The APPO Undertakes a Long Walk to Mexico
By Nancy Davies
Commentary from Oaxaca
On Thursday, September 21, members of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO in its Spanish initials) set out on a walk, from the zocalo (central square) in Oaxaca City to the Zócalo in Mexico City, a distance of 506 kilometers, more than 314 miles.
In the zocalo, as people signed up and gathered for the preliminary speeches, I guessed about two thousand participants came for the marcha caminata – the march by foot, instead of a motorized cavalcade. On Friday, September 22, the newspaper Noticias calculated that 5,000 people were on the road when the marchers reached Etla, a town about 25 kilometers away, under a broiling sun.
A teacher mentioned that there is some fear of shooters stationed along the vacant stretches of highway. The rumor mill grinds along even while most people seem cheerful and no shootings have been reported for the past two weeks. Mood changes are frequent, but I haven’t spoken to anybody who thinks the governor will return. One friend added to the rumors by telling us she heard that the governor is going to fly to Fort Lauderdale.
Many teachers arriving for the march carried umbrellas, which, if they don’t stop speeding bullets, are at least good sunshades. The umbrellas were on high as the first trekkers twisted their way through the streets of Oaxaca which in many places are blocked by parked cars and trucks, or metal barricades or sandbags, burnt wood, barbed wire, or combinations of all of the above. One main street on the route, Morelos, was blocked and the marchers had to snake their way single file among barriers of automobiles, with their umbrellas shining aloft in the sun as they serenaded “ex-governor” Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (“URO”). To me, the words sounded kinda like “fuck you and your mother too,” but sometimes my Spanish fails me. Both men and women are walking – pantalones and pantaletes – and singing and shouting slogans on the first stage of their journey.
The barricades serve to protect access to the radio stations which serve as the lifeline of communication for the APPO. In addition, I saw nine eighteen-foot vans parked in the center of the city at the corner of Hidalgo and Huzares. I was told they will be used to block the highway while the marchers pass. Although that answer does not make much sense, I have no other, and for sure I saw the vans.
The first day, the departure wasn’t until 1:30 in the afternoon, after the two hours of speeches. Adolfo López informed the crowd that Germán Mendoza Nube, the imprisoned director of the Union of Poor Campesinos, has declared a hunger strike. Mendoza Nube, who is a paraplegic, also suffers diabetes and renal insufficiency. Prison life is doing him no good.
The blessing of the project, named For the Dignity of the Peoples of Oaxaca (Por la dignidad de los pueblos de Oaxaca), was offered by Manuel Marinero Magaña, allegedly a priest excommunicated when he made public that he had married and fathered a son. After the religious ceremony, a teacher, José Antonio Altamirano handed over to an APPO member the national flag which was used in the last teachers’ caravan, in 1986 and 1997.
When the marchers reach Mexico City, their intention is to establish an encampment in front of the Senate to demand the removal of URO. Arrival date is around October 3.
At the mid-afternoon outset of the march, the Oaxacan local Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) was occupied in a statewide assembly of teachers. The spokesperson for the union, Daniel Rosas Romero, said that the teachers would leave as soon as their assembly ended, which may explain why 2,000 left the zocalo but 5,000 arrived in the town of Etla at the end of the day.
Meanwhile, the PRI sent to the federal government a request for public armed forces to come into Oaxaca. The teachers must be concerned not only with possible roadside shooters, but with the mundane logistics of how the 5,000 walkers will be fed, and provided with dry clothing and replacement shoes. The movement depends on the support of the people, who, at least in this first segment, appeared along the highway with tortillas, fresh fruit and bottles of water. Among the walkers are the ex-rector of the public Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca (UABJO), Felipe Martínez Soriano, and a member of the leadership collective of the APPO, César Mateos Benítez.. The UABJO students called a three-day classroom strike in support of the APPO.
