Reflections on the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca by a North American anarchist who visited the city two years after the rebellion.
I arrived in Oaxaca in the fall of 2008. In between the child beggars, the French cafés with English menus, and the native women stuttering invitations to tour the ruins of Monte Alban at the flocks of wide-eyed gringos being herded this way and that by their guides, there persisted the markets selling fried grasshoppers and fermented corn drinks; the way that enclaves of recent arrivals from the countryside nearly tripped over each other in celebrating the fiestas of their hometowns' patron saints with closed streets, brass bands, fireworks, and potlaches of mezcal; the love people felt their city's gnarled ceiba trees – a love which was so strong that when developers attempted to clear an abandoned lot overgrown with vegetation they were forced to do so at four in the morning out of fear of the neighbors – but were still confronted by an angry, easily awoken crowd that captured 56 mechanical saws as prisoners of war. Or the fair atmosphere that overtook the city square each time the teachers had a sit-in, when the plaza was invaded by vendors selling corn on the cob, aguas frescas, alebrijes, jewlery, bootleg CD's, and imitation name brand pants; while reggaeton and merengue blasted from some stalls, others would display a wide variety of bootleg documentaries – The Corporation and The Fourth World War, movies about Emiliano Zapata, the Zapatistas, Che Guevara, Adolf Hitler, Tyrannosaurus Rex, the war in Iraq, the occupation of Palestine, the massacres at Tlatlelolco and Acteal, the anarchist militias of the Spanish Civil War, more titles relating to the city's anti-government rebellion of two years' previous than I could possibly count – stalls where people crowded around television sets like the World Cup had come two years early, requesting to view part of this documentary or that. Even on normal days in the square, full of old men spending their twilight years on a sunlit bench, young boys flirting with young girls, and stray marimba players who could be heard half-heartedly playing traditional tunes, women would intersperse the artisan wares that they hawked to the tourists with pieces of notebook paper bearing political slogans.
My perceptions of the popular uprising that took hold of the city in 2006 had been shaped by the recklessly partisan journalism of the leftist press. I had heard of a Oaxaca Commune, a successor to the legendary Paris of 1871 that had managed to last over twice as long. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) held the city for one hundred and thirty three days, days when governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz was forced to flee and no policeman dared show himself, at least in uniform – something that brought crime to record lows. And the movement had certainly left a rich artistic legacy on the walls of the city. Much of the graffiti consisted of little more than sloppily painted political slogans:
URO – Murderer!
The People Are Rising!
Freedom For All Political Prisoners!
Close All Banks!
Long Live APPO!
We Are Continuing To Resist!
See You In 2010!
– the last referring to a belief which held that just as the Revolution of 1910 came precisely on the hundredth anniversary of the War of Independence, so the cyclical nature of Mexican time would be proven to be more than metaphor once again. However, Oaxaca also had a sophisticated style of stenciling and wheatpasting that engaged with Mexican history and culture in a way rarely seen in graffiti. In Oaxaca you could see a mural re-enacting the street battles of 2006, riot cops raising their truncheons over the bodies of prone citizens who have red paint splashed 'round their skulls and the words OAXACA – REPRESSION repeated behind them. Two blocks away was Frida Kahlo with a rifle strapped to her back, and if you followed the same street up the hill you could find Emiliano Zapata sporting a mohawk. Wrapped around the corner of a door frame downtown was a depiction of a young man spray painting a portrait of the 19th century Zapotec president Benito Juarez, and Lucio Cabañas cradled his machine gun underneath a window on a little-used side street. One of the most famous yet most elusive was the Most Blessed Virgin of the Barricades, who wears a gas mask as she prays and in whose shawl is stitched a pattern of burning tires.
So I was surprised to see red flags bearing the hammer-and-sickle carried in marches, and rallies where laminated paper icons depicting the holy succession of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin were reverently displayed in front of the stage. And though the spirit of the Zapatista Councils of Good Government have often been invoked in describing the spirit of self-management in Oaxaca over the course of 2006, I attended a rally two years later where activists who publicly advocated an electoral boycott were struck with red flags by enraged communists. Something more complicated had happened here than I had been let on to.
We must back up a bit in order to understand the events that shook Oaxaca during 2006. In the aftermath of the Zapatista rebellion of 1994, the government of Oaxaca was preoccupied with preventing the spread of armed struggle into their state. They had reason to worry. To name a few examples among many, in 1977, an unpopular governor had been dislodged by a student movement in the capital. In 1979, the local section of the government-controlled teacher's union broke away from its national organization in a rank-and-file rebellion and began a tradition of annual strikes. After nearly a decade of organizing land seizures and road blockades, in 1981 the Worker-Peasant-Student Coalition of the Isthmus (COCEI) won the municipal elections in Juchitán, making that town the first to be governed by leftists since the revolution, an honor they still held in 1994 despite a four year military occupation in the mid-80's. In 1983, indigenous communities in the Sierra Norte regained control of their forests from timber companies, and have since then managed them as cooperative, sustainable enterprises. Sparked by experiments in Juchitán and the Sierra Norte, a movement of community-controlled radio stations spread throughout the state and eventually the country, offering critical and often radical analyses of local events. And when the government expropriated coastal farmland in Huatulco for a tourist development in 1984 and killed peasants who refused to move, it caused such resentment that as if to fulfill the government's worst fears, guerrillas from the Revolutionary Popular Army attacked the town's tourist agency in 1996, leaving nine dead. 1 Oaxaca was a state of revolt.
