingent of 500 women decided to take over Channel 9 CORTV, a state wide television station and its two affiliated radio stations. After a few hours the women got the channel back on the air. They began to express many reasons for the takeover, to continue the pressure for the governor’s resignation, to reclaim the space for the community, to air the news that is not getting covered and to use the mode of communication for organizing and spreading word of the needs of the movement. On August 21st police and government goons attacked the transmitter control room for Channel 9 taking it and two affiliated radio stations off the air. A contingency plan had been created and within hours 11 radio stations were under the control of movement members, many of them women from Channel 9.
Encampments and street blockades were set up to protect the new stations from plain clothed cops and paramilitaries who appear at night and fire into the encampments. One movement member guarding a radio station was killed, bringing the total deaths to eight. This repression has had the opposite effect of its apparent goal to disable the movement through fear, instead, more people can be found sleeping in the encampments outside the radio stations, and the determination of the people seems stronger. On September 3, APPO declared the Governor banned from the state and have essentially taken over control. Florentino explained, “For us the process of destruction of the government and the resignation of Ulises has already ended so that a phase of construction can begin, of creating governability, of showing that we are capable of governing ourselves.”
In this National Climate the Winds of Oaxaca Reach Far and Wide
While the people have managed, at least for the time being to reclaim Oaxaca from the hands of the corrupt and repressive leadership, on the national level Felipe Calderon, with the help of the conservative Federal Election Commission (TRIFE), has managed to fraudulently steal the national presidency. On September 6, TRIFE unanimously handed the presidency of Mexico to Calderon even though he had only half a percent lead out of 41.6 million votes over the left PRD candidate Manuel Lopez Obrador amidst an immense amount of evidence pointing to fraud. Obrador, who some on the left have criticized as a moderate, has campaigned on helping the poor and is refusing to back down, mobilizing millions against the fraud in Mexico City.
In preparation for the his final State of the Union address on September 1, President Fox planned to keep the Obrador supporters at bay with 10 foot tall metal barricades, thousands of armed federal police, water cannons and military snipers stationed on rooftops of surrounding buildings. He did not foresee the 155 senators and congress members who felt the election was fraudulent and who prevented the speech from the inside by taking over the podium. Fox ended up giving a televised address. On September 16 at a National Democratic Convention, the people voted Obrador as President of a “parallel government” with plans to prevent Calderon from taking office on December 1. Those in power continue to try and carry on with business as usual. According to a White House spokesperson, two days after Calderon was handed the presidency, George Bush expressed the desire to “meet at the earliest mutually convenient opportunity” especially to move forward on Plan Puebla Panama. Try as they might, they can not continue to ignore what is being created in the poor and indigenous communities in Oaxaca and throughout Mexico.
“The worry that is maybe the biggest of all is the fear of being repressed, the fear of being incarcerated, the fear of being harshly beaten, and of course, the fear of dying because that is what we are exposed to,” states a teacher afraid to share his name. Yet the dignity and courage in his eyes, and in the eyes of so many, suggests to me that perhaps the strength of this mass mobilization of people with justice in their hearts and a clear understanding of the roots of their exploitation in their minds can withstand this brutal repression. As Slingshot goes to press there is a period of calm in Oaxaca but repression could come at any moment. The largest defense against this repression is international solidarity, as we have seen throughout the Zapatista uprisings in Chiapas. APPO has recently called for international solidarity and for actions at Mexican consulates throughout the world.
This struggle for human rights and self determination is not new and repression is clearly not confined to Oaxaca. In fact, Oaxaca is simply another front in this global struggle for social justice. And we, in the U.S., in the belly of the beast where it is the easiest to carry on and maintain the status quo, we must stand tall and not let a single casualty in this struggle go unnoticed. Those in power gain strength with each exploitive act and development plan that increases the distance between the very rich and the growing poor. Throughout the Americas things are changing. In South America, the grassroots movements are expanding, electing left leadership. And in the US, the immigrant rights movement is on the move. The potential for solidarity is endless. The former Chiapas Bishop Samuel RuÌz GarcÌa, a long time advocate for the poor and indigenous communities, attended an APPO forum. In the closing ceremonies he stated, “it might be that we are standing in two time dimensions, the past and the future. In these days we are living something that we are leaving, and cement is being placed beneath something that doesn’t come automatically but is the result of working together, of our construction.”
Rochelle can be reached at email@example.com and photos from the movement in Oaxaca can be found at www.globalsoil.wordpress.com. For up-to-date info on Oaxaca and Mexico in English and Spanish www.narconews.com/en.html