The Right to Be Heard

As other articles in this issue argue, both the forms of political expression and the reasons for Oaxacans’ rebellion against the PRI’s authoritarian and increasingly violent rule were, in many respects, not surprising. Most of the demands and actors have long histories; the teachers’ strike is an annual event; women have played important historical roles in both the organization and carrying out of political resistance; and the ideal of autonomy has for centuries animated indigenous demands on the Oaxacan state. Similarly, human rights and indigenous organizations have for many years denounced the impunity and corruption that characterize Oaxaca’s PRI-dominated state government. Finally, although the APPO is in many respects a new type of organization, its novel form is made possible by its grounding in familiar languages of popular democracy, dissent and rebeldía. The challenge is to understand these historical roots while also acknowledging the creativity that characterizes APPO as a new mode of articulating politics in the contentious arena of Oaxacan and Mexican popular and party struggles.

One way to think about the originality of APPO’s form is to situate it against the backdrop of Oaxaca’s remarkable ethnic and cultural diversity. APPO provides in this sense a sort of political home to a broad range of people who have come together to discuss Oaxaca’s –- and, indeed, Mexico’s –- political future in terms of everything from territory, autonomy and human rights, to cultural patrimony, education and the Plan Puebla Panama. Anyone who has followed the emergence and consolidation of the APPO will not fail to be impressed by the astonishing array of organizations, groups and individuals it has drawn together. Of course, the great variety of grassroots organizations and culturally inflected demands might well be taken, on the one hand, as encouraging evidence of the vitality of local political imaginaries -– and the ways in which they have been re-energized by neoliberal policies whose intent is precisely that of dispersing and localizing political initiatives. Thus, as all social scientists are by now aware, neoliberalism is all about “decentralization,” and “social movements” have become the everyday fare of local politics as individuals and communities mobilize to pursue their particular interests. This scenario effectively explains away the APPO by embedding it within a neoliberal political imaginary in which “diversity” stands as a goal on its own, and in which opposition organizations and presidential candidates alike must necessarily peg their fortunes to the “actually existing diversity” of Mexican society.

But although neoliberal multiculturalism certainly forms a backdrop for the Oaxacan insurgency, APPO does not restrict its struggle to questions of “identity” or demands for state recognition of group and individual rights. Rather the APPO seems to articulate a sort of collective desire to find a new language of political engagement through which people can claim a right that is not –- and in fact probably cannot be -– guaranteed in any constitution: the right to be heard. Here APPO’s politics resonate somewhat with the sentiments and sensibilities that inform the EZLN’s La Otra (the Other) campaign. Thus, in the documents, speeches and pronouncements of this campaign, what we most hear about is “la palabra,” the word. “The dark word of the most small,” writes Marcos, “is the one which has best summarized the purpose of the first stage of the Otra: lending wind to word, that it might fly high, that it might go far.” “For the ear to exist and increase,” he continues, “the word of the other is necessary.”1

Indeed, in many respects, it would seem that the entire purpose of the Other Campaign is to listen. In the plenario of La Sexta held in the Lacandón jungle in August 2005, Marcos and the Comandancia sat in silence for days listening to the words and gestures of performance groups, collectives, and communal organizations that had come to the Lacandona from all over Mexico. And in La Otra’s tour through Mexico, we are told that “Marcos listened for seven days a week to hours of spontaneous testimony in small and large meetings in cities and isolated rural villages. Marcos does not speak in the meetings until all of those who wish to share their experiences have spoken. When he gives speeches in open plazas… it is to encourage people to participate in the Other Campaign, that is, to read the Sixth Declaration and to attend and speak at the public meetings.”2

Although the Oaxacan movement should not be in any way equated (or conflated) with La Otra, it seems clear that what drives the particular political form assumed by the APPO is a similar concern with reconfiguring democratic politics so as to make it imply not only the right to be represented, which can be legally guaranteed, but also the (harder to guarantee) right to be heard. The APPO, grounded in traditional practices, has opted for a notion of democracy in which decisions are not delegated to representatives but are instead arrived at through consultation with the bases. The emphasis is not on leaders speaking for people, but rather on people being able to speak with each other. This is a deeply ethical perspective on politics in which decisions -– and “positions” -– depend not on pre-defined ideologies or cultural “identities,” but rather on people’s willingness to let others be heard.

