Oaxaca: The Path of Radical Democracy

Translated by Victor Wallis

From June to October 2006, there was no police in the city of Oaxaca (population 600,000), not even to direct traffic. The governor and his functionaries met secretly in hotels or private homes; none of them dared to show up at their offices. The Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO) had posted 24-hour guards in all the public buildings and radio and TV stations that it controlled. When the governor began sending out his goons to launch nocturnal guerrilla attacks against these guards, the people responded by putting up barricades. More than a thousand barricades were put up every night at 11 p.m., around the encampments or at critical intersections. They would be taken down every morning at 6 a.m. to restore normal traffic. Despite the attacks, according to a human rights organization, there was less violence in those months (fewer deaths and injuries) than in any similar period in the previous ten years. Unionized workers belonging to the APPO performed basic services like garbage collection.

Some observers began speaking of the Oaxaca Commune, evoking the Paris Commune of 1871. Oaxacans responded, smiling: “Yes, but the Paris Commune lasted only 50 days and we’ve already lasted more than 100.” The analogy is pertinent but exaggerated, except in terms of the reaction that these two popular insurrections elicited in the centers of power. Like the European armies that crushed the communards who had taken over all the functions of government, the Federal Preventive Police of Mexico, backed by the army and the navy, was sent to Oaxaca on October 28, 2006, to try to control the situation. On November 25 federal forces conducted a terrible repression, the worst in many years, with massive violation of human rights and with an approach which can legitimately be described as state terrorism.

The APPO remains a mystery, even for those who are part of it. Its immense national and international visibility has obstructed a clear view of it, because of the enormous distortions on the part of the media. Within the Assembly, moreover, particular groups have characterized it in terms of their own political and ideological agendas, thus adding to the confusion. To all this one must add the APPO’s profoundly innovative character, which makes it difficult to understand the nature, meaning, and implications of this strange political animal.

What it is not

Both insiders and outsiders still view the APPO as they do any other political organization. They assume that, like almost all of them, it is fixated on the state and that it replicates structurally the apparatus that it aspires to run. Like the state, it must be vertical and hierarchical. Its leaders, like state officials (elected or appointed), must routinely succumb to partisanship and corruption. With a population supposedly incapable of acting on its own, someone must be pulling the strings behind APPO. Some group or leader must be manipulating the docile masses.

Officials, parties, and commentators saw the insurrection, especially at the beginning, as a mere revolt. They were not altogether mistaken; it fit well into the tradition of popular outbreaks that occur in the face of an unbearable oppressor or of a measure that constitutes “the last straw.” It was also seen as a rebellion, because it was an uprising on the part of an indomitable people affirming their dignity. By the thousands, by the millions, the people rebelled! “Enough!” was the cry of the rebels who suddenly emerged from every corner.

But this insurrection was neither a mere revolt nor just a rebellion. Revolts may be volcanic and irrepressible, but they are ephemeral. They subside as quickly as they arose. They leave a permanent imprint, like volcanic rock, but they crumble. This is not what occurred here. This insurrection had so great an impetus that it did not subside. Ulises Ruiz embodied the source of discontent and displayed the worst traits of the oppressive system, but he was no more than the detonator of a dispersed rage. The uprising of course had to demand his ouster, but his political corpse would fertilize a more lasting agenda of transformation. The process would sweep away such relics in order to take up the task of building, peacefully and democratically, a new society.

Nor is APPO a “mass movement” -– whatever might be said by the conventional Left and even by some of its own constituent groupings. The masses are made up of atomized individuals grouped into abstract categories defined and controlled by others – passengers of a plane, pensioners, workers in a factory, voters, party members, demonstrators, etc. In the mass, people lose control over their capacity to move independently.1 The “mobilizations” of a trade union, a party, or a leader, organized and controlled from above, tend to demobilize people. Despite its overtones of radicalism, the word mass has ecclesiastical and bourgeois origins. It reduces people to the condition they share with material objects: being measured in numbers.2 The illusion that the mass of consumers controls the market, or that the mass of voters controls political power, serves to hide the real situation, in which people are continually stripped of political and economic power.

The APPO’s huge marches seemed to be comprised of masses. Some groups thought that they had succeeded in creating a “mass movement.” To be sure, certain isolated individuals, identifiable with some category, participated on their own initiative as a way of expressing their support for the movement. Most of those who have participated in APPO, however, have done so not as individuals but rather as members of a group, on the basis of decisions taken within a community. They do not constitute masses.

Organization or movement?

To reflect on the APPO, to analyze its strengths and weaknesses, and to see where it is going, it is useful to ask whether it is a political organization like a party or a union, or whether it is rather a social and political movement like feminism, environmentalism, zapatismo, or the indigenous movement?

Organizations look to the future; they have goals, agendas, models. A trade union tries to bring about better conditions for its members; a party tries to attain state power in order to implement its platform. Movements, by contrast, are guided by certain ideals; they reflect strivings emerging from the past and the present, not from the future. People react against the oppression of women, the destruction of the environment, or the unbearable injustice and corruption of a regime. These impulses arise from experience, not from some imagined goal –- even though, once unleashed, they may discover goals that fit their intention.

Organizations have a formal membership, whether voluntary or forced. Workers have to join the union in their workplace, but they can voluntarily join a party. In movements, there is no membership but rather an informal participation that is always voluntary.

Organizations need a clear leadership, at the head of a more or less rigid vertical hierarchy. Some elements of democracy may be present, but organizations – especially large ones – generally tend to remain under the control of an elite. They may or may not have leaders who are charismatic or who, because of their long incumbency, are considered “historic.”

