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Oaxaca: Confronting Power, Building Alternatives

Rochelle Gause
Date Published: 
January 01, 0001
    A popular uprising that shakes the roots of a long-held exploitive power dynamic is occurring in Oaxaca, Mexico. Not only does it threaten the corrupt and repressive government that has controlled the region for years, the movement is also creating an alternative structure for popular governance. Beginning as a teachers’ strike and evolving into a full-scale popular struggle, the movement relies on creative nonviolent direct action to incapacitate the state government and demand the resignation of the current governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. The impact of the struggle reaches beyond the state of Oaxaca, strengthening movements rooted in the poorest classes throughout Mexico.

Extreme inequality combined with a history of exploitation and resistance has made the Oaxaca community ripe for revolt. A system of popular education providing widespread understanding of the roots of the situation has helped lay the groundwork for today’s mass upsurge. But what takes a movement over that edge, where the status quo of society is interrupted and those involved are willing to sacrifice everything for change?

Indigenous roots

Seventy percent of the 3.5 million people who live in the state of Oaxaca are indigenous. Over half live in poverty, and 35 percent do not have running water in their homes. In 46 percent of households there is at least one person who has had to migrate to the US due to government reforms that have destroyed their community’s economy through the implementation of free trade agreements and other neo-liberal policies. These policies removed subsidies for basic needs and have forced Mexican farmers to lower their prices to compete with agricultural imports from the US. Publicly owned enterprises have been privatized and sold to foreign investors, destroying unions and job opportunities.

The right-wing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI in its Spanish initials) has controlled Oaxaca for the past eighty years. Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, a carbon copy of the most corrupt PRI leadership, has worked hard to implement these neo-liberal projects, lining his own pockets while repressing all public opinion against them.

Unable to be elected democratically, Ulises was forced to steal his position through vote buying, ballot box tampering, and computer fraud. On December 1, 2004, his first day as governor, forty armed men occupied the offices of Noticias, the state’s largest daily newspaper, which documented the election fraud. After six months in office, Ruiz had already received warnings from eight international and national human rights organizations. The exact numbers are hard to determine, but it is estimated that 38 people have been killed and 130 have been imprisoned for political reasons since he came to power.

The murder and imprisonment of social leaders has been used to silence the opposition against Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP), a neo-liberal development project strongly supported by the US. One of the PPP’s stated goals is to improve the conditions for the people of the region. However, in actuality, it will steal land from indigenous people for infrastructure projects and commodify their culture for the tourist industry. One of the plans with huge implications for Oaxaca is the creation of a superhighway at Mexico’s narrowest point, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, in order to move resources more easily across the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific and into the hands of multinational corporations. This transportation corridor will be surrounded by maquiladoras (sweatshops) free of labor and environmental laws. According to Florentino Lopez Martinez, a member of the movement, “For all of these objectives, the government of Oaxaca is key so that these projects can be realized.”

Teachers’ strike

For the past 26 years, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers has held an annual statewide strike. The Mexican constitution demands that all children have the same access to education, and yet today in Oaxaca the average person spends only 5.6 years in school, two years less than the national average. Rural schools lack basic infrastructure. Children often come to school hungry and barefoot and have to work without desks, books, and pencils.

Section 22 has a strong and radical history standing up to the privatization of education and has become a powerful force in the statewide struggle for social justice. The teachers themselves are often community leaders. In the union’s history over one hundred teachers have been killed standing up for much-needed change in Oaxaca. The demands for this year’s strike include raises, basic supplies, and breakfast for the students. Each year the teachers camp out in the main square of Oaxaca City until an adequate compromise is reached.

This year, rather than continuing negotiations, the government chose repression as a means to end the strike. At 4:30am on June 14, while 40,000 teachers and their families were sleeping, thousands of police raided the encampment, burned the teachers’ belongings, injured 100 people, and fired teargas into the crowd from police helicopters. During the attack the teachers resisted with sticks and rocks, reclaiming the square later the same day.

Formation of the Popular Assembly

Outraged at the repression, two days later 400,000 people participated in a mega march to show support for the teachers and to call for the resignation of Gov. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. A new entity, the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), was formed out of the 350 social organizations that mobilized alongside the teachers’ strike, soon to include Section 22 itself. “The APPO does not set out to impose any decisions,” Lopez explains. “What we want is to integrate all the people so that together we can organize and govern the state.”

The primary strategy to achieve the resignation of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz has been to create a state of ungovernability through nonviolent direct action. To stop the current state government from functioning, encampments of hundreds of teachers and supporters have been established outside government buildings to prevent employees from entering. Without any other choice, the state government has attempted to meet outside the city in fancy hotels, but the movement has been quick to organize and prevent such gatherings. Additionally, government vehicles have been “reclaimed” by the movement, statewide strikes have been orchestrated, banks have been shut down, and major highways have been blockaded. Radio and TV stations have been taken over to provide a means of communication and coordination for the movement, with encampments set up around the stations and their transmitters to protect them from government forces.

Resorting to the usual tactics, Ruiz’s government issued arrest warrants for at least eighty movement “leaders,” including members of the teachers union. Five people were abducted from the street by unmarked vans, photos of two severely beaten people appeared in the local news, and plainclothes state police and soldiers killed fifteen people, attempting to instigate fear and intimidation. Publicly, Ulises has tried to downplay the impact of the movement and claims to rely on peaceful dialogue to solve the conflict.

