Article analysing the Oaxcan social movement from within, looking at its history, present and future and identifying obstacles to be overcome. Written by activists intimately involved with grassroots organisation and struggle.
(This article was prepared for a special edition of the magazine “La Guillotina” dedicated to the topic “Re-thinking the Left in Mexico”)
“This is not a movement of leaders, but of bases”
The APPO has never been an organisation but rather the name of a movement. The current crisis does not represent a rupture within this convergence, between the actors or groups within the APPO but rather a feature of the essence of this movement. It is the natural result of a process in which some of its actors have wanted to define this movement as if it were an organisation or a political party; pretending to appropriate for itself the right to represent the movement. The struggle of the APPO has not only been against the government of Ulises Ruiz, but against all authoritarianism remaining in the pueblos, neighbourhoods and social organisations. This struggle against authoritarianism extends to many spheres, including Section 22 itself to use just one example; in their moment, the teachers repudiated the leadership of Rueda Pacheco.
In order to understand what is happening in Oaxaca we need to return to its recent past. Firstly, we need to remember that we are the most culturally-diverse state in the country, with a majority indigenous population; of 570 municipalities, 418 are governed by internal organisational customs (assemblies). By means of the struggle for indigenous autonomy, there has been achieved a partial recognition of these systems of governance; nevertheless, the struggle continues for the full right to self-governance. This notwithstanding, Oaxaca is a state which, historically, has generated diverse social movements. Already in its past it has removed three governors from office, the last being at the end of the seventies.
The six-year term of José Murat, the “governor” prior to Ulises Ruíz, ended in a politic of “money or lead”, that is to say, you will be bought, or you will be punished. Similarly beforehand, the term of Diódoro Carrasco also implemented heavy-handed tactics. Nevertheless, many pueblos, organisations and entire regions fought for the right to self-govern, for example, Loxichas, Unión Hidalgo, San Blas Atempa, Xanica and Benito Juárez in the Chimalapas. The social organisations also suffered political repression from state governments, and the movement and parts of the struggle went through a phase of demobilization and disarticulation. In this situation there was for the first time in Oaxaca, the presence of a candidate of the “centre left” that had been an apparatchik of the state government, and who had run in elections for the position of governor, against Ulises Ruíz.
In obvious fraud, and in the midst of popular discontent, Ulises Ruíz came to power with the slogan “no marches, blockades or encampments” and, in authoritarian manner and pre-meditated action, moved the executive and legislative seat of power to a town half an hour from the capital. Continuing along these lines, the government constructed a judicial city in the municipality of Reyes Mantecón. In this way, they paved the way to converting Oaxaca into a city at the service of tourism, a sort of colonial Disneyland, continuing the plan with a series of renovations to reconfigure the urban landscape; the most visible being the remodelling of the Zocalo where, flushed with money and power, they cut down trees and raised spaces to create areas more in tune with the extravagant tastes of the governmental class. Furthermore, it saw the multi-million theft of cultural heritage and governmental funds. The government gave the go-ahead to the expansion of the bus terminal into the Jalatlaco barrio, one of the oldest in the city, generating with this a great unrest that gave birth to the citizen council in this neighbourhood.
In addition, the government of Ulises Ruiz began a campaign of aggression against the newspaper Noticias, including the occupation of their warehouses and buildings in revenge for its director’s support for the opposition candidate, who had already won in the minds of the people.
In this context, Section 22, which represents the Oaxacan teachers, began on the 15th May, as they do every year, to set forth a series of demands, such as higher wages to cope with a higher cost of living. It is also important to say that the people, for various reasons, did not support this mobilization of the teachers. Nevertheless, when the state police entered the Zocalo on the 14th June to evict them in brutal reprimand, it provoked a spontaneous as then unseen solidarity.
Political parties and vertical organisations
On the 5th of August 2007 the people of Oaxaca returned to show that they were not prepared to participate and far less to believe in bourgeois and capitalist “democracy”. And they did it with a greater forcefulness than on other similar occasions. The day of the elections for the state congress saw more than 80% of the population abstain. In the face of these undeniable facts, some detractors prefer to search for excuses for what happened, despite understanding perfectly well the message sent by the people through their massive and deliberate electoral abstention: that nobody believes any longer in institutions which serve in the name of the people, those politicians and their friends working in favour of private interests.
