The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 78 (Fall 2006).
October 22, 2006
As we write, the workers, indigenous and other oppressed people of the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, organized in the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (known as APPO in Spanish), continue to control the city of Oaxaca. They have held the city for nearly four months now, in the face of the constant threat of repression by the armed forces of the Mexican government.
The events in Oaxaca have unfolded at a time of massive political upheaval in Mexico. In the presidential election in July the candidate of the right-wing bourgeois National Action Party (PAN), Felipe Calderón, was declared the winner of the election by a tiny margin over Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the populist bourgeois Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). There was strong evidence of widespread fraud in the ballot count and other fraud at polling stations throughout Mexico, but the government refused to conduct a vote-by-vote recount.
Massive demonstrations of as many as a million people took place in Mexico City in July, and a protest tent camp (plantón) occupied the center of the city throughout August and the first half of September. Incumbent president Vicente Fox of the PAN, in two extraordinary concessions of weakness, was unable to deliver his State of the Union address to the legislature at the beginning of September, nor to perform the traditional “cry of independence” in Mexico City’s Zócalo (central square) on Mexican Independence Day, September 15.
López Obrador has called for a Constituent Assembly and an alternative government that truly represents the people. But he is committed to capitalism, so his promises to stand against the rich are inherently false. Further, he is dangerously misleading his followers by suggesting that the revolutionary changes they want can be accomplished peacefully. The events in Oaxaca prove otherwise.
The Oaxaca uprising began June 14, when the hated state governor, Ulises Ruiz, ordered a bloody pre-dawn attack by 3,500 state police against the strike of the Oaxaca teachers’ union, whose protest camp had occupied a large part of downtown Oaxaca since May 22. The 40,000 strikers and their supporters fought back, and after several hours they drove the police out of the city. Two days later 300,000-400,000 people – well over half the population of the city and 10 percent of the population of the state – came out for a mass march in support of the strike, building on two previous mass marches in June. The next day, June 17, organizations supporting the strike convened the first meeting of the Popular Assembly.
Oaxaca is the poorest state in Mexico and has the country’s largest indigenous population, over 60 percent of the state’s people. The teachers’ strike won mass support by demanding a higher minimum wage for all of Oaxaca – Mexico’s reactionary system of “zonification” of states sets lower minimum wages for poorer states. This minimum wage demand, more than the wage demands for the teachers themselves, was most intolerable to Ulises Ruiz and the state government.
APPO and the teachers’ union have taken over government buildings and set up barricades around the city to stop attacks by vehicles full of government-backed thugs. They have taken over several of Oaxaca’s radio stations, and a women’s march on August 1 seized control of Oaxaca’s official state TV and radio stations. For three weeks the strikers and their supporters controlled the state TV broadcasts. Ulises Ruiz’s forces could not take back control of the TV station, so they attacked it with automatic weapons, destroying equipment and knocking it off the air August 21. While Ruiz does not have the forces to challenge the Oaxaca uprising directly, ambushes and drive-by shootings by paramilitary forces have killed at least five supporters of the uprising. A number of strikers and members of APPO were still being held as political prisoners.
At this moment APPO, the striking teachers, and all the workers, indigenous and oppressed people of Oaxaca who support them face the imminent threat of a military assault by the federal government of Mexico. The government has amassed as many as 20,000 troops, along with helicopters and tanks, at the Oaxaca airport and in nearby cities, in addition to the over 5,000 regular forces stationed throughout Oaxaca and along the border areas of the adjacent states of Puebla and Guerrero. At the same time, agents of Ulises Ruiz inside Oaxaca were likely responsible for provocations such as throwing explosives at banks and even hacking to death an anti-strike teacher with an ice pick, blaming the acts on APPO supporters in an attempt to build public support for a military crackdown.
Since the June 14 police attack, the resignation of Ulises Ruiz has been the central demand of the strike. A proposal to end the strike and the uprising that the government tried to negotiate with APPO leaders and teachers’ union leaders in September, which did not include the resignation of Ulises Ruiz, was rejected by the mass base of APPO and the ranks of the strikers. At the same time they organized a 19-day mass march of thousands of strikers from Oaxaca to Mexico City.
The ranks of APPO and the strikers rejected on October 7 another proposal the government had made the day before, but teachers’ union leaders and APPO leaders made an agreement with the government October 9 which would give control of the city back to the government in exchange for such minimal demands as creation of a civilian council to monitor the police. The agreement would leave the central demand for the removal of Ulises Ruiz unresolved. As a cover for their retreat, the union leaders and APPO leaders will have the marchers to Mexico City camp outside the Senate until it removes Ulises Ruiz.