Facing the widespread feelings of sympathy and solidarity with the Mayan rebels, and careful not to let any sparks get near the tinderbox they anxiously governed, the state decided on a strategy of co-option. Beginning in 1995, government officials began to negotiate with indigenous groups with the goal of conceding demands for autonomy in exchange for social peace. By 1998, four-fifths of the municipalities of Oaxaca had abandoned the electoral system for one known as usos y costumbres, a traditional method of making decisions in assemblies where the whole village discusses the problems facing their community until consensus is reached. Public works are constructed through voluntary, unpaid labor contributed by all able-bodied members of the community. Public services are provided through a rotating system of volunteer positions that all the men of the community are expected to serve in throughout their adult lives – and as it became common in the time of NAFTA for villages to be emptied of able-bodied males who migrated to the city, the capital, and across the Rio Grande in search of work, women throughout the state began to take on these positions for the first time. This was also not a strictly ethnic phenomenon. Many villages that did not previously identify themselves as indigenous communities opted for usos y costumbres in order to escape from the control of the government. 2 Graffiti began to appear in many rural areas, warning that "here we do not allow political parties, least of all the Institutional Revolutionary Party." 3
But while some of Oaxaca's many rebellions had been based in the state capital, such as the student movement of 1977, the new movement for autonomy based on agrarianism and indigenous tradition was primarily active in the countryside. In the city, the culture is predominantly mestizo, the political system dominated by parties, and land divided into individual ownership (or tenancy) of houses and businesses in place of the communal control over fields found in the countryside. Oaxacan anthropologist Benjamin Maldonado, describing the loss of community among migrants to the city of Oaxaca, wrote that “to have a territory as communal property moves people to participate collectively in the decisions over its use and defense. Its fragmentation in the urban environment contributes to a feeling of a lack of belonging since the space over which one is responsible is the family home, not the larger community.” As a result, “urban spaces in their immense majority are...those where indifference as a form of relation between neighbors predominates.” 4
In 1995, teachers were expelled from the autonomous Zapatista communities. The education offered by the Mexican school system has been tailored to serve children living in cities who dream of working either as professionals or in one of Mexico's coveted union jobs – for children living traditional lifestyles in rural communities, it does little more than maladapt them to their surroundings and ends up as yet another factor encouraging the migration that has been depopulating the Oaxacan countryside. Benjamin Maldonado, who has studied extensively the relationship between indigenous people and the state, has said that “for me, it's very regrettable, very sad, to see a Mixtec man who is technically qualified that doesn't have the least idea about how to heal his children, that doesn't know what plants to use for which types of cures. In place of turning to their maternal knowledge, that of their own culture, in the case of illness they turn to a doctor, in construction to an architect, in money to a bank, in place of turning to their community...what school generates is the disintegration of the community.” 5 Due to its lack of practical application, one of the main functions of education in southern Mexico has been to forge the imagined community of the Mexican nation out of the living communities of Triqui, Huave, Chontal, Mixe, and Zapotec peoples, and to enforce the use of spoken Spanish in place of the indigenous languages it denigrates as mere 'dialects.' It is therefore no surprise that indigenous leaders have frequently denounced the Mexican educational system, comparing its role in their communities to the one played by missionaries during the Spanish Conquest.
The closure of schools in Chiapas put the movement for indigenous autonomy in conflict with the teacher's movement, rupturing a tactical alliance that had existed since the 1970's. On the one hand, many in Oaxaca applauded the move, with the Indigenous Forum of Oaxaca repeatedly denouncing the educational system throughout the 90's as inherently colonialist6 , but it also angered many within the teacher's union. It should be pointed out that there are many political factions within Section 22, many of them sympathetic to demands for indigenous autonomy, and many teachers in Oaxaca are of indigenous origin themselves. However, when schools began to close it provoked outrage within the teacher's union across this political spectrum, because in the battle between conviction and salary, salary nearly always wins.7
And so when Section 22 of the teacher's union went on their yearly strike in 2006, it was met with indifference by some, hostility by others. To most the teachers were simply lazy and overpaid professionals who would rather plan a march than a math lesson. But Oaxaca had been changing, and even city dwellers were increasingly dissatisfied. The period when government officials were willing to offer a give-and-take with dissidents had ended, and the state was increasingly ruled with an iron fist, a trend which continued under the governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz who had come to power in a blatantly stolen election in 2004. On the early morning of June 14th, when the police tried to evict an encampment of striking teachers from the city square, they used a level of repression – complete with truncheons, tear gas, and helicopter support – that had not been seen in the city in recent memory. For those living downtown, this attack was the last straw, and neighbors spilled out of their houses and apartments to defend the teachers (despite their previous lack of sympathy with the teacher's demands), and together they drove the police out of downtown. But according to one participant in the movement that was to follow, “more important than the victory over the police was the victory over the conservatism of the city.” 8
Section 22, despite its origin in a rank-and-file rebellion against the hierarchical structures of the national teacher's union, suffered the same fate as many opposition groups in Mexico, in that it came to resemble the very things it hoped to fight. The same faction had controlled the union since the early 1980's, and just as the national union used the carrot and the stick to enforce loyalty to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, Section 22 applied the same methods to their members to ensure high turnout at their rallies. Their undemocratic structure has led to internal grumbling – many within the union, while still supporting many of the section's demands vis-a-vis the national organization, often wonder if Section 22's local bureaucrats are any less concerned with power than their counterparts in Mexico City, as well as what the Marxism-Leninism often spouted by section members has to do with higher wages.
So when the leaders of Section 22 saw the outpouring of support by the citizens of Oaxaca during the police attack, it quickly sought to capitalize on the situation for its own benefit. Soon after June 14th, the union convoked an assembly of organizations that they hoped would declare themselves in solidarity with their strike, but were unprepared for the turnout of uninvited guests. The rage of the people of the city ran deeper than one confrontation with the authorities, and the teachers found themselves but one voice among many. Everyone had different grievances and different ideologies, but all could agree on one thing: Governor Ulises must go. It was a demand both broad enough to rally diverse groups behind it, as well as a realistic one, as there were multiple precedents in Oaxacan history of when a governor had been forced down by a popular movement. A constitutional provision states that if an executive is incapable of maintaining a state of governability, new elections must be held – and after a thirty-member Coordination Committee was chosen, Oaxacans set out to prove just how ungovernable they are. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) was born, and a strategy of disrupting the government's work by occupying state buildings was decided upon.