Movements, by contrast, operate either without structure or with structures that are very horizontal and flexible. They don’t have a governing body, but they may in some circumstances have coordinating mechanisms. Charismatic leaders emerge in some cases, but they almost never exercise governing functions. They inspire, orient, or stimulate the movement, but they cannot control it. Leaders or coordinators may have the power to convene, but they cannot give orders, nor can they represent.

Organizations have discipline, sometimes very rigid, with effective systems of reward and punishment, which are used in part to regulate and control the participation of their members in actions decided on by the leadership. In movements, on the other hand, there is compromise. People freely attend meetings, in an open form of participation.

The strength and vitality of movements is shown in the daily behavior of their participants. Rallies are organized around specific demands or problems. The environmentalists have spectacular demonstrations, like those of Greenpeace, but their main activity has to do with changes in daily behavior, e.g., not generating garbage or else working to recycle it. Feminists occasionally call for public demonstrations, against particular outrages or in support of particular reforms, but their most important effect is in encouraging their participants to challenge all forms of oppression or discrimination against women.

This brief comparison of organizations and movements is useful for clarifying the fact that APPO is a movement, not an organization. Like any movement, it may have organizations within it – each with its own leadership, goals, structures, etc. The cry of “Fuera Ulises!” (calling for the resignation of the governor) emerged clearly as an expression of the immense popular discontent, but it cannot be viewed as a goal. There is no proposition or goal that defines the APPO; it encompasses a diversity of intentions and trajectories. There is growing convergence around certain agendas -– like producing a new Constitution or resisting capitalism –- but even on these points, there is no agreement on what they mean.

Neither the 30-member Coordinadora Provisional which operated from June 20 to November 12, 2006, nor the Council which was formed on the latter date, can be taken to constitute or represent APPO; nor do they have governing authority. They carried out important functions, especially at critical moments, in disseminating information and guidelines, and also in coordinating specific actions such as marches. But they were never able to control the autonomous actions or initiatives of the participants. The Council was never able to assemble all its members, not even on its founding day. Far from being a source of weakness, however, this situation gives the movement a great force.

Looking more closely at the APPO, one sees immediately that, more than a movement, it is a convergence of movements and organizations of very distinct types. Some of the movements are longstanding, like the indigenous movement and the movements of peasants, feminists, environmentalists, and defenders of human rights or of cultural traditions, etc. Other movements formed or became more sharply defined with the emergence of APPO. The urban people’s movement took on new vigor and importance around the barricades. Regional organizations and movements became more sharply defined, as shown by the APPOs of the Isthmus, of the Sierra de Juárez, and of the Coast. Similar coordinating bodies are emerging in various parts of Oaxaca State.

In addition, APPO embraces a number of types of organization. What has been called the “civic space” of APPO is made up of a large number of civic organizations dedicated to the most diverse activities and closely linked to existing groups and communities. There are also political associations and organizations, some of them strictly local and others linked to national organizations and parties.

This great diversity implies disagreements and contradictions. Decisions of the coordinating bodies, which in principle must be by consensus, tend to be slow and difficult, often resulting in a lowest common denominator which is not always the best response to rapidly developing events. The underlying diversity, however, is at the same time an immense source of strength. The APPO does not depend on a leader – who can make mistakes, betray trust, or be bribed or repressed. Its strength arises not from any momentary episode but rather from powerful historical forces impelling people to strive for change.

First mutations

Viewing the APPO as an organization was not unjustified when it first came into being — when nobody thought it would have much importance.

Local 22 of the Teachers Union is a vertical and hierarchical organization whose leaders are often accused of partisanship and corruption. At the beginning of 2006 they initiated the annual process of collective bargaining for salaries and benefits. After a few weeks of discussion with the state authorities, they held their annual rally, which has always entailed street-closings and encampments. This time, the union included in its bargaining packet certain demands that clearly went beyond what the state government could satisfy. The union apparently did so in order to take advantage of the political moment offered by the election campaign. The encampment set up in the central plaza of Oaxaca on May 21 showed that the union anticipated a long struggle.

The initial response in Oaxaca to the teachers’mobilization was indifferent or negative. In addition to longstanding tensions with parents and communities which existed throughout the state, there were also objections from residents of the city of Oaxaca who complained about the disruption of daily routines. The state government tried to take advantage of this situation to organize a big propaganda campaign against the union, arguing that an exceptional effort had been made to address all the demands of the teachers. The government apparently believed that, thanks to this campaign, public opinion would applaud its decision to repress the teachers.

The heavy-handed repression of June 14 provoked the opposite effect to the one intended. When the teachers openly denounced the action of Governor Ulises Ruiz, they detonated a wider repudiation of his rule, which was very acute in the city of Oaxaca. Local 22 saw the opportunity that this signified and convened a group of friendly organizations to inaugurate the Popular Assembly of the Oaxacan People (singular). This was an assembly responding to a specific conjuncture; it was not thought of as a form of organization. It attracted many organizations that had not been expressly invited, and they all decided to stay together to continue their activity. This was the first mutation.

In that initial moment, APPO was only a coalition of leaders of organizations who had not yet had the opportunity to consult their bases about the decision. It was not long, however, before the APPO had its second mutation. Not only did it change its name, becoming the Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (thus recognizing the plurality of communities in Oaxaca state); it also modified its composition and its strivings. It now appeared as a genuinely popular initiative, with direct participation of the people, and as the convergence of many organizations and movements. It no longer existed only to support the trade-unionist mobilization of Local 22, although it did not stop doing this. It began to shape its own agenda. Many organizations began taking initiatives of their own under the umbrella of APPO. The 30-member Coordinadora Provisional, created at APPO’s founding, which used a good part of its time processing its internal contradictions, needed to determine where people wanted to go, where the process was leading them, and how it was possible to channel the profound discontent and desire for transformation. It began to lead by obeying (mandar obedeciendo)3, as in the villages.