We do not care about the lawsuits against the fraud of the PRI nor the disputes between the parties over the supposed legality or illegality of a Congress made up solely of members of one party which serves only one interest. Rather, we believe that that which really matters is the fact that the system is a fraud in its totality. Is it not the case that the political system created a power contrary to the citizens it supposedly represents and that also intends to legitimise that which only 20% of the electorate ‘chose’? This is not to discount those who voted for the PRI under threats, tricks, bought votes and without counting the falsification of figures. They know that they are illegitimate; they know that the 5th of August represented another step forward for the Oaxacan people in their struggle to free themselves from tyranny and for respect of their dignity.
Currently in Oaxaca, the internal debate of the APPO and the social movement has polarised. And the mass media has accomplished its mission of clouding the motives of this debate: positioning at its’ whim, the “moderates” on the one side and the “radicals and intransigents” on the other. Conveniently, they emphasise the division between the electoral block of the APPO and those groups “out of control” as they call them. But for us, there is no such simple division. On the contrary, the process of reorganisation is far more diverse and complex than that. There is no doubt that there are honest people who believe that participating and putting forward candidates can eliminate the tyranny in Oaxaca, or that proposing laws can change the relation of society to the State. Nevertheless, in a movement of movements such as that which has developed since 2006, we believe intuitively that the process has gone beyond cosmetic change and reform of so-called ‘democratic’ laws and institutions. What is being confronted here is a vision of ‘development’ and ‘progress’ which is poised to rob everything from us, and this is being challenged through the construction of extremely diverse paths toward a dignified and fair life, and just as much in the countryside as in the city.
There are organisations that concentrate on the ‘democratisation’ of existing institutions. What does this mean? For nearly two decades talk of socialism has been abandoned in order to roll over to capitalism and in this way began the ‘struggle’ in the name of ‘democracy’. However, in order to understand these new concepts it is necessary to re-examine their origin.
The original meaning of the word democracy comes from the Greek and signified the “power of the people”, needless to say it now has nothing in common with its’ original meaning. Capitalism and its’ proponents have attempted to make us believe that the form of ‘democratic’ government supposedly based on the participation of the people in decision-making, was and remains the only form of political organisation, or at least the least imperfect. Amongst the same Greeks from whom came the concept of democracy, that which was called “the people” was nothing more than a class from ‘high society’, ‘enlightened’ because they were supposedly the only ones capable of deciding the common good, but at the same time marginalising and oppressing the rest of the population. This form of politics that the rich and powerful call ‘democracy’ robs the people of their voice and of their capacity to make decisions over their own lives. This idea is based on the notion that the people ‘don’t know’ what they want and ‘don’t know how’ to govern themselves and as such constitutes one of the fundamental pillars used to justify repression, which supposedly serves to safeguard ‘law and order’ and ‘peace’.
However in Oaxaca, the majority of the people, and above all the indigenous pueblos, are already clear on this. In reality it has always been this way. And their response has always been the same: the full right to govern themselves, through methods which whilst imperfect, attempt to subordinate Power to collective decision. In the same way, the organizational practice and the spirit of the barricades raised during the popular mobilisation also recreate the self-organisation that, in spite of the times of repression and alarm in which they took place, demonstrated a vitality and confidence in self-defence far from the sort of organisation based on the ‘democracy’ that concentrates power and decision-making on the hands of a few.
Organisations with vertical control structures have attempted to appropriate and control the movement and impose their vision. These organisations betrayed the movement. They allied themselves with political parties that represent neither the struggle nor the principles generated in 2006. These opportunist organisations, such as the FPR and the FALP accepted the distribution of support and credit financed by the system, through proxies such as mototaxi licences and other crumbs. Many have been co-opted by the State and have returned to their habitual behaviour: their shady negotiations and receipt of resources as a sort of palliative to poverty, they institutionalize the struggle in order to regain their status as intermediaries between Power and the people. As such, the challenge is clear that faces the so-called civil organisations, which began as intermediaries and that now have the opportunity to accompany this struggle for the dignity of the people.
