<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
¡Bienvenidos en Español!
Bem Vindos em Português!

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Four Weeks that Shook Oaxaca

A Teachers’ Strike Evolves from a Labor March to a Celebration of Resistance to a United Front for Widespread Discontent

By Geoffrey Harman
The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign in Oaxaca

June 21, 2006

OAXACA CITY: Momentum is a powerful force. This is a lesson that Oaxaca’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) state government is learning painfully. By ignoring, belittling, then attacking the teachers’ movement, Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz has spawned a popular revolt that could lead to the fourth overthrow of the state government in Oaxaca’s history.

The third mega-march in Oaxaca, June 16
Photo: D.R. 2006 Geoffrey Harman
On the 15th of May the teachers of Oaxaca held their first march. The weather on May 15 was clear and a little humid. Standing on Niños Heroes street just before the march I got no impression that 70,000 teachers were about to pass. The streets were busy with traffic and as far as I could see, no one had come out to watch. Suddenly the column of teachers from all over the state appeared climbing the small hill just beyond the baseball stadium. For about two hours they passed and Niños Heroes was shut down. The teachers looked jovial marching in the sun. Some chanted “Esto no es fiesta!” (“this is not a party”), trying to dispel the negative image that their now-annual strike had gotten them in the mass media. Then just as suddenly as they came, they left, and the busy street went back to normal, as if a squall had just passed. “They do this every year” a mother with two school-aged children explained to me. “Last year they camped in the Zócalo for weeks”, she said with a look of pained premonition “I hope it is just the march this year.”

That day, the teachers presented their 17 demands to the state government of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Among them were more funding for schools, textbooks and uniforms as well as increased salaries. Ruiz Ortiz replied that the demands were impossible and one week later the teachers set up a tent city in the colonial downtown area. The initial strike got little attention. It was the 26th consecutive year that the teachers had demonstrated in that fashion and this year seemed to be more of the same. The mood in the strike was festive on the first several days. The 34 city blocks occupied by the teachers were transformed into an open air dormitory and pedestrian mall, music groups played in the Zócalo and street vendors took any available space. The teachers camped in tents and communal shelters under tarps. They played cards and talked late into the nights. The teachers were talkative and friendly to the tourists, who passed through the narrow walkways between tents.

“This is the 26th year we have been here,” said a teacher named Honorio Sánchez with a smile. “We usually stay a few weeks, then we find a compromise.” This was Sánchez’ eighth strike, and he seemed to be quite at home sitting under a blue tarp with some colleagues from the Sierra Mixteca.

I found a teacher who called herself Maria sitting at a table near the Zócalo; she was organizing camping spots for teachers just arriving at the strike. On the table was some reading material and a map of the downtown outlining where teachers from different regions were camping. She emphatically talked about the problems with funding to the schools: how only 20 percent of school uniforms were provided by the government and 80 percent of students had to purchase their own, reciting statistics with vigor and a smile. “I have been a teacher for eight years and make 3,000 pesos every paycheck (about $275 dollars). Does that sound like enough to you?” She stared at me with the perplexed look that my high school math teacher gave after rhetorical questions. As we talked, teachers continued to arrive at the table to get directions and all around me the sound of tents and tarps getting set up could be heard.

Noticeably absent in the Zócalo were the police. The strike had clearly defined limits and I never saw a uniformed police officer inside them during my frequent visits. The teachers had created a space of their own, and in that space other groups felt the freedom to express themselves. The communist student association of the Benito Juarez University set up a table and handed out pamphlets; a screen was set up and movies shown in front of the old city hall on topics such as environmental conservation and the Zapatista struggle in Chiapas. Radio Plantón, the pirate radio station of the teachers, set up its transistor in the Zócalo and started broadcasting from the center of the strike.

And for two and a half weeks the negotiations remained stagnant. Governor Ruiz Ortiz claimed that the government didn’t have the financial resources to meet the demands and the teachers refused to budge. During this time the teachers blocked government offices, tollbooths and even access to the airport. They held marches that held up traffic through downtown and blocked construction projects on the Cerro de Fortin.

On June 2 they held a popular march and thousands of people and organizations marched with them; the tide of public opinion was starting to shift in their favor. Owing to rumors of violent police intervention numerous groups had come out to stand in solidarity with the teacher’s movement and defend their right to peaceful protest. Other groups had begun to use the teachers’ police-free space to show their dissent at the Ruiz Ortega government. On June 7 a large march was planned to follow the same route as the first teachers’ march, on the 15th of May. Sensing that the movement had started to become more than just a teachers’ strike, I went again to watch.

