The Current Struggle of Oaxaca
by Nancy Romer
I have been in Mexico City for the last week observing and participating in the struggle that has captured the dreams and fears of the Mexican people�the struggle for workers rights and democracy in Oaxaca, a poor state with a mostly indigenous population.
Reeling from the movement of international capital and the concomitant movement of people from the Mexican country side to the cities, the people of Oaxaca have created a struggle that has wide implications. Beginning in May, the teachers of the �democratic� wing of the national teachers union (section 22 of the SNTE), began a strike and encampment in the zocalo (main square) of Oaxaca, fully supported by parents and students, demanding higher salaries and support for buildings, supplies and money for students so they won�t have to work. Teachers in Oaxaca as teachers everywhere are civic and political activists who participate effectively in their communities; particularly in Oaxaca, their relationships to their communities are part of their everyday lives. The dynamic coalition of parents, teachers, and students is a model for all of us who want to see the schools be transformed into institutions that serve the needs of the people, especially the poor, instead of creating testing factories that sort people for the corporate economy. It also presents a model of how unions can engage in societal demands greater than the narrow confines of their contracts.
Met with violent repression from the Mexican government, the teachers� struggle expanded into a mass-based coalition, APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca), that includes people from over 935 groups of unions, civic organizations, neighborhoods, churches, universities, and beyond. Their demands have expanded to include the removal of the hated conservative governor Ulises Ruiz, who has given rich state contracts to construction companies of his friends and relatives to the detriment of the people�s basic services and has sold off historically significant publicly-owned works of art for his own aggrandizement. Oaxaquenos report that the city has become much more difficult to transverse with Ulises� expensive and hated construction projects. His administration is considered so corrupt that the people of Oaxaca have developed an alternate government structure to provide basic services. APPO has also demanded a new state constitution that would use traditionally indigenous decision-making processes that they view as more truly democratic than the present state constitution.
In Mexico, a parallel struggle has ensued calling for the recount of the federal election vote for president, charging vote fraud (sound familiar?) in the (s)election of Felipe Calderon who has the support of the US government and the International Monetary Fund . While some APPO activists support the progressive candidacy of Manuel Lopez Obrador over Calderon, most are skeptical about any electoral candidates and see their struggle as distinct from some of their supporters outside of Oaxaca who are more likely to conflate these parallel struggles; some Oaxaquenos fear that their struggle is being used by the electoralists.
APPO has formal meetings in which important decisions are made, representing a bottom-up participatory structure; implementation of decisions is decentralized. When state and local police were sent in to tear down the encampment in Oaxaca�s zocalo last June, the battle began and continued throughout the summer, with an intense crescendo last week with a massive incursion of federal �preventive� troops, many in plain clothes, in Oaxaca. APPO estimates that nearly 30 people have been killed in Oaxaca since June, at least 8 in the last week, including teachers, students, parents, and at least one American, Brad Will, an Indymedia journalist. Many more have been wounded and more yet detained by the local police.
Early on in the struggle, APPO activists erected barricades throughout the city as protection from attacks from armed thugs. Later they were appropriated by the people to create spaces of resistance�for kids to play soccer, for families to share meals and make music together; this in a culture with a tradition of �tequio� which requires every adult to perform some kind of ongoing community service as a contribution to the society. The zocalo was transformed into a performance space, featuring new videos of the recent events and struggles with the police and federal troops, music of the struggle, and people testifying about their lives and the troubles. These events were marked by a great outpouring of creativity and expression often by ordinary people, expressing joy, fear, and hope. The city of Oaxaca has been an intense dialectic of liberated zone and battleground. Each neighborhood, each union, each group of people engaged in the struggle runs their own process, controls their own barricades, creates their own ways of being. The central APPO represents and reflects the desires of these participating groups but the people themselves carry out the plan and create the details on the ground. The people are empowered by their own actions, communities and ideas.
The progressive organizations and people all over Mexico are mobilized in support of the people of Oaxaca. Early in October, 3500 APPO activists marched over 600 kilometers to Mexico City; they were joined by activists from Guerrero who have similar demands to the APPO. They have a parallel organization (APPG) that leads their struggle. Along the long line of march, supporters provided food and housing to the demonstrators; when they arrived in Mexico City, a jubilant rally was held in support. Since the arrival of these Oaxaquenos, Mexico City itself has been transformed into a site of confrontation and support for their fellow Mexicans.
Radio stations staffed by the people�s organizations�Radio Planton (the teachers� union station), Radio Universidad, and Radio Nueve (a private station appropriated by APPO) have been consistently and violently attacked. Radio �Casserole� was a public radio station that was appropriated and defended by several hundred women activists taking over the station with pots and pans clanking away. These radio stations provide information and political analysis that serve the struggle on the ground. This past Tuesday, federal �preventive� forces violently attacked the Universidad Autonoma �Benito Juarez� de Oaxaca with the intent of cutting off their radio station, but they were repelled by students and faculty. The administration, specifically the rector (equivalent to a college president), supported the students and faculty, called for no police or federal troops in the university, and reasserted the autonomy of the university from government intervention, A battle ensued that looked exactly like a civil war or insurgency. Students, faculty and supporters used sticks, stones, and Molotov cocktails against the guns, pepper and tear gas of the federal forces. Eight APPO activists, including teachers, children, and unionists, were killed in that battle. While the people prevailed, many more battles are expected. And government violence continues.
The Oaxaquenos do not relish this embattled state. They are weary and they are afraid. But they know that they cannot stand down now, that change will only come with their fortitude, courage and organization in the streets. This is not a time to give up the struggle.