Some groups who wished to use APPO for their own ends, typically Marxist-Leninist organizations like the Popular Revolutionary Front (FPR), began to dominate the assembly's meetings. The FPR, which has its strongest base of support in the rank and file of the teacher's union, made up for their lack of numbers in their ability to talk nonstop. Meeting attendance dropped drastically as a result, and those who stuck it out at committee meetings found most of their energy used up in endless arguments. 9 In the end, the only decisions made by the Coordination Committee that had any impact on the rest of the movement were the dates they fixed for marches – for the most part people acted autonomously, either as part of an organization that made its own decisions, as part of an informal neighborhood committee, or by themselves. One of the most famous actions taken during the movement – the occupation of the state owned television station and its conversion into the women-run Cooking Pot Channel – was planned and carried out entirely outside the consultation of the Coordination Committee.
No one had planned to occupy the television station. A women's march had been organized for August 1st by the recently-formed Coordinating Committee of Oaxacan Women (COMO) in order to increase the visibility of women in the movement. Women – whether teachers, members of non-governmental organizations, or housewives – had been involved in APPO since the beginning, but usually in supporting roles – the Assembly's Coordinating Committee, for instance, was made up entirely of men. “The visible people were the men,” said Concepción Nuñes, who would end up with her own program on the occupied TV station.10 However, a group of women who were cooking tamales in front of the occupied state treasury joked that even in revolt, women get stuck with the domestic tasks. “Are we always going to be stuck in this historic role of women, looking after coffee, food, and cleaning?” one of them asked. “We can do better things.”11
The march ended up at the state-owned television station, and some of the demonstrators suggested that they demand the microphone in order to counteract the media's misrepresentations of the movement. When they were refused, a brief meeting was held and it was decided to take over the station, which was promptly conceded to them without a fight. “People began to arrive from the communities, from the mountains of the north, from the mountains of the south, wanting to talk about what's been happening in their communities, to denounce the government,” Concepción recounts, and so they were given their own program. 12 . Kiado, himself an independent journalist for the Oaxaca Libre website, says that for him, the most important moment of 2006 was when he returned home to his community in the Sierra Juarez and he saw the women there watching the women of Oaxaca on television, as it opened up new possibilities of what women are capable of that had been hitherto unthinkable. 13 .
It was around this time that indigenous communities began to participate in the movement in large numbers. While some indigenous organizations, such as Services of the Mixe Peoples, had been present from the meeting that founded APPO, many more had been tentative at first, wanting to make sure that the movement represented something more than the self-interested demands of the teacher's union, whom they mistrusted. By early August, they had been convinced.14 Yet even with the greater participation of people from rural areas, the movement largely remained confined to the city. “The people have always been going down to the city of Oaxaca. From the first Megamarch on the afternoon of June 14th, there were two brass bands from the Sierra,” Kiado recounts, while lamenting the absence of a flow in the opposite direction. “Section 22 sometimes orders the teachers to march in the mountains, march on the coast, but it's not the same as an initiative of the people.” Kiado claims that two years later, little work has been done to address this problem – although he also points out that people only began to reflect seriously on their experiences in the movement in 2008, because during the movement everyone was too busy to think, and 2007 was a year that was used for, more than anything else, rest and a chance to catch one's breath.
It's easy to see why. August saw a major escalation of the violence on the part of the state government. On the 8th, there was an unsuccessful attempt to destroy the equipment of the movement-friendly Radio Universidad. On August 9th, the wheelchair-bound teacher and FPR militant Germán Mendoza Nube was kidnapped, and three members of the Movement of Unification and Independent Triqui Struggle – Andrés Santiago Cruz, Pedro Martínez Martínez and his eleven year old grandson Pablo – were murdered on the highway on their way to the city. The next day, the mechanic José Jiménez Colmenares was shot and killed by snipers while he was attending a rally. After Jiménez's death, the first barricades appeared in Oaxaca. 15 On the 13th, a website called 'oaxacaenpaz' appeared, which gave the names, addresses, and photographs of people prominent in the movement – over the course of 2006, an 'X' would appear through the faces of those who were murdered. These tensions began to come to their climax on the week of the 20th, when paramilitaries attacked the women's TV station and destroyed its equipment late at night. The 21st saw the first appearance of what was called the Caravan of Death – masked policeman in civilian clothes who cruised around the city at night in the backs of pickup trucks, occasionally shooting their guns in the air, occasionally shooting their guns at civilians. Their first casualty was a man named Lorenzo Sampablo Cervantes, killed outside a movement-controlled radio station. But by the third night, barricades had gone up all over the city, representing a major shift in the direction of the movement. As Paul Perez Sampablo, Lorenzo's nephew and a barricadero himself, points out that “after this, the barricades took a different course – before, they had always existed, but they had not been so fortified.”
A curfew of sorts was put into place by the people of the city. Paul explains that it was not a strict curfew, that they simply asked people who worked late to please be in their houses before 10 PM, because it was easier to tell who was entering the neighborhood that way. If someone had to come home later, it was a rule that they turn the front lights of their car off and their inside light on, so the people manning the barricade could recognize them and verify that they were not a paramilitary.16 “(But) one time a car approached, with bright lights...so we yelled to turn off their front lights and turn on the light inside so we can see their face...they did not do this. They had their lights on so that we could not see what kind of car it is...what we did was this, what we were not able to do was be friendly with someone who even though they know not to, comes at us with aggressive lights, because they might be more aggressive physically. What we did was begin to strike the car so that they would turn off their lights, but they did not do it. One compañero set off a flare, and all of them (in the car) were masked...they were armed. In this moment, they tried to take us, but there were so many of us, even though they had arms. Many times, there were people that wanted to act in this manner. Therefore, for this we attacked. We didn't know whether they had arms, so our only option was to try to hold our ground.”
