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ISR Issue 49, September–October 2006

Rebellion on Oaxaca

“We are busy making our history”


THE STATE of Oaxaca, Mexico, is at the heart of a rebellion that began with a regional strike of 70,000 teachers, but has now become a popular struggle for the ouster of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governor Ulises Ruiz. SANDINO MILCANTAS, a freelance writer who is traveling through the Americas, reports what he witnessed in Oaxaca.

IT IS 9:30 pm, July 22, and not a minute after entering the headquarters of Oaxaca's rebel radio on the grounds of the Benito Juarez Autonomous University, three trucks full of black-clad paramilitaries in ski masks come to a screeching halt, letting off a volley of shotgun snare that tears the night air in a rain of glass shards and bullets. A man on the inside screams “Everybody hit the floor!” as the smell of gas fills our nostrils. It's not the students' Molotov cocktails lying around by the dozens in crates letting off the aroma, but the assailants dousing the building to set Radio Universidad, a link in the popular rebellion of Oaxaca, ablaze.

It's my first day back in the capital and tens of thousands of teachers from all over the state are arriving from their hometowns to recommence the swelling rebellion for the overthrow of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, or “URO.” I had heard this would be the night when the state offensive would escalate.

We run into a classroom adjacent to the entry and leap for the floor. I sit huddled in the corner behind a bookcase next to a young Mexican man, his eyes, riddled by the specter of death. We assume the assailants will storm in shooting. The bookcase is our best protection.

To our right a man of about forty, short and brown-skinned with a good belly, loads a revolver and pokes it out of a retractable window, firing curses “vamonos pinches cabrones!” (“Lets go you mutherfuckers!) and bullets at the “porros” (student paramilitaries) in defense of the radio and of the people in the building.

“They came in cold blood,” said a student who was there. “They wanted to kill us all and burn the radio. But when they saw that we were returning fire they busted ass out of there.” And that's how it was.

A cluster of girls make frantic telephone calls for help, not to the police of course, but to people from the movement. Within a half hour there are by my account (“dozens” says the Associated Press) 1,500 people outside, gathered in response to the call for help. Women and men with heavy sticks, machetes, and metal rods light piles of wood afire, as roadblocks and security outfits are sent out to seal off all the entranceways to the university.

With the determination of warriors, people from the community rush through with steaming caldrons of coffee and great bags of tamales and sandwiches for the people in the building. Several city buses are captured and used to block roads to make way for an angry mass demonstration at one in the morning.

In the capital

Having heard of police brutality and an encampment of the 70,000 public school teachers of Section 22 of the National Syndicate of Education Workers, the largest union in Latin America, I came to the capital Oaxaca from Mexico City on the fourth of July.

In early May the teachers of the 22 came, as they do every year, to the capital to lodge a series of demands including pay hikes, increased scholarships, free breakfasts, and textbooks for students. Aware of the historically rebellious nature of Section 22, Governor Ruiz promised to respond to the demands within a week's time. But when there was no response and the week was up, the occupation grew in the Zócalo, or town center.

“Sorry for the annoyances,” reads a sign directed at English-speaking tourists in the Zócalo, “what happens is that we are busy making our history. As soon as Ulises gets out of here we will welcome you with open arms.”

In the interior

From the capital we decided to trek into the interior of Oaxaca to speak with some teachers on their own turf before they returned to the encampment.

The government had threatened to hold back the students for the whole year unless there was a graduation, so thousands of teachers went home to finish up the academic year, while the only teachers left guarding the Zócalo were locals flanked by a plethora of left-wing civil organizations.

High into the verdant and misty Northern Mountains of Oaxaca rests the small town of Guelatao, where Benito Juarez was born and private property doesn't exist. The teachers of the Center for Social Integration, the town's primary school, put us up for three nights to do interviews and see how they do things.

On the bus ride out I wondered about the significance of having teachers at the center of a rebellion, their understanding of the revolutionary history of Mexico, and the great influence they have on the consciousness of the next generation. What better subjective conditions could one hope for?

But the reply wasn't subjective in the least: “As a teacher you live with the community, and you are aware of the levels of poverty, of misery, of malnutrition, and the levels of neglect that the communities receive,” said Octavio Mayoral Perez, instructor of physical education, with an almost theatrical outrage.

“The governing families live marvelously. Lives. Eats. Has. They are extremely wealthy, and when you compare these two classes it greatly upsets you-this, compañero, is where rebellion is born.”

Mariana Lucia Miguel, 35, the principal, stands about four feet, five inches and served up more proverbs than Sancho Panza: “She who perseveres, accomplishes.” And there is no doubt in her mind that the movement for the overthrow of URO will not stop until it is triumphant.

With tears swelling her eyes she recounted the misadventurous eviction of the encampment in mid-June: “If the government had been successful in weakening our movement, we would have dispersed. But to the contrary, our compañeros in all of the eight regions of Oaxaca began occupying their municipalities…. No longer is this the struggle of the teachers: this is the struggle of the people!”

