The Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, APPO:
A Chronicle of Radical Democracy
Translated and Edited by Mariana Ortega BreĖa and Jan Rus
Photographs Coordinated by James Lerager
While Latin American Perspectives’ commentaries are typically engaged, even polemical analyses of events and conditions in Latin America, the following pages on the popular movement in Oaxaca, Mexico, since the Spring of 2006 are unusual both for their degree of engagement and their immediacy. Gustavo Esteva is not only a close observer of Oaxaca, but a long-time participant in the struggle for social justice and democracy in the state; an insider. When the Latin American Perspectives collective asked him in late October to write a short analysis of the popular movement for this issue, he readily agreed, but explained that he was still immersed “hasta el cuello” in the rapidly moving events of those days. In fact, the federal police attack on the movement on October 28 and the confrontations that followed came while we were editing these pages with him, and Gustavo was immediately drawn into APPO’s attempts to head-off further violence, if not confrontation.
Given the shortness of our original deadline and his own commitments, what Gustavo offered us was his collected dispatches to the Mexico City daily La Jornada for the last several months, and the contents of a running letter he has been circulating to English-speaking friends. From these materials, LAP has with his assistance composed the following “crónica.” More than a description of events, the entries convey a sense of the on-going discussions inside of the movement – discussions in which the author took part – about consensual decision-making, negotiations with the state, non-violence, and the movement’s hopes for Oaxaca’s – and Mexico’s – future. APPO and the current movement in Oaxaca have been likened by some to the Paris Commune, and if this is so, this chronicle perhaps represents a first draft of its history.
Photographer James Lerager spent several days on the street in Oaxaca in July, 2006, and we are grateful both for the use of his photos, and for his help in preparing photos provided by APPO. Further photos, as well as communiqués from APPO, and dispatches from Gustavo Esteva and others can be found at oaxacalibre.org.
The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, APPO) grew out of the violent repression of a teachers’ strike in Oaxaca during the late spring of 2006. This chronicle is a description from inside, by a participant, of APPO’s process of decision-making and increasingly popular representation of citizens’ discontent with federal and Oaxacan state authorities during the critical months from August, 2006, to the violent confrontations with federal police and the military in late October and early November, 2006.
Gustavo Esteva is an activist intellectual in rural Oaxaca, Mexico, presently affiliated with the Universidad de la Tierra and the Centro de Encuentros y Diálogos Interculturales (CEDI) in Oaxaca. An advisor of the Zapatistas at the San Andrés Dialog, he also participated in the ground-breaking revision of Oaxaca’s state constition in 1995 to grant indigenous autonomy.
Mariana Ortega BreĖa is a freelance editor and translator based in Ithaca, New York. She specializes in academic writing, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.
Jan Rus is Associate Managing Editor of Latin American Perspectives.
James Lerager is Consulting Photographer to Latin American Perspectives.
For almost two years, the people of Oaxaca have been in increasing turmoil. The immediate cause has been the corrupt and authoritarian administration of the state’s Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) governor, Ulises Ruiz, who took office after a fraudulent election in December 2004. But as the OaxaqueĖos have resisted Ruiz, especially these last five months, deeper struggles have come to the surface and begun to find expression. It is a process of awakening, organization, and radicalization that merits review. On May 22nd the teachers union, with 70,000 members throughout the state, began a sit-in in the main plaza of Oaxaca City to dramatize their economic plight. Most urban Oaxacans reacted with a mixture of indifference and annoyance to the sit-in and the blockade of some streets. Such demonstrations regularly accompany teachers’ strikes and always produce some additional perks for the leaders of the union and for the teachers, but at the price of disrupting the life in the city for weeks or months. People were also more than a little annoyed because the teachers had abandoned their schools and many families did not know what to do with their children.
But then on June 14 the governor ordered a violent repression of the sit-in, including bombing the teachers with tear gas cannisters thrown from a helicopter, many of which also fell on private houses and offices. This episode changed the nature of the movement, unifying large numbers of Oaxacans with their own reasons for opposing Ruiz’s misrule. Overnight ŃFuera Ulises! (Out with Ulises!) became the popular slogan in Oaxaca’s neighborhoods and streets. The teachers’ union, seeing this response, attempted to draw these social forces together in support for their movement, convening what they called a Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca or APPO). Hundreds of social and grassroots organizations joined immediately, and radical groups within the teachers’ union quickly inverted the relationship between the union and APPO, essentially subordinating the leadership of the union to the popular assembly. Since June 20, the complex and heterogeneous body APPO has been leading the uprising and organizing meetings and marches, one of which drew a million people, almost a third of the population of the state.