The march is a physical representation of the determination of the teachers-social movement to rid the state of URO. One might say that stepping forward is the most obvious way of saying “not one step back” – ni un paso atrás. It is daily more evident that the APPO situation affects the PRI-PAN alliance in the national legislature, the Department of the Interior, the Mexican Supreme Court, the parents of children with no schools, the vendors in the zocalo – in other words, everybody. Some parents are organizing classes or trying home-schooling. The Oaxaca street vendors are besieging the expatriates who remain to buy whatever they can, and some expatriates have organized dinners to sustain their favorite restaurants. In all of this, those who most detest the APPO also detest URO and want him gone, but have no other remedy to hand.
Meanwhile the PAN assures the PRI that it won’t break their alliance by ousting PRI governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, since most agree that if URO goes, so will several other governors, as the APPO idea spreads from state to state. The political parties agreed again to delay discussion of the dissolution of powers in Oaxaca and they rejected formation of a legislative commission. The national legislature has twice previously failed to take up the subject. The PRD senator Pablo Gómez summed up the situation for La Jornada, by saying “the PAN would like very much to get the governor out of Oaxaca but doesn’t do it because it doesn’t want a conflict with the PRI in the very moment when the there’s a political crisis in the nation, and it’s not going to break off relations with the party that supports it” – referring to the PRI presidential support of Calderón, while Lopez Obrador has accepted the designation of president from his PRD supporters.
Interior Secretary Carlos Abascal has held lengthy talks with APPO negotiators that go nowhere, since the bottom line on the part of the Oaxaca negotiating committee reads, URO out. The negotiations are once again cancelled, although SNTE leader Enrique Rueda Pacheco doesn’t choose to use the word “cancelled.” Maybe just in abeyance. If URO goes before December 1 (before serving for two full years), new elections must be held. If he goes after December 1, an interim governor would be appointed, from the PRI party.
The teachers’ strike is now four months old. The popular movement, despite propaganda pointing out diminution of the teachers’ energy, and their impoverishment as the lack of salaries takes hold, is evidently growing among indigenous communities. I understand that along their route the marchers will also speak to others, both in Oaxaca and in other states (Puebla is on the route) about forming APPOs. The governors of Puebla and neighboring Morelos have both been linked to major corruption scandals in the last few years.
A September 19 article in the Monterrey newspaper El Porvenir says “the popular Oaxaca-style assemblies have begun to proliferate in other states, such as Michoacán, Guerrero, Mexico City and Baja California, and on the other side of the border in Los Angeles and Sacramento.” The report describes communities in the United States reaching all the way north to Alaska, where Oaxaqueños have settled, bringing with them their customs and participatory government. Money for the teachers is coming from the USA both from Mexican communities and from American teachers.
The propaganda battle focuses on the “immanent arrival” of federal police or federal troops, including a military convoy disguised as buses of musicians on tour. On September 20 Las Noticias reported that the Federal Preventive Police continue to send agents to Oaxaca, but in disguise. They’re supposedly going to put down the movement and save the day for URO, but that newspaper cited the APPO as its source. The APPO simultaneously said, through the commissioner for security and order, Gustavo Adolfo López, that the federal police are here to get us but they won’t get away with it. “Oaxaca isn’t San Salvador Atenco,” he affirmed, and that is true.
On the third day of the walk, Sunday, September 24, the governor threatened the teachers with federal army intervention, increasing the tension. The governor appeared in public in Oaxaca for the first time this month, meeting legislators at a hotel because the government buildings are blockaded.
Unfortunately, someone guessed that he was at a different hotel, in the city. A crowd gathered and the scene became nasty, with shots being fired. According to some accounts the hotel guards did the shooting, but La Jornada reported late this evening that the shooters were undercover police officers. At least one APPO supporter was shot and injured, according to La Jornada.
At the same time, the state director of education declared that if the teachers don’t return to the classroom tomorrow they will be fired and replaced with strikebreakers from among retired teachers and parents.
The Oaxaca business community called for a shutdown for September 28 and 29 to include not using electricity or telephones, not paying taxes, and shutting down transportation. It’s hard to say on whom that will bring more pressure. But the growth of the APPOs and the popular movement in the countryside is too widespread now for even one step back.