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Lessons from the Teachers

Repression and Resistance in Oaxaca

by LUIS HERNÁNDEZ NAVARRO

A profound political crisis is shaking up Mexico. The rules that regulate the balance of power between elites have been violated. From above, there is no agreement or any possibility for one in the short term.

A severe crisis in the model of control has eroded relationships of domination in many parts of Mexican national territory. People accustomed to obeying have refused to do so. People who think they are destined to rule have been unable to impose their command. Those from below have become disobedient. When those on the top want to impose their opinion from above, in the name of the law, they are ignored from below. Nowhere is the breakdown in control and the effervescence of rebellion as obvious as in the state of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca is a state plagued with social problems. It is a Mexican tourist enclave, surrounded by poverty where people survive on remittances sent by migrant workers abroad. Within its territory one finds land struggles, confrontations between caciques(local bosses ) and coyotes (migrant smugglers), local government conflicts, ethnic revenge, fights for better prices for agricultural products, and resistance against the authoritarian state.

Since May 15, Oaxaca has been in the throes of its most massive and significant social movement in recent history. The protest begun by Section 22 of the national teachers’ union (SNTE, for its initials in Spanish) soon became the expression of the social contradictions in the state. It is not at all unusual that teachers mobilize for pay raises around the time of the contract negotiation. This time it has gone well beyond a union struggle to fuse protests of many groups. Oaxacan society has come out in force to show its solidarity with the teachers and add in other demands and grievances. Around 350 organizations, indigenous communities, unions, and non-profits have jointed to form the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO).


Lessons from the Teachers

The teachers’ movement is the only democratic force with a presence throughout the state. It’s the only organization capable of making their political presence felt simultaneously in every municipality of the state.

Oaxacan teachers work in precarious conditions. Their students arrive at school with empty stomachs and drop out so they can help their families work in the fields. Their classrooms are entirely unequipped. In order to get to the communities they work in, they often have to invest their own time and money in transportation, using roads that only exist in official reports. Teachers have come to identify closely with the precarious conditions of their communities they work in and become not only fighters within their union, but the voices of the community’s demands as well.

The protest in Oaxaca started as an expression of the union’s struggle for a pay raise based on rezoning cost of living scales. This is nothing new with respect to struggles in years past. Their protest began on the same symbolic and traditional date as it has for many years: May 15, Teacher’s Day. It is also common to use the presidential succession, to increase pressure on the government to negotiate.

The protest radicalized as a result of the state government’s refusal to respond to their demands. Instead of sitting down to negotiate, the governor threatened the teachers, and then sent police to forcefully evacuate education workers camped out in downtown Oaxaca. The outrageous repression of June 14 radicalized the teachers, and from then on they demanded the resignation of the state governor. Instead of seeking solutions, the federal government pretended not to notice and said that it was a local issue over which it had no authority.

This explosive political situation was further polarized as a result of the last Oaxacan gubernatorial election. Gabino Cué, backed by the ex governor Diódoro Carrasco and a coalition of the majority of opposition parties, confronted Ulises Ruiz, one of the main operators of Madrazo, at that time candidate of the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) for the presidency. The tight win by the PRI was seriously questioned by Cué supporters, who claimed election fraud against him.

The teachers feel such responsibility to their communities that the majority of them left the capital occupation for a few weeks to end the school year with their communities. Since classes are out they have returned to the city to carry out their plan of action. The city of Oaxaca is theirs.


The Movement Grows

The claims of the teachers quickly found an echo in a broad cross-section of Oaxacan society. Bothered by the electoral fraud that brought Ulises Ruiz to power, as well as governmental violence against the group of community and regional organizations, thousands of Oaxacans took the streets and more than 30 town halls.

Since that time a large part of the society does not recognize Ulises Ruiz as governor. Since a May 25 meeting between Ruiz and the Negotiation Commission, they have not seen him. July 11 the APPO began, successfully, a round of pacific civil disobedience that seeks to make obvious the lack of governance and authority that exists in the state.

The movement took political control of the city of Oaxaca. Since the occupation by federal police that retook the center on Oct. 29, the movement has blocked the entrances to expensive downtown hotels and the local airport; it obstructs traffic and impedes the entrance to public buildings and the state congress.

Ruiz, desperate to keep power, betrayed his boss, PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo, proposing at a meeting of PRI state governors that they recognize PAN candidate Felipe Calderón as the winner of the presidential contest. The federal government, needing allies to confront the protests over presidential election fraud, has responded by maintaining the teetering governor.

As time passes the situation worsens. On July 22 a group of 20 unknown people fired high-powered weapons at the Radio Universidad facilities. The university radio station, run by the movement, has been converted into a formidable instrument of information and social mobilization. The same day Molotov cocktails were thrown at several movement leaders.


Dirty War

Physical violence against protesters is not new to Oaxaca. In the ’80s Amnesty International published a broad report documenting human rights violations in rural areas of Oaxaca and Chiapas. Taking power by force, murders of political dissidents, forced disappearances, and arbitrary detentions have been common instruments used by a succession of state governments to maintain control in the state.

The list of atrocities committed by the government of Ulises Ruiz against the teachers movement and the APPO grows day by day. Combined with the lack of governance and stability in the state a serious human rights crisis has emerged.

The assassination of dissenting citizens at the hands of hired hit men and plainclothes police, open fire against newspapers and independent radio stations, kidnapping and torture of social leaders by paramilitaries, death threats, underground detention centers, arson of buses by groups affiliated with PRI authorities, and random detention without warrant of movement leaders are some of the aggressions committed against the civic movement that demands the resignation of the governor.

