This Mexican city's volcano of popular unrest has cooled -- but further eruptions are expected
By John Ross
OAXACA, OAXACA (May 27th) -- On the first anniversary of the beginning of last summer's feverish uprising here, the city's jewel-box plaza which had been occupied for seven months by striking teachers and their allies in the Oaxaca Peoples' Popular Assembly (APPO) from May until October when federal police forced them into retreat, shimmered in the intense spring sunbeams. The only massive police presence on view was the city police department's orchestra tootling strident martial airs to a shirt-sleeved crowd of gaffers. Here and there, handfuls of burley state cops, sweltering in bulletproof vests and helmets in hand, huddled in the shade quaffing aguas frescas (fruit water) and flirting with the senoritas.
Evidence of last summer's occupation has been obliterated. Surrounding government buildings have been scrubbed clean of revolutionary slogans and no marches were scheduled to commemorate last May 22nd when the teachers first established their camp in the plaza. Indeed, militant members of Section 22 of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE) were not encamped in the stately old square for the first time since the section's founding 27 years ago. Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO), the object of their fury, was still the despotic governor of Oaxaca.
Despite the relaxation of U.S. State Department travel advisories and the apparent calm, few tourists were strolling the cobblestone streets of Oaxaca's historic center and the cavernous colonial hotels around the plaza were virtually deserted.
The 2006 uprising has put a serious kibosh on the international tourist trade, the backbone of the local economy. If the experience of San Cristobal de las Casas after the 1994 Zapatista uprising is any lesson, the tourist moguls will take years to recoup.
"Apparent calm" is a euphemism oft utilized to describe the uneasy lulls that mark social upheaval in Mexico. True to the nation's volcanic political metabolism with its fiery spurts of molten fightback and sullen, brooding silences, the Oaxaca struggle seems to have entered into a period of internal contemplation.
Government repression, which featured death squad killings and the jailing of hundreds of activists, slammed the lid down on the social stew but did not extinguish it. Discontent continues to brew and fester, the bad gas building down below. The structures of the Popular Assembly and the teachers union, which served to catalyze this discontent throughout 2006, remain intact.
To be sure, the social movements that lit up red bulbs as far away as Washington last year are not enjoying their best moments. Section 22, which itself is a loose amalgam of left factions, is wracked with division and dissonance, and its titular leader, Enrique Rueda Pacheco, is held in profound contempt for having forced the strikers back into the classroom last October and abandoning the APPO to savage government repression.
Moreover, in response to the 70,000-strong Section 22's rebellion against the leadership of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE), union czarina Elba Esther Gordillo, a close confidante of President Felipe Calderon, chartered a new Oaxaca local, Section 59, to diminish the control that the militants exert over the state's classrooms.
The division has put a dent in the teachers' usual aggressive stance and instead of walking out this past May 15th, National Teachers Day, when new contracts are negotiated, Section 22 tentatively accepted a 4.8 percent base wage increase (above the 3.7 percent Calderon had conceded to other sectors) and 122 million bonus pesos to "re-zone" Oaxaca for cost of living increases in this tourism-driven state.
Although the "maestros" did participate in a two-day boycott of classes in May to protest the Calderon government's privatization of government workers pension funds, whether the teachers will take part in an indefinite national walk-out June 1st that has been called by dissident education workers organized in the Coordinating Body of Education Workers or CNTE, remains unresolved at press time.
Nonetheless, the teachers' disaffection with Ulises remains strong and Section 22 spokesperson Zenen Reyes last week (May 23rd) called upon the teachers and the APPO to push for cancellation of the Guelaguetza, an "indigenous" dance festival in July that has become Oaxaca's premier tourist attraction. Last year, the strikers and the APPO destroyed scenery and denied access to the spectacle, forcing URO to suspend the gala event. In its place, activists reclaimed this millennial tradition of Indian cultural interchange by staging a "popular" Guelaguetza in the part of the city they were occupying, and plans are afoot to repeat that celebration this year.
The Oaxaca Popular Peoples Assembly, which came together after the governor sent a thousand police to drive the maestros out of the plaza last June 14th and which at one time included representatives of the state's 17 distinct Indian peoples and many of the 400 majority indigenous municipalities plus hundreds of grassroots organizations, is equally fractured. Having borne the brunt of the repression - 26 killed, 30 disappeared, hundreds imprisoned - the Popular Assembly has been reduced to a defensive posture when only months ago it was an aggressive lightning rod for social discontent.
Even more debilitating than the government crackdown has been the prospect of upcoming local elections August 7th to choose 42 members of the Oaxaca legislature and October 5th balloting for 157 non-Indian municipal presidents (majority indigenous municipalities elect their presidents via traditional assemblies.) While the APPO considers that its goals transcend the electoral process and rejects alliance with the political parties, some Popular Assembly leaders engage in a quirky dance with the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) which last July almost catapulted Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) into the presidency.
Prominent APPO mouthpiece Flavio Sosa, jailed by Calderon as his first political prisoner, is a former Oaxaca party leader and the PRD has mobilized to achieve his release.