It is not possible here to give even a minimal account of all the incidents in this complex process, but one central fact stands out. Local 22 initiated a trade-union struggle around certain economic demands which momentarily took on a political expression -– because of contradictions in the state government -– but which never lost their original aspect: once the demands were satisfied (at least on paper), its mobilization ended. The APPO, on the other hand, undertook from the very beginning a political and social struggle. It continuously supported the trade-unionist struggle of Local 22, but did not allow itself to be defined by it. This contrast gave rise to all kinds of tensions, which came into the open at the end of September, when the teachers decided to return to their classes and end their mobilization while APPO, facing the arrival of the Federal Preventive Police, was holding its constitutional convention, issuing its Citizens’ Dialogue Initiative for Peace, Justice and Democracy, and holding a large forum of indigenous peoples. The tensions are also evident inside Local 22, as many teachers participate actively in APPO and are even trying to transform their trade-union struggle into a political one. Rank and file teachers continue to be an important part of APPO, in open defiance of the trade-union leadership. Amidst accusations of treason the general secretary of the union stepped down in February 2007.

Apart from these tensions between APPO and Local 22, there have been other tensions within APPO. Some of these reflect the distinct styles, concerns, and strategies of the participants. For example, the dominant opinion in APPO favors a peaceful and democratic movement, explicitly opposed to all forms of violence, whereas some organizations and individuals consider it necessary to use violence, not only in self-defense but as part of the struggle, in what is sometimes called in political jargon “the need to sharpen contradictions.” The most important tensions are between strictly local movements and organizations and those that are the expressions of national organizations. The local groups, while ready to offer and receive solidarity from outside, and while aware of the national and global ramifications of their struggle, remain primarily concerned with local issues; they resist pressure on the part of the national organizations to subordinate APPO to national or international political/ideological agendas (especially those of political parties.

Although these tensions have affected the functioning of APPO, especially by blocking certain agreements and decisions in its coordinating bodies, it has been possible to limit their effects. Still, it is conceivable that the unity and coherence achieved up to now may weaken as APPO enters a new phase and as some organizations bet on its collapse or abandon it to pursue their agendas elsewhere.

Participation of the indigenous population

The state of Oaxaca is unique in both its physical configuration and its cultural composition. It has more natural and cultural diversity than any other Mexican state, and is the only one with an indigenous majority. Although it has only 5% of the national population, it contains one-fifth of all the country’s municipalities or municipios. This basic political unit of Mexico was created by the Spanish to divide and rule, and Mexican governments have used it in the same way. The municipal fragmentation of Oaxaca is maintained from two directions. The authorities imposed it to overcome resistance on the part of the indigenous peoples, but the indigenous peoples adopted the municipio as the unit appropriate to their struggles for autonomy. Four out of five municipios are governed on the basis of “usos y costumbres” -– a euphemism to emphasize that the people as a whole exercises authority without electoral processes, arriving at its decisions in communal assemblies. The indigenous struggle also accounts for Oaxaca’s being the state with the highest proportion of communally owned land: more than 80%. Upon recovering their lands, the communities were able to express through them their own approaches to relations among people and with nature.

For many years, the federal and state authorities allowed the Indian peoples of Oaxaca to practice their own forms of government in most of the state’s municipios, beyond the reach of the Constitution, the law, and partisan politics –- but not without overlaying these forms with an elaborate system of simulation. For example, in designating municipal authorities, it was customary to rely on assembly and consensus, in the tradition of the cargo,4 but the opposite had to be simulated: the person designated by the community would be registered as the candidate of a party (usually the PRI, the party which dominated the national scene for 70 years and which still dominates in Oaxaca). Elections were faked. On election day a municipal official would mark the ballots and prepare the announcements, or else blank ballots would be sent to the electoral authorities who would then fraudulently fill them out. The system gave rise to innumerable and often violent “post-electoral” conflicts, but did not affect the PRI’s control over the votes, which was part of its national strategy of domination.

The commemoration in 1992 of 500 years since the European invasion gave indigenous peoples throughout the Americas the opportunity to show the vigor and vitality of their new initiatives. The governor who took office in Oaxaca at the end of that year found the indigenous people in full effervescence. On March 21, 1994, fearful that the Zapatista insurrection of January 1 would spread to Oaxaca, he offered the Indian peoples a “New Accord” giving them shared authority in the state government. Although the “Accord” was blocked by bureaucratic and cacique-type structures and remained mostly at the level of rhetoric, it had some important legislative consequences. On August 30, 1995, the reform of Oaxaca’s electoral law gave Indian communities the power to decide whether to choose their leaders through party-competition or through the traditional system of usos y costumbres. On November 12 of that year, when the reform was applied for the first time, 412 of Oaxaca’s 570 municipios opted for the traditional approach. None of them experienced the post-electoral clashes that were common in those which opted for the party regime.

The change had implications beyond any electoral outcome; it was understood as a strong expression of autonomy, involving many other aspects of the relationship between Indian peoples and the state. In some villages there began to appear graffiti declaring, “Here we do not allow political parties, least of all the PRI.” The new law, instead of enhancing state intervention, served to restrain it, by requiring that the authorities respect the will of the community.

