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 2006

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


 

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