The Revolutionary Surge in Oaxaca

Oaxaca, Mexico.

Oaxaca shares, with Chiapas and Guerrero, the distinction of being the one of the three poorest states of Mexico. These three bastions of extreme poverty, albeit among the richest states of Mexico in natural resources, lie along the Pacific coastline in southeastern Mexico. Oaxaca is flanked to its east by Chiapas and to its west by Guerrero. Its population, about 3.5 million (2003 estimate), is unique among Mexican states in containing the largest fraction, 2/3, and the largest absolute number of people with indigenous ancestry.

Which of the 31 states holds top place for corruption would probably be impossible to measure in this intensely contested Mexican arena, as highlighted in the fraudulent July 2, 2006 presidential election, but for sure Oaxaca merits high placement on the corruption scale. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the indigenous population is among the most impoverished. Naturally they are very sympathetic to the struggles of indigenous peoples in other parts of Mexico to better their lives, such as the attempts of the Zapatista base support communities in Chiapas, that have declared themselves “in rebellion” and asserted their autonomy, often at great cost due to state and federal efforts to crush them.

The 70,000 or so teachers in the state educational institutions, state employees, are, by Oaxaca standards, far from poor. They are part of the state’s “middle class”. So it’s not as though the majority of poor people are usually very sympathetic. This quarter-century-long tradition of a Oaxaca teachers’ strike each May never before was much more than a nuisance for the city business people, for a week or so, until the union and the state government negotiated a settlement, the teachers ended their occupation of the city center and returned to their homes throughout the state.

Why was this year so different?

It will come as no surprise to los Americanos that in Mexico, as in the U.S., there are ‘conpany unions’. But here, south of the border, the ‘company’ is the ruling party of the federal government, a big ‘company’ indeed. The National Union of Educational Workers (El Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Educativo, SNTE) is a very large and powerful union, hierarchical in structure. For over 70 years the SNTE had been in bed with the government of the ruling party, the Revolutionary Institutional Party, El Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). In fact, until recently, the General Secretary of SNTE, Elba Esther Gordillo, was second from the top of the PRI leadership, just below Roberto Madrazo.

Section 22 of SNTE is the Oaxaca part of the National Teachers Union. Among Mexican teachers there is another formation, the National Educational Workers Coordinating Committee (Comité Coordinador Nacional de Trabajadores Educativo CNTE). In Oaxaca the CNTE, whose members belong to SNTE Section 22, play a leading role in setting Section 22 policy. Section 22 has long been regarded as one of the most militant, independent sections of SNTE.

On May 15, National Teachers’ Day in Oaxaca, the leadership of Section 22 of SNTE declared that if their negotiations with the state government did not progress, they would initiate a state-wide strike the following week. The teachers were demanding an upgrade in the zonification of Oaxaca, which would increase the federally-designated minimum wage for the state. The “logic” (i.e. rationalization) of the federal government for having lower legal minimum wages in poor states like Oaxaca is apparently that it’s cheaper to live in a more impoverished region than in one with a higher average income. Such an upgrade of Oaxaca would affect waged workers in Oaxaca who are paid the minimum wage, but would not affect those paid above the minimum, like the teachers. For themselves the teachers demanded a salary increase. Their other demands involved improved school facilities and meeting students’ needs. Much of the money supposedly budgeted for education is siphoned off by corrupt officials. There is no accountability, a process not even legally required in Oaxaca and no bookkeeping.

Negotiations from the 15th to the 22nd between the union and the state, instead of moving towards a compromise agreement, became even more acrimonious. Beginning May 22, a large group of teachers, other education workers, family members, allied individuals and members of allied organizations, numbering perhaps between 35,000 and 60,000 (hard numbers are impossible to know) occupied the center of Oaxaca City – the large central park (the zócalo) and some 56 blocks surrounding it – with their encampment. Local business, hotel and restaurant owners were, by and large, critical because of financial losses caused by the disruption. Quite normal. The ritual of an annual teachers’ strike was by now about a quarter century old. But never before had it been so large, so prolonged. Even now, no end is in sight.