On June 6, 1998, changes in Oaxaca’s Constitution were promulgated, and on June 17 a new Law on the Rights of the Peoples and the Indigenous Communities of Oaxaca was passed. Both measures have occasioned intense controversy, inside and outside Oaxaca, partly because the Indian peoples had little role in their formulation, but both laws nonetheless reflected the struggle for autonomy. They were an outcome of the Zapatista insurrection and the San Andrés accords between the Zapatistas and the government, which became a banner for the Indian peoples. The experience gained by the Oaxacans in the forums convened by the Zapatistas and in their intense negotiations with the government thoroughly informed their initiatives and demands, which were necessarily reflected in legal changes.

The reforms granted self-determination, in the form of autonomy, to the indigenous peoples and communities. They also recognized them as juridical entities under public law. Many analysts consider the resulting regimen the most advanced in the Americas in relation to concerns of the indigenous population. However, it has very serious limitations and omissions. The most serious is the fact that it is grafted onto an earlier document, which, almost from the very beginning, has made it easy for the three branches of government to ignore or to openly violate it.

Throughout this whole period, the Indian peoples of Oaxaca put forward their demands and proposals in many different ways, in their own forums. They even worked through the National Conference [Consulta] on Indigenous Rights and Participation, organized by the Federal government and Congress parallel to the dialogue of San Andrés. The Consulta had the defects that normally characterize the Mexican government’s use of such a democratic mechanism. In Oaxaca, the Indian peoples took control of the Consulta’s agenda, its meeting-times, and its procedures. Between January 23 and March 19, 1996, there were more than 2,000 community assemblies in 430 municipalities; 34 district forums; 8 regional forums; one forum of the entire state, and a Colloquium on Indigenous Rights and Participation which drew numerous intellectuals, both Indian and non-Indian, and representatives of all sectors of society (IOC 1996).

Nonetheless, the timid openings that seemed to have occurred with the “New Accord” were drastically canceled in the corrupt and authoritarian administration of state governor José Murat (1996-2000).5 The discontent that had built up under his rule led all the opposition forces in the state to ally themselves for the first time in 2000 against the PRI, which up to that time had maintained effective control of the ballot boxes. Ulises Ruiz, the PRI candidate, lost the election, but managed to take the governorship by means of a transparent fraud. Ruiz is notorious as the PRI’s leading expert in electoral fraud. All the electoral organs of Oaxaca were under his control and ratified his victory. The opposition challenged the outcome in the Federal Tribunal, which acknowledged the fraud but refused to nullify it, on the pretext that it was a local matter.

Those who despite all their suspicions had taken the trouble to vote felt an enormous frustration. Three months after the election for governor came the municipal elections. In four fifths of the municipios, the people organized the elections in their own way. In those cases where the election was organized along party lines, the rate of abstention was overwhelming. In the state capital the new municipal president was elected by only 11% of the registered voters.

The new governor, lacking all legitimacy, governed despotically, constantly attacking the people’s movements, the autonomous organizations, and civil society initiatives. He systematically destroyed the natural and historical patrimony of the state, especially in the city of Oaxaca.6 He used federal funds to finance all sorts of useless projects, with the dual aim of winning votes and generating resources for the presidential campaign of the PRI. With the approach of the presidential election date (July 2), the government intensified its pressure on the voters. No holds were barred: intimidation, threats, imprisonment, direct violence, buying votes, illegal use of public resources, etc. Never before, despite the PRI’s long history of fraud and manipulation, had anything similar been seen. Ruiz thus helped create the atmosphere in which the movement would grow.

The Indian peoples were slow to join the movement. Although well known Indian leaders had been involved from the beginning and there had been visible indigenous participation even in the earliest marches, the discussions within the communities dragged on for months. In many cases the debate reflected a long-standing tension between the communities and the teachers, which made the communities reluctant to join in what they saw as a purely trade-unionist mobilization on the teachers’ part. Although indigenous participation grew steadily, it was not explicitly encouraged by the APPO.

In late September and early October, however, major indigenous leaders, intellectuals, and organizations joined in the call for a Citizens’ Initiative for Peace, Democracy and Justice, which was celebrated on October 12. In the big march of November 5, municipal and community leaders had a significant presence. In the inaugural Congress of the APPO, it became clear that in several regions of the state indigenous participation had become well established, sometimes in the form of regional APPOs. In the predominantly indigenous Sierra de Juarez, for example, the Assembly of Zapotecan, Mixe and Chinantecan Peoples was formed and sent 23 delegates to the statewide APPO. Finally, the Forum of Indigenous Peoples of Oaxaca convened on November 28-29. The following aspects of this Forum deserve emphasis:

1. Authorities and representatives of 14 different indigenous peoples7 were present. Never in anyone’s memory had so vast a range of peoples converged on their own initiative. Also present were numerous civic organizations that had supported the Indian peoples for a long time.

2. The Forum examined extensively, in a democratic way, fundamental issues for the Indian peoples, like self-determination and autonomy; land, territories and resources; intercultural indigenous education and communication; and human rights violations. It arrived at sharp and well thought out formulations, e.g., “education has been a new form of colonization.”

3. The Forum publicly called for, among other things, the removal of the governor; it denounced violations of the law; it called for “strengthening the process of unity in diversity [including] closer organic and programmatic ties and joint activities among all peoples, sectors and movements”; it called for “strengthening the organization and joint activity of the APPO, above all stimulating at the grassroots level all the movements and organizations that make it up…”; it pointed out that “in Oaxaca the demands and hopes of society are no longer satisfied by the current laws, institutions and authoritarian practices of the political regime. In this sense Oaxaca has already changed; it cannot go back to an earlier condition”; it called openly for nonviolence and for democratic dialogue and concluded as follows:

We Indian peoples wish to inform the society and government of Oaxaca, of Mexico, and of the whole world that the enormous abuse to which we have been subjected by the public authorities does not intimidate or paralyze us, as we have shown by carrying out this Forum. We are concerned that what little was left of the rule of law – continuously violated by Ulises Ruiz –- has now been destroyed by the federal government. We are under an undeclared and therefore illegal state of emergency. This concerns us and prompts us to act with extreme caution. But it does not hold us back. Our path is clear and we are going to continue along it, in our own way, with our own tempo and rhythm. This path includes the transformation of all the norms and institutions that currently define our common existence [convivencia]. We are not going to achieve this by ourselves. But never again will we be excluded from the processes of conceiving and operating these norms and institutions.

