Revolution #66, October 22, 2006
Heading Towards a Showdown in Oaxaca
It has been almost 5 months since the teachers and their supporters took over the Oaxaca City zocalo town square, shut down the highways, blocked government buildings and took over the radio and television stations, broadcasting the people’s voices, demanding a living wage, and uniting a movement around the demand that the governor of Oaxaca, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO), be driven from office.
To this day, the teachers and the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) are refusing to back down from their demand that URO be driven out and this has Mexico’s rulers on the horns of a huge dilemma. The forces of the National Action Party (PAN), the party of President Vicente Fox and the President-elect, Felipe Calderón, are under tremendous pressure to resolve this situation, both because it would give them more credibility in establishing their ability to rule, but also because the “contagion” is spreading and the same contradictions that have given rise to this struggle in Oaxaca exist in other parts of the country. One pundit in Mexico, Rogelio Hernandez of the College of Mexico, gave voice to the dilemma: “Believe me, I don’t defend Ruiz, but forcing out an elected official will only legitimize a group that has acted outside the margins of the law.” (Quoted in SF Chronicle, 10/12)
In late September, several thousand teachers and the APPO marched out of Oaxaca and walked 480 km (about 300 miles) for 19 days through 25 pueblos to Mexico City. Despite a huge media campaign to instill fear of the caravan, the teachers’ caravan—headed up with a burro with huge ears ridiculing URO—was greeted by thousands of people in Mexico City. Crowds of thousands—which included many who had been part of the encampments organized by Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) of the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) to challenge Calderón’s election, as well as UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) students, street vendors, and others—gathered and chanted “we are all Oaxaca.” The streets were festive with the sounds of firecrackers and car horns. People held up their homemade signs in support of the APPO and Oaxaca and against URO and Calderón and others greeted the caravan with red carnations and chrysanthemums.
They had to fight through police lines to arrive at the doors of the Senate. They chanted “Ulises has fallen and Calderón is next!” They had finally arrived in Mexico City. Since then, they have set up a planton—a blockade—in front of the Senate and have focused the eyes of the nation on what is decided there around this conflict.
What began as a local struggle has become to some extent a national concentration point of the very intense contradictions Mexico is experiencing now. The rulers are just coming off a fraudulent presidential election, and those who backed Calderón are having a very difficult time imposing him. The long history of exploitation, oppression and misery is calling out the people’s resistance. And the rulers just witnessed the end of the encampments and resistance for 45 days in Mexico City in support of the PRD presidential contender AMLO claims that he was denied victory through fraud. (See Revolution #59, 60, & 61.) The PAN, the ruling party, and the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution) which ruled Mexico for 70 years, are trying to forge an alliance and in doing so ace out the PRD (which is also a ruling class party but which has a different agenda for the country and which poses as representing the interests of the downpressed in Mexican society). But it’s not so easy, and forcing the PRI governor of a state to resign could torpedo this arrangement. At the same time, the costs of resolving this situation with the use of armed force against the people could be very high, heating up the social conflicts already at play.
All this is coming to a head as Calderón is trying to forge his new government which will take effect on December 1. The different forces among the rulers are contending over how to force through a resolution without bringing forth massive new explosions of struggle throughout the country.
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The Mexican rulers have mobilized major military force—and while the government is trying to negotiate some kind of deal, through all the maneuvering there is a major threat of clampdown and there has been occupation of indigenous communities by troops. On Sunday, October 1, military helicopters—like the military helicopters that shot tear gas into the teachers’ encampments this summer—were seen flying low when people and tourists filled the downtown area. Officials said that the helicopters were “refueling,” but the people saw this for what it was: an attempt to intimidate people into giving up their demand of driving URO out of office. A food vendor said, “This is just to intimidate us. Are we at war? Well, you know what, every night there are gun shots here.”
The government is exerting huge pressure on the masses to negotiate a resolution of the struggle, using carrots and sticks, but all under the looming threat of armed attack on the people.
Since the end of September the government has flooded the state with 20,000 troops and the Federal Preventive Police (PFP) in a military mobilization that had not been seen since the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas.
Troops have disembarked by sea, air, and land. Under this tremendous tension, the people have maintained their defiance. They have reinforced the barricades and called on surrounding areas to send human shields to protect the blockade in case of an attack. When the military helicopters started flying low, people painted huge messages on the pavement and the roofs of buildings: “PFP Bienvenidos a Oaxaca” (PFP—Welcome to Oaxaca) and “Fuera URO de Oaxaca” (URO—get out of Oaxaca”). Speaking about the threat of the use of armed force against the APPO encampment in Oaxaca, one of the striking teachers stated that the people have lost their fear: “We know that we are at a total disadvantage up against the PFP, but we think we will defend it with our lives.” (La Jornada, 10/14)
Last weekend, the newspaper La Jornada reported that they had received secret documents detailing plans to invade the center of Oaxaca City with over 2000 police and to retake the TV and radio stations that are in the hands of the people. The plan includes the use of paid paramilitary thugs made up of elite military personnel that would cause chaos and give an excuse for a massive invasion of the 20,000 military forces standing by.
Carlos Abascal, secretary of Gobernación (the Interior Ministry, which includes the PFP and other forces of the state), said, “In Oaxaca, the limit is very near” and that if the dialogue doesn’t work, they will use “the instruments of the State.” After months in which the rulers did little but hope the teachers would give up as has happened in previous years, Abascal is now working almost full time to impose a solution in benefit of the state’s interests. In the midst of this, police and undercover agents fired on the people connected to APPO in the city of Oaxaca, injuring 4 people, and further infuriating the people.