As the crisis continues it takes on a more fierce, complex, yet concerted focus. While the teachers of Oaxaca have been granted virtually all their demands, including for increased salaries, back pay and amnesty, the popular demands to remove Governor Ulises Ruiz and create a new state constitution remain squarely on the agenda. There is tension between many of the teachers who want to go back to work and accept this monetary package and other teachers and APPO activists who see this as a sellout of the broader demands of the coalition. But the various groups are still working together and we can expect this to be further played out both in APPO meetings and in the streets of Oaxaca.
What is curious, though, is an apparent lack of specific demands that would begin to solve some of their more serious societal problems. With all their struggle and distain for electoral politics, why haven�t the APPO activists developed a clearer set of demands to address the critical issues they face: poverty, unemployment, under-funded schools and social services? What if they are successful in removing Ruiz? Certainly they do not think that their problems will be solved by replacing one politico with another. Will a new state constitution alone create economic, social and political changes? How will they use their power to advance a program they think will address the changes needed? This remains to be seen.
The Senate and Congress of Mexico have been forced by the APPO activists and their allies to vote to condemn Ulises Ruiz, but they have not voted to remove him from office. Unless that is accomplished, the struggle and civil unrest will continue. Some say that Ruiz, Calderon and Fox, as well as their various party comrades, fear the dangerous precedent of toppling a sitting governor; this would only encourage such militant actions in the future. Others say that Fox does not want to force Ruiz from office as his final presidential act; he wants Ruiz to resign instead. The conservative ruling forces are in disarray creating a larger social space for the peoples� power in the streets.
Massive demonstrations all over Mexico have ensued in support of APPO. I attended a dynamic, spirited and large demonstration this week in Mexico City, with banners from the many supportive unions and peoples organizations, lots of red flags�unlikely to be found at a US demo. Huge groups of students were jubilantly marching and shouting out slogans. There are a number of semi-permanent encampments in Mexico City where organizations have set up shop for the duration�they form communities of struggle and support in the central city. Every so often, activists will surge toward the streets and stop traffic, extend their encampments, and retreat under pressure from the city police. The zocalo in Mexico City greets visitors with beautiful and fierce banners in support of APPO; Che, Lenin, and APPO t-shirt sales are brisk at all these places. Left groups publish their missives daily and provide displays for people to read and think about. This is a mobilized society.
Meanwhile, the struggle and support for APPO expands throughout Mexico and the world, significantly lead by unionists. I attended a meeting of the coalition of unions and organizations of civil society in Mexico City to support the APPO. It took place in the headquarters of the Mexico City teachers� union local and was chaired by teacher and other unionists. In consultation with APPO, the people attending the meeting further developed a plan of action to involve a broad group of supporters and apply pressure on the Mexican government to oust Ulises Ruiz, stop the government-led violence, and end the crisis.
They decided on the following actions to take place in the next two weeks:
- Press conferences and testimonies at the National Human Rights Commission;
- a caravan of people from Mexico City and elsewhere in Mexico to go to Oaxaca to observe, defend and support their struggle (seven buses left on Saturday, November 4th from Mexico City);
- a statewide mobilization in Oaxaca on Sunday, November 5, including those arriving in caravans from all over Mexico;
- a two-day national teachers’ strike called by the CNTE (progressive) wing of the National Teachers Union/SNTE on November 9-10;
- a one-day Nationwide Civic Strike (Paro Civico Nacional) on Friday, November 10;
- a National March in Mexico City on Friday, November 10;
- a National and International Caravan to Oaxaca starting in Mexico City on November 8th to participate in an expanded Congress of APPO November 10th and 11th.
After the initial presentation of the plan of action at the meeting, the debate was intense but agreements were made and people formed committees to work on all these actions. Greetings of solidarity from US and German organizations (including my presentation of the American Federation of Teachers� resolution in support of the Oaxaca teachers) were met with appreciation from the meeting participants. The appreciation, camaraderie, and friendship extended to me by activists, especially the teachers, was humbling. These activists are counting on support from abroad and pressure on the Mexican government, including the consulates and embassies all over the world, as a key part of their strategy. Sitting in that room, I felt the weight and importance of spreading the word and helping to bring as many people to support that strategy as possible. The various unions and organizations in the US and other nations continue to play a critical role in making visible and applying pressure to end the struggle triumphantly in Oaxaca in particular and Mexico in general. Labor unions and organizations in the U.S. such as United for Peace and Justice have begun to mobilize in support of the APPO; demonstrations have occurred in more than a dozen US cities; this must be sustained and increased for its influence to be felt.
The next few days and weeks will define the future. Will the APPO activists develop new demands that push truly democratic government policies that will serve the poor? Will their movement be appropriated (and perhaps used) by the push for a more progressive electoral solution? How will these dynamics play out?
The present crisis is testing the viability of the Mexican government to meet the demands of the people and to remove Governor Ulises Ruiz from office as a symbol of corruption and to stop the violence of a repressive government. Further, the crisis demands that the government begins to offer increased democratic practices that meet the needs of the people. The crisis continues to serve as an international beacon of hope for people, for poor people in particular, to organize, to unite, to assert their demands and to hold on to their hopes and dreams for a world with justice and respect for all peoples. This is a cause worthy of our every support. The Oaxaquenos and Mexicans do the work that so many of us fear to do ourselves in much more privileged situations. They set an example of what is possible in this difficult historical moment.
Note: Many thanks go to the following people for their written and spoken reports, some published, some in personal communications, or for comments and suggestions that helped me to write this piece: Hugo Aboites, Mariluz Arriaga, Alan Benjamin, Michael Eisenscher, Tom Gogan, Tami Gold, Soledad Guzman Jimenez, Graciela Espinosa Martinez, Curtis Muhammad, and Gerardo Renique.
Nancy Romer is professor of psychology at Brooklyn College and University-Wide Officer of the Professional Staff Congress-CUNY, American Federation of Teachers Local 2334.