In the summer and fall of 2006, 70,000 public school teachers and approximately 350 organizations united in a new Asemblea Popular Pueblo Oaxaca (APPO) occupied the center of the city, took over local radio and television stations, blocked the stateâ€™s executive, judicial and legislative offices, built and protected barricades across the metropolitan region, led massive marches of 800,000 people and demanded the removal of the governor, Ulisses Ruiz.
Consider the numbers: 70,000 teachers, 350 organizations, 800,000 people protesting, close to 25% of the entire state population marching through the pleasant streets of Oaxaca demanding a more just society. A social fire had reached dry tinder and raced through an abused and angry population.
Abused? Angry? Demanding? About what and why?
A useful beginning to an understanding of Oaxacan dynamics is provided by the Mexican historian Dr.Anselmo Arellanes Meixueiro in his essay entitled, “Oaxaca in the 20th Century:Continuities and Changes”. Here are the facts to which he calls our attention:
1. Oaxacans are leaving the land in dramatically increasing numbers and emigrating to other parts of Mexico and the United States as harvests fail, poverty increases, food grows scarce, credit is unavailable and the people’s remaining, desperate hope is to make it north.
2.Indigenous communities are being scattered and destroyed as traditional water sources, streams, lakes and rivers suffer pollution and ancestral lands are reduced by the widespread destruction of forests.
3.The city of Oaxaca expands relentlessly and chaotically. Water problems, drainage problems, garbage problems, transportation problems, security problems grow and the health of residents is imperiled by severe air contamination, 80% of which is caused by motor vehicles.
4.In Oaxaca, there are four doctors for every 10,000 residents and those are concentrated in the city. The poor get little attention.
5.There’s a shortage of classrooms and teachers at every level and Oaxaca’s institutions of higher learning are not producing the men and women capable of providing the solutions needed for the problems described.
6. Unemployment and crime are increasing.
Arrellanes concludes his overview with disturbing expectations, “It is painful to say so but the future of Oaxaca is not bright. Existing tendencies suggest that misery will increase, a better distribution of income will not occur, unemployment will rise, social problems will become increasingly severe, anarchic urban growth will continue unrestrained as will, probably, the destruction of nature and indigenous groups.”
Conclusion: the present is terrible, the future will be worse.
If these frightful conditions were required by the laws of nature, the will of God or the Mexican constitution, people might shrug their shoulders, grin weakly and bear the worst. The harsh rub is that the misery suffered by the people of Oaxaca results from neither natural nor divine decree.
The energy and anger evident in the movement sweeping Oaxaca today springs very directly from the infuriating conviction that things do not need to be this way, that a better future with less suffering is possible but is blocked by despotic, corrupt, self-serving politicians at local, national and international levels.
Corruption in Oaxaca is, by all accounts, pervasive. A friend told us he learned early in life about corruption simply by attending the Benito Juarez University law school. There he learned that professors and grades and the law degree itself were purchasable. Attend or donâ€™t attend class, study or donâ€™t study, it really doesnâ€™t matter because payoffs are the key to every door and bribes make the world go round. He learned that money and contacts, not intelligence and knowledge, were the building blocks of a secure future.
In such ways does the School of Law, the school preparing future lawyers and politicians, complete its edifying task. Students are force-fed the really important lessons: payoffs in cash, sex, and assorted favors are the keys to success, the lubricants that keep the system running, the â€œwithout which” nothing moves. They also learn the usefulness of high-sounding phrases like merits of the case, the rule of law, justice and democracy but by the time they leave school they all know the real deal is the deal.
Generations of lawyers and politicians are in such ways prepared to take up the historic challenge of their profession to insure justice in the land. Theyâ€™re prepared to buy judges, pay off politicians, and deceive clients because that’s the way the university works, that’s the way the world works and like it or not that’s the only game in town. As politicians they are prepared to steal elections, close newspapers, send thugs to silence the opposition, lock up dissidents, favor cronies with government contracts and siphon off the wealth of the land. As Commandante Marcos puts it, â€œPolitics has become a business more profitable than drugs.â€
Continuing now with the lawyers, the politicians, the mighty of the land but moving closer to APPO and the marches of 2006, consider what happens in a corrupt, despotic system when a person who is poor and a person who is rich stand before a judge and await his judgement, or when thereâ€™s a conflict between a poor person and a policeman, or when an employer accuses a poor person of stealing. What happens, of course, is the poor person loses. He loses the court case, he loses his money, he loses his job.
The poor man, however, does not forget his losses nor does he forget the reasons for them and one day an opportunity comes, an opportunity to join thousands of other poor and angry people in the streets, men and women shouting, carrying signs, singing songs, walking together and railing against the system.The poor man who is also and with cause an angry man walks into the streets that day and marches with thousands of fellow countrymen blasting the system and the governor and demanding his removal if not his head.
To understand the emergence of the popular movement on the Oaxacan scene this year, it is also important to recognize that sensitive and angry men and women have been organizing, building networks, convincing neighbors, protesting and educating for generations. What happened this summer is that for the first time the women and men associated with some 350 different organizations with deep historical roots rallied behind the teachers and closed ranks in a broad, new coalition demanding long-term change toward democratic rule in Oaxaca.