Nowhere are movement members safe from the threat of armed attack. Alejandro García Hernández was killed while handing out coffee to late night barricades, Jose Jimenez Colmenares while participating in a march against repression, and Panfilo Hernandez Vasquez while leaving a neighborhood APPO meeting. On October 27, the largest single day of murders, three people were killed, including Brad Will, a New York City Indymedia journalist, while he was filming a barricade attack by plainclothes police. Death threats are not uncommon. A website called “Oaxaca en Paz” (“Oaxaca in Peace”) shows the faces of APPO members with their names and home addresses, encouraging people to “find and detain them.” Those already killed are marked with a large red “X” across their faces. Remarkably, the movement remains strong and dedicated to not taking up arms.

Federal intervention

The threat of large-scale federal repression has loomed throughout the struggle. As the media repeated President Fox’s assurances that the federal government would not resort to violence, thousands of soldiers and police were redeployed to the region. Attempts have been made to justify and garner support for federal intervention. Men claiming to be guerilla resistance fighters (in their oddly shiny new boots and uniforms) were reported to be gathering in the northern mountain villages. As expected, the federal government found support from the upper classes for intervention, although some members of the business community have made a stand against such actions. “We, the business community, have been asked to support the entrance of government forces with the pretext of re-establishing law and order,” explained Luis Hogarte Chea. However, he can not support federal action “knowing full well that these laws have been violated and broken on many more occasions and in ways much more grave by the government itself.”

Recognizing Ruiz as an illegitimate power, the APPO has refused to negotiate with the state government since June 14. Federal government negotiations have failed repeatedly as government officials have offered only minor compromises, refusing to address the demand that Ulises Ruiz Ortiz resign. The Mexican senate, sticking to party lines, also refused to remove him from power just after 5,000 teachers walked the entire 280 miles from Oaxaca City to Mexico City with this demand.

On October 29, two days after the three murders by Ruiz’s gunmen, four thousand Federal Preventative Police entered Oaxaca to “restore order.” Rather than remove Ruiz from power and arrest those who have murdered movement members, the police forced teachers out of the main square and attempted to destroy the barricades. As Left Turn goes to print, the federal police remain in Oaxaca. They have killed two people and detained over sixty. Federal police surrounded the local autonomous university where the APPO radio station is located, ignoring the federal law that police cannot enter autonomous universities without the rector’s permission. People came out in large numbers to protect the station, forcing the riot police to retreat using Molotov cocktails, fireworks, and rocks against guns, water canons, and teargas. On Sunday, November 5, hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets calling for the federal police to leave and remained strong in their continuing demand for the ouster of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.

Creating alternatives

Whether or not Ruiz leaves office, the achievements made for the people of Oaxaca by Section 22 and the APPO cannot be underestimated. The APPO has moved full speed ahead on creating a new structure of governance, a means for millions of new voices to be heard. “It is necessary to have a government that is more inclusive, plural, just, respectful of constitutional guarantees and human rights, more transparent, with more input and participation from the citizens, respectful of culture, languages, traditions, and symbols of identity,” states the summary from one of their initial forums.

Multiple dialogues and forums have been held throughout the struggle to increase national and international solidarity with the people of Oaxaca and to formalize the APPO’s plans to create a Constituent Assembly. This assembly will be made up of democratically elected delegates from communities, neighborhoods, and workplaces throughout the state of Oaxaca. The indigenous people of the region are very familiar with this type of consensus-based organizational structure; many municipalities are still run by the general assemblies under the traditional native customs of “usos y costumbres.” According to resolutions from the first state assembly, “The character of the APPO should be broad, popular, inclusive, democratic, anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, and anti-capitalist.”

Although the APPO’s program of struggle is still in its initial stages of development, insight can be gained on the change of direction they have in mind for Oaxaca’s future. The four main components of the APPO’s current program are “the defense of national sovereignty,” “a new model of economic development,” “popular democracy,” and “social justice.” The recognition of self-determination is stressed as well as the elimination of the “political, economic, and military subordination of Mexico to the US empire and to the international financial centers.” The program also calls for the cancellation and rejection of all future “pacts of subordination,” such as the PPP and free trade treaties. Instead, the APPO calls for community-based economics and an equitable distribution of wealth for all, as well as the nationalization of natural resources, energy, monopoly businesses, and banking institutions. Their alternative vision also includes redistribution of land from wealthy landholders to poor farmers, the move toward food sufficiency and organic agriculture, and the development of worker-created small businesses in the rural communities.

Point of reference

Clearly the time has come for change in Mexico, and Oaxaca serves as an incredible model of people demanding change and creating a new structure of popular governance in the face of repression. The need for this sort of grassroots alternative can be seen in the recent creation of assemblies modeled after the APPO in eleven of Mexico’s 31 states. Each assembly has its own name but uses a similar structure, aiming to address many of the same social problems and to create alternatives. Four have been created in the US, in New York, California, Illinois, and Texas.

The globalization of our economic systems is nothing new; the structures of exploitation and control are well established. Struggles, like the one in Oaxaca, are eroding these relationships, attempting to return power to the people and prioritizing the needs of the community and human rights rather than profit margins. These struggles, too, are beginning to globalize. Mass migration and means of global communication, both created by global capitalism, are now being used to increase cross-border solidarity. No wall between the US and Mexico can separate the millions marching for US immigrant rights from the people struggling in Mexico. The scope of change required may seem unattainable and utopian in the current political climate, but so many lessons can be gained from the people in Oaxaca. From the teachers who have slept on the street since May, from the neighbors who created and tended to over a thousand nightly barricades to protect them, and from the sea of fists held high as yet another casket passes through the center square: Oaxaca, you are not alone.


Rochelle Gause is a community activist from Olympia, Washington, who is currently in Oaxaca, Mexico, learning from the popular struggle. She can be reached at [email protected] and additional writings on Oaxaca can be found at