The process of coalescing this movement and making collective decisions has been complex, with many impressive episodes. Despite the intervention of the federal police (just before this issue of Latin American Perspectives went to press) the struggle continues, more energized than ever. Rather than a summary or overall analysis of the movement, the following pages, which consist of running observations and reflections from late August through early November, attempt catch the movement on the fly, still developing and learning its strength.
August 1: The Revolution Will Be Televised
Confronted with the government’s use of the media against the movement, several thousand women from APPO peacefully occupied the studios of the state radio and television network. Through its outlets in Oaxaca, the network had continually been used by governor Ruiz for propaganda against the movement. Now instead the occupiers disseminated the ideas, proposals, and initiatives of APPO as well as opened both radio and television for members of the public to express their own opinions 24 hours a day. Despite every imaginable technical difficulty (the women occupying the network had no previous training for this), thousands who called the stations made it onto the air. Eventually, a group of undercover police and mercenaries invaded the facilities, shooting up and destroying the equipment and injuring some of the APPO “broadcasters.” In reaction, a few hours later APPO occupied ALL private radio and TV outlets in the city. Instead of one, APPO suddenly had 12 options to disseminate information about the movement…and to give voice to the people. A few days later they gave the stations back to their owners, keeping only one powerful enough to cover the whole state. Although it must be said that the station was not under the control of APPO per se, but of some of its radical components, it continued to broadcast information about the movement 24 hours a day until it was jammed at the end of October. Since then, Radio Universidad (also under attack by paramilitaries) and other community radios have successfully continued to disseminate information about the movement.
August 22: Civil Defense
After several initial skirmishes, state and city police apparently refused to obey the governor’s demand to repress their fellow citizens, forcing Ruiz to keep the police in its barracks. As a result, from June until the end of October, no police, not even traffic police, were seen in the city. Instead, APPO, which had first organized to defend itself against the state, has continued sit-ins around the clock in front of all of Oaxaca city’s public buildings, as well as in all the private radio and television stations and the public station in its hands. (The governor and all his officials, meanwhile, have been reduced to meeting secretly in hotels and private homes; none dare come to work). One night, a convoy of 35 SUVs, with undercover agents and mercenaries, drove by the sit-ins and began shooting. They were not aiming at the people, but trying to intimidate them. APPO reported the situation instantaneously on its radio stations, and within minutes people started organizing barricades to impede the convoy. In one place, they were able to close the street with a truck and actually trap one of the SUVs and all its occupants, who escaped. The vehicle, with its official insignia on the doors, was parked as an exhibit in Oaxaca’s central plaza. Unfortunately, in another street a bystander was killed when the attackers started shooting. As a result, every night at 11 pm more than a thousand barricades close the streets around the sit-ins and at critical crossroads, to be opened again at 6 am to facilitate circulation.
In spite of the guerrilla attacks of the police, a human rights organization reported that in the last months there was less violence in Oaxaca (dead, injured) than in any other similar period in the last 10 years.
August 29: A Foretaste and a Threat
For Oaxacans, and for Mexicans generally, Oaxaca has come to represent both a foretaste and a threat. The source of this ambivalence, in part, is the present polarization of social classes and sectors nationally. But there is something deeper and even more general going on. What is being built in Oaxaca, many feel, anticipates our future and carries a great burden of hope. But for the very same reasons, certain sectors of the current power structure feel threatened by a movement they are unable to stop, and are willing to use violence against those leading the transformation.
The present movement is the product of a slow accumulation of forces and many lessons gathered during previous struggles. In particular, three different democratic struggles have converged in the single one being waged by APPO. The first joins together those who wish to strengthen formal democracy whose weaknesses are well-known in Oaxaca. People are tired of fraud and manipulation, and those who wish to rely on the electoral system want it to be clean and efficient. The second consists of those who want a more participatory democracy. Besides transparency and honesty they want more civil involvement in the workings of government through the use of popular initiatives, referendums, plebiscites, the right to recall elected leaders, participative budgeting, and other such tools. The third includes a surprisingly large number of individuals and groups that desire to extend and deepen autonomous or radical democracy in accordance with political conceptions that have their own unique sources. Four of five municipalities in Oaxaca have their own particular, autonomous forms of government, following a tradition that dates to the colonial period and before. Although this autonomy has been legally recognized by Oaxaca’s state law since 1995, it continues to be the subject of pressure and harassment. What the advocates of autonomous and radical democracy hope to do under the present circumstances is invert this struggle: to pressure and harass the state and federal governments, to subject them to civilian surveillance and control. The ultimate goal is to swing from community and municipal autonomy to an autonomous coordination of groups of municipalities, from there to regions, and eventually to an autonomous form of government for the entire state. While this is an appeal to both the sociological and political imaginations, it is also firmly based on historical experience with autonomous self-government, both legally and in practice. Nor are the people of Oaxaca waiting for the inevitable departure of Ulises Ruiz to put these ideas into action; there are already many APPOs operating around the state on community, neighborhood, municipal, and regional levels.
Although the Mexican senate continues to disregard the fact, Oaxaca has already abolished its old, badly constituted government. Properly speaking, however, given APPO’s surprising organizational capacities, there has been no “crisis of governability” in the state. A few days ago, a violent brawl erupted during a private party in the Alemán neighborhood of Oaxaca. A half-drunk couple stumbled out onto the street. “We should call the police,” he said. “Don’t be an ass,” she said, “there is no police.” “True,” he answered, scratching his head; “let’s call APPO.”
September 11: When Power Fades
Political power is a relationship, not a thing. This relationship presupposes trust and credibility and concerns the whole body of government. C. P. Snow once asked Mao what conditions governing required. “A popular army, enough food, and people’s trust in the government,” Mao replied. “And if you only had one of those three things, which one would you choose?” Snow asked. “I can do without an army. People can manage hunger for a time. But without their trust there’s no government.”
In Mexico, political power is fading because an abusive and ultimately self-destructive political class has so misused people’s trust that they have withdrawn it. It is a political class that over the last 25 years has systematically dissolved the state apparatus and its corresponding functions, either openly, as in the case of CONASUPO (CompaĖía Nacional de Subsistencias Populares, the state agency in charge of regulating the market of basic staples), or surreptitiously, as in the case of PEMEX (Petróleos Mexicanos, the national oil company). When told he couldn’t sell PEMEX, President Fox instead sought to bankrupt it. Although he failed in that as well, he did manage to get further than anyone could have expected. This year PEMEX attained a double record: the highest income ever, and the lowest percentage of investment. In a time of record high oil prices, the company is being crushed by debt.
The decisions of the Supreme Federal Electoral Court’s (Tribunal Federal Electoral, TRIFE), first regarding the gubernatorial election in Oaxaca, and then the 2006 presidential election, also deserve a place in the museum of mis-government. In both cases it documented a high degree of irregularities. In the first, it refused to intervene in the process that illegitimately crowned Ulises Ruiz as Oaxaca’s governor. In the second, it had to put itself through contortions to get around the contradiction between recognizing multiple irregularities that should have nullified the results, and then confirming those same results.
The fading of political power always kindles the threat of repression. There are always amateur politicians who believe their power and position can be saved or restored through violence. In response, APPO has wisely refrained from attempting to seize power and has kept as close as possible to the political traditions of Oaxaca’s indigenous communities. Rather than climbing into the empty chairs of those who abused power, it seeks to establish new types of relationships between the people and those presently coordinating their collective endeavors, to strengthen the social networks of Oaxacans and reinforce their dignity and autonomy. In place of the failed model of seizing power, the proclamations of good government decrees of APPO represent an appeal to free men and women who, with extraordinary courage, a healthy dose of common sense –the sense you get in a community–, and surprising ingenuity are attempting to rebuild society from the bottom up and create a new set of social relations. As the Zapatistas put it, to change the world is very difficult, if not impossible. A more pragmatic attitude demands the construction of a new world. Today, that’s what Oaxacans are trying to do.
Seeking a peaceful resolution to the impasse between APPO and Ulises Ruiz, 5000 Oaxacans set out on foot for Mexico City to present Oaxaca’s claims to the incoming federal senate, which has the power to resolve the impasse by declaring the state “without a government” and appointing an interim governor. Unfortunately, the PRI and PAN members who constituted the majority of the previous senate, who had just left office on September 1st, had rejected all previous petitions through the spring and summer to avoid interfering with their parties’ campaigns for the July 2nd presidential elections. After the elections, this inaction continued: given the uncertainty about how a governing coalition would be assembled in the fall, both the PRI and the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) expressed their full support of the governor and refused to oust him. Oaxaca was thus reduced to just another piece in the complex negotiation between PRI and PAN. Among the difficulties of such negotiation is that after its humiliating defeat in the presidential elections, the PRI was, and remains, in full disarray: there is no person or group able to organize a serious negotiation.
in the last week of September the teachers’ union organized a massive consultation
with its members. There was universal consensus to continue the movement until
Ulises was removed, with a solid majority also agreeing not to return to
classes. (Although many teachers also thought it would be good to continue the
strike but open the schools because many parents and communities that support
the movement have no other way to care for their children).
September 25: The Moment of Change
One of the most important lessons the people of Oaxaca have learned during their struggle concerns the media. The brave women who took over the state’s communications system grew tired of watching the contradictions between their real-life experiences and the stories being reported by the media. The latter’s credibility was completely shattered.
We Mexicans have an ambivalent relationship with the bureaucratic institutions that embody the government and express our leaders’ political power. We don’t regard them as sacrosanct, and accept them only as the formal basis of our coexistence with each other. Paradoxically, however, the corrupt leaders who control these institutions have now almost succeeded in dismantling them. Some were driven by market fundamentalism, others by financial greed and their desire for political power. While their acts often shock us, enrage us, and even lead some of us to a kind of paralysis, sometimes they serve to awaken autonomous action among the people.
As Marx wrote in a letter to Ruge, “what we have to do is undertake a critique of everything that is established, and to criticize without mercy, fearing neither the conclusions we reach nor our clash with the existing powers.” This is all the more pertinent when those powers opt for violence in an attempt to solve conflicts they are incapable of resolving pacifically and democratically, as in the current impasse in Oaxaca. In an astounding act of cynicism, leaders of both president Fox’s PAN and PRI, as well as members of Congress, demanded the use of public force “to restore order” in Oaxaca. Although it is in the nature of these leaders to rely on violence when they have lost the people’s trust and can no longer conduct affairs in a civil manner, and although under present circumstances the use of force will undoubtedly cause great harm, it won’t restore their power. They will have bloodied their hands in vain, for the people of Oaxaca will not back down under this threat. Indeed, if it ever comes to official violence, they will face it with the same peaceful disposition they have shown so far. And between the politicians and the people of Oaxaca, other Mexicans will undoubtedly side with the Oaxacans. In our struggle, they see a sort of mirror in which they can glimpse the future of their own battles to rescue Mexico.
September 21-October 8
The march that started on September 21 gathered massive support in the states it crossed before reaching Mexico City on October 8. With thousands of citizens and many organizations supporting them, the exhausted marchers established a sit-in near the Senate.
While this was happening, on October 4 the Minister of the Interior convened a meeting in Mexico City of one hundred prominent Oaxacans, most of them from the political class but also including a few well-known personalities like the painter Francisco Toledo. The minister’s goal was to get everyone to sign a social pact agreeing an end to confrontation. Of those convoked, three renowned indigenous leaders, two famous intellectuals, and Toledo abandoned the meeting as soon as it started, declaring to the press that the people of Oaxaca themselves were not represented – there being, for example, no real representation of the two-thirds of the state who are indigenous. [Editor’s note: Although he does not say it here, Esteva was one of those who walked out of this meeting.] Many of those remaining in the meeting, close allies of Ulises Ruiz, explicitly demanded the repression of APPO. Unable to fulfill its function of diffusing the federal government’s responsibility, the meeting broke up. No pact was signed, and a second meeting programmed for October 11 was cancelled.
Meanwhile, for weeks the sit-ins and the barricades back in Oaxaca were attacked during the night by paramilitaries.
October 9: Ways Out of the Cul-de-Sac
The temptation to impose the federal government’s will in Oaxaca by force persists, and violence remains a constant threat. After the Ministry of the Interior’s failed meeting on October 4, those political and financial groups who favor repression continue to demand a restitution of power and respect for those institutions they themselves have been undermining. They were neither able nor wanted to understand what was happening.
Unfortunately for them, to use force in Oaxaca would announce to the world how low they are willing to go to protect themselves – or in this case, one of themselves, the governor of Oaxaca – from the people, no matter how great his corruption, or how many his abuses. “Protego ergo obligo” has becomes the “cogito ergo sum” of the modern state. Since Hobbes, political theory has been based upon the notion that the state must teach its citizens that there is a contract by which the state provides them with institutional protection in exchange for civil obedience. Under present circumstances, trying to teach this lesson to the people of Oaxaca would be worse than a crime, it would be a serious mistake. Not only would it set the state on fire, but it could lead to years of violent backlash. Instead of resulting in submission and compliance, it would turn the insurrection into a full-blown rebellion.
There is, however, hope. Oaxaca’s reserves of political wisdom have yet to be exhausted and, despite pressure from violent groups, a catastrophe can still be avoided. A sensible dialogue of Oaxacans talking to each other in Oaxaca is just beginning, the actors attempting to weave a consensus that can serve both as a protective shield against institutional violence and a democratic tool for a much needed transformation.
On October 10th the senate finally decided “to study” the case of Oaxaca. On the 19th, the senators produced an oxymoron as their conclusion: given the condition of the state – the fact that its government was no longer functioning – they explicitly recognized that a “desaparición de poderes” [“disappearance of government,” the formal phrase for abolishing a state government] should be declared and the governor ousted. But they refused to take that final step in the name of obscure judicial formalities. After this shameful document (no one dared to defend the psychopathic governor), on October 29 the senate joined the chamber of representatives in a “petition” to the governor to please resign – to which the governor immediately responded with an appeal to the Supreme Court and accused the Congress of abusing its power! He would, he declared, never resign.
Back in Oaxaca, the group that had walked out of the meeting with the Minister of the Interior joined with organizations representing all sectors of Oaxacan society to convene a Dialogue for Oaxaca. The first meeting, on October 12, was opened with great success by an indigenous ritual. Despite the threats of violence from outside, the people of Oaxaca had come together to create an open, democratic space in which to articulate the hopes of civil society and organize a political transition.
Through all of this, investors and businessmen, particularly at the national level, steadily increased their pressure on President Fox and the federal government to “solve” the problem – meaning to send federal forces to Oaxaca.
Meanwhile, with no end to the crisis in sight, outside the senate building in Mexico City, on October 15, 25 of the marchers started a hunger strike. Assuming that political fasting is an appeal to the morality of the adversary, and considering that the governor, the federal government, and the senate were showing no morality at all, APPO and many members of the civil society asked them to stop the strike, which they did after 21 days.
October 23: Standing Vigil
“They’re trying to force us to govern, but it’s a provocation we’re not going to fall for.” [“Nos quieren obligar a gobernar. No caeremos en esa provocación.”] This subtle bit of graffiti on a wall in Oaxaca reveals the nature of the present movement. It doesn’t seek to take over the current power structure but to reorganize the whole of society from deep inside and establish new foundations for our social life together.
On October 12, during an open dialogue inaugurating a new kind of collective reflection to generate consensual decisions, a businessman addressed his colleagues in wonderfully lucid terms: “We have been asked to endorse the use of public force, ostensibly to reestablish rule of law. Yet we know that, on many an occasion, rule of law has been disrupted in much more serious ways by the government itself. It’s as if all excesses are sanctioned in Oaxaca – except for speaking against negligence and injustice!” Pro-Oax, a prestigious NGO, immediately validated this argument by pointing out that Oaxaca has never had “rule of law,” that it has always been undermined by the very authorities who were supposed to maintain it.
Unfortunately, the businessman’s hope that PRI step back from “the fascinating process of destroying itself to defend one of its worst political cadres” was not fulfilled. Instead, PRI tainted PAN with its senselessness.
In spite of continual offenses, and in spite of the “disgovernment” of the constituted authorities, Oaxacans have continued to appeal to the national institutions, which in turn shut their doors, fail to fulfill their moral and political obligations, and destroy their own authority. How are the people expected to react?
Everyone knows what’s coming. As the situation grows tenser, Oaxaca fills up with policemen and soldiers in civilian clothes. They’re here to “rescue” Oaxaca—that is, to snatch it from its people if so ordered. Government officials daily reiterate that they consider this a real option.
This kind of irresponsible arrogance, in turn, has nurtured resentment among the impatient youth, stoking their political passion with heroic rancor. As the weeks wore on, one young man wrote on a banner “Fucking government! They won’t even deliver their war!” Let this serve as a premonition of the bloodbath that would ensue if the government tried, as our irresponsible president announced, to impose a “peaceful occupation” of Oaxaca.
For Gandhi, non-violence was the greatest virtue and cowardice the worst vice. Non-violence, he added, was for the strong, while the weak had no choice but to use violence in order to avoid cowardice. Unfortunately, it is hard to explain to the young of Oaxaca that they are the strong ones, that the weak are those in the political class whose use of violence only hastens their self-destruction. We must not allow ourselves to be provoked by them, to answer violence with violence, since this will only feed the fire.
Last Wednesday the local PRI leader announced that his party was putting together “grupos de choque,” hit-squads of vigilantes.
Meanwhile, the dialogue among Oaxaca’s men and women continues. Given the complexity of the challenges and the huge diversity of our cultures, this has never been easy. Perhaps this explains why one of the documents being circulated includes a quote by Bertolt Brecht: “Above all, we should learn to agree. There are many who say ‘yes’ but deep down are not in agreement. Others are never asked for their opinion, and many are in agreement when there is no need for them to be. That is the reason why learning to agree is important.”
During the third week of October, there were great advances both in the dialogue among the people of Oaxaca and in the negotiations with the federal government. The teachers’ union finally agreed to return to classes (the government’s main demand) in return for the government’s satisfaction of their original economic claims and the liberation of their members in jail. To all appearances, political space for a new kind of arrangement was beginning to grow.
Then on October 27, paramilitaries and municipal policemen loyal to the governor attacked barricades throughout the center of Oaxaca. In one of these, they shot and killed Brad Will, an American journalist for Indymedia with a deep sense of sympathy for the peoples of Oaxaca. Violent confrontations broke out around the city, and that evening President Fox used the murder as an excuse for his decision to send the federal police.
The Policía Federal Preventiva, the PFP, arrived on October 28. APPO explicitly decided to resist non-violently, avoiding confrontation. And in the face of the PFP, with its tanks and all the paraphernalia of power, the people of Oaxaca exhibited enormous restraint. In many cases, unarmed citizens stopped the tanks by laying their own bodies on the pavement. Adults held back young people trying to express their anger, although there were cases of stone-throwing and even a few molotovs. When the police reached the main plaza, APPO fell back and abandoned it. APPO regrouped on the campus of the university, protecting their radio station, which had been transmitting the decision to remain non-violent and to avoid confrontation and provocation. Outside of the university, meanwhile, the police began selectively capturing APPO members at the barricades or in their homes. By the end of the day, there were three dead, many injured, and many more disappeared. Those picked up by the police were sequestered in military barracks. Human rights organizations, including the government’s own Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, were unable to visit or even identify those who had been picked up because the police moved them secretly from one place to another. Over succeeding days, there were also many reports of people coming from surrounding villages to support the movement who were pulled out of trucks, beaten, and arrested.
Despite the wave of repression, on October 29 APPO organized three marches. The police with all their equipment had fully occupied the main plaza and a few other key places in the city by this point. But within a short time they were surrounded by the people, who proceeded to establish new barricades. As soon as the police would dismantle one of these and move on, the people would return and rebuild it.
Many are afraid that we will not be able to stop the blood bath the governor and federal government seem determined to provoke. In spite of APPO’s continual appeal to non-violence, the people of Oaxaca feel deeply offended and angry. And they don’t want to be cowards… They know that they are not alone, that people throughout Mexico and around the world are with them. But what to do before this barbaric, irrational violence of the state against its own people?
Today’s clash, when the massed people of Oaxaca resisted an attack on the university by the federal police PFP, was the largest and most violent clash between civilians and police in Mexico’s recent history, and perhaps the only one that resulted in an unquestionable popular triumph. The fight was certainly unequal enough: although the police were outnumbered five or six to one if we count children, they had shields and other weapons, not to mention tanks and helicopters, while the people had only sticks, stones, a few slingshots, and some uninvited molotov cocktails.
Shortly before the battle, president Fox announced that peace and tranquility had returned to Oaxaca. The Interior Ministry also reported that everything was in order, and the governor declared that out of Oaxaca’s 570 municipalities, the entire rebellion was limited to one street in the capital and a handful of foreigners. Anyway, he insisted, it was almost over; whereupon the national television networks called their camera crews back to Mexico City, their task of minimizing the strike complete.