It is evident that the structure of the APPO Council is not useful for the movement’s reorganisation. Neither the provisional leadership nor the media leadership directed the path of the movement. There cannot and should not be an imaginary structure, which from some office or hotel deigns to make decisions on behalf of the pueblos of Oaxaca. We need to continue finding modes of participation that can guarantee greater articulation. We have far more in common than we have differences that divide us. If our principles are upheld and the respect is there to unite our diversity, it is possible to cross to the next stage in the struggle stronger and better organised. We do not forget the graffiti collective that repeated in its slogans: This is not a movement of leaders but of bases.
The debate that seeks only changes in the law and ‘democratisation’ of existing institutions provokes the belief that all we can achieve is modifications in the law and that an ‘enlightened” minority will do the work. In terms of facts, laws are useless for the people from below; they are created for the powerful and rich. For a long time we have been accustomed to seeing the legislative assemblies as the centre of power, but we consider this a mistake caused by inertia or tricks. A superficial vision of history has made us think that power reaches the people through Parliament. Nevertheless, power resides in the people and is entrusted momentarily periodically to those who the people choose as their representatives.
Despite these arguments, we do not deny the importance of the so called “umbrella” laws which can contribute to the fortification of the self-organisation processes of the pueblos and neighbourhoods, mainly in urban areas caused by individualisation and the development model which excludes the majority to benefit a few. Without a doubt it is important to support the citizens with actions to revoke the mandate, the participative budget, the referendum, the plebiscite and all the proposals approved in the Forum Constructing Democracy and Governability in Oaxaca, held by Section 22, the APPO, civil organisations, the pueblos’ traditional authorities and individuals, in August 2006 in which 1000 people participated in reflection on the changes required in Oaxaca.
In the same way, we recognise the importance of the proposals of the Constitutive Congress of the APPO in November 2006 and the regional assemblies’ resolutions in 2007. We need to stress the regional assemblies such as the Istmo assembly held in Ixtepec, the Guelatao assembly in the Northern Sierra, as well as the Forum of Autonomies in Tlahuitoltepec in the Mixe region and the State Forum of Indigenous Pueblos.
Communality as a path to Liberation and Resistance
In reality, the Council of the APPO does not represent the wide and diverse social movement. That which some call dispersion, is in fact the process of reorganisation taking place in various spaces and specific territories. A new phase is starting, the outcome of which no-one can predict. In the round tables and in the last plenary of the Third State Assembly of the APPO in which the electoral bloc did not participate, the APPO was defined as a movement of movements and its main organ as the General Assembly, its principal characteristics as Communality and multi-cultural approaches. The APPO has to fight from the bases for the construction of popular power. If it moves forward with concrete definitions it will not be merely one resolution more but a real construct that could restructure the APPO. The struggle then, is not only for the overthrow of the governor but to create the conditions for autonomy and popular power in every corner of Oaxaca. These are some of the accords that came out of the Third Assembly. Although this assembly was not fortified and built on it is important that the communalist character of the movement was recognised; it is clearly more than the name APPO or social movement. What is important now is an analysis from below and clarity in the changes we want.
On the other side is the APPO of the streets, of the soul; those who identify themselves not with the name, but rather with the work to be done. Those who move on and continue marching forward but who are often unseen, such as through the construction of alternative articulations such as tianguis populares (popular markets), caravans, marches, meetings, building of compost toilets, vegetable gardens and the sharing of roles and knowledge; these things that go unseen and are unmediated and that finally achieve a strong voice that also generates human relations of a collective nature that break through the structures of capitalist individualism.
The principal of Communality as a source of inspiration for the strength of the APPO and the social movement has been so important that it is necessary to focus on its meaning. Floriberto Díaz, an indigenous Oaxacan activist and intellectual proposed the concept, due to his experience with the indigenous pueblos, and to attempt to shed light on a way of life based on the communitarian model of the pueblos. From the outset Floriberto stated that Communality is built on four fundamental elements: communal territory (use and defense of collective space), communal work (interfamilial through mutual aid and communal by means of ‘tequios’ such as free works carried out for the benefit of the community, communal power (participation in assemblies and in the carrying out of the various civil and religious offices that make up their governmental system) and communal recreation (participation in festivals and sponsorship thereof).
