January 9th‚ 2007 – Barbara Lopez writes: The eruption of violence in the Southern Mexican state of Oaxaca comes as no surprise to those who are Oaxacans or familiar with the “state.” The area has a long history of rebellion and as an ongoing site of negotiation between the agents of capitalism, in its varying forms, most recently neoliberalism, and its indigenous communities’ forms of governance and economic structures. Interestingly, Oaxaca was also the birthplace of Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz, both of whom were Mexico’s most important presidents who in th1 19th Centurty pursued varying projects of modernizing Mexico.
The word “state” in some ways is inappropriate to apply to Oaxaca when considering the wikipedia definition of a state as “a set of institutions that possesses the exclusive legitimate authority.” This evidently is not the case now where there is no legitimate or followed rule of law. Also, historically Oaxaca’s 540 municipalities have always had a degree of autonomy, many following the Indigenous customs and practices of the sixteen differing indigenous ethnicities. Of it’s 3.5 million inhabitants, the vast majority 3/5ths are indigenous, with the remaining population mostly mestizos, a mixture of Spanish, French, and African.
While you would be hard pressed to find a Oaxacan not gleaming in regional pride, who and what is Oaxaca is an incredibly divisive and contested issue. With slogans by the leading popular movement, APPO (Popular Assembly of The Peoples of Oaxaca) proclaiming “we are all Oaxaca,” it has never been more divided and fractured by ideological, racial and class divisions since the 1970s. Years ago, when I visited my family in Oaxaca, I noticed a lot more graffiti against the governor at the time, Ruiz. In conversations with friends, it was evident that there was a huge dislike of Ruiz whose repressive, corrupt government greatly interfered with Indigenous autonomy and also annoyed elites in his poor decisions such as destroying the historic zocalo (literally replacing the trees and uprooting colonial tiles). The PRI party (Institutional Revolutionary Party), after seventy years of rule, was loosing power and incredibly fractured with secret alliances to the right-wing PAN (National Action Party).
Oaxaca has a very developed tourism industry and many, including my family, have prospered from feeding not just foreigners but those from Mexico City. However tourism, as important an industry as it is, has a huge underbelly that includes sexual exploitation, loss of communal lands to corporations, the threatening of traditional values and less access by Indigenous peoples to local resources. For example, much like in San Francisco, native Oaxacans can no longer afford to live in Oaxaca City with houses even selling upwards of $400,000 US dollars. When I meet the most progressive San Franciscans who have traveled to Oaxaca, I wonder if they reflect on the footprint they leave there. The economy in other sectors, have also felt a negative effect via the neoliberal policies of Fox that crippled the coffee and corn industries, allowing cheaper American goods to flood the market.
In May 2006, the Oaxaca’s teachers’ union held their annual strike in the zocalo of the city. What began as business as usual peaceful protest was violently disrupted by riot police and tear gas on June 14th. This event solidified the left against the “acting” governor, Ulises Ruiz. This union known as APPO was a conglomerate of teachers, Indigenous groups, grassroots community organizations, disenfranchised voters, and anarchists. At one point in the movement, a third of the state is estimated to have been involved.
Since June, Oaxaca’s civil strife has been well documented, at least in left-wing publications, with discussion of the movement, the very repressive response by the Ruiz regime including the use of paramilitary troops. The question is where to go from here. Despite the entry of the federal police and the imprisonment of various leaders, this is not a passing phase in history. Unfortunately with the pseudo election of Felipe Calderon, this president will only continue on the path of repression. Why? Even though it is clear that Ruiz should be removed from office, he is linked with the PAN. The battle in Oaxaca is mostly, a popular one, but based on various sources, it is also a political struggle. Some state that APPO is being in part funded by the political enemies of Ruiz, including the old guard of the PRI and the PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party). This does not mean the solidarity movement should cease cooperation with APPO, it just gives a glimpse into the complexity of the political struggle.
In closing, here are some thoughts by an insider/outsider. Ulises Ruiz must go. APPO must be recognized as a political force, all prisoners must be released, and the federal government should begin negotiations with APPO to find a balance to municipal autonomy and state concerns. There needs to be a complete overhaul of the educational system and community-control of the tourism sector. On the flip side, APPO should have internal discussion with its most extreme factions to avoid a full out class war. Destroying the middle and working-class (many involved in tourism) will not be to APPO’s benefit. They are potential allies in the rebuilding of Oaxaca. Resolution is needed to bring Oaxaca back to a just normalcy not a “tense quiet.” Reconstruction can be done without destruction.
On another note to allies in the United States, I think it is important to locate yourself in this struggle via class, race, and nationality. It means protesting at the local Mexican consulate, but do not preach molotov cocktails in Oaxaca but have no problems ordering mocha lattes from Pete’s Coffee or don’t advocate the same measures against your own governments. The majority of Oaxacans, where ever they stand on this issue, abhor the violence.