Unrest in Oaxaca, Mexico... Perspective from the Ground

September 8, 2006, downtown Oaxaca

The Oaxaca teachers’ strike by Section 22 of the federal union began May 22, 2006, unfolding as per the previous 26 years, with a couple of thousand protesters occupying the central square (zócalo) of the capital, demanding money and benefits. On June 14th, for reasons we can only surmise, Governor Ulises Ruíz Ortíz (URO) sent in the police. Widespread damage to historic buildings and personal injuries was reported in international media, then and for months thereafter.

On June 16, 2006, Oaxaca Popular Peoples’ Assembly (APPO) emerged, comprising campesinos, other disenfranchised groups and additional sector individuals. Its demands, adopted by Section 22, included wholesale socio-political change. The primary stipulation, however, was that the governor resign. It was alleged that he had gained office in 2004 as a result of electoral fraud, and throughout his governorship had committed widespread theft from the public purse and used strong-arm tactics against those opposing his policies. APPO and Section 22 promised to not back down until the governor left office.

For months thereafter, Oaxaca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, named one of the world’s most important travel destinations, and a state relying almost entirely on tourism for its existence, boasting pristine Pacific resorts, turned into a war zone, frightening travelers from vacationing statewide, and dramatically changing the city’s complexion and the lives of residents. The colorful, café-lined zócalo became a tent city for demonstrators. Downtown graffiti abounded, defacing historic buildings, private and government property and even churches, at times racist and anti-capitalist, almost always citing the governor´s record and demanding his departure. Streets were blockaded with torched or otherwise destroyed buses and government vehicles, barbed wire, laminated metal and bricks. Night-time tire fires raged at intersections. Radio stations were commandeered, the airwaves used to propagandize and for communication between groups. Traffic became intolerable, even though many residents shunned venturing downtown out of fear, frustration and embarrassment. Running reds and driving the wrong way up one-way streets became acceptable. Traffic lights were rendered in-operational. The international airport was blockaded for 24 hours, as was occasionally the highway to Mexico City. With masked, club-wielding youths roaming streets, police feared patrolling downtown. Municipal and state offices closed, including the courts. Vigilante groups formed, meting out their own form of justice.

Negotiations facilitated by the federal government stalled when it resisted including the departure of URO as an issue for discussion. Eventually the state acceded to the teachers’ demands including many provisions which would lead to reform, but not the stipulation that URO leave. They continued receiving salaries until the end of August, and thereafter nothing. When it became clear that the governor would not readily resign, a 70 page document became the basis of settlement with Section 22. The teachers needed an income. A wedge had been driven between their union and APPO. With no teachers striking, the numbers in the movement dramatically dropped. Favor shifted to government, but not without APPO making an unsuccessful final effort, asking the senate to rule on whether or not there had been a “disappearance of powers” or ingovernability. It voted in the negative along party lines, enabling URO to remain.

Nine deaths directly linked to the protests were confirmed. The federal preventative police (PFP) was kept on alert. Finally at the end of October, within days of an American activist videographer being killed, the PFP entered the city, expelled the demonstrators from the zócalo, and set up its own encampment. Officers dismantled all blockades except those surrounding a major intersection. A couple of weeks after an ugly standoff, that final symbol of resistance was removed. No federal incursion took place while Oaxacans were killing merely Oaxacans. On November 25th APPO attempted to encircle the PFP in the zócalo and render forces immobile for 2 days. Their sympathizers hurled rocks, the PFP responded by moving their lines outward, and Molotov cocktail toting protesters gutted at least 4 government buildings including the federal court. Two days later, curiously, APPO had virtually disappeared, leaving behind millions of dollars in property damage, hotel occupancy reduced to 3% with 13 confirmed closures, and business revenues down by up to 90%.

By mid-December a third of approximately 150 jailed APPO members or sympathizers had been released. Many leaders remained incarcerated. There was by then an air of cautious optimism, the city was well into clean-up mode, and the PFP had begun withdrawing from downtown and returning law enforcement to the state. Hotels began reporting bookings rather than cancellations. But some downtown restaurants which relied primarily on tourism had permanently closed. For many shopkeepers it was as if they were once again starting out in business. One jeweler reported being given a 15 day grace period by his landlord and no other consideration. Over the six months, days would pass without a single sale. Twenty years of hard work and savings were wiped out. The mattress has been ripped open, with now nothing left inside. His budget shortfall was made up selling stock at 10% above cost. With tourists finally returning he has little stock and no way to replenish.

First the earthquake in the late nineties, then 9-11, now this. Oaxaca is resilient, though, evidenced by its continuous habitation for about three millenia. The federal government has pledged to spend millions to assist in restoration and worldwide promotion. Section 22 achieved its initial goals, with promised reform. We may never know APPO’s success. With continued backing from the federal left wing PRD party it may be a force with which to be reckoned and in due course have a long-term impact upon transfer payments from federal to state government, the lot of the impoverished, education, and financial checks and balances until now absent in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states. For the children, losing 6 months of classes will be devastating, especially in a state where schooling beyond 5th grade is the exception.

Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ) ©

Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ) is a founding member of the Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast Association, its members providing an attractive alternative to lodging in a Oaxaca hotel. Our member Oaxaca bed and breakfasts are committed to providing value-added service in a quaint, personal touch environment, a contrast to traditional Oaxaca hotels. Casa Machaya co-owner Alvin, the Oaxaca destinations expert for a major international travel website, provides Oaxaca tours to his house guests as well as those staying in other Oaxaca accommodations.