Revolution #63, October 1, 2006
The People’s Revolt in Oaxaca
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"Mexico: The Political Volcano Rumbles"
In the state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, the broad masses of people have stood up in popular revolt to challenge the old order, at a critical juncture in Mexico. While it is not a revolution, what started as a militant teachers' strike that occupied the city center demanding a living wage has become an independent political struggle of the masses with the goal of driving the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution) governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, from office.
For close to four months now, teachers and supporters have taken over the zocalo town square in the capital of Oaxaca, shut down highways, blocked government buildings, and taken over radio and television stations.
The police force cannot officially operate—instead, the city is guarded by 1,500 barricades manned by the people, often made of police trucks, buses, and tires that are set on fire when an attack is approaching. Housewives regularly provide bread, atole (a sweet hot drink made of ground maize, milk, cinnamon, and sugar), coffee, and other supplies to the people building and patrolling the barricades as well as the people living in the zocalo encampment. The masses have organized their own patrols to safeguard their communities from police attacks and to resolve contradictions that arise from among the people. A mobile people’s brigade of 200 has closed down and occupied the government buildings.
Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO) has been unofficially declared proscrito—exiled and banned—by many masses of people and has kept his whereabouts unknown. State senators declared a neighboring hotel as an alternative headquarters for their government offices, but soon relocated after protestors warned the hotel management that they would “peacefully take over the hotel” if the senators were allowed to meet there. The teachers and students have been joined by campesinos, workers, students, doctors, lawyers, artists, and housewives, along with some shopkeepers, small businessmen, and priests who support the demand that the governor resign. In a society with very traditional customs and gender roles, women have stepped forward within this struggle in very important ways.
The people have a sense of new power as each attempt at government repression has spurred the struggle onward, bringing in wider sections of the people and deepening their resolve. In the past months, the police and other state-sponsored thugs have killed at least 5 people—including an architect who was killed during a police shooting at one of the broadcast stations—and there have been many wounded by gunfire from the police and teargas canisters, countless arrested, and there have been reports of torture and disappearances.
The Teachers’ Strike Becomes a People’s Revolt
On May 15, traditional Teachers’ Day in Mexico, teachers in Oaxaca set up an encampment in the zocalo, demanding higher wages and other educational reforms. They remained there for weeks, insisting that their demands be met. On June 14, URO–backed up by the state legislature made up of PRI, PAN (National Action Party), and PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) representatives—ordered a brutal repression against the teachers’ encampment in the zocalo that had drawn support from people in neighboring communities.
At dawn, while approximately 3,000 teachers and supporters—including families with small children—slept, police in helicopters dropped pepper bombs into the camp. More than 2,000 officers on foot charged into the town square and started beating people with batons and fired tear gas canisters. The police destroyed the encampment and dispersed people from the zocalo, but the people shortly returned with thousands more teachers, students from the local university, and people from the surrounding area who defended themselves from the police with sticks and stones and bravely reclaimed the zocalo.
In the wake of this struggle, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO)—a coalition of teachers activists, indigenous organizations and a broad cross section of the population of that state–was formed.
Within the APPO and within the larger movement, there is a whole range of “left” political trends, with differing views of what are the causes of the situation the people find themselves in, and how to resolve them. They include anti-capitalist trends, more radical and revolutionary forces, those who want tomake reforms within the existing system, and, importantly, revolutionary communist forces who are fighting for a radically different understanding of what is at the root of the problem and a radically different vision of what the solution is. Although the APPO is a coalition with wide-ranging outlooks, political lines, and ideologies, it has so far been a form that has allowed for a great deal of initiative from the masses to debate and to act—to put out their views to the people of that state, and more broadly.
Fed up with the lies promoted in Oaxaca’s official news sources, thousands of women marched through the streets to the Oaxacan Corporation of Radio and Television on August 1 and took over Channel 9. The women said, “We know that through this media, they misinform the people and never give voice for people to speak the truth about the reality we live in.” They started broadcasting and opened up the airwaves for people to denounce the state government, debate, and inform the public about the APPO movement. News of the movement started being broadcast to the far-flung indigenous communities around the state where often people have been fighting to oust despotic government officials and to protect their forests and land from being taken over by multinational corporations.
For three weeks the people dominated the normally state-controlled airwaves. People spoke of the reality of their lives as they understood it—the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), what people have lost to developers and international paper companies, and the desperate conditions of the masses generally. The Channel 9 broadcast included a documentary videotape of living conditions of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
This was too much for the government to tolerate. In the early hours of August 20, a government assault attacked the transmission tower and destroyed the controls, and paramilitaries shot up the whole facility to insure that it could not broadcast. APPO broadcast a message to the people: “Confronted with this panorama of provocation, terror and repression, we make the broadest possible call to the people to concentrate our forces around the single demand to make the tyrant fall and to this end, to reinforce the encampments and the offices taken over.”
