Popular revolt in Oaxaca

Luis Hernández Navarro tells the story of revolt, repression and the emergence of new institutions of democratic power in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. He argues that it prefigures the future of popular protest - and power - across the country

December 1, 2006
8 min read

The battle for Oaxaca began as a protest by teachers. Six months on it is a popular revolt against governor Ulises Ruiz. And despite the assassination of 17 of the rebels, the illegal detention of more than 100, some of whom have been tortured, and the intervention of the Federal Preventative Police (Policía Federal Preventiva, or PFP), the mobilisation continues. It is the most important popular revolt in Mexico in many years. The authorities intend to suffocate it with repression.

Some social struggles anticipate greater conflicts. They are a warning, a sign of grave unsolved political problems. The struggle that has been shaking Oaxaca since 22 May is an expression of this type of protest. The movement has ceased to be a traditional protest and has become the embryo of an alternative government.

Local government institutions are increasingly empty shells without authority, while the popular assemblies are becoming agencies that emanate a new political mandate. The struggle has uncovered the emptiness and exhaustion of a model of government and the crisis in the current relationship between the political class and society. It is pointing to the path that popular discontent may take across Mexico.

Oaxacan authoritarianism

Oaxaca is a state with many social problems. The enclaves of the tourist centre of southern Mexico are surrounded by villages of misery sustained by money sent home by migrant workers. Mostly rural and inhabited by indigenous people, it is one of the poorest states in the country.

It is also a state of many conflicts: struggles for land rights, confrontations with despotic landlords, disputes over local administration, ethnic protests, actions for better prices for rural products and resistance to state authoritarianism. The backward economy is matched by an archaic and authoritarian political regime. The governor, Ulises Ruiz, took power in December 2004 on the back of the ruthless suppression of his opponents.

In the first months of his term in office social leaders were jailed, popular protests were brutally attacked, activists persecuted by the police, and negotiators for the social movement were arrested when they attempted to put their case to the government. In general, rebels were targeted regardless of the letter of the law and there was bloodshed in several municipalities.

Ruiz needed to use force because he lacked a genuine democratic mandate. In order to win the elections he had made use of his best talents as an electoral conman and fraudster. Even then, he won by only a narrow margin in elections where 60 per cent abstained. In order to impose his authority on Oaxacan society, Ruiz followed the example of his predecessors. An army of bureaucrats and local tyrants accepted funds and positions in exchange for political loyalty. This led to inter-community conflicts in rebel municipalities, and to state interference in local governments that have traditionally been governed by common law and customs and don’t sympathise with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of Ulises Ruiz. This interference further eroded the legitimacy of Ruiz’s rule.

A popular explosion

However, although the unwritten rules of Oaxacan power have remained the same for decades, Oaxacan society has changed. More than 30 years of resistance, legal victories and success in winning local municipal power have woven webs of cooperation and organisation that have transformed relations between the state administration and civil society. The result has been that the use of force and the criminalisation of dissidence have provoked an explosion of popular discontent.

Oaxacan society is highly organised into ethno-political groups, civil and agrarian communities, producers’ collectives, trades unions, and environmental defence and migrants’ groups. Solid and permanent transnational networks have been built. This dense fabric, forged over three decades of struggle, with a powerful autonomous dynamic, broke radically from the control of the PRI and the traditional political establishment. The usual methods of government control, based on a combination of co-option, negotiation, division, manipulation and repression, were blown to smithereens. The last resort of a cornered political class is a dirty war against their opponents in an attempt to reestablish the chain of command and obedience.

The initial protest of teachers demanding a salary rise as a result of a higher cost of living came in response to the bloody mindedness of the state authorities. Instead of sitting down to negotiate, the governor sent his police to forcibly evict the teachers camped in the centre of Oaxaca City. In response to the savage repression of 14 June the teachers demanded the governor’s removal.