According to David Venegas, a veteran of the kilometer-long Brenamiel barricade that was built to guard the entrance to the city, there is an important difference between the anti-authoritarian movements of the First World and what happened in Oaxaca. Mexico lacks the culture of 'summit-hopping' – that whenever there is a group of powerful men meeting to decide the fate of the world, whether it be at the WTO meetings in Seattle or the G8 summit in Genoa, people (mostly young and often affluent) travel from all around the country and the world to protest and to engage in street fighting with the police. The media is able to scare the public with the outsiders coming to stir up trouble, and the protesters are usually not accountable to the communities they temporarily take over. “Here, people built the barricades in their own neighborhoods. They didn't go to other people's streets to build them, they built them in their own streets,” he explains.17
An agronomy student in Mexico City before 2006, Venegas returned to his home in Oaxaca in order to participate in the movement, becoming active in the kilometer-long Brenamiel barricade that guarded the entrance of the city. He became a prominent delegate in the APPO Congress of November 2006 due to his status as an ordinary barricadero, something that angered many of the professional activists who felt that their positions were being entrenched upon. David is quick to emphasize that his spot could have been taken by anyone – there were hundreds of barricade representatives at that meeting. “At the beginning (of the movement), we didn't feel represented by APPO, because then it was a small group of leaders telling the barricades what to do. But with the passing of time, the people of the barricades went to the assemblies, and we realized we were the majority.”18
Just as Guillermo Bonfil Batalla noted in his classic book on the survival of indigenous tradition in the modern world, Mexico Profundo, that the neighborhoods with the strongest local identities and communal organization were the ones that reacted most proactively to the Mexico City earthquake19 , some have likewise observed that the neighborhoods of Oaxaca where the street fighting was fiercest were the ones with the highest number of migrants from the countryside20 , where people had been exposed to the conservative influence of the city for the least amount of time. Venegas, who has cited the influence Bonfil's book had on him when he was younger, goes farther, insisting that the barricades were a focal point of cultural regeneration for those who had been assimilated into the state of mestizaje dominant in Mexico. “It was a community where everyone took care of each other, where everyone treated each other like brother and sister, even if we didn't know each other before. When we were in the barricades, we regrew what was cut by the Spanish invasion. People who were conservative, apathetic, not very Indian before, rediscovered community. Other ideologies, the socialists, the Stalinists, just see the barricades as physical resistance, people who resist bullets, and they don't see the regrowth of a civilization,” Venegas explains. “But to understand a new movement, you need a new theoretical understanding.”21
Many of the barricades – and there could be thousands in the city on any given night – served no strategic purpose. They were built in the neighborhoods at the edge of town, or up in the hills, far away from where the police were trying to break through. But whether a barricade an imposing structure made of 25 buses or was little more than a pile of rocks in an intersection, it was a way of saying, 'yes, we support the movement.' Many were surprised at the social mix found at the barricades – while there were many young men, there were also housewives, street kids, unemployed workers, and old women. One activist who came from Mexico City, imagining that when he arrived he would encounter “well-theorized” people in Oaxaca, expressed surprise when he realized that the barricades were the work of “people of the town, that don't know how to manage much terminology, don't have doctrines, don't have revolutionary manuals.” 22 As Oaxaca's tourist-oriented economy tanked, people across the city began losing their jobs, and consequently spent all day having political discussions at the barricades, neighbors sharing food. Ruben Valencia, who was also from the Brenamiel barricade, insists that APPO started backwards – because unlike the assemblies in indigenous communities that are defined by a limited territory and a population with a shared history, APPO began in a conference room reserved at the university. “But APPO found its territory in the barricades.”23
Benjamin Maldonado points out that the function of barricades in traditional urban warfare is to define the area controlled by one's forces, and so they are constantly mobile – but in 2006, there was not a single barricade that changed its position over the course of the six-month rebellion. In his eyes, this signified in turn APPO's crisis of representation. Unlike assemblies in indigenous communities, based on consensus agreements between all residents, APPO was still only a coalition of organizations (many of them with internal hierarchies) and individuals – and when individuals who came to assembly meetings claimed to represent a particular neighborhood, they were likely not delegated by an assembly of the people living there, but were simply the people from that neighborhood who wanted to show up. “APPO was like a lobster,” he says. “It had big claws, but little meat,” pointing out that the movement's achievements – including the thousands of barricades and the successful occupation of multiple commercial and government-owned radio and TV stations (a feat that no Latin American guerrilla group was able to accomplish) were out of sync with the rather reformist goal of removing a governor from office.24
Nevertheless he agrees that in some neighborhoods, the barricades pointed the way towards autonomous community organization, and there are encouraging signs in this direction. Starting in 2007, neighborhood associations began to pop up in Crespo, Zaachila, and other barrios throughout Oaxaca – and within them, the initiative has primarily been taken up by veterans of the 2006 barricades. While their level of organization is admittedly uneven and varies from neighborhood to neighborhood25 , if allowed to develop, these assemblies could provide the bases necessary for properly choosing neighborhood delegates to a genuine assembly of the peoples of Oaxaca. But if in some parts of the city barricades became a point for community unity and a forum for political discussions among the common people, in the city's downtown, where they largely served a symbolic function, teachers did little more than knit or play cards in front of the barricades and it simply became “a new way for to have a sit-in,” as Benjamin Maldonado put it.26
The federal government was initially reluctant to respond to the crisis in Oaxaca. But it was an election year, and the country was in the middle of a presidential succession crisis when left-center candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador contested the results and mobilized his supporters behind him for a campaign of civil disobedience, demanding a recount. While outgoing President Vicente Fox constitutionally had the power to remove Ulises Ruiz Ortiz from office and defuse the situation, as had been done many times in the past, his party's candidate, Felipe Calderon, needed the support of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (to which Ulises belonged) in order to maintain his claim to the Presidency. And so on October 29th, the Federal Preventative Police (PFP) arrived in Oaxaca, putting the city under what amounted to a military occupation. The downtown core was soon controlled by the federales, but when they tried to capture Radio Universidad on November 2nd, they were confronted by barricader@s who had armed themselves with slings, fireworks, and Molotov cocktails.
