Political Formations and the Struggle for Autonomy in Oaxaca

The 2006 uprising in Oaxaca and, more importantly, the creation of the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO – Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) represent the most recent stage in a long, intricate and unfinished process of subaltern political formation shaped through the struggle for autonomy and the construction of a social and political base of support. The late 1940s right turn of the post-revolutionary state and the paralysis of the Land Reform marked the unraveling of the popular-national alliance between the peasantry, the working class, and the state consolidated during the administration of President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-40). The demise of the agrarista wing of the official party, the dismantling or marginalization of independent popular organizations, and the break-up of the alliance established by Cárdenas with progressive and revolutionary parties, paved the way for expansion of the corporatist machinery of political and social control. For the subaltern classes this reversal entailed the loss of political autonomy and the subordination of their interests to those of the state through the control exercised by the corporatist labor and peasant sectors of the official party. This article examines how Oaxaca’s subaltern classes recovered their autonomy between the late 1940s and the mid 1970s, in a process involving the ousting of three unpopular governors. The political repertoires, local and national alliances, organizational strategies and mobilization skills forged in this process are deeply ingrained in the formation of APPO and subaltern consciousness.

Political Crises, Popular Mobilization and Subaltern Subordination

The two decades following the demise of the Cardenista popular-national alliance (the 1940s and ‘50s) were characterized by the dominance of corporatist social organizations and the centrality of urban participation in Oaxaca’s political crises. The Left was marginalized, and subaltern mobilization and political intervention were subordinated to the interests of the state through the control exercised by corporatist labor and peasant organizations integrated into the official party. During the crises of 1947 and 1952, provoked by the imposition of anti-popular measures, the university emerged as a relatively autonomous space for political action and organization. As the center of protest and political discussion, the university created exceptional conditions for coalescence between regional traditions of rebeldía, the Left, and the subaltern classes.

By the late 1940s Oaxaca was one of the most rural and poorest states in Mexico. The construction of roads and dams sponsored by the central government during the 1950s alleviated bottlenecks constraining Oaxaca’s agricultural production, but at the same time rekindled agrarian protest. In the region of Tehuántepec the dams built on communal land favored private landowners at the expense of the communal or cooperative agriculture favored during the Cárdenas regime. Rural discontent however was limited to specific areas and was politically contained by PRI caciques (political bosses) backed by both the state-controlled national peasant organization and landowners’ white guards. This explains the almost negligible peasant participation in the mobilizations against Governors Edmundo Sánchez Cano and Manuel Mayoral Heredia in 1946 and 1952. Peasants mobilized only in support of the government. The urban classes of Oaxaca, though barely 4 or 5% of the population, were more visible and played a more decisive role in the political crises of that period. The rift between these two sectors resulted not only from repression but also from the still predominant coloniality pervading the attitudes and sentiments of urban and better educated classes toward a mostly indigenous rural population.1

The ouster of Governors Sánchez Cano and Mayoral Heredia was provoked by tax increases and attempts to curtail the principles of autonomy and self-government that had traditionally ruled university life. These measures were opposed by a broad coalition of interests ranging from the bourgeoisie, PRI officials, and popular classes. Students, artisans, professional groups, and particularly market women, were the most active organizers and participants in the decisive marches and sit-ins. However, the leading role as spokespersons or political negotiators was played by members of the Chamber of Commerce and faculty from the local university, together with professional PRI politicians.2 Merchants also took the political initiative with their calls for “strikes” -– more properly lockouts –- that moved the protests from a defensive into an offensive stance. On the other hand, the tempo, nature and mode of the struggles were mostly established by subaltern mobilization. University students’ strikes and building-occupations opened up a relatively autonomous space for interaction and cooperation between different popular sectors. On many occasions the defense of university buildings became the rallying point of popular struggles. This occurred in 1952 when an armed attack on the university by government-led peasants galvanized popular mobilization against Governor Sánchez Heredia. In general, violent repression against peaceful demonstrators backfired, deepening and radicalizing protest actions to the point of making the state ungovernable, thereby triggering central government intervention.

