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Friday, February 23, 2007

Oaxaca, the Great Mexican
Social Volcano Rumbles

by G.S. (Reprinted with permission)

Nancy Davies and I had been living in Oaxaca City seven and a half years when the uprising began. This several-part essay is an introduction to her book, The People Decide: Oaxaca’s Popular Assembly, soon to be published by Narco News Books.[*] Her stream of reports to the Narco News Bulletin during that turbulent period offers a unique running commentary on the initial phase of what is, in my opinion, an historic struggle to change the way Oaxacan society operates. The city is her turf. She knows a fair part of it intimately, and is a keen and biased observer, never neutral in interpreting what she sees.

Part One: A Historical Sketch
19 September 1985: The Mexican volcano
trembles, civil society surges

The great Mexican volcano, Popocatepetl, its snow-capped upper reaches soaring to almost 18,000 ft above sea level, its huge deep crater encircled by a vast irregular rim, always alive with smoke and steam trailing up into the sky, and at times threatening to erupt, reflects the geophysical seismic activity of this land of many

Popocatépetl, seen from the City of Puebla on 14 November 2006
Published in La Jornada. Photo by Imelda Medina/AP.

mountains. About 45 miles northwest of ‘Popo’, as it’s commonly called, lies Mexico City, the world’s most populous metropolis, with about 25 million souls. At 7:19 am local time on 19 September 1985 an earthquake that measured 8.1 on the Richter scale brought unprecedented devastation to the city.[1] A massive self-mobilization of ordinary citizens responded spontaneously to rescue as many as possible of those trapped alive in the wreckage. Many speak of that event, which shook the heart of Mexico, as the beginning of an enormous surge in Mexican civil society. It is that civil society, triggered by the uprising in Oaxaca, that is now making the Mexican state tremble, threatening an eruption from below as the government fast loses its legitimacy in the view of most Mexicans.

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.[2] 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,

is flanked to its east by Chiapas and to its west by Guerrero. Its population (according to the 2005 census more than 3.5 million [3] but perhaps closer to 4 million residents) is unique among Mexican states in that it contains the largest fraction, 2/3, and the largest absolute number of people with indigenous ancestry (the 2005 census indicates that 35.3 percent speak an indigenous language [4] ). Corruption is endemic throughout the world and Mexico is no exception. The most powerful and privileged members of the society are the principal beneficiaries. The overwhelming majority of the indigenous population is among the most impoverished. They have been sympathetic to and inspired by the struggles of indigenous peoples in other parts of Mexico to better their lives, such as the attempts of the Zapatista base support communities in Chiapas that have declared themselves “in rebellion” and asserted their autonomy, in opposition to state and federal efforts to crush their attempted autonomy.
A key player – the powerful Oaxaca Section of the
National Education Workers’ Union

There are about 70,000 teachers in the state educational institutions, all state employees. About ten per cent of Oaxaqueños live in the capital city, the other ninety percent are in many smaller communities – cities, towns, villages and rancherias (tiny groupings of dwellings smaller than villages) – throughout the state. Private schools and colleges are primarily in the capital. Most Oaxacan children and parents are thus in closest contact with those teachers who are state employees. These teachers and other education workers belong to the Oaxaca part, Section 22, of the National Education Workers Union (Sindicato Nacional de los Trabajadores de la Educación SNTE).

Oaxaca City, the capital of Oaxaca State, sits in the Central Valley between two chains of mountains, indicated by inverted red Vs. The Northern Sierras separate the Central Valley from the lowlands adjacent to Veracruz, and the Southern Sierras separate it from the coastal area along the Pacific. The capital city, with about ten percent of the state's population, is roughly in the center of the state. The "heart" of the city is the famous Zócalo, where the sleeping teachers were first attacked by state forces on 14 June 2006 and ultimately driven out by federal forces on 30 October, three days before the attack on the university. The map full size is available at the website
SNTE is a very large and powerful union, hierarchical in structure, a company union created by the governing party over 70 years ago. From the start it was in bed with that ruling party, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (El Partido Revolucionario Institucional –PRI). It remains essentially a government union, although the PRI lost the presidency, for the first time, in 2000. Until recently, the General Secretary of SNTE, Elba Esther Gordillo, was second from the top of the PRI hierarchy, just below Roberto Madrazo, the unsuccessful PRI candidate for president in the 2006 election.

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.

15 May 2006: In a quarter-century tradition, Section 22
of SNTE warns of state-wide strike

On National Teachers’ Day in Oaxaca, 15 May, the already frustrated leadership of Section 22 of SNTE declared that if their negotiations with the state government did not progress, they would initiate a state-wide strike the following week. They were demanding an upgrade in the zonification of Oaxaca, which would increase the federally-designated minimum wage for all state employees in Oaxaca. The rationalization for having lower legal minimum wages in poor states, like Oaxaca, is probably that it’s supposedly cheaper to live in a more impoverished region than in one with a higher average income. Such an upgrade of Oaxaca, although it would affect waged workers in Oaxaca who are paid the minimum wage, would not affect the teachers, whose pay is above the minimum. For themselves the teachers demanded a salary increase.

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 [5] 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.

14 June 2006: Violent attack by state police, citizens
outraged, surge of support transforms the struggle

The rest of this story, covering the events of this very important citizen's struggle in Mexico, still ongoing, from June 14th, 2006 , can be read at the link below.(Scroll down to this date, 14 June, 2006.) This was just a tease to get you interested in this story, much under-reported in this country.

1 comment:

Larry Gambone said...

Thanks for running this first rate story on Oaxaca. This is the sort of thing Tyee ought to be doing, but isn't.