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Defying the government crackdown
Solidarity with the struggle in Oaxaca

By Lee Sustar | November 17, 2006 | Page 16

SOLIDARITY STRIKES and protest marches are highlighting the growing support for the five-month struggle in the Mexican state of Oaxaca as indigenous groups, social movements and unions defy repression in their struggle to oust a corrupt and authoritarian governor.

Teachers in the state of Morelia walked out November 9 and 10 in solidarity with their counterparts in Oaxaca. While the action fell far short of the general strike called for by Oaxaca activists, the walkout--as well as student protests around Mexico--marked an important step toward solidarity action in Mexico's fragmented labor movement.

Social movements showed their support, too. Some 250 indigenous activists from the state of Chiapas held a march for peace November 11 in Oaxaca City as activists gathered to assess the situation and plan the next step in the struggle.

The nearly six-month-old standoff in Oaxaca gained international headlines October 28 when paramilitaries in civilian clothes killed three activists, including U.S. independent journalist Brad Will. An estimated 17 protesters have been killed by paramilitaries and police since the struggle began in May.

This time, the shooting gave federal police the pretext to invade Oaxaca City, where they smashed barricades in the city's main plaza, or Zócalo. But police failed to overcome resistance on the barricades at the Benito Juárez Autonomous University November 3, and two days later, an estimated 1 million marchers in Oaxaca forced the police to withdraw.

However, officials from the government of outgoing President Vicente Fox of the conservative National Action Party have used negotiations as well as violence--to try to divide the movement. After failing to buy off leaders of a moderate indigenous group, the federal government agreed to some of the economic demands of striking teachers.

The Oaxaca teachers' union, Section 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), returned to work in October after five months on strike in order to avoid a split between militant teachers in Oaxaca City and more conservative teachers in smaller towns.

Fox, eager to end the crisis before his handpicked successor, Felipe Calderón, takes office in December, saw the settlement as an opportunity to finally crush the social movements and indigenous groups running the occupation. But like an earlier crackdown in June, the repression only led to bigger protests--and the 5,000 heavily armed federal police have pulled back, at least for now.

Fox isn't averse to bloodshed by police, having ordered a vicious crackdown in the town of San Salvador Atenco in May, as well as against striking steelworkers. If Fox is hesitant to repeat this on a bigger scale in Oaxaca, it's for fear of broadening the revolt.

Yet the movement itself faces debates on whether or how to escalate the struggle. While the SNTE's return to work may have been a tactical necessity to preserve the union's strength, this inevitably means less leverage in the Oaxaca struggle and a weaker authority to call for sympathy strikes elsewhere.

Besides labor's demands, the Oaxaca social movements call for a variety of reforms, ranging from more government spending on health care and education to respect for the rights of indigenous peoples. A spokesperson for the People's Popular Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO) reaffirmed November 10 that there was no basis for negotiations with the government without the resignation of Oaxaca Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortíz of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The PRI, which ruled Mexico as a one-party state for 70 years, these days relies mainly on statewide political machines based on corruption, patronage and violence--and Ruiz, who took office amid allegations of electoral fraud, is a classic example. But if the Mexican Senate uses its authority to remove Ruiz to appease the movement in Oaxaca, it sets a dangerous precedent for a political system already discredited by the fraudulent election of Calderón.

That explains, in part, why the man cheated out of the presidency, Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), hasn't mobilized his mass support behind the Oaxaca struggle.

In the run-up to the July election, the candidate, known as AMLO, largely avoided mention of the Oaxaca protests in positioning himself as a responsible, center-left politician capable of running the Mexican state. Since the election fraud, AMLO has organized mass protests, held a National Democratic Convention, and denounced the repression in Oaxaca. He plans to be inaugurated as an unofficial counter-president of Mexico November 20.

Yet AMLO was helpless when the PRI recently used repressive methods to prevail in a disputed election over the PRD in his home state of Tabasco.

This highlights the contradiction of AMLO's strategy--on the one hand, mobilizing mass protests in his cause, while avoiding the social struggles that could challenge the Mexican ruling class as it uses the facade of democracy to cover an increasingly authoritarian state.

"Today, the PRD has two faces, the institutional Broad Progressive Front and the para-institutional Democratic National Convention," wrote historian and activist Adolfo Gilly in Mexico's left-wing daily La Jornada. "[The PRD] neither wants, nor is able, to mobilize in defense of Oaxaca and against the repression of the federal government with the popular forces that, only in September, rallied in the [Mexico City's] Zócalo against the electoral fraud."

Meanwhile, Mexico's social movements, including the Zapatistas, are building support for the struggle in Oaxaca, but they remain fragmented.

The confrontation in Oaxaca will continue, pitting the illegitimate incoming government of Calderón against a movement that, while having made strides to rally the Mexican left, must continue to broaden to defeat the repression and take the struggle forward. And with Calderón set to continue labor law "reform" to attack workers' rights and privatize government operations, the struggle in Oaxaca is only the first of many battles to come.

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