The “Other Campaign” and the Left: Reclaiming an Alternative*




 The puzzle of Oaxaca



In this context, the puzzle of what is happening now in Oaxaca has special relevance, and has generated enormous interest in Mexico and in the world, but it is not well understood. Is it a revolt? A rebellion? What kind of social movement is manifested by this popular insurrection? Is it the beginning of a social revolution, or a mere popular outburst against a tyrannical governor?


          The indigenous majority and the physical configuration of Oaxaca give it unique characteristics. It has one-fifth of the municipalities in the country with little more than three percent of the population. The municipality is the basic political unit in Mexico.  Created by the Spaniards to divide and control,  the Mexican government has used it for this same purpose. But in Oaxaca the municipality has a different significance. Four out of five municipalities are governed by "uses and customs", which is a way of saying that the people set up their authorities without electoral processes, and in their communal assemblies they make decisions for themselves that affect their lives in common.


          In 1994, the then governor, fearful that the Zapatista insurrection would spread, promoted a "New Accord" with the indigenous people in order to govern the state with them. One of the terms of this accord was a change in the Electoral Code that recognized the autonomy of the indigenous municipalities to constitute their own system of government. In 1998, this legal reform was supplemented by a new law for the indigenous people and communities of Oaxaca, which is the most advanced in the American continent, though it has been continually violated by the successive PRI governors since its proclamation, and has intrinsic problems and limitations.


          The discontent that accumulated during the corrupt and authoritarian administration of José Murat brought about an alliance for the first time, in the year 2000, of all the political opposition forces against the PRI, which had until then maintained control over the electoral system. Ulises Ruiz, the PRI candidate, lost the elections but managed to take over the government through very evident fraud. Ruiz is known as the master of PRI electoral frauds. All the electoral agencies of Oaxaca were under his control and ratified the result that favored him. The opposition contested the election before the Federal Tribunal, which acknowledged the fraudulent conditions of the process, but stated that it could not nullify the election since it was a local affair.


          This decision provoked great frustration among those who had made the effort to vote, in spite of their traditional distrust in the voting process and the majority’s lack of faith in the system of representation. Three months after the governor’s election, the municipal elections took place. In four out of five of the municipalities, the people constituted their authorities in their traditional manner, but in those where elections by political parties took place, abstention was overwhelming. In the state capital, the new mayor won office with only 11% of the votes.


          The new governor, lacking all legitimacy, set about creating a despotic government, with constant aggression against popular movements, autonomous organizations and initiatives of civil society. His administration included the systematic destruction of the natural and historical heritage of the state, particularly in Oaxaca City. He undertook all kinds of senseless public works, with federal funds, which had the double purpose of gaining votes and generating resources (taken in a corrupt manner) for the presidential campaign of the PRI candidate.


          As the date of the presidential election, July 2, approached, the government increased its acts of pressure against voters. They pulled out all the stops: there was intimidation, threats, incarceration, direct violence, vote-buying, illegal use of public resources, etc. In spite of a long history of fraud and manipulation by the PRI, there had never been anything like it seen before.


          On May 22, the Teacher’s Union, Section 22, started a sit-in strike. This union is one of the largest and most corrupt in the country, and has traditionally been subject to the manipulation of the PRI and the government. Two decades ago, teachers from Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas, along with some from Mexico City, rebelled against the PRI union leadership, intending to position themselves on the left of the political spectrum and to form a subgroup ("coordinadora"), without leaving the union.


          The Oaxaca section of the Teacher’s Union has had a very complex history, which is not possible to relate here. Every year they carry out demonstrations that interrupt classes and traffic in the capital city, and every year, without fail, the leaders get some additional sinecures for themselves and the teachers.


          When the demonstrations began this year, people didn’t pay much attention: it was the same as usual. When the teachers occupied the main square of Oaxaca City, with their modern tents and intentions to remain for a long time, and began to close streets and commercial establishments, people began to get worried … and annoyed. The government thereupon launched a media campaign against the teachers, saying that it was making an extraordinary effort to give them everything that it could and that it was seeking dialogue, but that the teachers were responding with absolute refusal.


          The government then believed that it had created a climate of public opinion sufficiently opposed to the teachers, and on June 14, mounted a clumsy repression that caused many injuries among the teachers, and the police as well. This action was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Those who had been increasingly annoyed by the teachers suddenly took up their cause. People began express, in a spontaneous manner, all their resentments against the governor. Overnight a movement arose to oust him from office, with the slogan "Out with Ulises"!


          Throughout the state, people went out into the streets. They occupied public buildings in 22 municipalities governed by the PRI. They participated in the largest citizens’ march in memory, an estimated 25% of Oaxacans taking part. Thus the Popular Assembly of the Oaxacan People (APPO for its initials in Spanish) arose, which quickly attracted hundreds of social organizations and groups and began to articulate diverse peoples’ and groups’ initiatives and integrate them into the teacher’s movement.


          The results of the elections on July 2 took everyone by surprise. There was a high degree of citizen participation, but instead of the million votes that governor Ulises Ruiz promised to the PRI, it suffered the worst defeat in its history. It practically disappeared from the state. The PRI won in only one of the eleven of the electoral districts; in the federal deputies’ election, it lost senators and its presidential candidate registered a very weak vote. It was evident that people had decided to use their votes to express their rejection of the governor and the system, as APPO had requested.