As we go to press the situation is highly charged and in flux. It has been reported in the U.S. press that the federal government and the teachers have agreed that the local and state police in Oaxaca should be replaced with a citizen commission and a federal police representative, but as yet there is no agreement and the situation is far from resolved. The demand that URO be thrown out remains the key demand of the teachers and APPO. The Senate has sent a government commission to investigate the status and situation of the government in Oaxaca and whether it should be dissolved and an interim governor appointed. The government has advanced offers of wage hikes if the teachers return to school on Monday, Oct. 16, but the teachers have stated that they will return to classes only after hearing the outcome of the Senate commission’s investigation around the dissolving of the URO government. The commission is not expected to report until Tuesday.
The three ruling parties are divided on what should be done with URO. The PRD insists that the only solution is to get rid of him. The PAN says “maybe” and hopes that he resign, with the leader of the party insisting that the dissolution of powers does not lie within the power of the Senate. The PRI expresses unconditional support for URO and other governors from its ranks. The head of the PRI party in the Senate, Emilio Gamboa, said, “I don’t think that through pressure by the teachers and a subversive group they should be able to overthrow a governor. I think it would be a terrible event for Mexico. If Ulises goes through pressure, who’s next? Next is the sitting president and after him the president elect, there’s no doubt.”
Oaxaca: The City and State
In Oaxaca, it is not just the capital city that is in resistance, but the whole state. The masses of peasants and Indians have been coming down out of the hills to the city, to strengthen the barricades. The army has been setting up checkpoints to keep people from coming down from the mountains, but someone commented: “What they don’t know is that most of them have already come down.”
In the Mixteca—an indigenous (Indian) peasant region in the mountains of Oaxaca, which is very poor, with large numbers of people having to migrate to El Norte—when the teachers marched through the region the people were heard saying, “We Mexicans have now awakened and we will achieve a new social order” and, “The APPO march has entered into the consciousness of the Mexicans. It’s started to leave its footprint to transform this nation through and through. That’s what we want, a revolt of ideas and a debate in the whole country to end the injustices.”
In the region of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, peasants and Indians continue mobilizing to block access to the valves and pipelines of Pemex, due to the damage this state-owned oil company has caused to crops and animals
From Radio APPO, calls go out for supplies needed at the barricades and support comes from the masses and other sections of the people: water, food, an elderly woman contributing her whole life’s savings—10,000 pesos in a plastic bag. At night, fires are lit at the barricades and those manning them sit and talk. Through the smoke, as people mill about, families can be seen bringing pots of food and coffee. Thousands have organized in the barricades, not sleeping, ready to be in the streets at any moment. As a man from the town of Miahuatlán commented, “They’ve created a psychosis in our children. They’re intelligent. They know that their parents go out at night, that they’re involved in this, that they might not come back. But in Oaxaca we are many thousands against hunger, against those in power that are on top of the whole people.”
Because the police no longer enter downtown Oaxaca, the masses apply law and order. With whistles they call for help to prevent crime. The APPO organized its own taxi fleet, and the street vendors, removed from downtown by the previous government, are allowed back in by the APPO administration. Some of these vendors were once loyal to the governor’s party.
Forces like the Mexican Human Rights League, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and José Luis Soberanes, the national human rights ombudsman, are investigating aggressions by police and paramilitaries dressed in civilian clothes against the movement, and calling for a political solution.
The Caravan to Mexico City
The march of 5,000 people from Oaxaca—teachers, mass organizations, APPO, peasants, workers, retired folks, etc.—traveled through the states of Oaxaca, Puebla, Morelos, and Mexico. They have had major and enthusiastic receptions all along the way—people lining the streets and highways, with cheers, firecrackers, food and water, and all kinds of material and spiritual support. APPOs have been organized in other states. For example, in Guerrero, another very downpressed and poor state, the local Asamblea is calling to run out the Secretary of Education. A marcher commented that “in the Senate they are afraid that the mobilization becomes ‘oaxacanized.’”
The media and PRI authorities have been building a fear campaign—saying the marchers are looters, violent, guerrillas, etc. But the people have learned some new things in this struggle: the government and the media lie. One concrete example put the lie to them: In the small village of El Pitayo, 4,000 marchers spent the night among the 500 residents—the other 500 live in the U.S. One resident, Concepción Colotla, contributed a half a ton of tortillas.
The march was well-organized including seven commissions: finances, food, press, transport, medical services, advance guard, and liaison with Oaxaca and Mexico City. Funds were raised in towns and along the highway among drivers going by. Along the way many people provided food and water. The Autonomous University “Benito Juarez” of Oaxaca loaned an ambulance and supplies — mainly long needles to lance blisters and drain out the liquid, and zinc oxide to dry them up.
Many have lost their jobs through the long resistance and plan to stay in Mexico City until the governor is run out. They have nothing to lose.
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The situation in Mexico is very complex with lots of contradictions, motion, maneuvering, and difficulties on all sides. There are great material forces in motion, moving different sections of the population in different directions—forcing open cracks in the camp of the rulers, and bringing new allies to the fore in the people’s movement against the status quo.
The recent election juncture and resistance coincided with the Oaxaca movement, and things have busted out a lot more than was ever expected. It has gone from being an economic struggle to having a political character and has affected the internal security of the country. The outcome of this struggle is not yet clear. The masses are like a huge, powerful genie that has escaped its bottle through the course of the election turmoil of the late summer and early fall. This is a genie that can act unpredictably with tremendous power. The rulers are thrashing about with the bottle, looking for an outcome that will once again safely imprison the genie within the confines of the state institutions and reinstate the superstitious awe and the passivity it brings to enable the oppressors to govern and enforce the rule that goes against the interests of the masses broadly.
What will happen is not clear, but the question that is on the table is: what future will the masses of Mexico have? The strength and determination the masses have shown in Oaxaca and all this has brought is something that can inspire a great deal more struggle for a different future.
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