The eviction and the aftermath

On June 14, at four in the morning, 2,500 riot police entered the Zócalo, siccing attack dogs indiscriminately, firing tear gas canisters and shotgun shells, “stealing everything they could steal and burning everything they couldn't,” said Alberto López, who was on the front lines of the seven-hour battle that resulted in the retreat of the police, and the reoccupation of the Zócalo.

In the end two children were killed, and, according to López, eighty teachers remain unaccounted for. What began as a series of demands for educational reform has transformed into an outright rebellion against the “fascist, neoliberal regime of Ulises,” he said.

López, a member of the Commission for Press and Propaganda, a section of the Popular Assembly of Oaxaca, explained that the unfolding insurrection began even before the December 2005 election of Ruiz. “In his campaign URO vowed to put an end to the social movements: no more blockades, no more protests, no more occupations, and he has carried out violent repression against us all beginning with his first month in power.”

URO, chief of the Oaxaca branch of the PRI, which has held power here for seventy-five years, is charged with having ordered paramilitary repression against any type of political dissent. López said 120 Oaxacans have been killed by these supra-constitutional forces since the governor took power, with many more wounded, threatened into silence, and disappeared.

Las Noticias, the only newspaper in the state critical of the government, has been occupied by paramilitary forces since June of last year, although the daily continues in its campaign against the government. A reporter writing scathing indictments of electoral fraud on the part of Ulises Ruiz was assassinated, López said.

URO had also promised the PRI's ultra-right presidential candidate, Roberto Madrazo, a million votes in this state of nearly 3.5 million. Madrazo ended up with 351,000, thanks largely to the eviction of the encampment.

But perhaps most important, López noted, is that “URO is trying to pave the way for Plan Puebla Panama [a Washington-backed free trade region extending from the Mexican state of Puebla, to Panama] and the privatization of the resources of Oaxaca. International investors invest where it's safe to do so, and the PRI wants to erase [the social movements] from the map for this reason, to enrich themselves and the foreign capitalists.”

The popular assembly of Oaxaca

“So,” I asked, “what if URO resigns and, as has happened time and time again in Latin American history, somebody with the same agenda takes his place?”

“That won't do. Someone who the APPO approves of must take power.”

APPO, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, is the umbrella organization under which the seventy-odd organizations-including the teachers, socialists, communists, anarchists, other unions, university students, campesino organizations, etc.-are organized. APPO was formed in the aftermath of the beginning of the encampment, on May 22, and holds meetings weekly and as necessary.

Representatives from each of Oaxaca's 570 municipalities, 430 of which have banned political parties and are run by popular assembly, complete the circle of APPO. The demand is not only for the overthrow of Ruiz, but for the implementation of a participatory democracy: from the bottom and to the left, as is done in most of the state. “Or at least,” López retreated a bit, “for a governor who will abide by the demands of the popular assembly: tit for tat.”

I began to see that what is happening here has international repercussions. Would the federal government, and the colossus to the North for that matter, just hang back while a popular power is established in this state replete with gold, uranium, fresh water, and timber?

“Is it going to come to a war?” I asked López.

“On the fourteenth of June the federal government sent three cargo planes full of troops to Oaxaca. But with elections coming up, they decided not to send them in.”

“But are you ready for war,” I insisted.

“We don't want war,” he whispered, shaking his head as if in lament. “But we are ready for anything.”

The merchants

Leonel Hernandez, 36, owns a contemporary art gallery in a swanky section of the city. Inviting me for a Corona with salt and lime he recounted with welling eyes why he was opposed to the movement. “I am broken, completely broken. For two months I have had to pay the workers, rent, electric, telephone, food, without selling even one painting.… I am going to have to close down. Thanks to the teachers, in a week I will close down.”

“And what will you do then?” I asked.

“Cuba! I'm going to Cuba,” he replied laughing, proceeding to invite the attractive Oaxacan girl sitting with us to come with him to the house of his well-to-do brother-he would pay for everything.

Marta Gomez, 44, has never left Oaxaca. She runs a tostada stand in front of a cathedral five blocks from Hernandez's gallery, and says she supports the strike even though it means she is earning almost less than nothing.

“Some days I only sell one sandwich and two soft drinks,” Gomez said, chewing on bubblegum, waving her chef's knife in gesticulation. “I work from 6:30 in the morning to 9 at night, working more than ever and making less money than ever…. But I know that this government is corrupt and that it needs to fall. I will support the movement however I can, even if it's only with a case of water.”

I went into a large supermarket and a coffee shop to further explore the effects the movement has had on local businesses, small and large. In both cases, sales have plummeted to approximately 50 percent of what they were. The Associated Press has been quoting a Mexican business lobby that claims the movement has cost Oaxaca $45 million, reducing tourism by 75 percent.

