Social Volcano Rumbles
19 September 1985: The Mexican volcano
trembles, civil society surges
Published in La Jornada. Photo by Imelda Medina/AP.
Civil society, as distinct from government- or corporate-based organizations, exists in every modern nation-state. It arises from peoples’ efforts to meet needs and desires unfulfilled or thwarted by governments, e.g. the desire to be secure that their human rights will be respected. Every nation with a population divided into a very rich part and an impoverished part, if it is to maintain the privileges of the wealthy, cannot avoid violating the human rights of the poor.
In Mexico a great deal of poverty exists in Oaxaca State. The violation of human rights by the state is fierce. That is the basis for the remarkable uprising that began in May 2006, which is now pitting the state and federal governments and corporate interests (national and international) against a formidable group of organizations, most of them part of Mexican civil society.
Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero are the three most impoverished states of Mexico. These contiguous states, among the richest in natural resources, lie along the Pacific coastline in southeastern Mexico. Oaxaca, shown darkened on the map,
A key player – the powerful Oaxaca Section of the
National Education Workers’ Union
Among Mexican teachers there is another formation, the National Educational Workers Coordinating Committee (Comité Coordinador Nacional de Trabajadores Educativo – CNTE). In Oaxaca the CNTE, whose members belong to SNTE Section 22, play a leading role in setting Section 22 policy. Section 22 has long been regarded as one of the most militant, independent parts of SNTE. Both designations Sección 22 SNTE and Sección 22 SNTE-CNTE are used interchangably.
The teachers are considerably better off than the impoverished majority of Oaxaqueños. From the start of their occupation of the city center on May 22, until the attack on their encampment on 14 June, a good many small business people and others in the so-called middle class held mixed views of the teachers’ action. Some of them were quite critical. As part of the state’s middle class, teachers are, by Oaxaca standards, far from poor. There is thus an economic class-divide between them and most of their students’ families. Normally one might expect a lack of sympathy on the part of the mostly poor families for the economically privileged teachers. However, immediately following the police assault support for the teachers surged throughout the state and beyond. Students and their families in particular swarmed to support the teachers.
This crossing of class lines happened because of the personal bonds between many of the teachers and their pupils. Both groups were victims of institutionalized governmental neglect. The teachers were obliged to accept assignments to remote, impoverished communites. Many of them met their students in makeshift quarters lacking the basic needs of a functional school: shacks without sanitary facilities, blackboards, and so on. Funds allocated to provide help to the poorest pupils, for clothing, meals, paper, pencils, books, disappeared in the corrupt administative chain. This bleeding of educational funds happens because there is no fiscal accountability, i.e. it is not even legally required in Oaxaca to maintain records of appropriations and expenditures. No bookkeeping! Teachers spent part of their pay to help their students. Naturally the union’s demands included both increased pay for the teachers, improved physical quarters for the schools and the monetary support for pupils that they were supposed to receive, according to law.
of SNTE warns of state-wide strike
Negotiations from the 15th to the 22nd between the union and the state, instead of moving towards a compromise agreement, became even more acrimonious. Beginning 22 May, a large group of teachers, other education workers, family members, allied individuals and members of allied organizations, numbering perhaps between 35,000 and 60,000 (hard numbers are impossible to know) from throughout the state occupied the center of Oaxaca City — the large central park (the zócalo) and some fifty-six blocks surrounding it — with their encampment. Local business people like hotel and restaurant owners were by and large critical due to their financial losses caused by the disruption. Quite normal. The ritual of an annual teachers’ strike was by now familiar, but never before had it been so massive and so prolonged, and with no end in sight.
During a period of barely three and a half weeks (22 May to 14 June) the strength of the teachers’ opposition to Governor Ulises Ruíz Ortíz (URO) continued to grow. Additional adherents, nursing their own grievances against the dictatorial regime, joined with the formidable SNTE contingent. Frequent marches, and two mega-marches, the first on 2 June with between 50,000 and 100,000 (the police and SNTE estimates, respectively), and the second on 7 June with 120,000  brought to the city demonstrations of size and vehemence never before seen here. I watched the 7 June march from the parapet on the north side of the Plaza de Danza as endless mockery of Ulises Ruíz paraded past, demanding boisterously that he leave the governorship. Undoubtedly there were state spies in civilian clothes with cameras, cell phones, video cameras and tape recorders, but no one seemed in the least intimidated or cautious. The entire event was permeated with a sense of peoples’ power.
outraged, surge of support transforms the struggle