The ouster of the two governors had paradoxical consequences for the popular classes. In both cases, it coincided with the installation of a new federal president, who then had the chance to name a governor personally loyal to himself. For many popular leaders and activists, participation in the protests served as a springboard to political careers in the PRI, the state and/or corporatists organizations. Carried out by presidential fiat, the firings also legitimized presidential authority and by extension that of the PRI/State pyramidal structure. By removing governors and rejecting their dispositions that provoked the crises in the first place, the central state unintentionally legitimized subaltern mobilization as a valid mechanism of popular participation.

The most important effect in strategic terms, however, was the consolidation of a relationship between subaltern classes and university students who later played a central role in founding politically independent popular organizations. The local university, which was named for Oaxaca-born alumnus and republican icon Benito Juárez, had long been a haven for anti-clerical, nationalist, anti-dictatorial and anti-centralist ideas, and it occupied an important place in Mexican intellectual and political history.3 Located in the center of the city of Oaxaca near the Governor’s office, the university came to be viewed in the popular imagination as a symbolic center of counter-power. It was also home to Radio Universidad – the radio station that in times of conflict served as the main conduit to counter government propaganda and to voice popular demands. Moreover it also became customary to have university installations open to popular organizations, particularly in moments of political conflict. As in the case of the current conflict, ever since the late 1940s meetings, assemblies and discussions related to any major political mobilization or social conflict in the state have taken place in the historic university building.

At this early juncture in the trajectory towards an autonomous subaltern politics, the formation of a popular leftist culture was marked by the presence of “old left” political parties, namely the Partido Popular Socialista (PPS) and the Partido Comunista Mexicano (PCM). The PPS was founded in 1949 by labor and peasant leaders opposed to the reversal of president Cárdenas’s reforms. Its affiliated labor and peasant federation espoused a general anti-imperialist and nationalist policy. In Oaxaca the PPS built an important base of support among peasants and indigenous groups. While it enjoyed legal recognition from the state and kept a working connection with official peasant federations, it also kept a safe distance from other more radical leftwing parties and organizations. A more militant role in subaltern organization was played by the Communist Party, which until the late 1979 was not legally recognized by the state. Party activists together with recognized regional peasant leaders established in 1963 the Confederacion Campesina Independiente (CCI –- Independent Peasant Confederation), which for a long time was the most important independent oppositional peasant organization in the country. Peasant groups and indigenous communities from around the state, affiliated to this confederation, led struggles for 1) defense of the land, water and forests of indigenous communities, 2) the rights of peasants displaced by the construction of dams, and 3) the democratization of rural development programs, against the authoritarianism of caciques. Communist activists also played an important role in the creation of the Movimiento Democrático Magisterial (MDM – Teachers Democratic Union), an organization that advocated the democratization of the teachers’ union. Equally important for subaltern politics in Oaxaca were the local branches of the national unions of railroad workers and electrical workers, which, influenced by the Communist Party and also by some Trotskyists, were the most militant sectors of the working class.

Leftwing Politics and Independent Subaltern Organization

A second important moment in subaltern political formation came in the aftermath of the brutal 1968 repression against the student movement. As the Mexican “economic miracle” collapsed and the post-revolutionary state lost legitimacy, students became part of a multiple and nationwide democratic mobilization that posed the most serious challenge to PRI’s dominance in many decades. Taking their inspiration both from student movements in Europe and from the Cuban Revolution – and from Mexico’s own regional experiences as well – a new generation of activists created a host of political formations self-defined as a “new left.” Many Oaxacan students, both indigenous and non-indigenous, returned home to establish branches of these newly created leftist organizations. While some turned to armed struggle, others opted for closer ties with the popular classes and the organization of movements from below. Despite the difficulties brought by military counterinsurgency campaigns, the coalescence between university students, the Left and grassroots groups was crucial for the development of politically independent popular organizations.