The teachers’ call found an echo and many parts of Oaxacan society joined the protest. Angered by both the electoral fraud and the government’s violence, hundreds of thousands of Oaxacans took over the streets. Alongside the teachers, around 350 indigenous community organisations, trades unions and civil associations formed the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO).

On the barricades

The Day of the Dead, on 2 November, is one of Mexico’s most important festivals. On this day, the PFP attempted violently to take the Oaxacan University buildings from rebel control. Students and local inhabitants confronted police for seven hours with sticks, stones and molotov cocktails. Finally, the police were defeated and forced to retreat. This marked the beginning of months of struggle on the barricades.

At nightfall, Oaxaca changes. As the sun sets, hundreds of barricades begin to appear in the neighbourhoods and avenues. Organised communities take to the streets, light fires, collect stones and assume control of the circulation of people and traffic. From this moment on it is difficult to move around the city.

On the barricades, the latest news is exchanged; people make coffee, cook, hold meetings and listen to the APPO radio station. In this way, public safety is assured in the darkness of the night. The poor neighbourhoods protect themselves from the attacks of Ruiz’s gunmen. The citizens make their control over the territory felt.

Radio communication is the thread that joins hundreds of apparently unconnected resistances in streets and homes. Occupied radio stations keep people informed of attacks by hired killers and undercover police, and call on the citizens to mobilise and organise in self defence. An open telephone line transmits calls of solidarity and support. There are children’s programmes and informative programmes about bio-piracy and the defence of the indigenous people’s traditional wisdom. In this way, the movement connects and communicates with itself.

In Oaxaca, the citizens have lost all fear – the condition that makes domination possible. When government gunmen fire on the multitude, or the radio stations, people do not flee, they challenge the attackers. Called by the radio, hundreds or thousands of people will converge on the site of an attack within minutes to chase those responsible. It is the local police who fear the decisive organisation and the rage of the people.

This is not simply a movement in defence of a profession. All those without a future have found a place and an identity within the struggle. Young punks, the unemployed, the excluded who have not emigrated to the US or moved to the outskirts of Mexico City have found dignity in the protests. So have indigenous communities, rural workers’ organisations, unions, NGOs. Their radicalism and their fearlessness are tangible.

Each group has its respective experience and catalogue of grievances. Their horizontal ways of working make viable agreements between government authorities and social leaders difficult without their central demand being met – the call for the head of governor Ruiz. From below, Oaxaca knows that if Ulises Ruiz remains at the head of the state it will cause a bloodbath. They cannot abandon the struggle for his demise.

A national issue

For months, the conflict in Oaxaca was hostage to the national political situation, but there has been a complete about turn. Right now, the entire country is shaken by the Oaxacan rebellion. The problems of ‘a single street’, as Ulises Ruiz called it, now defines major national decisions. The federal elections in July 2006 shifted the spotlight from the protests in Oaxaca, and the post-electoral conflict nationally gave artificial life to Ruiz. Faced with huge mobilisations against the alleged fraud that gave him his narrow election win, president-elect Felipe Calderón needs the support of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to hold onto power. The PRI has put a price on this alliance: keeping the governor of Oaxaca in his post. Oaxaca is now at the centre of the national political agenda.

The tactical intelligence shown by the APPO in Oaxaca has been very important in this conflict. When the federal government tries to provoke a violent response from the popular movement, it defends itself peacefully. When the authorities believe they have a military victory and strike in what is supposed to be the ‘last battle’ in the university, the rebellion shows resistance. When the minister of the interior announces the return to the schools, the teachers stay outside the classrooms. When the federal government believes it can force the movement to sit down and negotiate its surrender, the movement derails negotiations. When the ministry wants to take the leaders to Mexico City for a quiet dialogue, they open a negotiating table with civil society in Oaxaca.

The battle for Oaxaca is not over. The popular movement’s most recent manoeuvre has been to turn the protest into a key issue on the national political agenda. The federal government has got itself into a mess and it cannot get out. Oaxaca is, today more than ever, Mexico.Translation by Kate Wilson

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.


15