Oaxaca Fights Back

In regional lore, Oaxacans have a reputation for being like the tlacuache. A recurring figure in Mexican mythology, the tlacuache plays dead when cornered. But woe to the enemy who thinks the battle is over. The small but fierce creature merely awaits a more propitious moment to fight back.

The Oaxacan protest movement burns slow, but deep. Oaxacan teachers, who mobilized for a pay raise last May, consciously built on years of protest against social inequality in their state. On June 14, the state government goaded the Oaxacan tlacuachewhen it attempted to evict protesting teachers from Oaxaca’s central plaza. Oaxacans responded by forming the broad-based Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO). The federal government confronted the growing movement on October 28 when it sent thousands of federal police to occupy the city. The murders, wounding, and disappearance of the protestors have only deepened the resolve of the movement as a whole.

Although the stage was set for confrontation, the movement continued to insist on non-violence. They lay down in front of advancing tanks and distributed flowers to riot-geared cops. On November 2, a crucial battle took place when the police attempted to retake the university. Inside the university, the radio station that has been the backbone of the protest organizing over the past five months was under siege the entire day. Radio APPO did not cease to broadcast and the people did not cease to defend it, despite the grossly uneven odds against them.

“Our eyes are burning with tear gas, but at least now we can see the government for what it really is,” a young woman commented over the air in a voice filled with urgency and determination. “We’re not budging.”

People all over the world heard her. Radio APPO streamed through the computers of listeners who followed the battle for the university in blow-by-blow accounts. They instantly activated networks to plan their own protests. Within days, demonstrators gathered in front of Mexican consulates and embassies in the United States and Europe, calling for an end to police repression of the movement. People whose names are well known throughout the world wrote and published letters, and people whose names have been printed only in phone books signed petitions. In a small town in Italy, hundreds of young people gathered to discuss North-South cooperation and declare their solidarity with Oaxaca, and in New York several protesters were arrested in front of the Mexican consulate. The Zapatista Other Campaign mobilized a binational roadblock on the Mexico-U.S. border. The list of actions worldwide goes on and on.

Both houses of the Mexican congress and the secretary of the interior, who is charged with domestic policy, have called for Oaxacan Governor Ulises Ruiz to step down. Despite the breakdown of governance in the state, he has refused saying it is his duty to hold on to his job. On November 5, the movement mobilized tens of thousands of people in a march through Oaxaca. In the pre-dawn hours of November 6, bombs exploded in the offices of the electoral tribunal, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and an international bank. No one was killed or injured, but the tension rose several notches. Several guerrilla groups claimed responsibility for the acts, demanding the resignation of the governor, freedom for political prisoners held following police repression in the town of Atenco, and investigation of the charges of electoral fraud.

The APPO immediately condemned the bombings and repeated that it has no relations with guerrilla groups. It has continued to try to negotiate a peaceful settlement of its demands. In the turbid political atmosphere following Mexico’s presidential elections on July 2, Oaxaca’s conflict has now catalyzed a series of events that threaten Mexico’s stability.
Why Oaxaca?

The mountains of Oaxaca became the refuge of pre-Columbian civilizations that were never fully conquered. The history of resistance and persistence that developed there permitted the survival of cultures that bucked a colonizing mentality and rejected tacitly or explicitly the wholesale imposition of colonial political systems. At the same time, to subjugate the rebels required some of the nation’s most brutal forms of repression. Many of these remain fundamentally intact to this day. The governor, whose resignation has become the principal demand of the current Oaxacan insurrection, has inherited the mantle of this centuries-old tradition of repression.

Oaxaca is a land of many peoples. The state encompasses 16 languages within its borders and has the nation’s largest number of municipalities (570), in large part due to the determination to preserve and strengthen local self-government. Even in Oaxaca City, where fighting between police and protesters has transformed the urban landscape, diversity precludes any easy characterization. Mixtecos converge with Martians (the local name for the city’s large population of foreign artists, writers, pensioners, and NGO workers), tourists with beggars, the rich with the poor.