In Oaxaca, radicalized students turned the Federación Estudiantil Oaxaqueña –- originally established for recreational and social purposes –- in a more political direction. In 1969-70, the student federation, together with other popular organizations and political formations, mounted a successful resistance to bus fare increases and participated in protests against the high cost of living and to demand democratic rights. To bring relations between students and working classes even closer, students at the Law School created the Bufete Popular (Popular Attorney’s Office) to provide legal advice to labor unions and other popular organizations. Soon after, law students were joined by agronomy, nursing and medical students. Finally in 1972 the Bufete Popular and other independent organizations together with the Communist Party and other leftwing formations created the Coalición de Obreros, Campesinos y Estudiantes de Oaxaca (COCEO – Coalition of Workers, Peasants and Students of Oaxaca).4

In the polarizing economic and political circumstances of the second half of the 1970s, galvanized by inflation, uncertainty, lack of social services, racism, intolerance and disdain towards the subaltern classes, COCEO emerged as the only important source of political and material support for popular struggles. COCEO played a key role in the centralization of peasant groups from different parts of the state in a single independent federation. It was also actively involved in the land recoveries in the Central Valleys and in many cases challenged the rule of caciques by forming oppositional slates in municipal elections. During the unprecedented 1974 wave of wildcat strikes unleashed by unorganized workers against the rising cost of living, COCEO took a leading role in the dual struggle for the recognition of independent labor unions and for the negotiation of labor contracts for bus drivers, university workers, slaughterhouse workers, bakers, municipal workers and others. Against the authoritarian practices and top-down approach of the corporatist unions, the type of organization promoted by COCEO was based on the assembly as the main decision-making body, the direct election of leaders and representatives, and coordinated solidarity actions. As a space for political discussion, strategic planning, support and coordination, COCEO stimulated the confluence of leftwing parties and popular oppositional forces into an expanding independent subaltern organization.

Unable to turn back the mobilization through the usual mechanisms of repression or corporativist control, business associations, merchants, landowners, corporatist organizations and the PRI, with the support of Governor Zarate Aquino, formed a coalition to coordinate “the actions of the bourgeoisie, the state corporatist apparatus and the governor.”5 Together these sectors marched and demanded that the governor suppress the subaltern mobilization. In a concerted action with landowners, “white guards,” and thugs hired by the PRI, state police forces launched a massive offensive. Hundreds of peasants were evicted from recovered lands. Popular leaders, student activists, university faculty and leftwing organizers were beaten, tortured, disappeared or murdered. Fearing for their lives, many left the state. Military intervention in municipalities claiming electoral fraud imposed candidates favored by the governor. The repression climaxed with the massive July 1975 detention of approximately 2000 leaders, activists and supporters of Oaxaca’s independent peasant movement. As on previous occasions, however, repression did not deter the movement, which managed to resist for two more years.

Popular demonstrations in Etla, Oaxaca and Juchitan in early 1977 against police support to the occupation of the university by the combined forces of the alliance of dominant interests, this time with the participation of the rightist Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) and groups of conservative Catholics, were brutally repressed causing several deaths. These actions were followed by a business close-out, student demonstrations, attacks by PRI thugs against popular leaders, and clashes between radical students and rightwing groups. Fearing further escalation as federal troops occupied the city, Governor Zarate Aquino left the state and requested a leave of absence. Following constitutional procedure, the senior senator for Oaxaca Eliseo Jiménez Ruiz was appointed as governor. A general in the army, Jiménez Ruiz had made a name for himself as commander of the successful campaign against the Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres (EGP – Guerrilla Army of the Poor) led by the school teacher Lucio Cabañas in the neighboring state of Guerrero. Well known nationally for his anticommunism, during his two-year tenure he conducted a systematic and selective campaign against the popular opposition that severely undermined its organizing and mobilizing capabilities.

Repression however was not the only factor in the demise of the popular democratic bloc. Sectarianism and internal strife among leftwing organizations also played a part. While the presence of armed organizations in the state led to intense debates particularly within the student movement, it did not deter the expansion of “social left” organizations like COCEO. Trouble started when the Maoist-oriented Unión del Pueblo labeled as “reformist” and “legalist” all groups that disagreed with its strategy of armed struggle. In a language resembling that of the Peruvian Communist Party-Shining Path, Union del Pueblo and its supporters established an insurmountable divide between those favoring and those opposing armed struggle, regardless of the political trajectory or stance vis-à-vis the state of those labeled as “reformist.” Physical attacks and demonization of individuals and organizations as non-revolutionary, combined with the Unión del Pueblo’s declaration of war against COCEO and many other organizations, generated an atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty, severely undermining any possibility of conducting an orderly retreat in the face of repression by the new governor.