The novel aspects of the violence against resisters is that it seeks to dispel and intimidate the broadest and most vigorous social movement the state has seen in decades, and-with the exception of the October police offensive-it is done "unofficially." This means that the majority of the repressive acts are executed by state police and paramilitaries dressed as civilians.

The state government does not usually admit to responsibility for these incidents, although it has admitted that it his holding some of the individuals originally "disappeared" in high-security prisons. In Oaxaca a new episode is being played out of the dirty war that shook the country in the ’70s and ’80s and resulted in the disappearance of 1,200 people.

To "justify" the dirty war, the government and part of the media have spread the message that the Oaxacan popular movement has been "infiltrated" by leftist, politically militant organizations that have radicalized the protest. But the movement for the resignation of the governor has been explicitly framed as an act of civil disobedience, and has followed clearly pacifistic paths. At no time has the APPO used firearms in their actions. The radicalism comes from the governmental authoritarianism. The violence is originating from the other side.


An Organized Society

Oaxacan society is highly organized into ethnopolitical groups, communities, farms, producers, unions, and environmental and immigrant defense groups. It has built solid, permanent transnational networks. The traditional methods of governmental domination, based on a combination of co-opting, negotiation, division, manipulation of demands and repression, have run out. The new dirty war has become the last resort of a cornered political class to recover the chain of command.

In Mexico there is a long history of social struggles that precipitate larger scale conflicts. They are an alarm bell that alerts a country to serious political problems that have not been resolved. For example, the workers’ strikes at Cananea and Rio Blanco are recognized as predecessors to the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. The popular movement that has shaken Oaxaca since May is an expression of this type of protests. It has revealed the end of the old forms of domination, the crisis between the political class and society, and the path that the people’s discontent could take throughout the country.

The movement has ceased to be a traditional struggle or protest and begun to transform itself into an embryo of an alternative government. The governmental institutions are increasingly empty shells without authority or public confidence, while the people’s assemblies have become the site of construction of a new political mandate.


Federal Police Force Arrives

When the federal government finally sends the federal police, in the streets of Oaxaca the people confront them with peaceful protests. They hold up handwritten banners that state simply: "leave, you’re not welcome." Thousands of people use their bodies as their only weapon to resist the political aggression. Through their actions, they convert fear into anger, humiliation into dignity.

At three of the barricades the tension is higher. People throw sticks and stones. A few decide to toss Molotov cocktails. Others launch bottle rockets. From Radio Universidad, the voice of the movement against Ulises Ruiz, announcers urge protesters repeatedly to use pacific means to confront the incursion of federal troops. Be patience, be calm, be smart, they warn. Don’t let yourself be provoked, they insist.

The government’s offer to carry out a clean dissuasion operation with no physical contact goes up in smoke in the first moments. Empty words. The police throw tear gas, wave their clubs around, shoot off firearms, ransack private homes, detain individuals, confront journalists, and seize their materials. Their byword is advance with all you’ve got. They take over public buildings, erase evidence of their mistakes and excesses, and make their strength felt.


Fighting Fire with Gasoline

As in Atenco, the government launches a huge media campaign to cover up the atrocities of its henchmen. Fox declares there are no deaths, that the results are "a clean record." But the voice of the dead exposes the truth. More than 50 detainees refute him. The wounded deny his words.

The battle of Oaxaca is the most important popular revolt in many years and could mark the future of social protest in Mexico. Although the powerful say that the police incursion was to guarantee public safety, what is really behind the repression is the destruction of the newly woven grassroots social consciousness and the decision to support Ulises Ruiz.

While federal forces act like an occupying army swollen by the positions it has managed to retake, Oaxacans fly hundreds of Mexican flags and sing the national anthem. In the fight for patriotic symbols, the government loses the first round. A short time after the federal forces took the center of the city and strategic positions, citizens put up new barricades behind their backs. People from highland communities come down to the capital to support the movement. They didn’t just come to march in a demonstration. A human fence has arisen that surrounds the aggressors.

There is no way to return to normalcy through violence. No way to knit the social fabric through police occupation. Governing requires that the governed recognize the legitimacy of their leaders. This acceptance does not exist in Oaxaca and will never be attained with clubs and boots. Quite the opposite, the fermenting inconformity has spread all over the country because of the new aggressions. If until now some sectors of society had remained neutral, the federal offensive has obliged them to take part.

The images on the seven o’clock news of confrontations between made-in-Mexico robocops and the students and Oaxacan neighbors that defended the university on Day of the Dead made it around the world. The Mexican police were defeated by a popular uprising and the media bore witness.

The battle for Oaxaca is not over yet. On the contrary, the solution to this conflict is more complicated now than ever and the resolution even further away. As the unavoidable saying goes: they tried to put out the fire with gasoline.

The latest move of the people’s movement has been to convert their protest into a central item on the national agenda. The following months will be marked by the conflict. The federal government has got itself into a quagmire that it can’t get out of.

Oaxaca is today, more than ever, Mexico. The civil disobedience there is close to becoming a popular uprising that, far from wearing out, grows and becomes more radical every day. The establishment of forms of self-government is reminiscent of the Paris Commune of 1871. The way things are going, the example set by the nascent Oaxaca Commune is far from being limited to that state. It could be a taste of what may sweep the country due to the governmental refusal to clear up and clean up the presidential elections of July 2.

LUIS HERNÁNDEZ NAVARRO is Opinion Editor at La Jornada in Mexico, where parts of this text were published. He is a collaborator with the Americas Program online at www.americaspolicy.org

Translated by Katherine Kohlstedt.