Oaxaca: The Painful But Necessary Birth of a Popular Revolt

During the last six months we have seen an inspiring determination among citizens here. Activists have been murdered for peacefully demonstrating. They have faced death squads that go out at night and kill those at barricades that are in place to stop government death squads. In the last few days this movement has defended one of the most important components of this popular revolt, the community radio station. On October 30th a well-armed federal police, with military commands, armed with tanks, helicopters and thousands of men have been defeated by a mobilized population. I was present on the scene. I have never been involved in protests of this magnitude before. Old houseviwes, teachers and mothers were confronting the armed men and instilling on them through words, respect for life and the autonomy of popular mobilizations. The fear of the tanks, the helicopters, somehow went away because of the importance of this moment – we just felt the moment. The police attempted to retake one of the main arteries in the city but protesters fought back fiercely. Old men, women, children, armed with sticks and rocks were able to succesfully make the unjust government retreat, in spite of all its police, military and weapons.

What we are now seeing are the results of more than six months of mobilization that began on the 14th of June after a failed attempt by the local police to repress the yearly demonstration by the teachers’ syndicate. Every year the teachers’ syndicate pressures the government for improved salaries and compensation around. This year, the events took an unsuspected turn when the governor, with a characteristic lack of political tact, ordered the local police to repress the protesters, believing that such a move would be a walk in the park. The attack on the 14th of June only served to exacerbate the feelings againts the governor, this time not only by the teachers, but also joined at this moment by a large number of social organizations which were being systematically attacked by the governor and its death squads. On the 14th of June, the governor ordered an attack against the teachers which were occupying the Zocalo (main plaza) in a permanent demonstration. The attack occurred at 4am while most people were sleeping in the Zocalo. The police carried arms and used them against families and children that were there in protest.

The response on the 14th of June was unexpected by the state police, who were outnumbered by protestors. The tactical planning was not calculated correctly and the police, after overtaking the Zocalo, were repelled by a civic protest with thousands of participants. The police were surrounded and eventually defeated by the demonstrators. After this event, the teachers were joined by social organizations which went on to be systematically persecuted. Thousands of people joined mass demonstrations organized by the teachers syndicate in what they were called "mega marchas." In the third megamarcha, more than 800,000 people showed up. In a state with only five to six million people this represents almost a fifth of the total population.

How has this governor amassed so much discontent? In reality, the answer to this question does not reside completely in the sole figure of the governor; this would give too much credit to a nefast figure. It is the level of corruption at which the government has come to represent and embody and the continued abuses which the people have suffered for decades.

The government in the state of Oaxaca represents institutionalized corruption. For example, to get a drivers license one must pay a bribe of 50 dollars to officials that have the look of criminals, not public servants. The police do not serve the population but instead are here to extract constant bribes and to participate directly in robberies and the protection of criminals.

Several informants to the popular radio station have first hand information that the police ranks were sold for 30,000 pesos, because police serve to kill and rob with impunity. The bureaucratic governmental offices are not out to serve the population, they only serve the clientelistic practices by which the government system work. Thus, the supposed public servants do not attend the needs of the population in spite of the fact that their salaries are paid through taxes.

There is rampant corruption which traps society; the government hires gangs for repression and to push unpopular policies. Even teachers in high school accept and even promote bribes to pass students. This environment illustrates the reasons behind the mobilization of the people of Oaxaca. The only person that does not see the need for change in this system is the governor and the small political class that benefits greatly from this system.

One of the central components of this popular revolt has been the confrontation with the government at the level of the media, a confrontation in which the government has also lost due to the imaginative and effective political tactics implemented by the popular movement. The government spends hundreds of millions of dollars in media spots to promote itself. It spends more money in media spots than in public infraestructures. This is the reason why there was almost no media coverage or very pro-government media coverage of the current conflict. The government buys yearly contracts with most media outlets including television, radio, journals, and periodicals. This was acknowledged by the popular mobilizations which in one march organized by women, who called themselves caceroleras or pot handlers decided to overtake the local state run tv station because this TV station was the one that ran some of the most overt pro- government spots and news.