Using the presence of guerrillas as a pretext, the army and the police intervened and dismantled militant peasant organizations. In a wider anti-subversive drive, they detained, assassinated or disappeared many popular leaders and activists. By 1979 Unión del Pueblo and its guerrilla force were dismantled. Denouncing the presence of Unión del Pueblo among students and faculty, new authorities purged the university of oppositional forces. With support from PRI, the authorities established new corporative unions among faculty and workers. To keep the situation under control, hired thugs trained groups of students in martial arts to act as enforcers of the university’s anticommunist policies. In these dire conditions COCEO faded away, the university vanished as a space of oppositional politics, and the popular movement entered a stage of fragmentation and demobilization.

Electoral Reform, Grassroots Democracy and Indigenous Struggle

A third important moment in the struggle for autonomy came in the 1980s, set against a changing political landscape marked by the neoliberal reconfiguration of the Mexican state, the crisis of its corporatist regime of social and political control, the reform of the electoral regime, and the legalization of leftwing opposition parties. New organizations and movements joined the already established labor unions, student associations and peasant federations, creating possibilities for the reconfiguration of a subaltern oppositional bloc. An important contributing factor to popular organization was the work of priests inspired by liberation theology, who established “Christian base communities” in the poorest -– largely indigenous -– regions of the state. These subaltern formations of the 1980s, going beyond the mostly defensive orientation of their predecessors, addressed issues related to the production and reproduction of material conditions, democratization of everyday politics and decision-making, and municipal participatory democracy. Overall these experiences expressed the maturity of a subaltern movement free from the political and ideological constraints of the state and its official party.

Three particular struggles were crucial to the configuration of an autonomous subaltern pole of forces in Oaxaca: 1) the political mobilization and successful electoral campaign of the leftist Zapotec Coalición Obrero Campesina Estudiantil del Istmo (COCEI – Worker Peasant Student Coalition)6 in the municipality of Juchitan; 2) the successful struggle of the Movimiento Democrático Magisterial (Teachers Democratic Movement) against union officials of Local 22 –- Oaxaca’s local of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE – National Union of Education Workers), demanding an end to corrupt and anti-democratic practices; and 3) the mobilization of Indigenous peoples in defense of communal natural resources and Indian culture and language and their demands for political self-determination.

The COCEI Campaign. Founded in 1974 by leftist Zapotec students in the strategic region of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, COCEI focused its political efforts on the recovery of communal lands, the defense of labor rights, and the preservation and propagation of Zapotec Indian culture and history. With participation of the poorest working and peasant sectors, COCEI direct action tactics were successful in ousting corrupt municipal officials, winning labor strikes, defending democratic control of rural associations, building Zapotec ethnic awareness, and developing class consciousness.7 Taking advantage of the 1977 political reform that allowed local political formations to get onto municipal ballots through alliance with a national party, COCEI in association with the Mexican Communist Party fought and won the 1981 municipal elections, making Juchitan the first city in Mexico with a leftist government.

During the COCEI “people’s government” (1981-83), Juchitan became a laboratory of innovative participatory policies. The ayuntamiento popular established a radio station broadcasting in Zapotec; carried out a Paulo Freyre-inspired literacy campaign similar to the one implemented by the FSLN in Nicaragua; created a system of public libraries and health care centers; established a municipal teachers college; opened a Casa de la Cultura (Cultural Center) that launched a series of publications, literary contests, and cultural events aimed at preserving and propagating Zapotec culture and traditions; and sponsored the creation of regional militant labor and peasant federations. Despite systematic obstruction from both state and federal governments, COCEI’s municipal government also managed to improve municipal services, pressured employers to pay minimum wages, and supported peasants in negotiations with state agencies.