During a period of barely three and a half weeks, May 22 to June 14, the strength of the teachers’ opposition to Governor Ulises Ruíz Ortíz continued to grow, with additional adherents nursing their own grievances against the dictatorial regime allying with the formidable SNTE contingent. Frequent marches, and two mega-marches, the first on Friday June 2 with between 50,000 and 100,000 (the police and SNTE estimates, respectively), and the second on Wednesday, June 7, with 120,000 brought to the city demonstrations of size and vehemence never before seen here. I watched the June 7 march from the parapet on the north side of the Plaza de Danza as endless mockery of Ulises Ruíz paraded past, demanding boisterously that he leave the governorship. Undoubtedly there were state spies in civilian clothes with cameras, cell phones, video cameras and tape recorders, but no one seemed in the least intimidated or cautious. The entire event was permeated with a sense of peoples power.

On June 14, when Ulises unexpectedly ordered state police to carry out a surprise early pre-dawn attack on the sleeping teachers (many of them women with their children), destroying their tents and other camping gear and firing tear gas and bullets, even using a police helicopter that sprayed tear gas on the campers, to drive them out of the city center, he ignited a mass uprising throughout the state and beyond. The teachers fought back, drove out the police after about four hours, recapturing the city center and gaining admiration throughout the state for their gritty determination not to be terrorized into submission.

In his year and a half in office since December 1, 2005, Ulises had succeeded in generating a powder keg of hatred across the state towards him because of his tyrannical rule. This included his overt attempt to destroy the state’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, Noticias de Oaxaca , his destruction of much-loved parts of the capital city’s world-famous cultural patrimony, numerous killings by armed thugs tied to the ruling party, in communities struggling against corrupt and oppressive state-appointed municipal administrations. In sum, it was his attempt to rule by “excessively overt” terror, including kidnappings, jailings on baseless charges, torture, and death, and always impunity for the state thugs terrorizing the people, that turned the population en masse against him.

Moreover, history was against him. Fresh in peoples’ memory was the sadistic early May attack in San Salvador Atenco in Mexico State by federal, state and municipal police, and the outrage against the authorities then – incarceration and worse for the victims, impunity for the perpetrators. There was a pervasive sense that in such a society, everyone is a “political prisoner unto death”. A multitude of civic organizations in, and outside of, Oaxaca swarmed to declare their solidarity with the teachers. Immediately after the attack the teachers announced, and two days later led a huge march, their third mega-march, with 400,000, that included many new adherents. They all demanded URO’s resignation or removal from office.

The show of strength quickly led to formation of a statewide assembly that termed itself the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, Asemblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca .. Though instigated as a result of the teachers’ initiative and the ugly state repression, the assembly went far beyond the teachers’ original demands, which had been limited to educational matters. Ousting a hated governor had been done before on three occasions in Oaxaca. Not trivial, risky of course, but not by itself a revolutionary act.

APPO is established, sets revolutionary goals

In addition to the immediate third mega-march on June 16 (two days after the assault), the popular movement of teachers and other members of civil society held the first state-wide popular assembly the following day, just three days after the attack of June 14. In this precedent-breaking assembly meeting, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca ( (APPO, by its initials in Spanish) adopted a truly revolutionary program by declaring itself the supreme authority in Oaxaca, and asserting the illegitimacy of the entire political structure, which had ruthlessly run Oaxaca as a PRI-terrorist-controlled state for nearly 80 years.

APPO’s deliberately broad representation evidently excluded any explicitly political groups, i.e. it was to be a “non-political” formation, truly a peoples’ government. As Nancy Davies wrote in her report, “Popular Assembly to Oppose the State Government”, its initial meeting on June 17 “was attended by 170 people representing 85 organizations.” Included, or at least invited, “were all the SNTE delegates, union members, social and political organizations, non-governmental organizations, collectives, human rights organizations, parents, tenant farmers, municipalities, and citizens of the entire state of Oaxaca.” Its intention was to be open to all the citizens of the state. There was no attempt, so far as I know, to exclude wealthy people from the assembly. Naturally, most very rich people who saw their interests served by the URO regime would not want to be involved in an effort to remove him and the rest of the governing apparatus, but wealthy ‘mavericks’ who rejected social injustice were evidently welcome. The only ‘absolute requirement’ for participation was agreement that Ulises must go.

