What did we learn from Oaxaca? (and what I am doing now)

The following I first wrote in Norwegian, but then I met a Greek traveler who had been asked to write something about Oaxaca for a Greek magazine. However, because they did not let him in to the city (holding him in custody for not having a passport on him for a few days instead), he could not write anything about it and asked me whether I could send my article (for anyone having followed this blog all throughout the conflict, some of this stuff is the same over again.)…

Oaxaca liberated city


The southern Mexican town of Oaxaca was for five months seemingly governed of a mix of an organization with a workers council structure and a teachers union. In solidarity with Oaxaca, left wing forces all over the world have arranged solidarity assemblies and demonstrated in front of Mexican embassies all throughout November, when President Vincente Fox sent federal police in to end it all. But what happened actually in Oaxaca itself? I was in Oaxaca city from the 5th until the 30th of November, during the weeks of uproar, when the control of the city went from left wing forces back to the police.

From teacher strike to uproar

All of it began last spring, when the Oaxaca teachers union struck and occupied the town’s central square Zócalo, like every year. It has almost become a tradition for the government to give in to a few of the teachers’ demands, but more than that the conditions for teachers in Oaxaca are still among the worst in Mexico. But even though the state of Oaxaca was bankrupt this year, after having paid for renovation of inner Oaxaca city, the teachers decided to end their strike on the 15th/16th of June and go back to work, and then to come back next year and try again. It came therefore as somewhat of a surprise to them, when the police attacked their camp early in the morning of June 14th. Just two hours after having been spread all over the town, the teachers went back and took control of the Zócalo once again. On the June 17th the 70,000 member strong organization gained the support and assistance of the adhoc organized Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO) with 30,000 members. In addition to demands of better financing that the teachers set forth every year, this year it was also demanded that the state’s governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortíz, stepped down, both for driving the state bankrupt and because it was held that he was directly responsible for the order to attack the teachers.

The local police, scarred by the strength of the two groups, decided to give up the entire town and up until October, the union, the APPO and both federal and state government held talks. Finally the government gave in to many of the demands of the teachers which were to be financed through transfers from the federal level, but the replacement of the governor, which was most import for the APPO, was not to take place. The teachers therefore went back to work on November 5 th with guarantees of not being arrested, while the APPO took over the occupation of the city more or less alone.

The PFP barbed in at the Zócalo on November 5th.
The PFP barbed in at the Zócalo on November 5th.

<%image(20061107-police_barbed_wire_defence.jpg|2272|1704|The PFP barbed in at the Zócalo on November 5th.)%>

On October 28th, President decided to send in 3500-4000 police of the Preventive Federal Police (PFP). The occupiers would not give in that fast, and so they built up barricades all over town to defend themselves against the PFP. The fights about the barricades lasted until the 2nd of November, and took between 11 and 26 lives on the side of the APPO, among them US American Brad Will. Even though the PFP managed to remove most barricades, they were beat when they tried to remove the «Barricade of the Dead» right at the Autonomous University Benito Juarez Oaxaca (UABJO). Between November 2 nd and 25th, the PFP had barricaded itself in at the Zócalo with barbed wire and burned out cars and sat there with all their men, while the rest of the city again was under the control of the APPO and those teachers who decided not to go back to work in solidarity. Their new center was just a few blocks north of the Zócalo, at the square in front of the Santa Domingo church, in addition to the UABJO, where they used the AM radio station in order to, if necessary, be able to call for help if the police were to attack.

It took more than three weeks to remove the "Barricade of the Dead" for the PFP.
It took more than three weeks to remove the “Barricade of the Dead” for the PFP.

On November 25th a bigger march ended at the Zócalo and after some verbal provocations, the police decided to attack on a big scale, removed the new APPO center in front of Santa Domingo, had more police come into town, and arrested several hundred people, according to their own figures. On November 29th, the APPO therefore gave up the last barricade and the UABJO and those activists who could went underground or fled to Mexico City. Ortíz is at the point of writing still formally the governor of Oaxaca.