Under pressure however from the economic right, the Juchitan “people’s government” came to an end through a military occupation incited by the local bourgeoisie and the most reactionary sectors of PRI. PRI thugs carried out a series of violent incidents during the heated electoral campaign between COCEI and PRI candidates for the state legislature. Using as an excuse the killings of two persons on election day, the PRI-controlled Chamber of Deputies declared that the district was ungovernable. Pressure from Washington, concerned at the time with the spread of revolution after the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, was another factor in the downfall of Juchitan’s COCEI government.

The Teachers’ Movement. A second important actor in the revitalization of Oaxaca’s popular movement was the Movimiento Democrático Magisterial (MDM), created by teachers close to the Communist Party who were discontent with poor wages and lack of democracy in the union. The teachers mobilized in opposition to the anti-democratic election of delegates to the assembly held in January 1980 to appoint a new secretary-general of Local 22. The appointee, who was disliked by a large number of local members, was also named, a few days later, head of the state branch of PRI. Teachers were also unhappy with the delay in their payments caused by the restructuring of the Ministry of Public Education, which was opposed by the SNTE and a sector of PRI. In this context, Local 22 called a strike against the restructuring but failed to also include membership demands for a wage increase.

In response, dissident teachers formed Comités de Lucha (Struggle Committees) throughout the state. Bypassing union officials, a large majority of union delegations established a coordinating committee of Comités de Lucha that repudiated the entire local executive committee, added to their demands a wage increase, and assumed the leadership of the strike. On May 10, approximately 10,000 teachers (a third of the state total) participated in a “silent march” in the capital city of Oaxaca. Three days later, all but 8 of the 238 union delegations in the state named an executive commission made up of three elected delegates from each region in the state. Backed by parents of pupils and by independent unions, university students and popular organizations also mobilized in solidarity with the dissident teachers.

Later in the month 24,000 Oaxacan teachers set up a plantón (sit-in and encampment) in Mexico City demanding a wage increase and official recognition of their democratically elected leaders. Early in June, Local 22 teachers were joined by 60,000 dissident teachers from other states organized under the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion (CNTE – Education Workers National Network) in yet another march and massive encampment downtown Mexico City. Federal authorities caved in and recognized the Local 22 executive committee and conceded a wage increase, although less satisfactory than the teachers expected. Local 22 also joined the dissident teachers’ caucus -– CNTE. The first of a number of mobilizations that shook the state during the rest of the decade became an important rallying point for the reconstitution of the popular movement.8 Local 22’s actions and mobilizations in Mexico City drew unexpected manifestations of support from the Left and popular organizations.

During the struggle Local 22 established a complex organization based on the principle of grassroots participatory democracy. In order to avoid tight control by the SNTE bureaucracy, dissident teachers established an organization made up of “struggle committees,” regional “central councils of struggle,” and “brigades” acting as liaison between different sectors. Based on this organization under the control of the “democratic” teachers, the local was reorganized into a structure with four levels of elected officials. Going from the bottom these levels include: the school committee, sector committees, zone committee and the local executive committee. The highest authority is the assembly of elected representatives. The decision-making process of the assembly is based on the practice of the consulta – delegates must go back to their local areas to hold debates before adopting a final decision in the general assembly. Elected officials are accountable to the General Assembly and cannot be reelected to the same position, nor can they be elected to a different position on another executive committee. Finally, local executive committee members together with the political representatives of the different parties, tendencies and organizations within Local 22 constitute the so-called “political commission” that acts as a consulting body and instance of political discussion.9

With salaries below those of non-indigenous teachers and without a proper job classification, bilingual indigenous teachers were marginalized by the teachers’ union. Employed by a social service agency of the state government of Oaxaca in 1974, indigenous teachers formed the Coalición de Maestros y Promotores Indígenas, which through strikes and sit-ins won the right to benefit from the wage structures and labor conditions enjoyed by other government education workers. Indigenous teachers not only have been a large part of the union membership but have also brought to the union organizational skills derived from indigenous political traditions grounded in the primacy of collective over personal interest, collective decision-making, and cooperative work and reciprocity.