Flimsy barriers such as those that had not prevented the police assault of June 14 were clearly inadequate. APPO adherents went about establishing stronger barricades against future invasions. They began commandeering buses, some commercial, as well as police and other government vehicles, using some of them to block access roads to the zócalo and other APPO encampments. Other of the commandeered vehicles they used for transportation.

APPO’s major strategy for bringing pressure to bear on the government, in order to force either URO’s resignation or his legal removal, has been to literally prevent the institutional government from carrying out its functions: legislative, judicial and executive (i.e. administrative). The tactic deserves to be called aggressive civil disobedience, meaning that APPO adherents carry out their forceful “illegal” actions as civilians (unarmed, i.e. no firearms). Some of them have poles, iron rods, and even machetes, but these are for self-defense. The culture here is not one of ‘turning the other cheek’. They don’t sit down and pray if police attempt to beat them. They have blocked highways, occupied government buildings and made a good many tourists and potential tourists reconsider Oaxaca as a desirable destination, thereby shaking the economy

As for ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of Oaxaqueños, the ‘hearts’ part of the task has been in large part already accomplished, thanks to the arrogance and aggressiveness of URO – the hatred he managed to sow since taking office as governor on December 1, 2004 and which he’s now reaping. Even people who are not thrilled with APPO are so disgusted with URO that they are more likely to be passive rather than actively opposing APPO by supporting the governor.

Winning minds, as APPO well knows, is essential. They have made that a major part of their work. The government and its corporate allies fully realize the importance of what people think. The media of communication are therefore a prime arena in the contest to influence peoples’ consciousness.

The fight for the communication media

The very first action of the state forces in their pre-dawn attack on June 14 was to destroy the teachers’ radio station, Radio Plantón. It had been serving not only as a source of pro-teacher propaganda since the start of the strike, but as a vital communication link broadcasting (within its limited range) 24 hours a day. Soon after the Radio Plantón equipment was smashed, students at the Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca (UABJO in its Spanish initials) seized the university’s station, a licensed station with a much more powerful transmitter, and kept it going non-stop in support of the then rapidly-growing rebellion. The student-operated UABJO station was attacked several times, first on June 22, and eventually put out of commission after a diversionary tactic the night of August 8 enabled three people who had earlier infiltrated the movement to enter and throw sulphuric acid on the equipment, ending, at least for a time, those broadcasts.

Revolutions are not, by their nature, tidy affairs. There is no simple chronology according to which, at certain key dates, one important group of actors halts its activity and a different group takes the stage. Rather, a multitude of groups fills the stage at any given time, and the flow of activity is continuous – no separation of the actions marked by curtain calls. Thus it may be a questionable effort to try to divide the flow into phases. While the attack of June 14 did clearly mark a separation of events into two different phases, the ensuing struggle has been, and will likely be a continuous flow. Nevertheless, the action of the women who seized the state television and radio stations on August 1 so powerfully upped the ante in the struggle to control the communication media that I will say that act initiated a third phase of the struggle.

On July 1, the day before participants in La marcha de las caserolas (the march of women beating their pots and pans with wooden spoons) went on to seize the state TV and radio stations, only Radio Universidad was broadcasting for the popular movement. By then it had been on the air daily for almost of seven weeks. It was to continue for another 8 days until the sulphuric acid attack shut it down. But by then Channel 9, TV Caserolas as some folks dubbed it, had been broadcasting 8 days.

The move to seize, or as a graffiti on the wall of the control room at the transmission tower phrased it, to re-appropriate facilities paid for with the peoples’ money, was a bold escalation in the struggle for the media. Channel 9 and FM 96.9 covered the entire state. For 3 weeks, from August 1 until the early morning assault on August 21, the “voices and images of the people” dominated these normally state-controlled airwaves in the struggle aimed at “winning the minds” of the people, although of course the powerful national corporate channels, TV Azteca and Televisa continued their pro-state broadcasts. But what a vision of hope sprang from the screen those three weeks! Ordinary people in everyday clothes spoke of the reality of their lives as they understood them, of what neo-liberalism meant to them, of the Plan Pueblo Panama, of their loss of land to developers and international paper companies, of ramshackle rural mountain schools without toilets, of communities without safe water or sanitary drainage, and so on, all the needs that could be met if wealth were not being stolen by rich capitalists and corrupt government agents.