Party connections

Although both the APPO and Ortíz talk about the conflict as being local, it can hardly be understood without looking at the struggle between ultra-conservative Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN) and left-centrists Andrés Manel López Obrador from the Party for the Democratic Revolution (PRD) which started during the election campaign in spring, to the election of July 2nd, and further throughout Obrador’s occupation of Mexico city until September, and the inaugurations of Obrador as “legitimate president” on November 20th, and inauguration of Calderón as formal president on December 1st.

Obrador speaking in Mexico city on December 1st
Obrador speaking in Mexico city on December 1st

First of all, the political party of Ortíz is important. He is a member of the old ruling and now third largest Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI). At the elections this year, also federal deputies were elected and in Oaxaca, the PRD and its minor coalition partners gained 7 seats, the PRI 2 and the PAN 0. As late as 2004, all opposition forces, including PRD and PAN, had gone together in a coalition against the PRI, and had not managed to remove the PRI from the governor post (which, according to their version, only won by falsifying the election result). But if one was able to push through re-elections this year, the PRD would be sure to gain the governor.

And the entire reason for the state being bankrupt this year and that there was no money for the teachers was that this had gone towards renovating the inner city. For this, it is assumed strongly, Ortíz paid a major sum to a company owned by ex-governor Josè Morat (PRI), who needed money because he happened to be the election campaign secretary of PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo on the federal level this year. Luckily for him, the court that was investigating him was burned down on the night between November 25 th and 26th, when the city was in chaos after the confrontations between the PFP and the APPO on the same day.

Also, reelections without the approval of Ortíz would only be possible if the federal parliament declared a state of «ungovernability.» There were therefore representatives of the three major parties in Oaxaca in order to look at the current situation. But in order to gain a majority in congress for the removal of Ortíz, PAN would have to would with the PRD. If they would do that, they would risk the defacto coalition they had built up with the PRI on the federal level, and they could that instead the PRI partner with the PRD and with their common majority they would create hell for Calderón. Probably therefore, the PAN decided not to vote for the removal of Ortíz, at least for now. On the other hand, voting against the removal of Ortíz would also make the PAN co-responsible for the killings and other obscure activities Ortíz is undertaking.

Flavio Sosa Villavicencio -- the connection between PRD and APPO?
Flavio Sosa Villavicencio — the connection between PRD and APPO?

Also the person Flavio Sosa Villavicencio is interesting in this aspect: While the APPO according to its own statutes is an «organization without leaders» and it also in reality was impossible to control how the entire APPO would behave at any given time for any single individual, during the conflict, Villavicencio represented the APPO in the media and was largely its face outward. Villavicencio, officially the leader of the organization the New Left (NI), was a work immigrant to the United States in the 1980s and for a long time known as a member of the PRD. But in 2000 he chose to leave the PRD in order to support Fox (PAN) in his presidential campaign together with the NI. The reason he gave back then was that Fox had the best chances to end «70 years of PRI dictatorship.» On the 4th of December Villavicencio was arrested after giving a press conference in Mexico city and first when appearing before the judge on the 5 th did he describe himself as a member of the PRD again.

But the PRD was also more directly involved in the activities in Oaxaca. About every week, buses from Mexico city were arranged to Oaxaca city. Those who took them could travel for free back and forth. Mostly they were used by young activists of various left wing groups from the universities and high schools. I had stayed at the PRD occupation camp of Mexico city in September, and many of the young from then were the same ones now showing up in Oaxaca .

Activists from Mexico city in Oaxaca in solidarity
Activists from Mexico city in Oaxaca in solidarity

The national left wing coalition

A "mega march" reaching Oaxaca
A “mega march” reaching Oaxaca

At the same time, the uproar in Oaxaca gave the left an opportunity to unite. Already the Obrador campaign had united the PRD and the two reformist left wing parties The Workers Party (PT) and Convergence (C), and the following occupation of Mexico City had in addition united various revolutionary socialist and communist parties. But all these are groups that more or less work through elections and the representative democracy. The APPO in addition managed to unite that worked outside of parliamentarism: a number of local NGOs, anarchist students groups from Mexico city, and not at least the indigenous movement the Zapatistas (EZLN). The EZLN leader subcomandante Marcos, who became world famous during their uproar in the state of Chiapas in 1994 when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was started, has argued for an ideology of taking power by building alternative structures without taking over the state itself (and getting involved with parliamentarism). In addition to the fact that PRD has had the governor of Chiapas since 2000 which has lead to a few regional conflicts with the EZLN, this meant that it was impossible for Marcos to support Obrador’s campaign directly. However, the EZLN could show their solidarity with the events in Oaxaca and also to help with their international media contacts. In this way, they could support Obrador indirectly, without having to be confronted with claims of working parliamentary. The other way round, an activist from the PT and member of the Trotskyite IV international told me: «that which is good about [the events in] Oaxaca is that they press the reformist parties like PT and PRD to cooperate with the revolutionary left, like the Zapatistas.»

