November 1 was the Day of the Dead. It’s the day that Mexicans flock to the cemeteries to visit family members who have passed on. Or, if you believe the traditions, to welcome the dead who come back to visit them.
This year among the dead are 17 people killed in Oaxaca. They are dead because they dared to challenge a political and economic system that bound them to poverty and powerlessness. Most were assassinated by forces affiliated with the state governor, Ulises Ruiz. Some, whose blood has still not dried, were murdered by federal police sent in “to restore order” on Oct. 28.
The movement in Oaxaca began on May 15, national Teachers’ Day, when state members of the education workers’ union mobilized to protest against the latest imposition of a contract negotiated between corporatist leaders of their national union and the government. They asked for a pay raise and initiated a sit-in in Oaxaca City’s central plaza.
There was nothing unusual in their action. Section 22, the teachers’ union in Oaxaca, has historically been a bastion of the decades-old democratic movement to free the national union from the control of leaders whose interests are tied to the country’s most powerful political figures and not the workers’ well-being.
But their protest sparked a wildfire when Governor Ruiz sent in armed security forces to evict them on June 14. The deaths as a result of the repression enraged a society already angry at what many viewed a stolen gubernatorial election. Ulises Ruiz is an old-style politician from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico single-handedly for 71 years and still exercises control over parts of the Oaxacan countryside through violent party bosses.
Suddenly there was no middle ground in Oaxaca. Some 350 organizations grouped to form the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). Indigenous communities mobilized by their own grievances, students, professionals sick of the pretence of democracy, vendors, and workers, joined ranks with the teachers to demand the ouster of the governor.
Oaxaca is among Mexico’s poorest states. It’s also among the most organized from the grassroots. Oaxacans have a reputation for stubbornness, and their resistance to successive forms of domination has continued for over 500 years. Their movements long ago learned to grow in the rocky soil left after everything valuable was systematically taken from them.
Now they have emerged not just to protest, but to build. Networks of solidarity, autonomous forms of communication, and spontaneous expressions of frustration and hope have come together to form what Luis Hernandez Navarro, a pioneer in the democratic teachers’ movement, calls the “Oaxaca Commune” in reference to the Paris Commune of 1871.
But just as a re-alliance of the ruling class brought down the Paris Commune, the alliance between the rightwing National Action Party (PAN) and the PRI has launched an offensive against the popular movement in Oaxaca.
It began as a war of attrition, with several protestors a week killed by plainclothes gunmen, in an undercover dirty war that included kidnappings, torture, and selective assassination. With the entry of the Federal Police, repression now wears uniforms”about 4,000 of them.
National politicians know that Oaxaca means more than a state struggle for teachers’ pay raise. Although he does not take office until Dec. 1, the battle for Oaxaca is the first of the administration of Felipe Calderón, who was elected amid accusations of fraud. A popular movement bringing down a leader after an election deemed fraudulent is not the kind of precedent Calderón would like to see established.
As the president-elect woos leaders of foreign countries (he recently returned from South America and next meets with Bush), the home front is far from calm. Protests against fraud in the July 2 federal elections continue, other sections of the teachers’ union are threatening work stoppages in solidarity with Oaxaca, and the APPO has announced that if troops have not been withdrawn it will disrupt the presidential inauguration. Both chambers of Congress have voted to ask the governor to step down. In Mexico City thousands have marched and participated in roadblocks in solidarity with Oaxaca.
Over 30 leaders are in prison and others have been kidnapped or reported missing. Altars to the dead have been erected to pay homage to those killed by police and snipers over the past four months. The call for the resignation of the governor and to end the repression has only gotten stronger since the occupation by federal forces.
The movement for democracy and economic fairness in Oaxaca has rebaptized one of Mexico’s most hallowed holidays. This year, the protesters have proclaimed it “the day of no more dead.”
LAURA CARLSEN is director of the IRC Americas Program in Mexico City, where she has been a writer and political analyst for more than two decades.