Perhaps the cruelest blow the APPO and the striking teachers struck against Ulises came during July 2nd 2006 presidential elections. Although URO had promised the long-ruling (77 years - at least in Oaxaca) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) a million votes for his political godfather Roberto Madrazo, the popular movement inflicted the voto del castigo (punishment vote) against the PRI, handing the state to AMLO's presidential bid in addition to electing both PRD senators and nine out of 11 federal representatives to the new congress for the first time ever.
The left party seemed positioned to bump Ruiz again in 2007 by taking the state legislature and neutralizing the tyrannical governor's clout. But instead of rewarding the APPO and Section 22 for having dumped the PRI in 2006, the party has responded by excluding activists from its candidate lists.
"If, at one time, there was hope that elections could provide a solution to the conflict, exclusion of the APPO has canceled them," writes Luis Hernandez Navarro who follows Oaxaca closely for the national daily La Jornada.
One Oaxaca-based PRD insider who preferred not to be named confides that APPO activists were vetoed by the left party's national leadership least front-page photos of the candidates hurling rocks during last summer's altercations lend credence to the perpetual allegations of the PRI and Calderon's right-wing PAN that the PRD is "the part of violence." Most local candidacies were distributed in accordance with the laws of PRD nepotism and amongst the party's myriad "tribes."
The exclusion of the APPO activists so infuriated 50 members of grassroots organizations led by Zapotec Indian spokesperson Aldo Gonzalez that they stormed the PRD's Oaxaca city headquarters May 18th, leaving its façade a swirl of spray-painted anguish. The failure to select candidates from the popular movement, Gonzalez and others charge, throws the elections to URO, suggesting that the PRD has cut a deal with the APPO's arch enemy.
Given the hostilities the upcoming elections have sparked so far, the August and October balloting could well signal another "voto del castigo" - this time against the PRD.
The election season was in full swing by mid-Spring in Oaxaca. PRD leader Felix Cruz, who had just coordinated Lopez Obrador's third tour of the Mixteca mountains (AMLO was conspicuously absent during last summer's struggle), was gunned down in Ejutla de Crespo on May 21st. Juan Antonio Robles, a direction of the Unified Triqui Liberation Movement (MULT), a participating organization in the APPO, met a similar fate the next day. That same week, a car carrying a local candidate for Elba Esther Gordillo's New Alliance Party was riddled with gunfire along the coast. Drug gang killings have also jacked up the homicide rate in the state - under Ulises' governance, drugs and drug gangs have flourished.
Meanwhile, in classic "cacique" (political boss) style, the PRI governor is out and about dishing up the pork to buy votes, passing out cardboard roofing and kilos of beans, building roads to nowhere and bridges where there are no rivers to cross, to pump up his electoral clientele. Gifting opposition leaders with pick-up trucks to enlist their allegiances is a favorite URO gambit, notes Navarro Hernandez.
Despite the ambitions of some of its members, the APPO is not enthusiastic about participating in the electoral process. At a statewide congress in February, APPO members were allowed to run for public office as individuals and only if they resign from any organizational function.
Miguel Cruz, an APPO activist and member of the directive of the CIPO-RFM or Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca - Ricardo Flores Magon (Flores Magon was a Oaxaca-born anarchist leader during the Mexican revolution) is not a partisan of the electoral process. Seated in the CIPO's open-air kitchen out in Santa Lucia del Camino, a rural suburb of Oaxaca city where police gunned down U.S. journalist Brad Will last October, Miguel explains his disdain for how the elections have split the APPO "when they were supposed to bring us together.
"Everyone is working on their own agendas now and the so-called leaders are all looking for a 'hueso" (literally 'bone' - political appointment.) This is a crying shame. The APPO is a mass movement, not a political party. Our consciences are not for sale."
June 14th, the day last year Ulises sent a thousand heavily armed police to unsuccessfully take the plaza back from the striking teachers, is a crucial date. The APPO and Section 22 are planning one of their famous mega-marches which last summer sometimes turned out hundreds of thousands of citizens. Will June 14th signal a resurgence of massive resistance and if it does, will the popular leadership be able to restrain hotter heads and government provocateurs that last November gave the federal police the pretext to beat and round up hundreds? Miguel Cruz is hopeful the APPO will persevere. "Whatever the 'leaders' do and say, the APPO lives down at the bases."
Up the steep, windy hill in San Pablo Etla, where the cognoscenti live above the hurly-burly on the streets of Oaxaca, political guru Gustavo Esteva views the popular struggle down below geologically. "The popular movement in Oaxaca is like an active volcano" he writes in La Jornada, "last year when it erupted, the movement left its mark in the form of molten lava trails. Now the lava has cooled and formed a cap of porous rock that marks the point through which the internal pressure will find its way to break through to the surface again."
John Ross is in Mexico City hot on the trail of Brad Will's killers and re-immersing himself in the real world. Write him at email@example.com  if you have further information.