So who is the APPO

But probably due to the somewhat chaotic mix that makes up the APPO, it was often not only difficult to find common decisions, but one also lacked a common way of reaching such decisions. The events of November 25 th can help illustrate this: the APPO had a founding congress November 10th to 12th, at which it was decided that a number of different actions were to take place over the next few weeks. One of these was that on November 25 th, one would surround the Zócalo and block all roads in and out for 48 hours for the PFP, in order to prove that in reality they did not have control with the situation. It was important that the surrounding was to happen from the distance of one block, in order not to give any opportunities of confrontations.

At this founding congress, every organization that counted itself as part of the APPO was allowed to participate with a certain number of delegates and had the right to invite a certain number of visitors. Although the congress had many participants, and one fought out many battles, such as whether one should remove the last barricades, one had not thought about the understanding of the organization many of the activists who did not have any organization, or who understood the APPO where membership was determined by the amount of activism one helped with. These had mostly not participated in the congress at all, and had for the greatest part not heard about the decisions that were taken at the congress or had not understood these as being binding. Especially this was the case for those who stayed in the barricade or the university. Jose, a 19 year old anarchist punk rocker and activist from Mexico city, described to me what was to happen on the 25th as «[there] will be big demonstrations and then we will chase the PFP away from the Zócalo.» «Everyone had planned to chase away the PFP,» the 21 year old activist Tom from Food Not Bombs in Santa Barbara, California told me still surprised a week later, when I talked about the «error» of breaking the APPO decision of not attacking, «that was the general opinion at the university.»

At the UABJO and in the barricade, the youths had prepared themselves for several hard confrontations on beforehand: Molotov cocktails, big amounts of gas masks, fireworks that could be directed with the help of some plastic tubes that looked like bazookas, and three stolen busses that had been prepared to be lit on fire and driven into the police.

When the demonstration reached the city center in the afternoon, it was total confusion as what was to happen now. Most streets towards the Zócalo were barricaded peacefully with about 10-15 people who blocked the way symbolically with a flag and both demonstrators and police seemed to relax. But at the three streets leading northward from the police, the people barricading the street desperately tried to hold their position by chaining themselves together across the street. It was not the police that attacked here, but rather the youths screaming various provocations at the PFP in order to finally get started with the fights they had prepared for. When it finally did start, it did not take long until the police had chased everyone northward, towards the Santa Domingo, by using tear gas.

Villavicencio, who showed up on the square in front of Santa Domingo with tear gassed eyes in the middle of the battle and tried to ask everyone to «coordinate us, because we will never be able to win a battle like this,» was booed out of the youths, who normally talked about him as having sold out and not to be representative for the APPO. A few days later, the APPO, the PRD, the teachers union and others send out press releases condemning the violence and saying that it must have been due to Ortíz’s infiltrators, who just wanted to hurt the APPO.

After having seen Villavicencio participating at hour long APPO meeting where not more than 35 people had showed up, I would count it as probable that he really believed that it was here tat all APPO decisions were taken, and that he therefore rightfully could claim that he thought the events on the 25 th were the work of infiltrators.

Movement without growth

Another phenomenon that hit me when first seeing the APPO was that it seemed like there was little focus on reaching out to other groups in order to have a greater percentage and the population behind one. This was the case both in terms of contents and culture. At the university and the barricade, I saw together never more than 150-200 people, mainly youths, and in front of Santa Domingo, the number was normally about the same.

Graffiti was smeared over most buildings in Oaxaca.
Graffiti was smeared over most buildings in Oaxaca.

