Who speaks for Oaxaca?

by on November 27th, 2006

Oaxaca, Mexico — You hear it said many times a day here in Oaxaca: Tenemos que aguantar – we have to endure.

You won’t hear this from the principal actors in the political drama which is being played out on Oaxaca’s stage. The leading roles are played by Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, Oaxaca’s, much-despised governor; the PRI, the deeply entrenched political party to which Ruiz belongs; the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), the increasingly radical activist group demanding Ruiz’s resignation; and the PRD, the opposition party of defeated presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, which has acknowledged bankrolling APPO. They are all determined to win their high-stakes struggle for state and national power, and for international support.

It’s only the long-suffering and essentially voiceless people of Oaxaca who tell each other over and over, “We need to endure.”

Oaxaca’s troubles began in May, when the union representing most of the State of Oaxaca’s 70,000 teachers went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions, as they do every year. This year the governor didn’t award them the raises they expected, since (according to his detractors) he had already spent the money on pet projects which, coincidentally, put money in the pockets of his relatives, political supporters, and the PRI.

APPO occupied Oaxaca following Governor Ruiz’s ill-fated attempt to dislodge the striking teachers on June 14. Voicing idealistic goals, activists barricaded streets, blocked highways, burned dozens of buses, occupied most city and state government offices, and splattered just about every building in Oaxaca with anti-Ruiz graffiti. They turned Oaxaca’s normally enchanting central square and surrounding streets into a tense and sullen encampment. As the situation became known in the international press, tourism, Oaxaca’s major source of income, plummeted to less than 10% of normal.

As the months passed without resolution of the teachers’ issues, Oaxaca’s 1,300,000 school-age children, already among the most poorly-educated in Mexico, slid deeper into the trap of endemic, multi-generational poverty from which APPO claimed to be fighting to free them.

Ruiz’s presumed minions did their share to destroy Oaxaca’s economy as well. Bands of heavily armed, black-hooded marauders have assassinated more than a dozen teachers and other activists in late-night, drive-by shootings. At least 60 people have disappeared. The blatant daytime killing of American journalist Brad Will on October 27, allegedly by local PRI functionaries, created headlines worldwide, but was just one particularly visible episode in an ongoing campaign of terror.

Following Will’s death, the international media spotlight turned on Oaxaca and on Mexico’s president, Vicente Fox. He responded by sending in 4,000 members of the Federal Preventive Police (PFP), who now control Oaxaca’s zocalo and the route to Mexico City, but still have not been able to re-open all of Oaxaca’s highways. The dramatic November 2 battle for the strategic crossroads of Cinco Señores, near Oaxaca’s APPO-occupied Benito Juarez Autonomous University, inaugurated a new level of violence between APPO and the federal police. Violence erupted again on November 25, when young activists armed with homemade bazookas and shopping carts full of rocks and nail-laced Molotov cocktails turned a nominally peaceful march into a day and night of street battles. The level of violence from federal and local police also escalated.

With tourism down to a trickle and transportation to and within Oaxaca unreliable, the entire economy is failing. Businesses and services that cater to tourists have closed, including hotels, restaurants, stores and galleries, depleting the savings of the owners and putting thousands of employees out of work. Many of the businesses unfortunate enough to be located in the immediate vicinity of APPO’s encampments likewise have closed. Many Oaxacans were unable to bring their products to market or get to their jobs because of the presence of barricades and the absence of buses. Produce sellers, car repair shops, and dozens of other small businesses closed and laid off their employees. Self-employed workers such as taxi drivers, beauty parlor operators, shoe shiners, vendors, and the artisans for which Oaxaca is famous are barely able to maintain themselves in the local economy since their customers no longer have cash available to purchase their goods and services. Caught in the crossfire between APPO and Ruiz, Oaxaca’s already fragile economy is crumbling.

“We’re like a slice of ham in a sandwich,” says a Oaxacan friend. “We have APPO on one side and Ruiz on the other. Nobody notices that we’re being eaten up.”

The invisibility of the majority of the people of Oaxaca is no accident. Although it’s unlikely that more than a third of the state’s residents support Ruiz, he and his party vociferously claim to represent el pueblo, the people of Oaxaca. APPO’s survival also depends on maintaining its image as the true voice of the people. Although APPO supporters may number in the tens of thousands, a much larger “silent majority” of ordinary Oaxacans simply want their jobs back, their children in school, the ability to get to or across town, and above all an end to this conflict. Yet, when ordinary Oaxacans try to speak out, their voices go unheard.

When reporters descended on Oaxaca in the wake of the arrival of the federal police, it was not unusual to see a crowd of APPO supporters around every journalist, clamoring to be heard. However, we saw people who tried to say that they were neither for Ruiz nor for APPO, but for peace, shouted down and shoved aside.

Representatives of human-rights organizations are in Oaxaca, documenting and publicizing abuses by right-wing groups or the PFP. According to friends, Oaxacans who approach them to report threats or damage by APPO have been turned away. “Apparently we don’t count,” they conclude.

What started as a teachers’ strike has mutated almost beyond recognition. First APPO absorbed the teachers. It now appears that the PRD, led by defeated presidential candidate Lopez Obrador, is bankrolling APPO and so has it dancing to its tune. Not to mention the bombers who struck in Mexico City on November 6, who also claim to be acting on behalf of the people of Oaxaca. Or the increasingly violent activists who now make up a significant part of APPO, to the point that the have become APPO’s new face.

The next time you read a news story about Oaxaca, take a minute before choosing sides. If your political instincts lead you side with Governor Ruiz, remember that he earned his unpopularity by gratuitously attacking 70,000 teachers, and that his PRI functionaries have the blood of many people on their hands. If your reflexes push you to rally with APPO in supposed solidarity with the people of Oaxaca, remember that five months under APPO’s control left Oaxaca trashed and impoverished, and that what may have started as an idealistic, non-violent movement can no longer pretend to be either.

Even more importantly, remember that this struggle doesn’t have just two sides. It also has an inside—el pueblo–the majority of the people of Oaxaca, who still have no voice, and no choice except to endure.

by Robert Adler, Jo Ann Wexler and Monica Trueba

for more commentaries by Robert Adler, visit zerospinzone.blogspot.com

Robert Adler