Citizen initiative

At the end of September the federal Ministry of the Interior proposed a “Pact of Governability” which would recognize the need for deep changes in Oaxaca but without removing the governor. It convened about 100 political and economic leaders, among whom Ulises Ruiz and his followers constituted a majority which demanded, not a pact, but rather that the federal government send in public forces to liquidate the movement. The Ministry of the Interior excluded the APPO and the teachers from the convocation, but invited three well known Indian leaders, a great painter, and three prominent intellectuals. The members of this select group decided to attend the October 4 meeting in which the proposed “pact” would be examined, with the aim of publicly denouncing it as illegitimate. They did this effectively and brought about the collapse of the initiative.

On its return to Oaxaca, this group decided to bring together many other persons and organizations to carry out a dialogue within Oaxacan society itself, to examine democratically the changes needed in the state. This resulted in the above-mentioned October 12 Citizens’ Initiative for Peace, Justice and Democracy, in which prominent representatives of the entire society of Oaxaca participated. In this dialogue, unlike the governmental initiative, the Indian peoples played a prominent role. Other entities outside APPO also participated from the beginning, notably the Catholic Church and private business-owners.

The Initiative built upon an earlier call from within APPO (August 16-17) for a Constituent Assembly. A group of lawyers is already formulating norms to strip the state government, and the governor in particular, of discretionary powers and to turn them into real public servants, answerable to the sole authority of the people acting through their assemblies. Other initiatives refer to transformations which the people, freed of legal and institutional obstacles, can undertake directly.

The participation of women

Women have played a prominent role in all aspects of the movements comprising the APPO. They are widely credited with having giving it the spirit and character which will shape its destiny. This participation was made possible by two interrelated processes that have evolved in Oaxaca over the last 20 years.

On the one hand, various feminist groups have emerged since the 1980s and have rapidly attained great visibility. Most of them were started by prominent urban middle-class feminists who had gained movement experience in other parts of Mexico.

On the other hand, a more profound process emerged parallel to this, involving a new form of political participation on the part of women in the communities and the municipios which differs from certain feminist stances but is no less forceful in affirming the position of women and the rejection of violence and discrimination against them. This impulse has been called a “feminization of politics,” in which women take on the leadership of political initiatives and social movements, exercising it in ways that contrast sharply male practices.

The women in Oaxaca became clearly visible as a movement when, at the end of a march in which they had put forward certain specific demands, they requested 15 minutes of radio/TV air time to express themselves. When their request was turned down, they peacefully took over the transmitters and, from that moment on, despite enormous difficulties arising from their lack of technical experience, broadcast the voices of the movement 24 hours a day.

Women’s presence in the APPO took many forms. They supported those who were on the barricades and participated in the marches and in discussions in the assembly. They played a major role in the struggle against human rights violations, in supporting victims of political persecution and imprisonment, and in negotiations with the government.

The urban-popular movement

More than half of the current population of the city of Oaxaca lives in popular neighborhoods formed, in the majority of cases, by illegal land-occupations. Their struggles to regularize their situation and obtain basic services were well known, but they did not seem to have a major presence in the social and political life of the city –- except through the graffiti which could be seen everywhere. Most of these graffiti lacked meaning and creativity. They were only “signatures” [marcas] marking the territory of youth gangs, who in this way expressed their feelings of revolt and flung back at society the rejection they had felt. The authentic graffiti artists who conveyed political messages derogatorily called them marqueros –- even though they themselves had begun their graffiti activity making marcas.

The sudden presence in the movement of groups from the popular neighborhoods and some from the middle class immediately posed a dilemma. It was not known to what extent the indigenous community network was present in those neighborhoods. The barricades arose spontaneously as a popular response to the governor’s attacks on the APPO encampments, and rapidly took on a life of their own, to the extent of becoming autonomous focal points for social and political organization. Long sleepless nights provided the opportunity for extensive political discussions, which awakened in many young people a hitherto nonexistent or inchoate social consciousness. The new graffiti manifested this aroused awareness.

On the barricades, new forms of anarchism -– in both ideological and lifestyle applications –- began to appear. The collectives on the barricades defended their autonomy ferociously and sometimes with a level of hostility that was hard to channel. Some groups occupied abandoned public buildings and began not only to live in them but to convert them into centers of cultural and political activity. The children and youth of these groups played a significant part in the movement, especially in confrontations with the police, which many of them were used to.

Paths of the APPO

The APPO is a movement of movements, rooted in longstanding and very Oaxacan traditions of social struggle, but it is strictly contemporary in its outlook and its openness to the world. It owes its radicalism to its very nature: it is at ground level, close to the roots. It acquired its insurrectional tone after trying all the legal and institutional methods of advancing its demands and finding them all blocked. But it does not dance to just any tune; it composes its own music. Where there are no markers, it blazes its own trail.

The APPO is clearly a result of general discontent with the rule of Ulises Ruiz. Beginning with very concrete experiences, like the successful opposition to erecting a McDonald’s in Oaxaca’s central plaza, it quickly and clearly adopted the politics of a single NO and many YESes that characterizes many present-day social movements. This approach finds unity in the common rejection of an action or omission, a policy, an official or a regime, but allows at the same time for a plurality of affirmations, projects, ideals and ideologies.

