Oaxaca Teachers’ Strike Sparks Democracy Movement

Thousands of teachers and citizens marched silently through the streets of the city of Oaxaca, Mexico on August 13, mourning the recent death of a protester during a peaceful demonstration and demanding the release of six people who were recently detained or disappeared by state authorities. Schoolteacher Elia Silva, wife of disappeared teacher and former union leader Erangelio Mendoza, told the crowd that the illegal detention of her husband and others “will not intimidate the struggle.”

Gerardo Renique

What began as a teachers’ strike for better wages and more resources for students has sparked a broad movement to oust Oaxaca’s corrupt and autocratic state government. The strike started on May 22, seeking improvements in teachers’ salaries and working conditions as well as broader educational reforms. The teachers’ union demands included free lunches, books and uniforms for Oaxaca’s mostly poor and rural student body to improve learning conditions in the hopes of offsetting the creeping privatization of public education.

A teachers’ encampment in this colonial city’s historic downtown swelled to fill many square blocks as support for the strikers grew. On June 14, a violent attack by state police failed to evict the encampment, sending dozens of teachers to the hospital. The government attack backfired. Public anger has turned the teacher’s strike into an unprecedented democratic insurgency demanding the resignation of Governor Ulises Ruiz.

Ruiz was declared winner of the July 2004 state election by a federal tribunal, after a hotly contested vote marked by charges of fraud. He was candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for decades as a virtual one-party state. From the outset, the corruption and authoritarianism of his administration have been remarkable—even by PRI standards.

During Ruiz’s brief tenure, Oaxaca has suffered 36 political assassinations and dozens of arbitrary detentions and disappearances. During the current conflict, three indigenous leaders and a child were ambushed and killed by paramilitary forces, at least six activists are still unaccounted for and government goons have carried out shootings against the newspaper Noticias and Radio Universidad. Since local police recently declared their refusal to participate in repressing demonstrators, the governor has increasingly relied on gunmen linked to the PRI’s political machinery and special semi-militarized police teams.

The Bust of the Economy, The Boom of a Movement

Besides having the largest indigenous population in Mexico, the state of Oaxaca is also one of the poorest: home to 356 of Mexico’s 400 most impoverished municipalities. Oaxaca also has the highest school dropout rates in the nation. This situation has been exacerbated during the last decade as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the related privatization of public services, lands and natural resources.

Unrestricted entry of foreign goods into Mexico’s internal market—including corn and beans, the main staples of the Oaxacan diet—has led to a collapse of local agriculture, pushing thousands across the border into low-paying jobs in the U.S. economy. The remittances sent home by Oaxacan migrants now constitute the state’s second-largest source of income after tourism.

Oaxaca’s wealth of natural resources and its potential for tourism attracted the interest of transnational corporations. With most of the beaches, minerals, water and forest within the boundaries of indigenous communal lands, investors established partnerships with local PRI political bosses, who have dominated state politics for the last seven decades. Through legal chicanery and outright violence, the last two PRI state administrations arbitrarily imposed local authorities, established paramilitary forces and jailed opponents to gain access to communal lands and resources.

Amid this dire economic situation, teaching has historically been the most readily available—if not the only—source of social mobility for peasant and working class youth. Teachers have also played a key social and political role as mediators between the state and society. This was particularly the case in rural areas where during the early years of the Mexican Revolution they acted as organizers for agrarian reform, literacy campaigns and nationalist mobilizations. Later, as Mexico’s progressive state turned increasingly authoritarian under the PRI, teachers were often at the forefront of democratic opposition.

Teachers in the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacán, Guerrero and Mexico City have challenged the leadership of the PRI-controlled National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE). Oaxaca’s local Section 22 was among the founders of the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), a caucus that has fought to end corruption, undemocratic practices and political patronage within the broader national union since 1979.

As the largest union in Mexico, the SNTE has provided its leaders with significant leverage within the PRI as well as a ready source of cash. With both personal fortunes and their political careers at stake, the SNTE leadership has put up fierce resistance against the reform movement within the union.

From Mass Repression to Mass Resistance

For many Oaxacans, the early morning June 14 attack against the teachers’ strike was just the last straw. Residents of downtown Oaxaca were already angry about poorly executed projects of urban renewal carried out by a construction company owned by Governor Ruiz’s brother, compromising some of the city’s beloved parks and public spaces. Indiscriminate use of tear gas shot from a helicopter made anyone who lived downtown feel like they were under siege. Neighborhood residents offered shelter, water and assistance to the teachers when the police attacked.

Police went on to destroy the equipment of Radio Plantón—a radio station the teachers had operated from the encampment. Students responded by taking over a local university radio station to counteract the anti-union distortions being broadcast on local and national networks. By noon, with the support of students, union members and neighbors, the teachers retook the 50 square blocks of their encampment in the downtown area.