This characteristic of the communities and indigenous pueblos’ political organisation is based on their own concept of power: as a public service and assemblies as political decision-making process. Jaime Luna explains, “The meaning of power in indigenous populations is very different from a mestizo rural or urban world. In our communities power is a service, that is to say the execution of assemblies’ decisions, of the collective. In the other world, it means the execution of decisions by the authority itself, elected though electoral mechanisms with little control by society. An authority in community is an employee in service of the whole, an employee with no payment, he can not make his own designs and when he must do so, it can only be realised after consultation. Opposite to this, political power in rural or urban mestizo societies is the possibility of executing their own ideas and satisfying their personal interests, there is no assembly”. Luna also explains: “the assembly is the maximum authority in the community. It always works by consensus, but in some cases for practical reasons the vote is used. The authorities’ election does not reflect a political parties’ intention because it is founded in the prestige and in the work. This conception of power makes us understand that “the political parties are our immediate obstacles”.
From the beginning, the idea of Communality has been related to the concept of autonomy, which is the exercise of the power of the people. The Communality constitutes and creates the necessary conditions towards a full self-government.
Benjamin Maldonado tells us that the idea of Communality as governing principle of indigenous life arises and is developed through means of discussion, agitation and mobilisation, but not as an ideology of combat but rather one of identity, demonstrating that the indigenous specificity is its communal nature with its own ancient, historical and cultural roots from which it attempts to orientate the life of the people as a People.
Communality is a concept understood by a large part of the teaching body and amongst indigenous Oaxacan intellectuals, through their experience in the communities of which the majority are indigenous, as well as their systematisation exercises to explain their immediate reality. Communality, in its present context does not deal solely with recognition of our indigenous peoples’ way of life and its influence on the interior of the movement, but it is also a readiness to act critically and collectively against imposition, intolerance and an electoralism that seeks only to reproduce the same schemes of domination from which our people have suffered.
The proposal of Communality can be understood as the equality of rights and obligations of all members of a community to participate in the decision-making process (and where the community is headed), so as to enjoy its benefits and products.
In the APPO this principle is recognised as the inspiration of the movement; the difficulty in its implementation in the Council was precisely the fact that there was no defined territory. The city of Oaxaca and the offices in which the Council met did not permit every one of the peoples, organisations and sectors to achieve consensus in the short, medium or long-term.
The reorganisation of the movement
It is necessary to look into the future in order to visualise part of the profound change that is needed in Oaxaca and that we all yearn for. What appears most realistic and probable of success is to continue with the regeneration of an opposition movement, based on the present Oaxacan reality; beginning with the fact that no-one supports Ulises Ruíz Ortíz or his people. There are difficult elements, which could also serve as binders for a larger and more united movement, because the pressures suffered by the neighbourhoods and communities are very acute and the necessities of everyday life both intense and diverse. It is often observed that the initiatives to organise mobilisations and to present demands to the authorities do not truly reflect priorities or authentic needs, but rather circumstantial factors that attend to the urgent but disregard the important.
It is necessary therefore to reflect on action: if our movement is purely ideological or if we are a movement with a face and a heart which we intuit come from the most profound depths or our way of thinking, feeling and acting, inherited from our ancestors, that which seeks the common good in that We, who are the community. If this intuition is confirmed by all, we could define the constructive routes of action and learn from the past when, for lack of clarity in a project of the country, state, barrio or community, after the Revolution came to power it gave way to the reformist bourgeoisie. That is to say that in this the necessary time has not been taken to reflect on proposals that attack problems from the root in order to move beyond the established order and the chaos generated by the lack of a constructive programme.
It is an annoyance to many that new barricades flourish. Not exactly those of self-defence but more those of decision-making spaces of the communities and from which are born new forms, creative and novel of self-organisation. We believe that it will be from there, from the neighbourhoods and communities that the energy of change will emerge once again and the strength necessary for this profound alteration. We must give the necessary time, must listen and engage in dialogue with all possible meanings and not only where ideologies prevail, some of which are already bankrupt.