The march was slated to start at 4:00 following the same route as last time, leaving from the Benito Juaréz monument, then passing the Plaza de la Danza where a symbolic trial was planned for the governor. The day was sunny with a few clouds later in the afternoon — good marching weather. Again I waited in the same place on Niños Heroes for the march to pass. This time, however, there were more people standing with me waiting to see the march. I sat with a group of one hundred students and adults. The students were from the local universities and had come out to show their support for the teacher’s movement. The mood was one of anticipation. I approached a man in his mid-forties with a camera. “I came to see how big this thing really is!” he said, indicating his camera. Four o’clock came and went and we all waited. The street Niños Heroes suddenly emptied of traffic and people frantically moved their cars that had been parked on the side of the road. By 4:45 pm the street was dead silent, and then the first grumblings of the distant crowd could be heard.

At 5:00 pm the march began to appear over the same hill as the last one. But this time it was different. First was a motorcade of about 16 cars, then a pickup truck loaded with giant speakers. Behind the vehicles were the strikers, a long rectangular mob of people the same width as the first march but many times longer. I stood at the top of the small hill watching the line of people descend into the small valley in front of me then climb again. As I got a close look at the teachers I noticed how changed they looked; they were tired and angry. After almost three weeks camping in the city center they were visibly fatigued. They were chanting louder and they were now accompanied by various organizations standing in solidarity with their cause: student groups, parents’ groups, several socialist organizations, other unions, and non-governmental organizations both from Oaxaca and out of state.

The June 7th march was like a party, or a reunion of sorts. Groups of people not used to cooperating had come together to protest against something that they all had in common: contempt for the Ruiz Ortiz government and neoliberal politics in general. “Lucha lucha lucha, no deja de luchar, por un gobierno justo campesino y popular” (“Struggle, struggle, struggle, don’t stop struggling for a just government of the peasants and the people”). In the march there were numerous bands, flags of all colors, an anti-corporate drag queen named “Señorita América,” a 10-person Chinese dragon with the head of the governor, endless trucks with speaker systems blasting revolutionary songs and the voices of protestors. At the Llano I met Manuel Ramirez Sada, a political science grad who had been out of work for two years, sitting on the curb. “They’re the usual suspects” he told me, referring to the participants. Such people, he said, come out to every political rally for the atmosphere but are all talk. I asked if he was going to join them. “I’m waiting for a good band to come along and then I will follow them for a while,” he told me, and remained seated.

The march went off without a hitch and official estimates put the participation at 120,000. They streamed past the Plaza de la Danza, where an unofficial trial was held for the governor. There was even a mock gallows and prison, where real elementary students were being held. The march was obviously well planned and seemed to be a long time in the making. The huge number of people enjoyed themselves and the trial was farcical and entertaining. I even caught some policemen in uniform laughing at the depictions of Ulises that some of the protestors were carrying.

After it all was over the teachers went back to their camps in the Zócalo. Walking around the camps that night it seemed less populated than before. Many empty spaces existed where people had been camping. Street vendors had taken over the newly available space and seemed to be doing good business. The teachers had been camping in the city center for two weeks; they were obviously growing tired and most people believed that a solution was coming soon.

Downtown Oaxaca, June 14: Teachers rip up stones and cement to throw at police
Photo: D.R. 2006 Geoffrey Harman
It was exactly a week later that everything took a drastic change. Early in the morning on June 14 a state police force entered the compound where the teachers were camping. They carried riot shields and shot tear gas. A police helicopter circled all morning dropping canisters of tear gas on the raging crowds. The police managed to destroy or burn almost all the shelters where the teachers were staying. One of the first things the police did was to dismantle Radio Plantón, which had been broadcasting from the Zócalo since the strike started. The teachers and other supporters organized themselves and fought back with rocks and sticks. They took several busses to use in the struggle as barricades. Cement and cobblestone were torn up to throw at the police. Two police squad cars were torched. After five or six hours of struggle the teachers managed to retake the Zócalo. At least 40 teachers were injured and many arrested during the struggle.

After the violence ended the teachers barricaded the city center and walked around in shock for the rest of the day. The university lent its radio station to the teachers and soon information was being broadcast to them again. All day, teachers, wearing scarves soaked in vinegar and carrying radios, walked around the colonial center that had been transformed into a war zone. Anything that could be dismantled was used as a makeshift club; everyone was “armed.” Unconfirmed rumors of dead teachers and children flew like wildfire and for the entire day the city center was in a state of chaos. The teachers were hurt, angry and in a daze. All over the city, intersections were blocked by burned busses, garbage or piles of rocks. Meetings were held during the day to try to restore some order and transmit information to the teachers and the press.

