On the 96th Anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, Oaxaca
The Movement Has Taken on a Life that Confounds Observers; “the Federal Police Could Suffer Military Defeat”
By Nancy Davies
Commentary from Oaxaca
November 20, 2006
The daily newspaper Noticias ran as its headline on November 19, “National governability will be defined in Oaxaca”. The paper was quoting the journalist Jenaro Villamil, who believes that Oaxaca is the key element to what happens in the nation, but they could have asked me; I knew that.
Oaxaca is occupied by the Federal Preventive Police (PFP) who are deployed in the city while military troops are deployed around the state. On November 18 a woman was sexually abused by PFP agents, an assertion documented by civil organizations in defense of human rights. On Sunday November 19, more than two hundred people circled the zocalo where the PFP are entrenched. The protest marchers stopped at each entry to the zocalo, painted slogans on the sidewalk and offered street theater, in which actors tried to give the PFP agents a glimpse of what it is like to have a family member sexually assaulted. Photographers gathered and the PFP stood elbow to elbow while the small group of protesters berated them, holding up mirrors so they could see themselves as they really are.
What was most interesting to me was how few people it took to provoke the PFP, who used an irritant chemical water and pepper gas to ward off the marchers. Dressed in their helmets, carrying their shields and backed by armored trucks, the PFP held off the protesters who were unarmed and backed by an ambulance. The ambulance loudspeakers repeated at intervals, “Don’t engage in provocations!”
Since Sunday, October 29, when the PFP blockaded highway 190 in the Isthmus, in the city of Zaachila and its Guelatao Bridge, and entered the capital to “re-establish order” the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO in its Spanish initials) surprised everyone with its willingness to confront the troops and sometimes oblige them to fall back, as it did when the Radio Universidad building was threatened, after a six hour battle.
In the five months since the movement has demanded, without success, that URO resign, it is taken on a life which confounds observers. It is not a “Paris commune,” not a left-wing political party; it disclaims having leaders, it discounts the influence of the PRD and is not engaged in overt class war. It is something before unseen. It is formless yet incredibly well organized; it defends its streets and, after taking and losing one TV station and ten radio stations, it defends Radio Universidad. It has a well-defined self-defense by people who do not belong either to the teachers union nor to the APPO, but somehow independently maintain their hold on main intersections like Cinco Señores. Now it’s planning a democratic transition for the state. To achieve that, the APPO has embraced historical and traditional forms of popular organization.
The rocket blasts of weddings and fiestas are now used to signal alarms. Furthermore, this un-armed movement has created mini-bazookas and Molotov cocktails, which the kids know how to make, lining up bottles on the streets. For rock fights they break the sidewalks or loose stones, and transport the “weapons” in shopping carts from the rear to the front of the battle. If needed, explosive devices are manufactured out of dust, muriatic acid, knives, nails and tacks, wrapped in aluminum foil and secured with tape. But it’s a non-violent movement.
The APPO rejects the use of these weapons, and rejects attacks and provocations. As the visible Flavio Sosa says, “we’re not trying to act like a military, as if we were an armed movement. We’re not.” The struggle is legal, according to the constitution, having to do with the right of assembly. It’s public and open to all.
The Constitutive Congress of the APPO met on November 10, 11 and 12 to define rules, principles, programs and objectives of the organization. It elected its first State Council which will approve future actions. “In spite of the climate of repression that flourishes around the movement of the peoples of Oaxaca, it’s necessary not to stop, but to move ahead in the attainment of our objectives and toward solution to the demands of the Oaxaca peoples,” the convocation stated.
The congress analyzed the situation of the state, on national and international levels. It discussed the characteristics of a new government, a new constituency, and a new Constitution.
In this moment of extreme repression and violation of human rights, many believe the APPO is on its last legs, a tired, impoverished movement. But this neglects the gathering of sixteen state assemblies in Mexico, a national convention of “APPOs.” The national movement, like the local movement, is “wide, pluralistic and democratic.” It’s avowed purpose is to fight neoliberalism and the ultra-right. The first members are the APPO of Mexico, the Union of Independent Workers of the Autonomous Metropolitan University (SITUAM), the Committee for Defense of the Rights of the People (CODEP), the Popular Revolutionary Front, the Movement Here We Are (Movimiento Aqui Estamos) and about fifty more organizations, who declared themselves in “open struggle against the ultra-right that rules the country and for the creation of a space for unity which revitalizes the perspective of the social and political mobilizations.”