The fighting was centered around the barricade of Cinco Señores, located near the university at the intersection of three major streets. While most barricades dated back to late August, Cinco Señores was only built after the entrance of the federales. Since most of the barricader@s here were street kids, many were afraid to go near what became known as The Barricade of Death, while some of the barricader@s reciprocated with a strong distrust of the better-off activists within the movement. “Why are you here?” a boy named El Chino asked a university student who took injured people from the barricade to the university's medical center. “You walk around so clean all the time, wearing those fancy bracelets.” 27 However, David Venegas has pointed out that as many of these young people were homeless, the barricader@s of Cinco Señores became a family of sorts, and they developed a loyalty to each other and to their barricade that could not be matched anywhere else in the city.28 In the days before the battle, the mutual distrust had begun to break down as students mixed with street kids mixed with housewives, and was replaced with a feeling of solidarity that stretched across class lines. On Day of the Dead, the community came together to construct an altar for the movement's fallen. During the confrontation, neighbors kept the barricade supplied with food, as well as vinegar, water, coca-cola, and other household supplies useful for minimizing the effects of the tear gas used by the police. After hours of fighting, the federales were repelled with nothing more than improvised weaponry, and the barricader@s celebrated their victory in battle as “something glorious.” 29
The month before the final confrontation between the government and the social movement proved to be an extremely tense one. Even the business community that had been clamoring for months for the arrival of the federales became uneasy with their presence, as they discovered that few things are worse for tourism than tanks in the streets. Their arrival also made the downfall of the governor an impossibility, which threw for a loop those in the Coordinating Committee that, in the words of independent journalist Kiado, “only saw Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, and forgot the perspectives of the people....the hopes of the people, the expectations of the people, their own rage.” 30 On November 3rd, the day after the victory over the federales at the Cinco Señores barricade, officials in Section 22 announced that classes would resume at the beginning of the next week, a move that angered many within the movement, both outside and within the union. Many teachers refused to comply with the decision. Referring to union boss Enrique Rueda Pacheco, who could no longer attend APPO meetings without having objects thrown at him, a new chant could be heard at demonstrations: “With Rueda or without Rueda, Ulises is going to fall.” 31
On November 25th, a megamarch was organized to demand the withdrawal of the PFP from Oaxaca. Anger had been mounting as women were beginning to come forward with stories about being raped by the federales. However, the march organizers decided to designate 200 peacekeepers in order to defuse any potential altercations with the police, in spite of the successful example of resistance earlier that month. When the march reached the city square, violence broke out. Some say the police started it, some have blamed agent provocateurs, some have blamed unfocused rage. But street fighting soon broke out across downtown, from the first class bus station in the north to the Periferico thoroughfare in the south.
Flavio Sosa, the man held up by the media as the leader of the movement, was met with jeers when he climbed up on top of a boat in order to calm the crowd. “Come down, fatso!” yelled one young man. “Come down to fight.” 32 When I asked one barricadero what he thought of Flavio Sosa, he worked hard to suppress a laugh. “In the marches, in the barricades, within the confrontations, Flavio Sosa was not a leader, there were no leaders in the movement. Flavio Sosa was a public image created by journalists and TV channels. Why? Because he liked interviews,” says Paul, who compares Flavio's behavior to another one of APPO's famous figures, a popular announcer on Radio Universidad. “Dr. Bertha is a person when she participated in the movement from her radio, it was to give strength to the barricader@s, to orient the movement, to not lose our direction, to not lose our head. But Flavio Sosa was much more well known on the international level...in the street confrontations, he bothered me, to the point of yelling at him, 'Asshole! We don't have interviews, here we have to lend a hand!'” 33
While the fighting raged, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz remained calm. “These are small details,” he said. “The movement was overcome as soon as we signed the rough draft with the teacher's union.” 34 In a sense, he was right. The police had triumphed, leaving thirty-eight protesters injured and three dead while police vans patrolled the city, arresting close to one hundred and fifty people in a single evening. 35 The teachers were returning to work. Ulises made his triumphant reappearance the next day. And the Indigenous Forum of Oaxaca, which had been scheduled to meet on the 29th, saw their Declaration – which called on APPO to include among its demands recognition of the San Andres Accords on indigenous autonomy – be thoroughly ignored by the now rapidly disintegrating social movement. 36
When 2007 came around, the movement no longer existed, at least in the streets. The First State Congress had been scheduled for February of that year, and was to provide a forum for the reorganization of the shattered rebellion. However, before the assembly began, several organizations within APPO – including the Popular Revolutionary Front, the Broad Front for Popular Struggle, and the New Left of Oaxaca (Flavio Sosa's organization) – had opened negotiations with several left-leaning political parties and offered up a list of APPO candidates for the elections coming up later that year. When the rest of the assembly found out what had happened in their name and without their consultation, there was a great deal of anger. According to David Venegas, many of these groups had little influence while the rebellion was in progress, in part because they were internally corrupt and had rigid internal hierarchies, but they were able to survive the repression relatively intact and subsequently hegemonize the movement and its memory after its defeat. By contrast, the organization of people in the barricades, while egalitarian and community-based, was internally weak and collapsed after the 25th of November. 37 After the repression hit, the movement's center of gravity shifted away from ordinary people.
