Rebels without a pause

Rebels without a pause

In May 2007, Freedom correspondent Nancy Davies reported from Oaxaca one year after the Mexican rebellion began, and found dissent alive and well.

In May 2006, the Oaxaca Popular Movement coalesced striking teachers, dominated by 60,000 from Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) who covered fifty blocks with tents and sleeping bags, cookware and laundry, kids’ drawings and soda cases. They demanded the usual – this was a strike which went on every year - with requests for salary increases, aid to poor students, free breakfasts, better school facilities (with bathrooms), and re-zonification for the minimum wage of government employees.

On June 14, the government sent in state police to evict the strikers. The teachers and their families beat back the police and re-took the zócalo. Tear gas floated over the streets; children were injured; buses were burned; the teachers’ FM radio station was smashed and their broadcasters arrested. Two days later a popular movement grew from the scene with what came to be known as the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO) and “el movimieneto magisterio popular”, the popular teachers movement.

For the next six months the APPO met, forums met, the teachers met, and the government of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, (URO) with PRI thugs and plain-clothes police picked off its supporters one by one, with murders (the count varies from 13 to 26), torture, disappearances, imprisonment, and infiltration.
Among the APPO convocations, two called for designing a new government, for state and nation, based on face-to-face participative democracy, economic equity, and social and gender equity. Documents were written up and published.

In a state of more than three million people, more than half a million marched against the repressive government, neoliberal policies and social neglect. The majority of poor campesinos and the indigenous population back the movement. The middle class participates as “civil society”, mounting forums and discussions, calling attention to the struggle and what it means.

Teachers, taxi drivers, and medical workers took roles on the blockades, supported by their neighborhoods. Among those who don’t support the APPO, neither do they support the governor.
Calderón’s predecessor, President Vicente Fox, mandated the November repression.

The crackdown on November 25th included hundreds of arrests with torture and the closure of APPO media. Many people went into hiding. The total number of imprisoned during the struggle exceeded 500, people were tortured or disappeared. At present, 16 teachers remain in jail. Arrests continue.
However, reports of the death of the APPO have proven premature. The idea of popular participation in governing and control of Oaxaca had survived. Civil society, perhaps a hundred organisations affiliated with the APPO, maintains consciousness in the city of Oaxaca and statewide.

On January 10 the teachers, reconstructing their damaged union, met and decided to march. 30,000 people turned out for the ninth megamarch. The zócalo defense included razor wire barriers, attack dogs, billy clubs wrapped with barbed wire, and the presence of 4,000 riot police, many mounted on horses.

On 8th March, Women’s Day, was the 10th megamarch. The zócalo once again was blockaded behind metal blockades and razor wire. The water tanks reappeared along with the firemen, while the marchers, shoulder to shoulder, shouted “We are all the APPO!”. Women have been leaders from the outset and proved their importance when the cacerolas captured the public television station. Along with the women the APPO, teachers, civil society organizations, and campesinos joined the Coordination of the Women of Oaxaca (COMO), and other indigenous women’s organisations. The international Women in Resistance movement marched on April 29.

Behind the in-your-face marches, the APPO and civil society organize and educate. The APPO social revolution is characterised by horizontal leadership, the Zapatista idea that the leader obeys the popular will, revocability of all offices, referenda, plebiscites, and autonomy. The assemblies meet monthly. The indigenous population has openly joined the movement.

An indigenous forum took place on 28th and 29th November last year, with former bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas present. It allied with the APPO. The federal military occupies several indigenous communities, because of their perceived threat to the government, ever alert to uprisings and guerrillas, real or imagined.

A Triqui indigenous community publicly declared the autonomous municipality of San Juan Cópala on the 21st January, 2007. Their election of municipal authorities required two months for consultations, the traditional “customs and mores”, with open decisions of the majority in assemblies. The three authorities meet with the leaders of the 20 participant communities. One day before the new authorities assumed office, paramilitary groups burst into San Juan and shot up the place. Roberto García Flores, a supporter of autonomy, was ambushed on route to San Juan to participate in the new municipality, and murdered.