Quixotically, I went down to the Oaxaca Office of Tourism to try and verify this, only to be sent somewhere else, to be sent yet again somewhere else, where finally I came upon a man who stood beneath a lithograph of the besieged and despised Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. In the picture, URO stood beneath a portrait of Benito Juarez, and the man in the room took my e-mail address, assuring me that he would get me an interview as soon as possible. That was five days ago, and I'm still waiting.

Adding to the economic impact, which Hernandez says has forced four of his friends to close their businesses, the closure of his gallery demonstrates how the movement is “harming the culture of Oaxaca.”

Culture and resistance

Indeed, culture and economics are an inextricable pair in Oaxaca: the perfect example being the Guelaguetza. Every year in July, the state government, sponsored by companies like Corona and the private telecom monopoly Telmex, puts on an event called the Guelagetza, where indigenous communities from the eight regions of Oaxaca show off their traditional dances and dresses.

The name itself, of Zapotec origin, refers to the delicacy, respect, and attention that one must give to all, and all to one. It's an act of solidarity, says the government. People come literally from all over the world to share in Oaxaca's rich cultural patrimony. It's the most lucrative time of year for Oaxaca, but now all bets are off.

The movement claims that the “bourgeois” Guelaguetza is not an event in solidarity with anybody other than that which exists between the bourgeoisie and themselves. So they decided to prevent it from taking place. Instead, there would be a popular Guelaguetza, sponsored by the people. In contrast to the $43 minimum entry fee of the former, this one would be free, exhibiting all the pomp and circumstance of its antithesis.

I watched the Guelaguetza with Niceparo Urbieta, 56, a renowned painter here and member of the Arts and Culture Commission of the APPO. Resistance is an essential facet of the people of Oaxaca, he said.

Never mind causing harm to our culture. Now we are developing something that has taken shape over hundreds and hundreds of years.

For those who try and trample over these traditions, it will be very difficult, because the more they try, the stronger the people get…. Here there is no separation between culture and our meaning of justice. There is a profound connection between the two, and they are indeed one.

Two marches

An indigenous parade marches down one end of town, brass band afire and half the town drunk on aged Mezcal. In complement, on another end of town, simultaneously, a group of 1,000 protestors, chanting “Zapata Vive!” and waving machetes, parade two kidnapped police officers down the street.

There was word that the police arrested a campesino from the APPO, and so members barged into the police station, freeing eight prisoners and kidnapping two police, only to find out later that it was a false alarm. No one had been arrested.

The officers were soon set free, but with no clear consensus on what to do with them. One woman yelled out, “Give them back when we get our disappeared,” while another said they should be paraded to the Zócalo, and the crowd had to prevent one group that wanted to lynch the utterly vulnerable cops.

While the movement, considering its time span and the diversity of its members, is organized and united on the goal of toppling Ruiz, actions such as this demonstrate a vulnerability to factionalism and a susceptibility to infiltration, which everyone suspects is present.

A study in contrasts

I was here three years ago in passing and didn't think much of the colonial architecture, ritzy dining, and brilliant expensive crafts that attract so many tourists. But tinted with the graffiti of rebellion, the wailing of Latin American protest music, and non-stop revolutionary proclamations from Radio Universidad, today's Oaxaca is another world from what I saw in 2003.

Oaxaca is a study in contrasts, not only in rich versus poor and mestizo versus indigenous-but also in churches versus pyramids; Spanish versus thirty-seven indigenous dialects; riot cops versus teachers; and tear-gas, German Shepherds, and helicopters versus sticks, war chants, and stones. The contradictions couldn't be clearer.

I asked Urbieta of the “dialectical” nature of Oaxacan culture. “What would the APPO be if it weren't for the PRI?”

He, shifting his eyes from mine to the stage of the Guelaguetza, almost unconsciously, pointed at the representative dance under way. “Here, you see, is Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, representing order, tranquility, and respect. And there is Tezcatlipoca, disorder, chaos, and crudeness.”

Through my lenses the greatest contrast here is the one that differentiates rebellion from revolution. Where does a sectional uprising calling for a narrow set of demands cross the line into a full-blown cataclysm in the economic, social, and political realms?

It would be a far stretch to say that the movement enjoys popular support among the people of Oaxaca. In the countryside many people think this is still only a magisterial movement, and that the only demand of the teachers-who are already comparatively well-off-is a pay hike.

I spoke with two campesinos from different regions of the state, both of whom were living miserably and knew the reason why. The first, just as short as he was humble, said that even though it is the fault of the government that his family eats so poorly, he wouldn't support the movement, much less take up arms. Why? Because whatever happens is God's will, according to the evangelicals who have grounded him in his apoliticism.

The second of the two campesinos, however, who made the same indictment against the politicians, said softly, with his daughter on his lap and a big smile on his face, that he was ready for a revolution.

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