But to draw attention to this situation is not to engage in sectarianism. Many people have embraced the heterogeneity of APPO, pointing out that it can only be as such, mirroring the nature of city life. 38 “The ideological diversity of our movement reflects the diversity of our state,” said Venegas. “Of our mountains, our rivers, our jungles, our eyes.” The problem was a basic difference in political philosophy – one side of the movement that criticized the bad management of Oaxaca by the Institutional Revolutionary Party and who thought that they could do a better job, and another that was influenced by ideas of autonomous social organization and the anti-electoral politics of the Zapatista's Other Campaign, who felt that APPO was the first step towards implementing a democratic assembly of the people as the new political paradigm for Oaxaca, modeled after those in indigenous communities. Even some of those who sided with the latter group, believing an assembly to be a positive long-term goal, argued that it would be impossible to implement such a project under Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, and that friendly politicians must be put in office in order to give the movement room to maneuver. At this time, many of the movement's participants who were opposed to the electoral path, David Venegas, Ruben Valencia, and other veterans of the Brenamiel barricade among them, formed an organization called Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Liberty (VOCAL) – a grouping of Zapatista sympathizers, Magonistas, anarchists, barricader@s, and those “who worry about about keeping our social movement faithful to its principles, autonomous and independent from political parties and restoring the assembly model.” 39 A tactical alliance between two such groups could not last for long, especially as members of the FPR had begun making ungrounded public insinuations that members of the anti-electoral bloc, particularly David Venegas, were police agents. Nevertheless, unity was maintained for the time being by means of a compromise. The consensus reached was that APPO would not participate in the electoral process, but neither would it call for an electoral boycott or prevent any of its members from running provided that they resigned from APPO. A diversity of strategy was to be respected. The only condition was that no one was allowed to use their connections to the movement to further their political campaign – a condition that once agreed to, was subsequently ignored by every candidate. But as the movement in the streets no longer existed, there was no way to keep these would-be representatives accountable to their base on even this issue, something that bodes ill for their future political careers.
David Venegas was arrested five months before the elections, and after being held and tortured in an undisclosed location, he was transferred to Santa Maria Ixcotel Prison and accused of drug possession. On April 15th, a march was organized demanding his liberty – but early that morning, Guadalupe García Leiva, the same woman who had accused him of being a police infiltrator at the First State Congress, had falsely announced that he had been released with the intent of canceling the demonstration behind everyone's back. A month after his arrest, a letter was smuggled out of Ixcotel where Venegas wrote that “it has been difficult for me to denounce these acts before this moment...(but) within the political current in APPO that looks for the conquest of power through elections exist as well some men and women more harmful and despicable that do not differ in their political practices in the absolute from the criminals that are in power today...specialists in the deliberate omission, the lie, and the simulation...they have learned to talk the same language as the government.” 40 David Venegas was imprisoned and tortured for one year – a stark contrast to the fates suffered by members of the electoral bloc who had the misfortune to be arrested. Flavio Sosa was in jail from December 2006 until April 2008, but he represents the exception more than the rule. For example, one time when the FPR militant Florentino López Martínez (who participated in the attacks on Venegas) was detained by the police he was almost immediately let go when the officer in question “received superior orders.” 41 For all the ink that has been spilled since 2006 about repression in Oaxaca, little has been said about how selective it is. Voting is not a threat to a government like Mexico's which has no scruples about falsifying election results, and it is therefore not a coincidence that one of the strongest voices speaking against electoral participation by the movement was imprisoned in the months leading up to the elections.
As the state of Oaxaca prepared for another round of elections in 2009, there again appeared a split in the movement between those who wished to integrate APPO into the political process as part of a Broad Progressive Front of center-left parties, and those who resented the use of their movement as what they refer to as a “political trampoline” to power. 42 And so at a 2008 Megamarch organized by the teacher's union in order to commemorate the anniversary of the defeat of November 25th, a fight broke out between members of the Popular Revolutionary Front and members of VOCAL. The confrontation began when David Venegas publicly protested against having been excluded from meetings, and demanded to be able to speak at the rally. When members of the teacher's union conceded the microphone to Venegas, a commotion broke out in the crowd during which an FPR member struck a woman with his red flag, escalating the confrontation into a general melee. The FPR, for their part, released an incredibly paranoid statement several days later whereby they “denounce the anticommunist campaign” they believe is being orchestrated by David Venegas in collusion with the state government, which they see in everything from graffiti to statements by other APPO members that might suggest that Stalin's Russia was not such a great place. The FPR insists that in the face of these horrifying acts of “aggression against our symbols and our comrades...what we did is give a response of legitimate defense.” 43
A spokesman for Section 22 also denounced the same acts of “provocation” as the FPR – and the government concurred, with Subsecretary Joaquín Palacios ranting against the “goths, punks, gangbangers, bums, and vandals in general that are the scourges of our neighborhoods,” whom he contrasted to the law-abiding teachers. 44 This is a distinction that never would have been made two years previous, when the peaceful sit-in of striking teachers was attacked by the police early that fateful June morning, when the government operated under the slogan 'neither marches nor sit-ins.' But the course of the popular rebellion that resulted in 2006 revealed that the teachers were far from the most radical element of Oaxacan society – their struggle was merely the lightning rod that focused the energies of the people, but these energies frightened many of those who owed their job to the need of the government to have intermediaries between them and the teachers, as can be seen by the decision to end the six-month strike by higher-ups within Section 22 in November 2006. It is in this context that one must understand the readiness of government officials to (at least temporarily) grant legitimacy to the teacher's movement, in an attempt to draw them back into the establishment fold and divide the larger Oaxacan movement.