The uprising in Oaxaca has put pressure on all three parties of the Mexican capitalist ruling class: the PAN, the PRD and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). All three are bourgeois parties that can offer no alternative to the existing political system or to Mexico’s subordination to United States imperialism. They all see the uprising of the masses in Oaxaca as a threat. But it has divided them because of the particular relationship of each party to U.S. imperialism’s superexploitation of Mexican workers and oppressed people, and because of each party’s immediate political situation.
To maintain itself in power, the PAN depends on its alliance with the PRI, the party that ruled Mexico for 70 years until Fox’s election in 2000. While the PRI’s candidate was not a serious factor in this year’s presidential election, the PRI still has an iron hold on power in many states and municipalities, as well as in the bureaucracies that control many of Mexico’s biggest labor unions. That is why the PRI is an essential ally for the PAN, a party representing openly pro-imperialist interests with few ties to the workers and oppressed masses, which would be too weak to rule on its own in an oppressed nation such as Mexico.
The PRD, on the other hand, represents former elements of the PRI who stand for incorporating the masses into the system by doling out occasional concessions. The PRI abandoned that program after the end of the post-war global economic boom in the 1970s: they could no longer make those concessions while meeting the demands of U.S. imperialism. The PRD program is even more impossible to implement today. That is why it is capable of making promises to the workers as an opposition party, but wherever it has actually come to power at the state or municipal level, it has attacked the workers and the unions just like the PRI and PAN. In the most outrageous recent example, the PRD government of the state of Michoacán ordered its police forces to join in the deadly armed assault on the striking steelworkers occupying the Sicartsa steel mill in the city of Lázaro Cárdenas in April.
The Oaxaca uprising has put great pressure on the PAN-PRI alliance. The Fox government prefers to use negotiations to gradually undermine the uprising and restore government control without a military attack. A military attack in Oaxaca could ignite other mass struggles in Mexico and destabilize a government already shaken by labor unrest and the election protests. The Fox government would have preferred to offer the resignation of Ulises Ruiz to restore its control peacefully if it could.
But Ulises Ruiz is one of the local strongmen who form the backbone of the PRI’s political power. For the PRI, the political fate of Ruiz is of paramount importance in this struggle. If the government sacrifices him, any of the rest of the PRI’s local strongmen could be next. That is why the PRI is calling for an immediate federal military attack on the workers of Oaxaca: it is the surest way a hated ruler like Ruiz can hold onto his position. Because the PAN needs the PRI as its ally, Fox cannot dismiss these demands. These conflicting pressures are what has made it so difficult for the Mexican government to put an end to the uprising of the workers, indigenous and oppressed people of Oaxaca.
The uprising has put pressure on the PRD as well. The APPO leaders and teachers’ union leaders supported Lopez Obrador in the presidential election by calling for a “vote against the PAN and PRI,” and Lopez Obrador has given lip service in support of the call to stop a military attack on Oaxaca. But the eight PRD state legislators in Oaxaca itself were committed only to saving their own privileges: in a secret session of the state legislature September 28, they joined the entire body in unanimously approving changes to the state constitution, so that next year’s legislative elections are postponed until 2011, and the governor’s election is postponed from 2010 to 2012. When this became known, leaders of the PRD in Oaxaca were compelled to demand the expulsion of the legislators from the party. Their actions in power were undermining workers’ illusions in the PRD’s empty promises of support.
The League for the Revolutionary Party in the U.S. defends the Oaxaca Popular Assembly against all the threats and attacks by the state and federal government of Mexico and the three parties of the Mexican bourgeoisie. We know that behind all of the attacks stands U.S. imperialism, the main enemy of all workers and oppressed people of the world.
As communists, we are obliged to warn that all the bourgeois parties are also class enemies. The present leaders of APPO have supported the bourgeois PRD in the elections and have tried to make unacceptable compromises with the government. The danger of betrayal continues. Defense against the threat of government attacks requires spreading the struggle beyond Oaxaca – but the idea of workers and oppressed people seizing industries and land nationwide, the way they have seized the city of Oaxaca, terrifies the PRD. To advance the struggle, therefore, the most class-conscious workers and oppressed people of APPO should begin building a revolutionary socialist working-class vanguard party independent of all the bourgeois parties and dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism.