Since the spring of 2006 a popular uprising has occurred in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. This uprising resulted from a number of events arising out of the deteriorating material social conditions of life faced by most Oaxacans. What began as an isolated strike, an annual ritual normally of minor significance, by the public school teachers of the state, turned into a mass popular revolt in open defiance of the government led by an ‘old-guard’ casiquero (leader), Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, of the long dominant PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party).
While the principal demands of this struggle were/are political, in particular, the resignation or removal of Ruiz from office, it is clear that impoverishment and declining economic conditions generally, which of course are not unrelated to political matters, fuel an underlying current that energizes this revolt. Thus, at the end of December 2006, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), which claims to be the organized form of the movement, issued a ‘notification’ in which it asserted that “we are building a public and open board for dialogue and negotiation”, presumably with the federal administration of the new president Felipe Calderon, in order to “make it possible to end poverty and aid economic, political and social development in our state.” This was after the uprising had been violently repressed (mostly between late October and early December, but still ongoing) by the state, involving both federal and state security forces, while Ruiz remained in office.
As the following article, from the American anarchist journal A Murder of Crows (issue #2), points out, Oaxaca is the second poorest state in Mexico and it has the second largest population of indigenous peoples (in both cases following the neighboring state of Chiapas, where another social uprising has been occurring over the past dozen years). These facts reflect the lack of economic development in Oaxaca historically, and the continued existence of small-scale commodity producers, both agricultural and artisanal. However, over the past 15 or so years, especially since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the U.S. and Canada in 1994, two forces have increasingly squeezed this layer of the population from their traditional way of life and work:
1) free trade has eliminated markets for local corn and coffee growers, among others, in Oaxaca by forcing them to compete with massive foreign corporate producers whose products contain a far lower quantum of living labor, enabling them to be sold profitably at a far lower price; and
2) previously common, public lands used by such indigenous peasants for centuries to maintain their subsistence have been appropriated by governments and sold to private, usually foreign, investors (whichever offers the highest bid).
Meanwhile, chronic lack of development of infrastructure and of public education adequate to the demands of global capital today, mean that very little employment is available for these recently dispossessed peasants who capital does not require. What little employment there is at minimal wages (by Mexican national standards) is in the tourist sector. The result is that, out of a population of 3.5 million, roughly 150,000 people are leaving the state of Oaxaca each year, most heading north to work in the U.S.
Political factors have of course played a central role in Oaxaca’s chronic lack of development, as well as in recent changes in economic conditions. The very serious economic crisis of the 1980s led to the adoption on the part of the politically dominant fraction of the Mexican ruling class of a neo-liberal, pro-globalization agenda; one which has been adhered to by every federal administration of the past 20 years. This ‘opening up’ of Mexico’s economy, after decades of a large degree of statist nationalization and economic management, has eroded much of the basis of the monolithic domination of Mexican political life by the PRI party. The latter, thoroughly corrupt and historically operating by means of a vast system of patronage throughout the country, has been seriously diminished in its extent of political control, as the ruling class in Mexico tries to modernize its political apparatus in concert with its opening of its economy to the forces of global capital. Over the past decade another political party, the PAN (National Action Party), has come to the fore, especially at the national level, to defend the neo-liberal agenda, providing both the previous president, Vicente Fox, as well as the current one, Felipe Calderon. At the same time, a left-wing party, the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), has split from the PRI in order to represent the constituency of left-nationalism and ‘anti-imperialism’, opposing both the neo-liberalism of the PAN and the entrenched corruption of the PRI. This party has made formal overtures to the APPO, but so far the latter has remained suspicious of the former’s motives.
While the power of the PRI has eroded significantly over the past decade, and its political obsolescence is increasingly clear to all sectors of Mexican society, it of course desperately tries to hold on to what power it retains. Such is the case of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz and his regime in Oaxaca. His open corruption and his use of unofficial paramilitary death and torture squads to violently intimidate and repress the increasingly rebellious dispossessed people of Oaxaca, has given rise to this recent mass uprising, resulting in a situation of near ‘ungovernability’ and a movement towards a state of dual power (with the APPO transforming itself in November into a ‘State Council’ of the Peoples of Oaxaca [CEAPPO]), before the intervention of the forces of the Federal Preventative Police (PFP) reclaimed most of the public areas occupied by the Oaxacan insurgents.