Many barrcader@s feel used and betrayed by the union's moves to distance themselves from the radicalism they had embraced two years previously. They feel that there was a time in 2006 when they were useful to the union, and that “in this moment, many of the teachers, everyone was like 'very good,' 'very good,' but after 2007...they believe we are people who provoke violence, but our own group of people, the Black Bloc, are hurt by the betrayal,” says Paul Perez Sampablo. “It is a frustration to give everything in your moment, and then see that things after that don't change.” 45
“Aye, what a motherfucker is the future,” Paul laments. “What happened is something very funny. If you stop people in the street and ask, 'are you with APPO?' 'are you with APPO?' ...there's going to be at best one. But within their houses, the way they think and act with their families, many people say, 'I disagree with the government, but it's a pain in the ass to show it, because when you do the government represses you.'”46 Not everyone is so pessimistic. “Contrary to the reports in both the mainstream and the alternative media, there is a very realistic situation of optimism,” says Ruben Valencia, citing the growth of the community radio movement since 2006, the formation of neighborhood organizations, the foundation of regional assemblies in the coast and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and the infusion of new blood by the young people who came of age during the street battles of 2006. He explains that in the past two years the focus of political organizing in Oaxaca has been more and more on the community level while simultaneously maintaining a vision that encompasses the national and international level. This can especially be seen in the delegations sent by Oaxacan activists to Cuernavaca when the Morelos section of the teacher's union saw their popularly supported strike ended with a military occupation at the beginning of October 2008.47
“The work now is to create new options, new forms, and new words. With imagination, we can bring a new future. Capitalism doesn't work, neither does socialism, we need something new that comes from the people,” says Kiado. He then goes on to point out that despite APPO's organizational failings, you can't compare it to the successes of the Zapatistas at organizing their communities around principles of autonomy and direct democracy. The EZLN, after all, had ten years of planning before they began their armed uprising in 1994, while the 2006 rebellion was a spontaneous expression of rage that made its mistakes as it went along. I asked him if Oaxaca needed its ten years and he replied in the affirmative. “2006 was something of an apprenticeship,” he said. “It's a long process, social change. People threw rocks at the police for six months and nothing changed...(but) there is a ferment in the neighborhoods. So many common people, intellectuals, activists, are all realizing that they need to construct new forms of life in the neighborhoods, that to create small autonomies is the most important thing.” 48 Benjamin Maldonado concurs, comparing APPO to the student movement of 1968 – its ideas were also confused, and its internal organization was so weak that it completely collapsed after the Tlatelolco massacre. But after they recovered from the government's repression, the students refocused their energy, sharpened their analysis, and devoted themselves to decades of organizing campesinos and forming groups like the Worker-Peasant-Student Coalition (COCEI) of Juchitán, and the Union of Indigenous Communities of the Northern Isthmus (UCIZONI). Benjamin sees the impulse towards autonomous social organization that was born in the barricades and the neighborhoods of Oaxaca to be an encouraging step towards a new movement. “The importance of APPO was not what happened, but what will happen,” he believes. 49
Concepción Nuñes believes that the upcoming state congress in February 2009 will decide whether or not APPO has a future or not. 50 Cosmes, a Oaxacan anarchist who teaches free screen-printing classes, is more skeptical, explaining that meetings of the assembly are often convoked, but nobody knows by who. It could be a legitimate congress, he says, with all the different factions and representatives that make up APPO, or it could be a sectarian gathering of the FPR, COMO, and not a whole lot of anyone else. 51 To my outsider's perspective, APPO is seeming more and more like a corpse being fought over by the people of Oaxaca than an organization that expresses their will. This is not to say that nothing is happening in Oaxaca, but that the political projects being pursued by the different groupings that made up the assembly often have little to do with each other, while each one makes sure to emphasize their connection to the 2006 rebellion.
But this cannot be an amicable parting of ways between two groups that have chosen different political paths as long as the state continues to practice selective repression against some factions while attempting to draw others back into its fold. On the morning of December 8th, 2008, shortly after the fight broke out at the Megamarch and a week before I was to leave Oaxaca, I made a visit to the Autonomous Oaxacan House Supporting Self-Managed Work (CASOTA). The collective had been created earlier that year by people associated with VOCAL to provide a place to encourage economic autosufficiency. Cosmes uses it as a place to give his screenprinting courses, others teach bookbinding and urban agriculture, and the building also houses an electronics repair shop and a community kitchen. I had come to the collective do a final set of interviews before I left town. When I got there, the windows were broken. Through a crack in between the boards covering the front door I could see a pile of furniture stacked up on the other side, and I was waved around to a side entrance. It turned out that the night before a compañero who was passing by to drop some things off while on his way home from a party had been harassed by the police in front of CASOTA. They searched his bag for drugs (finding only radio equipment) and beat him with their truncheons, all the while shouting “Why aren't you hitting back?” 52 The police then began breaking windows and launching tear gas canisters into the collective's courtyard in an attempt to provoke violence that they were hoping would work to discredit the anarchist faction of the movement.