State authorities always declare indigenous deaths to be internal, land boundary disputes. In reality, they are instigated by the PRI to keep control. When the new community declared autonomy it too affiliated with the APPO. About 15,000 indigenous people are involved. The total Triqui population is about 24,000.

The APPO encourages every town, neighborhood, region, union, – whatever affiliation you can imagine – to create its own asamblea. During the first six months I counted 40 towns in conflict, seeking to oust PRI caciques. Assemblies sprang up taking over their municipal government and throwing out unwanted presidents. That continues.

The First Regional Assembly of the peoples of the Isthmus took place in Ixtepec the 27th and 28th of January, 2007. The topics discussed were Economy, Education, Culture and Communication, Health and the environment; Women and diversity. The invitation was signed by the organising groups and individuals such as APPO-Istmo, Otra Campaña-Istmo, Radio Totopo (a community radio station), Grupo Solidario de la Venta (opposed to the wind-farms taking land in the municipality of La Venta), and others. The added note: bring your blanket and bring something put on the common table to make the food sufficient for all (cheese, totopo, beans, rice, sugar…)
The APPO of the Sierra Sur formed in April, strongly anti-neoliberal and in refutation of elected politics and politicians who have sold out.

The struggle of any one political party to gain power within the APPO is checked, but not easily. In 2007 those who wanted to use the APPO as a political party clashed unsuccessfully with those who wish to remain a public voice. The upcoming “punishment vote” in August of 2007 and again in October, for state and municipal candidates respectively, offers the possibility of a state legislature outside the control of Ulises Ruiz and the PRI, including indictment of Ruiz himself.

Meanwhile, civil society keeps the APPO’s goals up front with international as well as national discussions on designing a participative democracy. A national forum discussed the media, and emphasised community radio, which proposed ways to make radio available in the face of the PRI refusal to grant radio licenses. Public forums considered the human rights catastrophe. They convicted URO of a broad range of crimes. Human rights organisations also fund aid to the families of the imprisoned. They sponsor psychology clinics to deal with the after-effects of torture.

The unions have stood strong. The teachers, at the time of the Ninth Megamarch, declared in their assembly: “We don’t forget, and we don’t forgive the assassinations, torture, persecution, disappearances and arbitrary arrests committed against the people of Oaxaca, and in particular against the democratic teachers, in complicity with the Federal Government.”. They also affirmed, “We helped build the APPO and we will keep on participating.” The education workers stand against neoliberal policies, privatisations, salary adjustments, reduction in social spending, and the concentration of wealth among a few, saying “we have not surrendered and we won’t surrender, and on the basis of a mature policy, we go on united and organized until we achieve our objectives and those of the people of Oaxaca.”

By the end of April blockades of major roads were occurring again. An entirely separate union, of administrative and office workers, astonished us on April 25 by marching into the forbidden zócalo, shoving aside the barricades and the police. They raised their banners protesting the new social security changes (Ley ISSSTE), and marched around. No one stopped them. They reflect union rage against privatising social security benefits. The Mayday march of state and federal unions and the APPO entered the zócalo, unhindered, and staged a rally. The news was broadcast by student activists who took over Radio Universidad, and broadcast for several hours before being shut off. The 2nd May was the day of a national work stoppage. All the unions demonstrated against the ISSSTE law change. This government radicalizes people.

There are now at least eleven states - maybe as many as twenty, of the thirty-three Mexican states - that have formed their own popular assemblies.

How can the APPO link thousands of local asambleas which must achieve common goals to make national changes? And how link to other states? To Latin America? Unanswered questions in the framework of horizontal decision making abound, while the local struggle continues.
But given the national consciousness of failed electoral politics, failed state and national governments, failed neoliberal economics and failed social policy, the population is re-educating itself about the nature of power and who holds it.