This diversity, which in another context could fragment a social movement, has become the wealth and collective strength of Mexico’s most important social justice rebellion in recent years. Oaxacan teachers have drawn on over 26 years of experience in the democratic teachers’ movement. Section 22, the group of Oaxacan teachers organized in the National Education Workers Union (SNTE by its Spanish initials), has long been a stronghold of the democratic faction of the union. For years its leaders have been elected from this dissident faction and have become leaders in Oaxaca’s social movements beyond the union as well.

Oaxaca’s rebellion also has roots in the battles of the indigenous communities for autonomy and, since the 1970s, for the restoration of communitarian forms of self-government, collective work, and identity. Added to the mix has been the anger of a new generation of high school and university students sick of getting short shrift from governments impoverished by structural adjustment and corruption. And as a final ingredient in a recipe for rebellion, citizens sensitized to the injustice expressed in daily life rose up against a disputed gubernatorial election that seemed to doom their society to more of the same or worse.
Leading Edge

The significance of the Oaxacan movement to Mexico is obvious. It is the first challenge to a federal government with little legitimacy or credibility, elected amid charges of fraud last July. Although Felipe Calderon takes office on December 1, the rules of Mexican politics dictate that all major, and especially very visible, decisions like the repression of the Oaxacan movement must at least be approved by him. The government’s decision to send in federal police is in part based on a desire not to pass on a problem to a weak president who lacks the political capacity to resolve it.

The frustrations that led to the formation of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) exist throughout the country. Elections that fail to reflect the popular will, inequalities that sunder communities, brutality and corruption that flourish with impunity-no region is immune from the kind of social unrest that gave birth to the Oaxacan movement. Many Mexicans openly celebrate each victory of the Oaxacans, and each day they maintain the resistance. Knowing this, the government seeks to repress the movement without conceding political ground, so as not to provide a dangerous precedent in a system that relies on the complacency of the political and economic have-nots.

But why do other people care? Does Oaxaca have a meaning beyond an inspirational tale for those who aspire to a more just world?

If the movement for global justice were a territorial battle, Oaxaca would be a tiny point on a very large map, of little consequence except to the people involved. But symbolic battles, although very real for the combatants themselves, are the true terrain of the movement for global justice. They offer an opportunity, even when lost, to defeat the myths that uphold the system.

Oaxaca is the South of the South. It is the truth to the lie that Mexico has joined the First World by grabbing onto the coattails of the United States through the North American Free Trade Agreement. The failure of this integration strategy in Oaxaca and other southern states in Mexico was so obvious that even a recent World Bank report felt obliged to address the issue. Its conclusion-“the southern states did not benefit from NAFTA because they were not prepared to reap the benefits of free trade”-was foregone and surprised no one who has studied the Bank’s blame-the-victim logic. If forced to do an evaluation of globalization in general, defenders of neoliberalism would no doubt castigate the entire global South for this supposed failure. Needless to say, it is of little consolation to the hungry, the displaced, the disenfranchised, and the discarded.

The Oaxacan rebellion is proof that for many people, even physical preservation can become secondary to fighting for a conviction. With only the raw material of their own lives in their hands, they have set out to mold a different future. Although demands today center on the governor’s resignation and fair pay for teachers, the new forms of organization and consciousness created will endure long after this movement and become the seeds of future movements.

They will also be the seeds of popular rebellions in other places. The Oaxacan rebellion is a reminder that an evaluation of the consequences of free trade and globalization is indeed overdue – and that the World Bank has no right to be the evaluator. The people who have suffered the consequences should evaluate the system. Too often in the North, the reports of protest and rebellion around the world are seen as disparate battles or isolated complaints and not as part of a growing consensus that something is gravely wrong. Those who have benefited from free trade rules, especially those living in countries that designed these rules, have a responsibility to get the message.

What could have been a local conflict has detonated a national confrontation and contributed to the revival of violent factions. The government’s lack of political will has blocked real negotiations. It has failed to respond to Oaxaca’s valid demands and open up talks on the reforms needed to assure Mexico’s peace and stability. Instead, the country is now perilously close to the opposite.

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.


Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .