by Andrew Pollack / October 2006 issue of Socialist Action
Since June 14 the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, has been in a state of insurrection. Workers, peasants, and their allies have run the city through the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (Asemblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca or APPO). The governor of Oaxaca state, Ulises Ruíz Ortíz (URO) of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), has been driven into internal exile.
Two-thirds of the people of the state—the second-poorest in Mexico—are from indigenous groups who have faced centuries of oppression. Oaxacans have been organizing against the Plan Puebla Panama, a nine-state plan that would throw people off their lands in favor of corporate development. The state’s politicians are among Mexico’s most corrupt and violent.
Oaxaca is home to a militant union movement led by teachers. Over a hundred were killed in the decades-long struggle for control of their union, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (El Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Educativo/SNTE).
Each May for the last 26 years Oaxaca teachers have gone on strike and occupied the zócalo square in the city’s center. This year’s strike—for wages as well as more resources for students—was different. Oaxacans were already outraged by the theft of education money by URO’s corrupt officials, a huge construction contract scam involving his brother, and the violence used against his critics.
On May 22, tens of thousands of teachers occupied the zócalo. Soon other Oaxacans joined the encampment there and at dozens of other strategically chosen crossroads, raising their own demands. Two “megamarches” of over 100,000 and frequent smaller marches were held.
In the early morning hours of June 14, URO sent in the cops. At 4:50 a.m., union leader Enrique Rueda Pacheco issued a call for resistance on the teachers’ radio station, Radio Plantón (Radio “Sit-Down”).
Cops attacked the encampment—beating sleeping men, women and children, destroying tents, and firing teargas and bullets. But after a battle lasting four hours, the police were driven out and the city center retaken.
Two days later, 400,000 marched to demand the governor’s resignation. URO’s retaliatory attacks led to the disappearance and detention of dozens of activists and the murder of at least four.
On June 17, APPO was founded, uniting representatives of hundreds of unions and grassroots organizations as well as representatives elected in neighborhood assemblies. Similar bodies were soon formed in other cities and towns in the state.
APPO declared itself the supreme authority in Oaxaca state and demanded URO’s resignation. APPO has coordinated occupation of government offices and the construction of barricades.
Marketplace women led the takeover of several radio and TV stations, beating pots and pans in a Marcha de las Cacerolas (saucepans). Attacks by URO’s thugs on seized stations led to the takeover of even more.
Reporting on the open discussions held on the stations, retired U.S. professor George Salzman wrote from Oaxaca: “Voices of the people dominated the airwaves—what a vision of hope sprang from the screen! Ordinary people spoke of the reality of their lives, of what neoliberalism meant to them, of the Plan Pueblo Panama, of their loss of land to developers and paper companies, of ramshackle mountain schools without toilets, of communities without safe water or sanitary drainage, all the needs that could be met if wealth were not being stolen.”
APPO’s new security force watches for both URO’s thugs and common criminals. Salzman adds: “The culture here is not one of ‘turning the other cheek.’ They don’t sit down and pray if police attempt to beat them.”
Some have likened APPO to workers’ councils set up during other insurrections. Others stress their roots in indigenous traditions of village councils and voluntary community service. In sum, as Nancy Davies, a correspondent from the city for narconews.com, reports: “In Oaxaca, the only government is the APPO.”
When URO tried to set up shop in remote Juchitán, a mobilization of teachers and the popular assembly there forced him out. In August, APPO held a forum to discuss the possibility of setting up popular assemblies throughout the country and unifying them in a national body.
The economic toll of the uprising has been heavy. But participants are in it for the long haul, especially for the children, and conversations commonly end with “duro!” (“with determination!”).
APPO claims to be independent of all parties, including the liberal capitalist PRD, but some statements by its leaders have been less categorical. Prominent roles are also played by Trotskyists, Maoists, and anarchists.
While calling for a national popular assembly, APPO has negotiated with federal officials to seek URO’s legal removal. The result was a slight wage hike and little else, which was rejected by a vote of 30,000 to 9000. Wall signs said of the offer: “Teachers don’t sell their dignity.”
As of Oct. 11, strike leaders reportedly have reached a tentative agreement with the government that would grant an increase in wages. However, the pact does not address the demand that the governor step down.
It’s not clear what APPO’s program is beyond URO’s removal. As George Salzman writes: “Ousting a hated governor had been done before on three occasions in Oaxaca. Not trivial, risky of course, but not by itself a revolutionary act.”
Nevertheless, the people of Oaxaca must be defended against any attack. In this they can count on Mexican immigrant workers in the U.S., who proved their power in this spring’s massive upsurge and have been organizing support for the uprising.
Plans for “plantons” in front of Mexican consulates in California have been announced. Several solidarity actions have been held since June in New York and other cities.