Such a vision of political community may well strike us as utopian and, perhaps, impossible. Yet repeatedly in the summer of Oaxaca’s discontent, it was the right to speak –- and be heard –- that people seized on as the means for declaring their frustrations with “politics as usual.” Perhaps the most striking and certainly dramatic evidence of this were the hundreds -– probably thousands –- of individuals who stood in line at the open mics of opposition radio stations like Radio Universidad (and, for a while, Radio la Ley) to give public testimony about how “their eyes had been opened,” how they were “not going to put up with it anymore,” how “they had either not known or not done anything about government abuse and corruption before but were now”, and, mostly importantly, how they had never had the opportunity to say these things before –- or at least to say them and be heard. Thus the centrality of media control to the Oaxacan political movement lay not just in the refusal to accept official censorship, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in people’s understanding that their rights as citizens included the right to have their voices be broadcast and heard. On one level, this is a democratization of the airwaves. On another, it is a democratization of the very principle of right, in that people were no longer content to refer to doctrines of constitutional, legal or even (international) human right, but were instead claiming -– as a sort of natural or social right –- the right to hold a conversation in which all parties would be heard.

But what, in the end, is at stake with all this listening and speaking? Clearly all the people talking in APPO meetings and on Radio Universidad don’t share anything like a unified political project, and not all of them would describe what they are doing in terms of “listening.” Rather, what seems to be minimally at stake in their collective and sundry words and doings is a struggle simply to find space in which it is possible to imagine.

Perhaps a better word for describing this mode of political activism, then, is imagination – since imagination is inherently open-ended. It contains lines of flight which cannot be mapped and which may not even yet be born. It is future-oriented, and yet not concerned with the neat divides that seem to separate memory from the present. Even more importantly, as something which is unleashed and intangible, imagination also allows for the unsettling presence and acknowledgment of strangeness. And strangeness is a quality that is not at all captured by a liberal politics of recognition, in which the strangeness –- the momentary unintelligibility -– of the “other’s” voice is, in the end, domesticated as something that is either “tolerable” or “interesting” or marketable.

In the end, then, what I think APPO helps us to understand about what is -– or can be –- new about politics, is the idea that democracy must be rendered not “just” participatory –- in the sense of being able to tolerate and even require citizens’ active participation in decision making. It must also be reflective in the sense that it must be made open to a more patient modality of listening and hearing. In this sense the activism and revolutionary sensibilities for which the APPO speaks seem to point as well toward a different temporal framework for politics. Its goals are neither short-term nor readily confined. If Oaxacans manage to get their abusive governor deposed, they will celebrate. But APPO will probably not go away, because the struggle that will have led to such a victory has apprenticed them to a new ideal of politics as a re-articulation of rights that goes well beyond the restricted sense in which states offer us “rights” as a form of recognition, but never as an invitation to speak.


1. “The First/Other Winds,” Quintana Roo, February 18, 2006,; accessed April 6, 2007. The direction of [our] cameras and microphones has thus been reoriented, and, with these other men and women, now beginning to fly high are the voices of farmers, fishermen, construction workers, artisans, street vendors, indigenous, campesinos without land, residents, students, teachers, workers, researchers, men, women, young people, especially women and young people.”

2. John Gibler, “Who’s Not Listening: The LA Times and the Failure of Political Imagination,” This is, of course, a point that is completely lost on the US (and most Latin American) press, in part because such a reframing of politics in terms of listening appeals to a very different concept of interest than that which fuels electoral politics.

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