<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Oaxaca Initiates Alternative Government

Popular Assembly Reclaims Government Palace for the People


By Nancy Davies
Commentary from Oaxaca

July 7, 2006

The Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO, by its Spanish initials) declared itself the governing body of Oaxaca on the morning of July 5.

During a student march of several thousand, the Popular Assembly convened representatives of Oaxaca’s state regions and municipalities, unions, non-governmental organizations, social organizations, cooperatives, and parents. They met for several hours in the teachers’ building to decide the next steps of this social movement. Meanwhile perhaps 2000 citizens milled around outside in the zocalo.


Photo: D.R. 2006 Nancy Davies
Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz last year converted the anchor of Oaxaca’s colonial zocalo, the block-long Government Palace, to a museum. He moved government offices outside the city to discourage protests in front of it. Today, as APPO symbolically re-opened it for the people’s government, it sports some new art work to celebrate. (see photo).

Directly in front of the Government Palace, a gauntlet formed through which unwanted persons – press and PRI government workers– were rudely expelled from inside the edifice, while high shrills whistles and cries of “Fuera! Fuera!” (“Out! Out!”) pursued them.

Decisions made by the assembly include: a return to classes on Monday July 10, so that the schoolchildren will not lose their school year; putting the encampment in the zocalo into the hands of the alternative government; strengthening the fight to oust Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO) as governor; and boycotting the tourist Guelaguetza celebration in favor of a free celebration for the people.

The zocalo’s central gazebo, from which the decisions were announced, was adorned with flags and banners. The teachers have strung plastic canopies and tents, to protect themselves from sun and rain. In the heat most of the public crowded under whatever protection they could find. When the speaker on the bandstand announced the name of marching groups and assembly representatives, the crowd responded to each name by shouting “Viva!”

Although some groaned at the news that classes will resume, Enrique Rueda Pacheco, Secretary General of Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE, in its Spanish initials) asserted in a separate press conference that there is no crack in the solidarity of the struggle. Rueda spoke of “recovering the power of the people for the people.” The intention of APPO is to install a General Assembly of Citizens as the foremost authority of Oaxaca, preparing a plan of municipal, state and national development, “with honesty and an ethics of service”.

Rueda Pacheco stated that local efforts around the state will be essential in maintaining the Oaxaca as ungovernable, as pressure on URO. It’s generally agreed that URO’s attack on the sleeping teachers on June 14 caused the public to vote against the PRI in the local and presidential election on July 2. His ouster remains the unifying focus of the struggle. The past three governors of Oaxaca (Carrasco, Murat, Ruiz) have repeatedly violated the peoples’ civil rights with unconstitutional actions, leaving smoldering anger in the general public.

That anger surfaced with a million activist participants as well as a vote against the PRI.

At the moment, with the rebellion in the hands of the APPO, it becomes the task of lawyers to figure out what legal recourses are available against URO, as the social and non-governmental organizations struggle with their new responsibilities.

The establishment of the Popular Government of the State of Oaxaca is an attempt to revitalize and broaden the historic form of government familiar to peoples in Oaxaca. This form of government is known as usos y costumbres (literally, “practices and customs”) and is recognized as a legitimate form of local self-rule in the Oaxaca state constitution. Usos y costumbres don’t acknowledge political parties; the system functions by consensus. Presently, when a person is elected to the state legislative assembly, she or he is then assumed to belong to one party or another.

The effort to keep out political parties in local government has led to decades of conflict, in which the PRI has tried to establish local power through bosses (caciques). Dependence on the government handouts was encouraged, as were land conflicts. Usos y costumbres were damaged by the power of money, and then by the fact that the population became more mobile.

As people poured into the more urban areas, the system of political parties overwhelmed the system of usos y costumbres – new residents were not brought into local civic ways of governing; to the contrary, in large cities usos y costumbres vanished. This politicization broke important knots that unite the members of a community, such as unpaid community service (tequio). Nevertheless, statewide the greater part of public work in some 400-odd small communities still is carried out by citizen tequios, which accomplish a variety of tasks like building roads, repairing churches, bringing in the harvest and sharing the expenses of weddings, baptisms or deaths. The system of usos y costumbres has long been the basis for left political thinking.

Most significantly, the authority of a general assembly composed of a town’s residents is acknowledged where usos y costumbres are retained: municipal authorities, farmers, the Council of Elders and all the citizens make the decisions which affect communal life; the assembly is the law, the judges, the executive and legislators all in one.

Political parties don’t convoke a general assembly of the population to make decisions regarding municipal development. There is no monitor for the spending of public monies. Political parties, a collection of private powers, act on their own discretion, and make decisions that often strip the towns’ natural resources to benefit private enterprises. Theft is common. The population is largely left ignorant of what was done and where the money went, while certain persons became inexplicably wealthy. That is the case in the capital city of Oaxaca.

(As a side-benefit of the present struggle, residents of the city are uniting to confront Mayor Jesus Angel Ortega Arias, who up until now as Ulises’ puppet has been largely discounted as responsible for the damage and neglect in the city. He was elected as a PRI candidate.)

The new Popular Assembly of Oaxaca aims at nothing less than expanding the traditional idea of general assemblies of citizens to form a new state government. Such assemblies, under usos y costumbres, oversee the execution of their resolutions by their municipal authorities. That is to say, “the executive branch” (the authorities) is charged with accomplishing the tasks the assembly gives it. The municipal president, foremost among the authorities, leads (as the Zapatistas’ phrase explains) by obeying.

For the population of Oaxaca, the idea of governing by consensus remains part of the common cultural heritage. Therefore, as APPO was convoked, the modest people who comprise 80% of Oaxaca’s population, recognized it immediately. And they support it, despite the obvious difficulties of convening authorities from around the state. Since these authorities receive no pay, a trip to the capital city is not easy. But it’s happening.

APPO also includes representatives from other groups in addition to municipal authorities – regional delegates, non-profit organizations, unions, social groups, etc. – and the structure is still fluid. Nevertheless, it has already made the difficult decision to release the teachers for two weeks to finish the school year. The second difficult decision is to maintain indefinitely the encampment in the zocalo, and to do that, citizens must step forward without the teachers, until the teachers return on July 22.

This is a big test for an infant movement now much larger than a teachers’ union, with demands far beyond the educational ones, a test taking place within the context of national uncertainty.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America