The overtake of the Channel 9 TV station was one of the most significative points in the Oaxacan revolt because it was one important blow to the media warfare implemented by the government. The takeover of Channel 9 produced some of the most charismatic programs in television. For the first time in the history of television in Mexico we were seeing actual people that look like us and not some blonds and white people that are constantly sold in the commercial airwaves as if we lived in Scandinavia. Lay people cried, told their stories in front of the television that aired statewide, producing a huge blow against the goverment by the sincerity and honestly by which housewives call out to support the movement, to denounce their municipal directives or sometimes their intense feelings of liberation that people were experiencing.

As response of the takeover of the Channel 9, the government organized death squads to arrest and kill those people that were running the community radio stations. In response, people organized barricades to stop the death squads that were operating throughout the city, creating an atmosphere of fear. The government sent death squads to attack the TV station which had been taken over, resulting in the death of one teacher and the disappearance of other that defended the station. The increased repression sent an even larger mobilization to the streets which grew to include men and women of all ages, and from all walks of life.

At this point the descision was made to overtake all of the commercial ariwaves. Though the government thought that silencing one TV station it was going to reduce the effect of the mobilizations, the result backfired on them. The popular revolt eventually took control of all of the airwaves in the state. As one friend told me, "First the government controlled all of the radio stations. Then the revolt gained one radio station. By attacking this one radio station, the government has lost all of the radio stations and lost all of its ability to air its propaganda. When the government attempts to silence and attack the movement the response by the population is to produce an effect that is tenfold."

After more than six months of marches, hunger strikes, demonstrations and street barricades, the traditional political system is becoming weaker and therefore, more dangerous, announcing the locutores at the university radio station. We are experiencing a very dangerous situation because the PRI governance system feels and acts like a wounded beast. Recently, violence has escalated to the point at which five people were killed during peaceful demonstrations. The local and national government does not understand the determination among the people in the streets. Their rage is driven by decades of oppression. The people of Oaxaca are demanding that their basic needs be met and that the authoritarian governor resign. The fear is that if he is able to muscle the support of the federal government to maintain the repression against the protesters, he would target the leaders of the protests, just like he has been doing for his nearly two years in office.

For the people in Oaxaca, the mass demonstrations and the recent battle that was won against the federal police on Octobet 30th leave the feeling that we have the capacity to overthrow this government. This will be a process that may take many more lives and will require the continued mobilizations for months and perhaps years. To begin with, there is the constitution of a popular assembly called out for November 17th, where we have the possibility of further establishing a true political representation of the population and not of a legislature servile to the governor. The purpose of this assembly is to legally establish the popular assembly of pueblos de Oaxaca with permanent leaders that will be voted on this day for a term to be decided. With this, we are further establishing the organization as a capable and effective political force that combines the voices of all the communities with popular mobilization.

Some of the most pressing moments in the political life of the movement are developing as we speak. The federal government maintains the city under siege and it is urgent that the international community maintains its pressure in the government of Vicente Fox to stop supporting a repressing regime in Oaxaca. After many months and lives taken, we have to continue to press for the overturning of the political system through the organizing on which the Popular Assembly of the Pueblos of Oaxaca (APPO) is based.

The APPO has been organized among teachers and social groups. As the months passed the APPO has grown to represent all the sectors of society which have been unattended and repressed by the state, meaning the largest sector of the population. In the APPO organization merge with the neighboring areas that are more like favelas because of their striken poverty. The indigenous communities throughout the whole state are tired of being forgotten and used for political campaigns. With all of this political support, the APPO organization and its affiliated organizations are beginning to change the political spectrum of the state and perhaps the politics of the whole nation of Mexico.

Tomas Cruz was born in the Oaxacan highlands and migrated to the US at the age of 15 because of economic hardships after the assassination of his father, an indigenous political activist. Finished a degree from the Evergreen state college in 2003 and entered the graduate department in Latin American studies at the University of Texas. He studies migration and social movements in Latin America. After 2004 works in organizations such as XA KO (moon shadow) to advance social and cultural issues in OAXaca. Co-author in a publication on migration titled "International migration and Poverty."

At the start of the present Oaxacan revolt with amazement and disbelief he watches events unfold and participates in support of the Popular Assembly of Pueblos de Oaxaca. At present he is engaged in promoting the international knowledge of the repression against the people of Oaxaca by a tyrannical governor and the federal occupation forces.