The ill-will accumulated during decades of PRI rule is coming to the fore through a movement without leaders, embracing civil organizations, human rights organizations, indigenous peoples, municipal authorities (at the minimum, twenty towns in Oaxaca are in the process of changing their local governments; I counted almost forty whose internal arguments have been noted in the newspapers), campesinos, agrarian organizations, students, and religious persons. URO has inadvertently unified the peoples of Oaxaca, sparking a national uprising.
Today as I was watching the marchers return from the confrontation at the zocalo over the assault of a woman two days ago, I stopped on the corner and leaned against a building. A well-dressed woman, neither young nor poor, passing by asked me what was going on. She told me that although her family supports URO she does not. She supports justice.
This new collectivity, this amorphous group, is supported by three cultural aspects: the asamblea (assembly) in which the people have the power and the “leaders” are actually administrators who carry out the decisions of the community, the guelaguetza, a Zapotec word which means mutual aid and is the symbol of solidarity, and tequio, which is unpaid community work. The Asamblea began to identify itself through these ancestral practices of the indigenous population of Oaxaca, in which at least 418 municipalities of the state continue to govern by the system of usos y costumbres. One of the more important aspects of usos y costumbres, has been written into the CEAPPO regulations, which is that authorities who don’t follow the people’s will are put aside. This seems to be the case with the disappearance of Enrique Rueda Pacheco from the assembly, and many expect that Flavio Sosa of the APPO will also vanish.
Although the Section 22 of National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE in its Spanish initials) which was initially the backbone of the movement has been obliged for financial reasons to return to work – perhaps 30 % are not yet in classes – it has strong community links; some teachers are municipal presidents or leaders in their neighborhoods or other organizations. The needs of the APPO workers and supporters are met by guelaguetza, in the form of feeding stations established on the streets and the barricades, staffed by whoever wants to do it. The Graphic Arts Museum in the Santo Domingo area is serving as a storehouse for food, water and other supplies; the Radio Universidad serves as a medical center.
This is the fabric that holds together the movement. It is social, not political, founded on a sense of justice and injustice, and the need for dignity. These are the rebels that the federal forces sent by Vicente Fox are “putting in order.”
In the APPO, the experience of radical organizations like the Popular Revolutionary Front (FPR), the Committee for Defense of the Rights of the People (CODEP) and the National Movement Against Neoliberalism have come together with other organizations such as the Mexican League for Human Rights (Limedh), and the New Left of Oaxaca (Nioax). Students, teachers, workers and housewives support it. When battles were engaged, people came from the neighborhoods and have died or been imprisoned or wounded, but have shown great determination to defend what they see as their right to take back the government. When the tear gas is used, or the chemical spray, people rush to the aid of the injured with water, vinegar, and homemade remedies.
“The military has been defeated, they fled. Fox is putting into play the value of the PFP as an institution, because it may result in tragedy in Oaxaca if Ulses Ruiz mounts a provocation,” explained Flavio Sosa.
“The people are not going to stay quiet and [the PFP] can suffer a military defeat. They are four thousand and the movement can mobilize 800,000 in the state.” Accordingly, it would be “incredible” to come to an all-out confrontation because the federal government can’t find the political will to respond to the demand to get URO out.”
The battle against inequality, poverty, marginalization and lack of services is today obvious to everyone, and consciousness-raising has spread from Oaxaca to other states.
State Council of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (CEAPPO) has announced their weeks’ actions, which include capturing the palacio municipal, the government building converted by governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO) to a museum. The palacio is located on the south side of the zocalo, so tactics will have to be very original.
On November 28 and 29 the State Forum of the Indigenous People will take place and on December 1 the “massive” national movement against the new president Felipe Calderon is planned, followed by a march of a million persons to reaffirm the demand for URO to go.
On Friday, URO declared in a speech in front of a thousand leaders at the Seventh Seminary of Christian Leaders that only God can remove or put in place governors. So, are we all going mad? Wilfredo Mayran, the church official who originally stated that the leaders of the APPO would have sanctuary in the church, only to be over-ruled by the archbishop of Oaxaca, replied to URO’s interesting assertion, “What we are presently living in is an idolatry of power.”
Meanwhile, in the rest of the state, public works lie abandoned, schools are open in the hands of unqualified PRI parents or the break-away teachers’ group called the Central Committee for Struggle (CCL), a PRI faction of the Section 22. The governor is hiding out and government functions either don’t take place or legislators meets in hotels while several cities are struggling for control of their municipal powers and the Mayor of Oaxaca City has vanished.
Today, November 20, is the anniversary of the revolution.
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