On August 22, the state tried to make a major move and regain control of the airwaves. They attacked the antenna, and the people responded. The bells of churches were rung, firecrackers were set off. The barricade in the city center was extended several more blocks. A convoy of 30 armed police vehicles cruised the periphery. The radio station broadcast, “Compañeros, don’t sleep! Detain them.” Barricades of fire, rocks, bricks, tree trunks, tires, and old cars went up all over. “Through the smoke swarmed dozens of silhouettes with rocks in their hands, slingshots, baseball bats, sticks, ax handles. Buses blocked the streets everywhere. The resistance expanded more rapidly than the police forces.” Later that day, the people seized 12 radio stations and at present have consolidated control over two.
There have been also been megamarches of hundreds of thousands to denounce the attacks and demand the immediate resignation of URO.
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The rage and breaking point of the Oaxacan people has been brewing for a long time. Oaxaca is one of the poorest and most marginalized states in Mexico, with the largest percentage of the population belonging to indigenous (Indian) groups. Wretched conditions of extreme poverty and malnutrition, unemployment, increasing migration out of the countryside and into the cities—including the U.S.—and the discrimination against the majority indigenous population are deeply embedded in society. NAFTA, the PPP, and “imperialist modernization” have led to investments in maquiladoras, expanding commerce, deforestation, and other ways of taking over natural resources and have ruined countless peasants in the countryside, making survival near impossible.
For the past couple of years, Oaxaca has witnessed some of the bloodiest repressions unleashed against the campesinos, students, and opposition organizations there. Only months after URO took power in December 2004, 250 police surrounded a community in Santiago Xanica during a communal workday and attempted to massacre the peasants by opening fire on 80 people. URO has also repeatedly repressed the struggle of university students against Plan Juarez (which among other things aims to privatize education), with hundreds of police using batons, tear gas, and attack dogs. Only a day before URO took office, there was an assault on the printing presses of El Diario, a newspaper widely distributed in Oaxaca. Months later, the offices of the newspaper were attacked again, and 31 workers were kidnapped. Police harassed people who sell the newspaper and tried to prevent the distribution of the newspaper.
* * * *
A march of thousands from Oaxaca to Mexico City has just begun, aimed at bringing the struggle to the rest of Mexico and building broader support as well as putting pressure on the Federal Government to intervene on the side of the people who have been demanding that the governor has to go. Demands also include an end to the repression against the movement and its supporters, freedom for all political prisoners, maximum punishment for URO and other functionaries including the murdering police, and a wage increase for Oaxacan teachers.
The Oaxacan state Congress recently drafted a decree addressed to President Vicente Fox, demanding he dispatch federal forces to remove the encampments of protestors in the zocalo, remove the barricades and protestors surrounding the city, and restore “order” to the area. Repression against the APPO and the people of Oaxaca is still a real possibility. In Los Angeles, California marches in solidarity with the Oaxacan people have gone to the Mexican Counsulate to protest government repression. Oaxacan organizations in the U.S. along with others sent a statement to Fox asking him not to send federal forces to repress the movement. Also, a contingent of about 30 activists from Latino rights organizations from the U.S. arrived in Oaxaca to talk with the APPO about the state of the struggle.
There is a lot of behind-the-scenes manuevering on the part of the Mexican rulers who are trying to figure out how to bring this situation of ungovernability in the state of Oaxaca to an end. The challenge for all of the political parties among the rulers is how to diffuse the situation in a way that will gain them political advantage. For example, PRI governors warned Fox and his forces that if they allow the governor of Oaxaca to be brought down as a result of a popular uprising, the position of Felipe Caldéron (the PAN candidate who was officially declared winner of the presidential election) as President could be in danger as well. Caldéron’s opponent, the PRD’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), has distanced himself from APPO, apparently not wanting that kind of independent popular uprising to spread, even though forces connected to PRD are undoubtedly involved in APPO.
The heroic rebellion of the people in Oaxaca is bringing to the fore the potential strength of the masses when they rely on their own strength and their creativity in the struggle, and do not subordinate their struggle to any of the electoral parties representing Mexico’s rulers. Societywide, new vistas are opening up and the masses are raising their sights to new ideas and possibilities, including widely debating what kind of future–and what kind of system—people actually need.
This situation is opening the door for the struggle for a new future in all of Mexico, and this is resonating throughout the country, across the U.S./Mexico border, and throughout the world—and this struggle must be supported.
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