For months, the government and the upper classes in both Oaxaca and Mexico City have condemned APPO in the name of law, order, public security, human rights, and stable institutions. All these elements were employed to justify the use of police force. But without realizing it, the authorities have been giving us a lesson in revolutionary civics. The Federal Police became the vehicle for an offensive and massive violation of human rights: searches and arrests were carried out without warrants while the number of dead, wounded and disappeared increased. Only PRI’s hit squads and the government’s own hired guns were allowed to travel freely. Meanwhile, the army and police obstructed those trying to reach the city of Oaxaca, especially if they came to support APPO. And finally, the Federal Highway Patrol cruised the city and transported troops amid a climate of chaos and insecurity.
Despite the violence and severe provocation, the ability of the people’s movement to exercise restraint has been simply remarkable: “human rugs” were formed, people laying their bodies on the pavement in front of light tanks, as in Tiananmen; flowers were handed to the police; people retreated in an orderly manner in the face of advancing troops, while men and women tried to control young people bursting with anger. This self-control, in the end, prevented a major bloodbath, and the rebels are now preparing to give orderly course to their movement in a “constitutive” assembly that will take place from November 10 to 12. The idea is to stop it from derailing, exploding in violence or scattering away. There are some ideological manias involved and some internal pressure to implement particular agendas. If the movement begins to take an erroneous shape, such as that of a political party, the original movement will overflow it, just as it will overflow all legal and institutional channels if the political class continues to block access to them.
Following the popular victory November 2, the largest march in the history of Oaxaca took place on November 5. Among the participants were scores of indigenous authorities from communities throughout the state who came to the capital carrying their staffs of office to publicly declare their allegiance to the movement.
So how should we summarize the first six months of the Oaxaca insurrection and the creation of a democratic, popular assembly to govern it? Perhaps the first thing to say is that the movement received more than one push from Mexico’s irresponsible political class, which forced it to consolidate itself much faster than anyone expected. At first, officials, bureaucrats, political parties, and analysts treated it as little more than a local disturbance. And of course, when we Oaxacans first took to the streets, that’s what we thought it was too, solidly in the tradition of the popular outbursts that occur when a local tyrant becomes unbearable, or when some new official imposition drives people over the edge.
The insurrection was next seen as a rebellion, a bigger kind of violent reaction, because its participants refused all attempts to subdue them, and filled with a sense of their own dignity, stepped up their protests. By thousands, by tens of thousands, they came out onto the streets of Oaxaca city from throughout the state to cry “Enough!” to the governor and his arbitrary rule.
But if the insurrection became more than a simple disturbance, it soon became more than just a rebellion as well. Rebellions are like volcanoes, mowing down everything before them. But they’re also ephemeral; they may leave lasting marks, like lava beds, but they die down as quickly as they catch fire. They go out. And this one hasn’t. In this case, the spirit of defiance has become too strong. Although Ulises Ruiz, Oaxaca’s PRI governor, was the original focus of popular discontent and possessed some of the worst traits of an oppressive system, ultimately he was just the detonator that touched off an explosion where there was already a profound, widespread feeling of discontent. Finally, his legacy will be that his political misjudgments became the take-off point for a lasting movement of transformation to a peaceful, democratic society.
[On November 6, in a “Forum to Ease the Tension” organized by Oaxaca’s civil society, the Red OaxaqueĖa de Derechos Humanos (Oaxacan Human Rights Network) presented an interim report on the violence from October 28 through the first days of November. They identified 17 dead, 138 injured, 57 in jail, and many disappeared. On November 13, as this is written, APPO survived all kinds of internal contradictions. The last session of the exhausting Constitutive Congress ended at 5 am on Monday. Some 1,500 state delegates attended this peculiar assembly. A Council of 260 delegates was created, in order to coordinate the collective effort. They represent everyone. Indigenous peoples, of course, but also every sector of the society. Some barricades also sent delegates to the Congress and now have a representation in the Council. The Congress approved a charter for APPO, an action plan, and a code of conduct. Most of the agreements were reached through consensus. Some of them were very difficult. It was not easy to agree on gender equity, for example. One of the easiest agreements was the decision to give the struggle a clear anticapitalist orientation. Yes, the city is occupied by the police. Eight more people disappeared last night. But they cannot occupy our soul. We have more freedom than ever.]