This was the 26th consecutive year that the teachers had gone on strike. A sort of standard protocol has been developed. The teachers make demands, the government refuses to meet them, the teachers go on strike and both parties eventually reach a compromise. But what happened on Wednesday was unprecedented, and the third march that was held on Friday the 16th of June was equally unprecedented.

The June 16 march didn’t follow the same route as the others; it started to the west of the city and entered through Fransisco Madero Street, past the Soledad church, through downtown then past the Llano (the second-most important public square in the city after the Zócalo). At the Llano various groups were scheduled to speak on a stage set up with a very powerful speaker system. Again I found a place near the beginning of the route and waited. But unlike the first two times, there was almost nowhere to stand. The streets were packed with supporters, some chanting, some with water and drinks for the marchers, some with signs. Everyone was supporting in some way. Walking among the crowds down Madero Street gave one the impression that the march had already started, the noise and atmosphere were of public revolt and upheaval. Again I waited about 45 minutes for the march to reach where I was, but I got the impression that those watching were there to support, not just observe.

“Respect for the rights of others is peace”
Photo: D.R. 2006 Geoffrey Harman
The crowd was chanting before the march even arrived. Unlike the other marches, the weather was bad. Dark clouds had come in early in the afternoon and rain was threatening. From where I stood on the side of the road I could see the large letters of Benito Juarez’s famous quote, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” (“respect for the rights of others is peace”). Above the din of the standing crowd was heard a louder sound, and unlike the previous two marches I heard this one before I saw it.

As in the last march, first came the motorcade, then the first truck with speakers, then the people. This march didn’t surprise me like the first one, nor slowly creep by in festive revelry, but rather streamed by in a roaring torrent. I calculated 400 people passing per minute, at a sustained rate, for almost 5 hours. They were walking faster than the last time, some in a jog. They were chanting louder than last time: “He will fall, he will fall, Ulises will fall.” The same groups were represented as in the previous march, but many more were there as well.

At least an hour passed before the first group of teachers actually passed, greeted by cheers from the crowd. It was at about this time that the storm broke and large raindrops started to fall. A few umbrellas shot up, but were then dropped so that people could see the signs that the marchers carried. We all stood in the rain getting wet, shouting, “neither rain nor wind can stop this movement.” The signs they carried were simple and direct, and no one was shouting “this isn’t a party.” I saw Manuel, the political science student, but he was marching this time, and his characteristic grin was absent. At the Llano a stage was erected with large speakers and various groups spoke as the endless line of people passed behind. The Llano could not fit the mass of people, and marchers could only pass the stage and then dissipate into the park and the surrounding streets. The speeches went on for hours and crowds stood in the raid to listen as the march continued to file by.

The people on stage told of the numerous town halls that had been occupied in Oaxaca, in support of the movement. I saw Maria, the teacher who I had talked to in the first days of the march. “I feel wonderful,” she told me. “Even if [the governor] gave us everything we wanted we wouldn’t stop, we want his head,” she said, soaking wet but smiling broadly.

“The teachers had developed a tradition of striking every year…” explained Filoteo Revilla, a human rights lawyer who participated in the third march. “But the movement is no longer about the teachers; it is now a popular movement. Even before the violence of last Wednesday there was popular sentiment against the state government, but this latest rights violation has caused the people to declare that it is time for [Governor Ruiz Ortiz] to resign.”

“We aren’t one nor are we one hundred – damned government, count us well,” the people chanted. The strike created a space where people felt safe to express themselves and what came out was the absolute contempt held by the public for the state government. “If there isn’t destitution [government change] there will be a revolution.”

“This stopped being about the teachers” continued Maria, “this is about everyone.” Looking at the rain-soaked crowd I had to agree. The estimates of participation in the march are between 300,000 and 500,000 people. That is almost nine people for every teacher, 30 percent of the economically active population of the state. The teachers opened the doors, and what had been waiting to come out was the popular contempt for the Ruiz Ortiz government.

More political action looms on the horizon. On Thursday the 22nd of June a pro-Ulises march is planned. This march is being called “the march of fear” or “the silent march” because of the tactics used to recruit people for the march. Radio and newspapers here tell of people being offered between 200 and 1000 pesos ($17–$87 dollars), as well as cell-phones, construction material and other goods for their presence. Meanwhile, government employees face professional consequences for not participating. The threat of more confrontation is imminent and this struggle seems far from a solution.

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