And not all was about Oaxaca and its problems. The horizon of consciousness reached abroad as, on one occasion that Nancy mentioned to me, Channel 9 broadcast a documentary videotape of living conditions of Palestinians in the occupied territories. One can only imagine the level of global grassroots solidarity if the media, worldwide, were controlled by popular groups instead of transnational corporations.

This flood of uncontrolled, unmediated, spontaneous communication among the population must have terrorized the former economic and political rulers of Oaxaca by the threat it posed, but they dared not try a repeat of their June 14 heavy-handed attempt to crush the popular uprising. Rather than risk another open failure the state authorities pursued a strategy of clandestine warfare, as described vividly by Diego Enrique Osorno in his 28 August special report from Oaxaca to Narco News . The desperate authorities pursued their so-called Operation “Clean-Up”. As Narco News stated, “Following the CIA’s ‘Psychological Operations’ Manual for the Nicaraguan Contras, the State Government Has Unleashed a Bloody Counterinsurgency Strategy to Eliminate the Social Movement”.

The onslaught by these clandestine heavily-armed police officials and state thugs on the transmission facilities of TV Caserola and Radio APPO up on Fortin Hill above the city revealed the government’s panic. This assault, in the very early hours on Monday 21 August, totally destroyed the control equipment housed in a building at the base of the transmission tower. The racks of electronics were smashed and sprayed with automatic weapons fire, bullet holes only inches apart in some of the panels, which I photographed that Monday evening. There are, as explained to me by a student friend involved with one of the movement radio stations, several components that made up the state’s TV and radio stations: 1) the studios where interviews, news reporters, panel members, etc. met, 2) a repeater station whose antenna received the signals from the studio building and “bounced” them to the transmission station, and 3) the transmission facility atop Fortin Hill, which broadcast the programs to the entire state.

By knocking out the transmission tower facility the government-directed thugs insured that APPO could not operate the occupied state TV and radio stations. The damage wrought at the transmission control room was a shocking double admission: 1) the URO government knew it was unable to retake and hold each of the three components of its broadcasting stations, and 2) the impact of the APPO broadcasts was an intolerable threat. Therefore they destroyed a key component of what they surely regarded as their own governing infrastructure.

The battle for the air waves continues. Later that day, the 21, having lost the use of Channel 9 and FM 96.9, APPO groups seized twelve commercial radio stations belonging to nine different companies. The number of seized stations broadcasting for APPO varies from time to time. This morning (29 August) we were able to pick up three, one AM and two FM at our location below the base of Fortin Hill. Apart from radio, the movement produces and distributes a great deal of printed material, videos and CDs, and seeks to spread its point of view by all means of communication. Radio of course remains particularly important.

On August 16 and 17 a national forum was held in Oaxaca to discuss “Building Democracy and Governability in Oaxaca.” Sponsored by fifty organizations within Oaxacan civil society, as Davies wrote, it provided “an opportunity to analyze the crisis and propose alternative solutions from the perspective of civil society, including a new Oaxacan constitution, and by implication, a blueprint for the nation.” The basic problems that beset Oaxaca exist throughout Mexico and so it is not surprising that the invitations to attend brought people from all parts of Mexico. What is taking place in Oaxaca is clearly inspiring people throughout this nation.

In the meantime, the situation in Oaxaca remains full of uncertainty, with much seemingly dependent on the power struggle centered in Mexico City over the presidency. Those currently in the saddle are doing everything possible to insure continuance of PAN/PRI rule, but the majority of Mexicans may be ready for much more fundamental changes. Education, true education, is indeed subversive. Adelante!

GEORGE SALZMAN was a long-time maverick physics faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Boston Campus. Now retired, he has lived for seven years in Oaxaca. He can be contacted at