Indigenous Struggles. Subjected to violent political imposition and electoral fraud, to the dramatically expanded concession of communal lands to forest corporations, and to the loss of indigenous languages and customs, indigenous communities responded by reinforcing their autonomous forms of self-government, creating new territorial organizations, establishing women’s and human rights groups, participating in local and international networks of solidarity, defending the environment and indigenous rights, joining peasant/indigenous confederations, social or political movements, and forming community radios and filmmaking collectives, etc.

A common thread uniting these different organizations is the aspiration to autonomy. During the last decades, dozens of leftwing indigenous-based organizations have worked together with communal authorities to widen and consolidate autonomy. Furthermore, indigenous participation in forming “social left” groupings like COCEI, or their coalition work with labor unions like Local 22, or their presence in the university, in youth groups, and in working-class and poor neighborhoods, has also created conditions for cross-fertilization between indigenous political practices and traditions and those of the Left. Many indigenous organizations – particularly in the southern part of the state – benefited from the organizational work carried out by progressive priests through the formation of “Christian Base Communities.” Led both by these newly created “social left” organizations and by their formal authorities, indigenous peoples engaged the state in countless local and regional struggles through land recoveries, occupation of state and federal buildings, marches, expulsion of corrupt authorities, sit-ins, demonstrations in Mexico City, installation of autonomous authorities, disengagement from state authority, and hunger strikes.

By the 1990s indigenous organizations in the state of Oaxaca had gained a prominent place in the emerging subaltern pole of forces. Galvanized by the EZLN uprising and the campaign for democracy and indigenous rights launched by the newly created Consejo Nacional Indígena, a number of these organizations joined the ranks of the latter. Indigenous articulation of old and new political traditions, their amalgamation of democratic aspirations with collective interest, and their simultaneous deployment of reform, insurgency and rebellion became a patrimony and guiding principle for other popular organizations. Informed by this multiple and diverse leftwing popular culture, subaltern political mobilization in Oaxaca reached a critical point with the formation of APPO.


1. With this term Aníbal Quijano describes the persistence of colonial-type racial and cultural attitudes in Latin American countries with a large indigenous (or Black) population. See Quijano, “The Challenge of the ‘Indigenous Movement’ in Latin America,” Socialism and Democracy no. 39 (November 2005).

2. This account of the political history of Oaxaca is based mostly on Víctor R. Martínez Vásquez. Movimiento Popular y Política en Oaxaca: 1968-1980. Oaxaca: CONACULTA, 1990.

3. Founded in 1827 as the Instituto de Artes y Ciencias, after the 1950s it was referred to as “the University.” In 1971 it was reconstituted as Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca (UABJO).

4. COCEO document quoted in Victor R. Martínez. Movimiento Popular, p. 133.

5. V.R. Martínez. Movimiento Popular, 188.

6. COCEI is not to be confused with COCEO. COCEI had a regional base in the Zapotec-speaking region of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec whereas COCEO was intended as a broad alliance of popular organizations and leftwing political formations state-wide. COCEI’s creation was inspired by the experience of COCEO.

7. For a history of COCEI see Jeffrey Rubin. Decentering the Regime: Ethnicity, Radicalism and Democracy in Juchitan, Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997. See also H. Campbell, L. Binford et al. Zapotec Struggles: Histories, Politics and Representations from Juchitan,Oaxaca. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

8. For an examination and accounts of the 1980 mobilization of Local 22, see Isidoro Yescas M. & Gloria Zafra. La Insurgencia Magisterial en Oaxaca 1980. Fondo Editorial IEEPO/IISUABJO, 2006 and Víctor R. Martínez V. Testimonios y Crónicas del Movimiento Magisterial Oaxaqueño. Sección 22, 2005. For a history of CNTE see Organizing Dissent: Unions, the State, and the Democratic Teachers’ Movement in Mexico. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. In 2006 SNTE had 1.4 million members, about 45% of whom (630,000) are affiliated with CNTE.

9. Víctor Raúl Martínez Vásquez “Autoritarismo, Movimiento Popular y Crisis Política en Oaxaca en el 2006” (Ms, Oaxaca, 2006).

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