The rejection of Governor Ulises Ruiz, which persists to this day among the majority of Oaxacans, increasingly becomes a rejection of a regime and of a whole state of affairs. Ruiz is just one embodiment of a government that is already considered unbearable. Corruption and authoritarianism did not begin with him, but they reached extremes under his rule that made them intolerable for the majority. For many APPO participants, rejection of this regime includes a rejection of capitalism. This is not yet the general opinion, but it is becoming stronger all the time.

The diversity of the innumerable movements and organizations makes it impossible to identify a single path for the APPO. There are really many YESes that are being put forward by its participants. Although there are clear overlaps and convergences among them, the propositions put forward by the indigenous movements, for example, are not identical to those advanced by environmentalists or human rights advocates. There are three areas of struggle in which one finds the greatest degree of convergence. The first is around the need to perfect formal democratic processes, that is, to put an end to electoral fraud. Second is the struggle to introduce participatory democracy, that is, to bring citizens and their organizations into the running of government, eliminating arbitrary decisions by the authorities. This involves a number of specific mechanisms:

Popular initiative. Citizens should be able to formulate the norms and the laws under which they live. If they gather enough signatures for an initiative, the local Congress should be obliged to consider it and even to approve it.

Referendum and plebiscite. Citizens should have the opportunity to approve or reject decisions, policies or programs of the government.

Recall. Citizens should have the power to recall any elected official. Under such legislation, Ulises Ruiz would long ago have been forced out of office.

Participatory budget. Many citizens are fed up with officials who persist in imposing programs and public works often directly opposed by the public.

Transparency. Timely and complete information should be provided regarding all acts of government, so that they can be adequately monitored.

Social control. Citizens and their organizations must have the power to actively combat corruption through supervision of administrative processes.

The third and final struggle, and the main challenge to the APPO, is to place formal and participatory democracy at the service of radical democracy, the democracy which has been practiced from time immemorial in the indigenous communities and municipios. The idea now is to extend this way of governing to the entire society, beginning with the formation of autonomous regional bodies.

While the struggles around formal and participatory democracy focus on legal and institutional reforms (by mobilizations that pressure the constituted authorities), the struggle for radical democracy focuses on popular initiative –- on what the people themselves can do to transform the conditions under which they live. For centuries, the communities were able to use their own forms of government, against the dominant institutions and outside the law and the Constitution. This experience is being used now to bring about immediate practical changes, on the basis of an organized effort, with the conviction that through this process, enough strength and capacity will be accumulated to impose the legal and institutional changes that are needed, as was done in 1995 to end the practice of simulation in what are now called “municipios por usos y costumbres.”

As has already been mentioned, many persons and groups who participate in the APPO are calling for a constituent assembly, to produce a new constitution. It is increasingly clearly understood that the present Constitution concentrates power in the governor and negates the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the fundamental structures of democratic life. It is obsolete and is entirely foreign to the present-day realities and hopes of Oaxaca. The consensus on this point, however, disappears when one tries to define the content of the new constitution or the methods by which it will be arrived at.

A continuous issue, inside and outside the APPO, has to do with the character and traits of a “people’s government” [gobierno popular]. Some persons and organizations, coming out of the Latin American tradition of the statist Left, believe that it is necessary to attack the organs of the State, getting rid of the established authorities in order to install in their place “people’s representatives” who would use State power to serve the people. This “people’s government” would be installed as a substitute for the present rulers. Other persons and organizations question not only the feasibility of this approach (under present conditions) but also its justification. They believe that oppression and authoritarianism are inherent in the apparatuses of the State and that the supposed “people’s representatives,” once in control of these apparatuses, invariably become corrupt, regardless of how they came into that position -– whether by genuinely democratic election, by revolution, or by subterfuge [golpe de mano] (as would be the case in Oaxaca). According to this view, it is not enough to change the ideology of those who run the state; all its institutions must be radically modified. Moreover, this transformation must be carried out by the citizens themselves, through their own initiatives and actions, from the bottom up, and not the reverse.

These two opposed perspectives are currently reflected in the debates over whether the APPO should participate in the next local elections. Many members of APPO believe that what is most important is to imagine mechanisms to protect people, especially in their communities, from the pressures of all kinds that the campaigns are unleashing. Some think that the APPO should not participate and should call for abstention. Others believe that it is necessary to vote and even to present candidates, negotiating their inscription with the parties. In the so-called “civic space” of the APPO and in regional assemblies, discussion of this matter led to the conclusion that the electoral process should be used to express repudiation of the system, without presenting or supporting specific candidates, but taking any opportunity to join in the public debates in order to promote a clear political agenda. After intense debate, the state assembly of APPO decided not to run formal candidates in the forthcoming August and October municipal and state congress elections, acknowledging at the same time the right of those organizations and individuals that would decide to do so. It was also decided to call for a punishing vote against Ulises Ruiz and his allies.

Under present conditions, in any case, using the electoral process to cast a protest vote means not only voting against the dominant alliance of the PRI and the PAN, which have supported Ulises Ruiz. It means stimulating the voters to really go to the polls; challenging all candidates and parties to take stands on Ruiz and on the APPO; questioning PRI and PAN candidates about the support they have given to Ruiz and his atrocities; casting blank votes if the other parties fail to respond adequately as to the APPO agenda, etc. It means, in sum, treating electoral participation as a conscious act of political rebellion, not a routine exercise, a blank check to the system, or a way of endorsing the authoritarian regime.

National agendas

From the APPO’s earliest days, a topic of intense controversy within its ranks has been participation in the national agendas of various movements and organizations.

The first challenge of this type had to do with participation in the federal elections of July 2, 2006. The abstentionist current had predominated for a variety of reasons, but on June 30 it was decided by consensus to express repudiation of Ulises Ruiz by means of a protest vote against his party. The result demonstrated APPO’s strength and the scope of general discontent.

Almost immediately afterwards, however, important differences arose. There was no consensus on participation in the mobilizations associated with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the “losing” candidate, and in particular, in those which led up to the National Democratic Convention and to the election of a “legitimate president.” The disagreement persists today. Some think it is very important to participate in this movement while others think that it is has not become a people’s movement and that it has a clear party character, subject to the vertical structure of a leader and a party. They contend that the APPO would lose its character and meaning if it were to affiliate with this current, even though it might agree with it in many ways and might wish to join in many of its specific mobilizations.

There are various initiatives to unify the efforts of particular groups and regions. The one that seems closest to the APPO, the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Mexico (which links together 16 popular assemblies in as many states), is still a tenuous association of state coalitions of leaders, not a social and political movement. Other initiatives seem clearly oriented toward contending for power, whether to negotiate with the established authorities or to challenge them. Many participants in La Otra Campaña (which includes a number of Indian groups and leftwing extra-parliamentary formations) have been active members of the APPO, but not all APPO members support that campaign.

Within the APPO there is an increasingly clear awareness of the need for national and international solidarity to bring about changes in the conduct of the national political system, which continues to support Ulises Ruiz. However, in order to maintain its unity and to remain true to the stance of its majority, the APPO cannot subordinate its existence and its meaning to a national agenda and its corresponding expressions, even when there is full agreement on core issues.

To resolve this contradiction, it is important to recall above all that the APPO is a movement, not an organization. As such, it cannot affiliate itself with another movement or organization. There is no practical way to do this, since it could only be done by entering pacts or alliances through representatives which the APPO does not and cannot have. On the other hand, there seems to be no problem in having committees of the APPO attend specific events of national organizations, so as to present their viewpoints, experiences, and requests for solidarity –- and to express solidarity with others.

It was considered important for committees of the APPO to participate in the work of the National Dialogue, La Otra Campaña, and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Mexico. Even in these cases, however, it was not considered appropriate for the movement to join any of the associated organizations. Any participation in particular actions will remain rooted in local concerns. Actions on behalf of political prisoners, against repression, against certain policies (such as raising the prices of basic food items), in favor of autonomy, etc., are examples of initiatives in which the APPO can participate fully without losing its shape, its character, or its freedom of action.


In the founding convention of the APPO, the decision that achieved the quickest consensus had to do with its basic anticapitalist stance. But there is no clear consensus on what this means.

One issue is whether or not it is possible to escape the logic of capitalism without world revolution. For some, such a revolution is indispensable and carries with it the task of worldwide organization of the proletariat. For many in APPO, however, this seemingly radical position becomes reformist and paralyzing in practice: so long as world revolution has not arrived, the only hope is for modest reforms of the system. Although they recognize the system’s global character, they believe that the struggle against it cannot be delayed pending the attainment of worldwide concertation of the forces of resistance.

Another central issue has to do with the nature of the regime that we confront. Some recognize that capital is a social relation, not a material object, and that it has to be challenged from within, by trying to forge new social relations outside its logic. This line of thought and action clashes with the one that limits its focus to changing the ownership of the means of production without calling into question all the related aspects of social organization like those which program us to accept alienated consumption and waste. The latter variety of anticapitalism tends to be merely rhetorical, denouncing corporate capital and its political accomplices but waiting for the triumph of revolution to alter the very patterns of work and consumption which keep capital alive.

The same debates appear with regard to conceptions of socialism. Some groups, small in size but highly visible and organized, maintain a Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy largely abandoned elsewhere (which includes Stalin among its exemplars) and defend positions superficially grafted onto a socialist framework. Broader groups embrace a critical position regarding socialism, viewing it as a historical phenomenon whose end is nearing and whose theoretical construction has important deficiencies as argued by Harry Cleaver.8 This latter current generally uses Marxist analysis for its critique of capitalism, incorporates contemporary criticisms of the system (like those relating to ecology and technology), and devises political, economic and social alternatives that go beyond capitalism without leading to socialism. For these groups, as for the majority of APPO participants (especially from the indigenous movement), formal democracy and the nation-state are provisional frameworks that must be adopted in the transition to a new order that has yet to be invented.

These examples are only the tip of the iceberg of themes that are discussed continuously in Oaxaca, in the most diverse ways. In many cases the debates dispense with technical terms and even with widely used concepts (like capitalism and socialism), but their content and orientation clearly express a radical critique of things as they are, along with a continuous search for alternatives and a commitment to fight for them.


At the beginning of 2007 it is impossible to foresee how long the political classes will keep Governor Ulises Ruiz in office. A prominent social critic has noted that Ruiz’s continued incumbency “is a profound enigma and also a very severe insult to republican logic.”9 In the current conditions of social and political polarization, in the midst of intense electoral campaigns, when Ruiz’s continuation in office calls forth particularly corrupt and violent actions on his behalf which people can no longer tolerate, the failure to remove him from the position of authority which he is less and less capable of exercising will impose increasingly heavy political costs on the dominant regime and, in Oaxaca, could lead to ever more intense and violent confrontations which could result in a kind of open civil war.