Throughout the day, rural communities sent delegations with supplies, ready to stand by “their” teachers in the plantón (protest encampment). The Catholic Church ordered the doors of its churches opened as sanctuaries around the clock. Late in the evening a wide range of social and political organizations called for a “mega-march” to demand the resignation of Governor Ruiz. With 300,000 to 400,000 participants, observers said the march was the largest demonstration in the history of Oaxaca. When a march on June 28 drew an even larger crowd—close to a million people—it was clear that support for the teachers against repression had become a veritable democratic insurgency.

Hundreds of unions, indigenous organizations, neighborhood groups, and student and professional associations have coalesced into the Asamblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca (Oaxacan Peoples’ Assembly, or APPO). Citing constitutional provisions that allow for the replacement of a governor who has acted illegally and arbitrarily, the groups under the umbrella organization are demanding that the federal congress open a political trial to consider the resignation of Ruiz.

A massive campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience has brought the state government to a standstill. In the last month, picket lines and human chains have blockaded state government offices. And the movement is not confined to the capital city of Oaxaca: citizens in the state’s rural communities have been taking over municipal buildings, reclaiming their governments from authorities imposed from above by Governor Ruiz.

In a bold move, several women’s organizations took over the state-controlled radio and television station—constant sources of misinformation against the movement. Thousands of citizens have rallied around the station and its broadcast antennas scattered throughout the state. Fearing government retaliation similar to the shooting at Radio Universidad after it came under student control, citizen groups stand watch outside the occupied installations.

La lucha sigue…

Oaxaca’s democratic insurgency has put an effective end to the uncontested control that the PRI maintained over state politics through its well-oiled political machine, which kept the population in check through a network of caciques (political bosses). Following a call by the teachers’ union and APPO to cast a “punishing vote” against the parties in power, the PRI was soundly defeated in the recent national elections by a margin of 4 to 1 in favor of the center-left opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

The goals of Oaxaca’s democratic insurgency, however, go beyond electoral participation. APPO is seeing a new kind of state government that would be “respectful of human rights, indigenous communal life and municipal autonomy.” With that goal in mind, hundreds of academics, constitutional scholars, activists and popular leaders took part in a forum on August 16 and 17 to discuss possible paths for the “reestablishment of a state based on constitutional rights, democracy and political stability though the creation of a new constitution for our state, to reflect the voices and the desires of the Oaxacan people.”

In the atmosphere of uncertainty that has followed Mexico’s unresolved July 2 presidential election, the outcome of Oaxaca’s crisis is also uncertain. Violence and the threat of violence continue to grow. The government has created a Web site with the names, photos and home addresses of union leaders, opposition politicians and academics accused as intellectual perpetrators of “subversion” against the government. (See ). A red “X” is placed over the silhouette of José Jiménez Colmenares, who was killed during a peaceful march on August 10. Others who have been disappeared or taken prisoner are labeled, “This one has already fallen!”

On Monday Aug 21, around 60 hired gunmen attacked the antennas and transmitter of the TV and radio stations under the control of women protesters, seriously wounding one teacher, Sergio Vale Jiménez.. In response, the citizens’ movement led by APPO "borrowed" 12 private radio stations and opened the microphones to the public. With a broader reach than the state controlled radio and TV stations occupied by women’s organizations since August 1, the occupied radio stations quickly began receiving calls of support from different regions on the state. By early evening the occupiers returned most of the radio stations to their owners, though two stations that have served as mouthpieces for Governor Ruiz are still under the control of APPO.

In the early morning of the following day, masked policemen and civilian gunmen shot at the radio stations under control of APPO. As a consequence, a passer-by was killed. Paramilitaries also shot at a vehicle carrying three photojournalists and attacked and destroyed the equipment of a cameraman from Televisa.

Just as troublesome is the fact that local authorities have issued arrest warrants for 50 to 100 activists. Among them is my good friend, Victor Raúl Martínez Vásquez. He is a university professor, sociologist, member of the Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales of the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca (UABJO). The author of several books, he has written extensively on the history and politics of education and the teachers’ movement in Oaxaca. He is contributes regularly to local and national newspapers, and has recently served up some sharp analyses of the current crisis that the government is bound to find distasteful.

At the moment, a group of intellectuals and Church leaders are in Mexico City, trying to negotiate an end to this repression with members of the cabinet. APPO and the Oaxacan teachers’ union have increased their presence in Mexico City, and the protests in Oaxaca have won more media attention. There is increasing recognition that, as one newspaper put it, “The institutional crisis in Oaxaca has become a national problem.” It remains to be seen how that problem will be resolved.

Gerardo Rénique is Associate Professor of History at the City University of New York and is on the board of directors of the Brecht Forum. He is co-author (with Deborah Poole) of Peru: Time of Fear.


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