We believe that the social movement, the peoples, neighbourhoods and barrios, in their diverse scenarios of struggle, in their declarations of regional assemblies or public manifestos, are building popular power to allow us to rule ourselves autonomously. Both the peoples’ power and autonomy come together to build this path, but it is the way in which has been built that has created these differences. For us, what remains of the APPO Council does not move forward at the same speed as the peoples’ actions and initiatives. Because of this, confusion has spread outside our immediate communities and the richness of the process in which the movement resides, plural and diverse like society itself has not been clearly shown.
All these problems not withstanding we want to stress that the movement of Oaxaca remains alive, even after the repression of the 25th November during which there were more than 25 deaths, and more than 300 compañeros taken prisoner. There are disappearances, police and military aggression and political prisoners remain imprisoned. It has been recognised that before 2006 there were 30 political prisoners. It is undeniable that as a result of this the people do not take to the streets as they did before, but it is also true that the routes of the APPO and of the social movement have been unable to reach agreement in this period of re-organisation.
From before 2006, Oaxaca has been the place with the most community radios in the country (more than 50), and more have since been set up in different pueblos and communities, and the number of Internet sites promoting actions or proposals from the movement has also grown. There are neighbourhood bakeries, organic gardens and workshops for children to which are invited many other collectives and individuals; there are a host of initiatives. We continue fighting and are pleased to know that women have created other spaces, including the Encuentro de Mujeres in which neighbourhoods, collectives and organisations meet. At the time of writing there exists a cultural and artistic tianguis serving as a space for reorganisation at which organic vegetables and handcrafts amongst other things are on sale. Demands for the release of political prisoners continue apace. Also, young graffiti artists of various collectives are meeting with each other to reclaim public spaces for artistic and political activities that generate exchange and spread the struggle further.
The Encuentro de Jovenes, with organisations, collectives and spaces of the youth organises caravans to pueblos and communities in resistance in order to learn and exchange ways of resisting and to promote mutual aid. Also the different places of learning that create spaces for reflecting on the actions of the movement, defining capitalism and how to realise different ways of life in order to re-generate scope for community in the city.
We are not romanticising. We say that on a march it is impossible to take decisions in assembly, and until now there have only been marches or political actions that do not provide the opportunity for the people to give their opinion on what is happening and take on a role or obligation along with the rest of the movement. By this we do not mean that it was only the barricades that convoked assemblies, they were also employed by sectors of civil organisations and other spaces such as the more than 10 thousand assemblies that exist in Oaxaca and that fight for their communal identity.
Currently in Mexico we indentify three reference points still worthy of mention and of being paid attention: the citizens’ movement headed by Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Otra Campaña initiated by the Zapatistas and the APPO or more accurately, the Oaxacan social movement. To us, it will be the last two, due to their historical depth that will continue and endure and will without doubt be historic references of the social struggle in Mexico. For those that know Oaxaca through the APPO, it is necessary to realize and keep in mind that our State has always fought. An elderly lady participating in the APPO said before the cameras “We are not prepared to resist for another 500 years, we are fighting for our freedom.” Oaxaca, in its’ great regional, municipal and communal diversity has its’ own stories of struggle to tell.
In the midst of all, the repression continues. Talking of security, police presence is raised and with it delinquency, violent assault and mob attacks. Intimidation of the opposition and political prisoners as hostages of the system continues. But there is no police or military coercion that can break the firm will of the people. From the depths of our heritage we have learned to defeat fear. We have learned to cure ourselves.
We believe that this struggle is with and comes from the pueblos, barrios, neighbourhoods and communities, in organisation outside the system and the political parties whose interest will always be to attain or conserve power. We think that the supposedly democratic structures are designed precisely so as to impede what profound change can bring, because the people themselves are their only legitimate representatives and only a political organisation arisen from plurality and based on freedom can achieve this profound transformation that we all want in Oaxaca.
Silvia Gabriela Hernandez. Sociologist. Political expressant for the facts of the 16th of July Official Gueleguetza. Member of VOCAL.
Kiado Cruz. Social researcher and communicator. Editor of Oaxacalibre.
Rubén Valencia. Social activist and researcher. He has been an APPO Councilor. Collaborator in VOCAL and Universidad de la Tierra in Oaxaca.
Translated by Escarabajo.