What seems entirely foreseeable is that the movement will not give up. Surely the different movements that comprise it will differ in their vitality and in their presence on the political scene, but none of them will disappear or become paralyzed. The APPO represents above all a great awakening. The terrible impact of the savage repression of late 2006 is still felt. There are many ruined families, and there are widespread feelings of uncertainty, fear, and economic insecurity. But at the same time the movement is showing an immense resilience and is beginning to multiply its initiatives. Throughout the state of Oaxaca there is the conviction that we are on the threshold of a profound transformation. No sector and no aspect of Oaxaca’s reality has been untouched. The winds of change are blowing everywhere, in full force, as could be seen in the January 27-28 (2007) meeting of the regional APPO del Istmo, when, in the course of arriving at a consensus against running candidates in the next elections, it was emphasized that “the movement is long-term” and that it should not be swayed by partisan fireworks.

The APPO’s fundamental thrust can be seen in the progression from resistance toward liberation that was initiated in Oaxaca by Zapatismo. Groups and communities that for centuries had resisted colonization and development, maintaining their own forms of organization and self-government, saw clearly the new threats posed by globalization and recognized the limitations and dangers of the localism into which many of them had fallen, in confining resistance to their immediate spheres. As an alternative both to such localism and to globalization, there is now spreading the notion of localization. Locally based self-affirmation is preserved, but there is an increasingly powerful opening to other groups and communities, to form extensive alliances and coalitions with all those who are discontented with the system. Not only is there an awareness of the threats (including devastating attacks) against resistance movements; there is also a sense that resistance itself may have reached its limit. It can no longer be just a question of surviving in the face of a dominant regime; it is time to create, together with other groups and sectors, a regime that can replace it. Hence the need to advance from mere resistance, to liberation.

The APPO brought a fresh breeze of renovation to Oaxaca in a dark period of its history. It opens a new horizon of hope, whose innovative character, especially in terms of bridging cultural diversity and applying the assembly tradition to the present, is a source of inspiration for many other movements in Mexico and in the world.


1. “When I say mobilize I mean mobilize,” observes Hans Magnus Enzensberger (“La irresistibilidad de la pequeña burguesía,” in Opciones, no. 8, supplement to El Nacional, April 30, 1992); “I mean that a people must be more mobile than it is –- that it have the freedom of a dancer, the purposefulness of a soccer-player, the surprise-factor of a guerrilla warrior. One who treats the masses as a political object will not be able to mobilize them; he only wants to give them orders. A package, for example, has no mobility; it is merely sent from one place to another. Mass rallies and marches immobilize people. Propaganda which paralyzes rather than giving free rein to their autonomy has the same effect; it leads to depoliticization.”

2. “One can say that the concept of mass, which is purely quantitative, applies to people in the same way that it applies to anything that occupies space. True enough; but in this case it has no qualitative value. We should not forget that in order to arrive at the concept of human masses, we have abstracted out all the traits of people except for what they share with material things: the possibility of being measured in numbers. And thus, logically, the human masses cannot be saved or educated. But it will always be possible to mow them down with machine-guns” (Antonio Machado, Prosas. Havana: Editorial Arte y Literatura, 1975, 239f)

3. [On the significance of this slogan, see Pablo González Casanova, “The Zapatista ‘Caracoles’: Networks of Resistance and Autonomy,” S&D, vol. 19, no. 3 (November 2005), p. 79.]

4. [“Cargo” refers to the “burden” of communal or public office. Cargos usually fit into a hierarchy ranked by age and experience, and are taken on by adult males as part of their civic and religious responsibility to the community. Before occupying higher cargos, such as community president, men must pass through the lower ranks. The key features of a cargo system, differentiating it from liberal notions of representative democracy, are (a) the blend of religious and secular responsibilities (cargos include responsibility for organizing fiestas as well as for running community business) and (b) the fact that the cargo-holder can act only in consultation with the community. In other words, unlike in liberal representative democracies where an elected officeholder is given the power to represent or speak for his or her electorate, the cargo-holder does not embody or represent the community, and as an individual is not authorized to make decisions on behalf of the community without previous consultation. This gives a different quality to notions of leadership in cargo-based systems, as the cargo-holder lacks authority to speak for the community. The cargo system is derived historically from Spanish/Iberian municipal structures, but has become identified with indigenous communities in Meso America and the Andes.]

5. Murat led an aggressive offensive against the popular movement. Now a representative in the Federal Congress, he is under indictment for financial irregularities.

6. His administration carried out a number of urban renewal projects in the historical downtown of the capital city of Oaxaca. Programmed to benefit the construction company of his cronies and relatives, monies allotted to these projects were also siphoned to the war chest of the PRI’s failed presidential campaign managed by Ulises Ruiz. The shoddy and rushed reconstruction affected mostly the main plaza – considered one of the most beautiful in all Mexico and source of regional pride for Oaxaqueños – where several centennial trees were felled. The replacement of the traditional cobblestone and stonework around the main plaza and other streets and public spaces in the capital city angered Oaxaqueños of all social classes. The construction of a four-lane highway cutting across a hill overlooking the city of Oaxaca negatively affected the landscape and environment. Another source of discontent was Ruiz’s privatization of the state-sponsored yearly two-week folkloric and cultural festival of the Guelaguetza, to the exclusive benefit of the tourism industry.

7. The amuzgo, chatino, chinanteco, chontal, chocholteco, cuicateco, huave, mazateco, mixe, mixteco, tacuate, trique, zapoteco and zoque peoples.

8. See Harry Cleaver, “Socialism,” in Wolfgang Sachs (ed.) The Development Dictionary (London: Zed Books, 1992). This broader current appears not to have much interest in such socialist experiments as that of Venezuela, seeming instead to share the view of Ivan Illich, who argued that if socialism ever arrives in Latin America, it will do so by bicycle. The overall tendency, grounded in indigenous traditions, is to leave behind socialism as well as capitalism.

9. Carlos Monsiváis, in La Jornada, 21 January 2007.

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