Let Reyna Perez Hernandez serve as an example. She was born in the mountains of Oaxaca, her father is a campesino and her community is governed by small assemblies in which all participate. She is also the first in her family to have a university education. In her twenties, she is articulate, confident and outgoing, a spokesperson for an indigenous organization.
She grew up with a stong communal consciousness and the idea that any worthwhile future would be achieved through cooperative work with others, work in which each person contributes freely and works without anyone ordering them around and controlling the process.
Much of her work has been with women. La Jornada of May 14, 2002 identified her as one of the “coordinadoras” of a Mothers’ Day demonstration in the city of Oaxaca at which more than 800 women gathered to protest the violence against them by politicians.
During the demonstration, Reyna called on the people of Oaxaca to work together for the rights of women: the right to be treated equally at home and at work, the right to health and education, the right to occupy positions of responsibity in the community, the right not to be hurt and the right to decide how many children to have. For such efforts, women like Reyna Perez Hernandez suffer public defamation, ransacked homes and threats on their lives.
Where do people like this come from? What keeps them going?
Family, friends, fellow workers, of course. Multiple influences and sources of strength. In Perezâ€™ life the single, strongest influence beyond her family and pueblo has been Ricardo Flores Magon, the Oaxacan revolucionary of the early 20th century. She and her organization believe that Magon shows â€œit’s possible for human beings to dream and make of their lives a resistance. He encourages us to be totally human, honorable, and committed to the cause of liberty, fraternity, mutual assistance, and truth. His path is one of struggle against all forms of domination. We believe that mutual help, solidarity, direct action, autonomy and self-direction constitute the road to liberation.â€
Ricardo Flores Magon was born in Oaxaca in 1874. Reyna Perez Hernandez was born in the state of Oaxaca a hundred years later. Magon lives on as one of the important ancestors of the movement now working to transform this southern Mexican state.
Other Oaxacans equally committed to democracy and social justice claim other primary influences and perspectives. The Asemblea Popular Pueblo Oaxaca (APPO) therefore represents no single historical influence or political perspective. APPO is a unity of diverse historical currents which has taken on the demanding task of organizing a new form of democratic rule in Oaxaca and in Mexico.
In the newspapers of Mexico and the United States, APPO is generally associated with street barricades, fires in the night, negotiations with the federal government, marches to the capital, hunger strikes and the demand that the Governor be thrown out of office.
A more comprehensive understanding of APPO and its broad purposes is offered by its own documents and especially by resolutions passed at its First State Assembly held in the city of Oaxaca on September 27, 28 and 29, 2006. The full text of that Assembly is now available in Spanish on the website of the Oaxaca Study/Action Group (OSAG). The following selections from that document suggest the broad, initial goals to be considered, refined and developed at an APPO Congress scheduled for November 10-12, 2006. The important thing to recognize at this point is that APPO has dedicated itself to far more than the removal of a governor. APPO intends to build a state and national non-violent, anti-capitalist movement capable of creating a genuine democracy in which the people actually rule. Following are selected affirmations in this early document which indicate the general direction of the movement:
* â€œOur struggle is not simply to remove Ulisses Ruiz as Governor but is to replace existing economic and political structures, a goal to be achieved only through the massive participation of people at local and national levels.â€
* â€œAPPO will be democratic, popular, inclusive, anti-imperialist, anti-fascist, and anti-capitalist. Decisions will be by consensus after full discussion and analysis by its members, all of whom are equal with the same rights and obligations without regard for creed, sex or social condition.â€
*â€APPO recognizes the indigenous peoples as the bedrock of the nation.â€
*â€APPO affirms the free determination of the people, the solidarity of the nations, and the peaceful resolution of conflicts between countries.â€
*â€To reclaim Mexicoâ€™s sovereignty and independence, APPO rejects the nationâ€™s economic, political and military subordination to the United States and to international centers of finance like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. APPO therefore rejects existing Free Trade Agreements and the Plan Pueblo Panama.â€
*â€APPO desires renewed ties of cooperation, solidarity and fraternity with all the people of the earth in order to create a truly human society in which physical and spiritual needs are satisfied.â€
*â€Mexico needs a new development model that provides for the peopleâ€™s basic needs, one which affirms the nationâ€™s ownership and control of its natural resources, reclaims businesses and industries that have been privatized, nationalizes strategic industries; and redistributes land to the poor.â€
*â€To create a new democratic country a new constitution is necessary which affirms new forms of direct democracy insuring the participation of the people in all important decisions through assemblies, popular initiatives, referendums and the empowerment of existing communities.APPO encourages the development of self-governing collectives and the redistribution of existing powers to local entities that increase the direct participation of the peopleâ€.
Those who would like to keep up with the rapidly changing Oaxacan scene can do so by going to the website of OSAG (Oaxaca Study Action Group), a valuable resource initiated by Nancy Davies and George Salzman and by reading Stan Gottliebâ€™s RealOaxaca newsletter. For those who read Spanish, the Mexican newspaper Jornada-on-line is recommended.