          Until July 2, Governor Ruiz had maintained hope that he would occupy a top-level position in the federal government. After the defeat of his party, he feared that his abuses would be uncovered and he might end up in prison (for corruption as well as murder).With the shameless support of the constituted powers, Ulises Ruiz has stubbornly hung on to the governorship and refused to acknowledge that he has lost all capacity to govern while the movement symbolized by APPO has spread, strengthened and acquired, after passing through various mutations, a profoundly innovative character.


          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. 


APPO synthesizes the local political culture, born in the popular assemblies, the teachers’ union, indigenous communalism, municipal autonomy, religious outreach, the radical left, the regionalism and ethnic diversity of the state. It also expresses new forms of association that were created in Oaxaca based on the peaceful popular uprising: the organizations of poor neighborhoods of the city of Oaxaca and its suburbs, the libertarian youth networks, and the barricades [against the Federal Police]. (Luis Hernández, La Jornada, November 21, 2006)


          The movement has creatively applied the policy of one NO and many YESes, with the people united in a common rejection, for various motives, reasons and ideals, acknowledging the real plurality of society with an attitude of inclusiveness.


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, the particular, autonomous forms of government that has been legally recognized by Oaxaca’s state law since 1995, it but 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 move 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.  The people of Oaxaca are not 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.


In Oaxaca, the fraudulently constituted powers are no longer functioning. Over a period of six months, the displaced officials have been forced to meet in secret in hotels or private homes; they have not been able to go to their offices, which have been closed by APPO. The local police have been able to leave their quarters only at night, surreptitiously, along with their stooges, to launch guerilla attacks against the people. Problems of governance have not arisen because APPO has shown itself to be surprisingly capable of governing, while the people accepted the new state of affairs and daily rejected the authoritarianism of the remnants of the old regime. It is finished in the hearts and minds of those who suffered under it. Its empty shell is crumbling.


          I cannot recount the innumerable incidents and many initiatives and efforts that have given the movement its current configuration. Some anecdotes can illustrate its nature:


  • At the end of a march, on August 1st, a group of 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.  Until November 30, Radio Universidad successfully continued to disseminate information about the movement until it voluntarily returned it to the university authorities.


  • 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. 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.


  • By mid-August, 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."


  • "Fucking kid," said the gang leader to the young baker Diego Hernández, in the very center of town, "Don’t be an asshole, or I’ll burn down your shop. This territory is mine. You may be bosses in your homes, but I’m the boss here, in the streets." And he took out a pistol, while his thugs surrounded him. But Diego wasn’t afraid, "You don’t scare me," he said, "behind that pistol is a coward." They were about to attack Diego when he set off three firecrackers, as they did in the APPO barricades, to call for help. That was enough, at least for now.



These incidents were not drunken brawls, empty stances or outbursts by individuals or groups. They reflect a new state of affairs, for which a new political frame of reference is urgently required, but has not been able to be created. First of all, what is needed is to recognize that 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."


          For a while, Ulises Ruiz will be able to continue to abuse the patience of the people of Oaxaca. But he will never be able to govern them. He has lost their confidence.


          Oaxaca is thus an extreme example of the strange phenomenon of the disintegration of political power. This is not the best form for the transition, because it  poses many risks, but the situation is also filled with opportunities.


          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 (Compañí­a 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 President Fox was told he couldn’t sell PEMEX, he sought instead 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 political classes destroy the power remaining to them when they cease to fulfill their public function and oppose the will of the majority. The disintegration of political power always kindles the threat of repression.  There  is the belief that  power and governance can be saved or restored through violence.  It is an amateur’s mistake. Two men of great power, Mao and Napoleon, knew that by experience. Mao preferred the confidence of the people over the army, as he said to Snow. Napoleon was even more convincing when he said "there are many things that can be done with bayonets, except sit on them." Thus he discredited amateur dictators who intend to govern with the army or police. Arms can cause great damage, even destroy a country — as we are seeing in Iraq and Lebanon. But one cannot govern with them.


          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, APPO 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 advised, rather than trying to change the world, Oaxacans today are more pragmatically trying to construct a new world.


          Seeking a peaceful resolution to the impasse between APPO and Ulises Ruiz, on September 21, five thousand 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 situation by declaring the state "without government" and appointing an interim governor.  The members of the PRI and PAN parties, who constituted the majority of the previous senate and had just left office on September 1st, had rejected all previous petitions throughout the spring and summer in order to avoid interfering with their candidates’ 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 PAN expressed their full support for the governor and refused to oust him.  Oaxaca was thus reduced to just another piece in the complex negotiation between the PRI and the PAN parties.  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. 


          Meanwhile, 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 Ruiz was removed, with a solid majority also agreeing not to return to classes (though 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).


In an astounding act of cynicism, leaders of both the PRI and of President Fox’s PAN party, 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 will not restore their power.  They will have bloodied their hands in vain, for the people of Oaxaca will not back down under this threat.  And in a choice 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

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