One month later, on January 10th, 2009, Ruben Valencia was walking towards CASOTA when he began to be followed by an unmarked car whose occupants shouted “Fucking APPO! We're going to fuck you up!” One of the men followed him into a café and stabbed him three times in the neck, sending him to the hospital and nearly killing him. He emphasizes that this attempted assassination represents an escalation on the part of the government. “Other compañeros have suffered physical aggressions, kidnappings, and threats, but after 2007 they hadn’t dared to send hit men to try to kill APPO members. That’s what’s worrisome,” he says. “this may be a strategy (to send) paramilitaries or plainclothes police to make a political assassination look like a regular fight.” He says that the government made an attempt on his life because “(they) know that VOCAL and other spaces, peoples, collectives, and organizations aren't giving up the struggle and won't stop reorganizing the movement and the APPO.” 53
Meanwhile, discontent spreads across the nation, searching for the organizational form appropriate to the desires of the people for autonomy. “During the teacher's strike in Morelos, too, there was no strong structure,” explains Kiado. The strike was against a proposed law called the Alliance for Quality Education (ACE, similar to the American 'No Child Left Behind'), but people declared themselves in solidarity because they were fed up with the whole of the system. And when the sense of outrage outstrips the ability to articulate political alternatives, like in Oaxaca, like in Morelos, it is easy for opportunistic, authoritarian individuals and organizations who wish to use popular discontent as a springboard to power to simplify the complex motivations behind a revolt into a series of slogans: “Ulises Out,” “No to the ACE.” They are aided in this task by the mainstream media, who would rather broadcast one of these slogans than provide an in-depth analysis of the country's crisis. All the while, the government has been taking notes. “The government learned how to repress in Oaxaca. This is why the army was called into Morelos, why there were women raped in Morelos,” he warns.54
While he was reflecting on the movement from Ixcotel Prison, David Venegas wrote that “the struggle of the people of Oaxaca is also a struggle between memory and forgetfulness.” 55 For Kiado, the memory of the repression can never outweigh the memory of the hopes sparked two years ago – he claims that the only things that were new about the occupation by the federales were the forms the government used to destroy the movement, since political violence has always existed in Oaxaca's history and 2006 was seen as an opportunity to leave all that behind. 56 And Venegas reminisces that in spite of all the heartbreak of 2006, the dead, the tortured, and the violated, “we lived without government, we felt happy.” 57
- 1 Wendy Call (2001). Lines in the Sand. http://www.planeta.com/planeta/01/0110huatulco1.html
- 2Deborah Poole (2007). Political Autonomy and Cultural Diversity in the Oaxaca Rebellion. Anthropology News 48(3):10-11
- 3Gustavo Esteva (2008). The Oaxaca Commune and Mexico's Autonomous Movements. Page 11. Oaxaca de Juarez: Ediciones ¡Basta!
- 4Benjamin Maldonado Alvarado (2002). Autonomía y Comunalidad Indígena. Pages 110-111. Oaxaca de Juarez: Book Published By Author.
- 5Benjamin Maldonado Alvarado, Gustavo Esteva, and Marcos Sandoval. Reforma Educativa: Atreverse a Pensar. Suplemento Catorcenal no. 13, Opciones July 10, 1992.
- 6Gustavo Esteva, interview with author. November 19th, 2008
- 8David Venegas, interview with author, November 13th, 2008.
- 9Gustavo Esteva, interview with author, November 19th, 2008
- 10Interview with author, December 4th, 2008
- 11John Gibler, Mexico Unconquered: Chronicles of Power and Revolt. San Francisco: City Lights Books. Page 154.
- 12Op. cit.
- 13Interview with author, November 24th, 2008
- 14Gustavo Esteva, op. cit.
- 15Paul Perez Sampablo, interview with author, December 2nd, 2008
- 17Op. cit.
- 18Op. cit.
- 19Bonfil Batalla, Guillermo (1987). México Profundo: Una Civilización Negada. Miguel Hilado: Grijalbo.
- 20Lapierre, George (2007). La Comuna de Oaxaca: Mito o Realidad. La Guillotina 56: 18-23.
- 21Op. cit.
- 22El Alebrije (2007). Las Noches en la Ciudad de la Resistencia. In La Batalla Por Oaxaca. Page 201. Oaxaca de Juarez: Ediciones Yope Power.
- 23Personal communication, November 13th, 2008
- 24Interview with author, November 26th, 2008
- 25Cosmes, interview with author, December 5th, 2008
- 26Op. cit.
- 27Silvia (2008). Students and neighbors at the barricade defend Radio Universidad. In Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca. Diana Denham and CASA Collective, eds. Page 203. Oakland: PM Press.
- 28El Alebrije (2007). Las Noches en la Ciudad de la Resistencia. In La Batalla Por Oaxaca. Page 200. Oaxaca de Juarez: Ediciones Yope Power.
- 29Paul Perez Sampablo, op. cit.
- 30Interview with author, November 24th, 2008
- 31Victor Raúl Martínez Vásquez (2007). Autoritarismo, Movimiento Popular, y Crisis Política: Oaxaca 2006. Pages 162- 163. Oaxaca de Juarez: Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca.
- 32Ibid, page 169
- 33Paul Perez Sampablo, op. cit.
- 34Victor Raúl Martínez Vásquez, op. cit. page 263
- 35Nancy Davies (2007). The People Decide: Oaxaca's Popular Assembly. Pages 186-187. New York: Narco News Books.
- 36Benjamin Maldonado Alvarado, interview with author, November 26th, 2008
- 37Interview with author, November 13th, 2008.
- 38Ruben Valencia, personal communication, November 13th, 2008
- 39Manifiesto VOCAL (2007). http://lahaine.org/vocal/articulo.php?p=14&more=1&c=1
- 40David Venegas (2007). Carta de 15 de Mayo. http://www.vocal.lunasexta.org/davidvenegas/carta-de-david-15-de-mayo.html
- 42Declaracion de VOCAL ante los hechos del 25 de Noviembre de 2008, y los problemas de la unidad de la APPO. http://vocal.lahaine.org/articulo.php?p=199&more=1&c=1
- 43Declaración Política del Frente Popular Revolucionario. http://frentepopular.wordpress.com/2008/11/28
- 44Pedro Matias. Culmina Megamarcha en Batalla Campal. Noticias, November 25, 2008.
- 45Op. cit.
- 46Op. cit.
- 47Op. cit.
- 48Op. cit.
- 49Op. cit.
- 50Op. cit.
- 51Op. cit.
- 52Jennie Renn, personal communication, December 10th, 2008.
- 53Wendy Bricker (2009). Prominent APPO Member Survives Attempted Murder in Oaxaca. http://narcosphere.narconews.com/notebook/kristin-bricker/2009/01/prominent-appo-member-survives-attempted-murder-oaxaca
- 54Op. cit
- 55David Venegas (2008). http://www.kaosenlared.net/noticia/el-triunfo-de-la-memoria
- 56Op. cit.
- 57Op. cit