Given the last election results it should have been relatively easily to built up pressure against Ortíz and the PRI. In terms of contents, it must be said that the APPO did talk a bit about some changes that would have benefited the entire population, such as demanding that transfers from the federal level for schools should go directly to the schools, thereby short-cutting the state government in order to prevent money being siphoned off into corruption there. But the APPO was very quiet about this, not marketing it at all to the outside, and also it was still very teacher oriented. On the cultural side, one never did anything to stop the youths’ graffiti painting of the entire town or arranged alternatives when taking busses out of circulation. And when the UABJO opened again in mid November, the APPO activists screamed at all «normal students» that they were not allowed to enter their part of the UABJO, every time one tried to come close or pass through. A female anarchist activist who had traveled to Oaxaca in order to live in the barricades told me that she fled the barricades after being frightened by the enormously high usage of crack among the youths and the fact the she constantly was told that someone else would rape her during the night.

John Reimann, union militant for many years in the Californian carpenter industry whom I met at the UABJO, gives one possible explanation. Reimann has studied and participated in social movements in Mexico for many years, and sees the behavior as a result of how the state functioned during the many years of PRI regime: « The PRI and the state were virtually one and the same, and the PRI said it was based on “three pillars” – the unions, the peasant organizations and the state bureaucracy. In fact, each of these sectors could get concessions from time to time and, at times, the state also forced the bosses to grant concessions to the workers. […] I used to see some very militant seeming protests in the Zocalo in DF [Mexico City] – which it then turned out were indirectly financed by the PRI. The protesters were even shouting ‘death to the PRI!’ But the protests were totally aimed at gaining some concessions from the PRI/state apparatus. In the mid ’90s there was a strike of VW auto workers in Puebla. As the strike heated up, they mobilized a car caravan to petition the secretary of labor in DF. I asked one or two of them why they didn’t stay in Puebla and seek to mobilize other sectors of the class there. ‘Oh no,’ came the reply, ‘we’re going to see the Secretary of Labor in DF. That’s where this will all be settled anyway.’

I think the other side of the coin was that protest movements or strikes that were aimed at the regime and at gaining concessions from the regime were somewhat acceptable. But let a movement start to aim itself at wider layers of the working class, and it would be crushed. Or, more accurately, the leaders of the movement would disappear.”

Although the political situation has changed today, one can in this way understand the behavior as having arisen in the old system and not having been changed sufficiently to accommodate the new realities.

The media

Maybe exactly due to the uncertainties surrounding the APPO, the EZLN never really joined forces, and only had various solidarity arrangements in Chiapas rather than for example sending supporting troops to Oaxaca. And although the EZLN promised to help the APPO get its message out through the media, this was only half way successful.

Although many have heard that something has happened in Oaxaca, has the media’s handling of the situation in Oaxaca been rather tragic the entire time. Of local media it was mainly the two competing papers Las Noticias and El Imparcial that people read and the university radio as well as the pirate station Radio Ciudadano, that Ortíz government had set up, were the only two radio stations that functioned entire November. Also the El Imparcial is rather closely connected to Ortíz, while Las Noticias, which used to be independent but conservative, had been physically attacked by some of the governor’s men some years back when he tried to monopolize the newspaper market, and had therefore now turned into a vigorous APPO propaganda organ. The university radio was APPOs official communication channel, but the government set up a scrambling signal on its frequency, so many places in town it was hard to receive anything form it. As an alternative, the APPO and teachers lit three fireworks and would ring the nearest church bell whenever they were in trouble and needed help.

But for anyone just wanting to know what happened, it was impossible to find out through the local media. For example, on the 5 th of November there was a so-called «mega march,» with people from all over Mexico who came in solidarity with the APPO. I myself was there during the peaceful demonstration, and there were way too many people for me to be able to guess how many had showed up. That is also how it often is in Europe, and the media normally uses a combination of the number the police gives, the number those arranging the demonstration give and sometimes also an estimate they calculate/guess. The numbers are therefore different from media to media, but they stay within a certain frame. In contrast, in Oaxaca the numbers varied from 3000 (Radio Ciudadano) to 1-2,000,000 (Las Noticias).

Nevertheless, the picture of the situation given by the international media was almost worse. During some of the mega marches, there were up to a handful of journalists from commercial medias and mostly 10-15 journalists from noncommercial, idealistic media, mainly from different groups of the global Indymedia network. I was standing close by during the mega march on the 5th, when two media people met with the greeting: «Hey, I seem to see you everywhere: Afghanistan , Iraq… and now Oaxaca.» But there were no deaths that day and so most journalists had disappeared the next day. Scandinavian media had no reporters in Oaxaca at all.

Lisa Roth, who had studied the Oaxaca area in connection with development studies at the University College of Oslo (HiO) and had been interviewed by a number of Norwegian media, was besides me the only Scandinavian on the ground. The Danish idealistic news site Modkraft.dk also talked about two Danes being on their way in early November, but we never heard any more of them.

All the Indymedia activists I talked to were on the other hand very anarchist and believing very much in acting locally. The idea of a local workers council republic with active taking part in decision making processes by everyone, was very appealing to them. Unfortunately, many of their reports were influenced by the fact that they took all the information from the activists at the university, and that they forgot that this group was representative for neither the APPO nor the general population of Oaxaca. News stories like « Everyday young, old, middle class, all kinds of people go out to write [grafitti] slogans on the walls » (New York Indymedia, Nov 14th), were simply misleading given that the graffiti just about exclusively was done by these youths, which was not uncontroversial either, also amongst the Oaxaca people who supported the APPO. In addition, they almost completely left out the national perspective, and when they wrote about it, it would be about the EZLN, while Obrador and the PRD were handled as treacherous and irrelevant.

How to continue?

In spite of all problems the uproar enclosed, it is hard not to notice the great importance and singularity in newer history that the freeing of a town of the entire force of the state has been. A revolution newer happens perfectly, and one can therefore not expect it of the rebels in Oaxaca either. But that is not an excuse for not doing something about the problems one has discovered during the next trial.

One thing one needs to figure out is exactly how decisions are to be made. Also if one wants to make decisions in a decentralized way, and only among those who are 100% active, one must have figured this out together with everyone involved on beforehand. Else, it will always end with those wanting to fight the police get their way, without anyone else having anything to say in the process.

Further, Reimann’s analysis can probably explain some aspects as to why the movement has been behaving the way it has, but one also has to consider that some of the youths were only 13 years of age when the PRI regime fell, and that the behavior of the diversity of groups can not just be described by cultural laws. In any case, it is not an excuse to continue this way.

In terms of media, it will probably always be impossible to control with 100% precision how one appears in the media. And it is also clear that one needs a communication channel that directly is being used by the group that is responsible for it all. But besides that, it is of little value to have all communication channels one can get a hold of to send out nothing but propaganda for one’s cause. If on does that, is the only way people can try to find out what is the truth to read both the government news and the rebels news and then to count on the truth lying somewhere midway in-between the two versions.

In addition one also has to consider whether the situation is sufficiently bad and the support for a occupation in the population sufficient, so that it does not just all end with everyone involved being detained and everything going back to how it was before.

And since…

I left Mexico City for Veracruz on December 2nd, unsure on how to move on after Oaxaca. I even changed my name to “Julius Nissen,” afraid that the Federal Police (PFP) might be after me. I had the option of returning to Europe on December 20th (today), or to extend my trip until February 11th. I finally chose the latter option and have since been moving south, trying to promote my newest project — New Left Notes at the various universities I encountered. Veracruz, Veracruz; Arriaga, Chiapas; Tapachula, Chiapas (not getting across the border to Guatemala there); San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas; Huehuetenango, Guatemala (the town where I had studied Spanish and now stayed for the good bye party of a gringa); Guatemala, Guatemala; San Salvador, El Salvador (where I ended up hanging around a bunch of Peace Corps people and some other NGOish type of people as well as the San Salvadorensians who initially picked me up on the street and brought me to the youth hostel) and since last night Tegucigalpa, Honduras where I ran into a Honduran red cross volunteer who showed me around. Summer holidays are on all throughout Central America, but that does not mean that students are not hanging around the universities, so putting up posters (between 100 at the UNAM and 20 in Veracruz) does definitely make sense.

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