The Uprising in Oaxaca


Overwhelmed by the massive mobilizations of summer 2006 that brought the state of Oaxaca to a standstill, government officials and the media attributed the movement to the work of external agents -– the alleged infiltration of “urban guerrillas,” Mexico City troublemakers, or political operatives of presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador (of the center-left Partido de la Revolución Democrática –- PRD). More serious political commentators and quite a few leftwing intellectuals considered the movement a spontaneous outburst of amorphous impoverished masses, or a product of the vandalism and resentment of marginalized sectors. Extreme left analyses on the other hand considered the movement doomed to failure because of its alleged lack of revolutionary proletarian guidance and direction.

Expressing a common elitist disdain -– be it of the racist or the vanguardist kind -– none of these interpretations took seriously the conscious initiatives, accumulated knowledge, historical memories, organizational experiences, desires and aspirations of Oaxaca’s subaltern classes. Seen from the perspective of the sótano -– following Raúl Zibechi’s prescription for an analysis from below1 -– the myriad demonstrations, actions, and acts of defiance staged by students, workers, women, peasants, indigenous people, street kids, and others constitute a genuine insurgency, a clash between the unbearable authoritarianism and abuse of the dominant corporatist regime, and the mounting democratic aspirations of broad sectors of Oaxacan society -– aspirations not only for effective universal suffrage but also for a more just distribution of economic resources and for defense of the common material and cultural patrimony of all Mexicans against the onslaught of neoliberal transformations.

It is still too early to attempt a definitive characterization of this emerging subaltern democratic project, owing to the persistence of anachronistic categories from an earlier era when a centralizing impulse framed all political projects. While the anti-capitalist and anti-systemic impulses of the Oaxaca rebellion are consistent with those of other anti-neoliberal popular movements in Latin America, the more immediate sources of its radicalism can be found in Oaxaca’s own rich traditions of resistance, mobilization and rebeldía (rebelliousness). Indigenous resistance stands at the center of these traditions. The supremacy of the communal assembly as locus of authority, the defense of cultural and political autonomy, and the principles of collective work and reciprocity have not only maintained communal life but have also been adapted by non-indigenous organizations. Popular forms of liberalism, anti-centralism and anti-clericalism fashioned as Juarismo -– after 19th-century Oaxaca-born national hero and President Benito Juárez -– as well as the autonomist stance and direct action emphasis of early 20th-century Oaxacan anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón also form part of these traditions. Agrarismo, the ideological legacy of the Mexican Revolution stipulating that land belongs to those who work it, has guided and inspired peasant mobilization. Leftwing ideas were also important -– first, through the seminal role of the Communist Party (and Trotskyism) in the formation of independent labor and peasant movements, and later, through the presence of revolutionary organizations inspired by both the Cuban Revolution and Maoism. The egalitarian principles, grassroots organization, and self-organization promoted by both Liberation theology and feminism also have their place in shaping the political repertoire of Oaxaca’s subaltern activism.

This process however was not without its own problems. Within movements, communities and organizations, democratic practices frequently clashed with the authoritarian traditions of a mostly male dominant style of leadership (Charrismo and caciquismo – labor union and political leader bossism). Gender, class, regional and racial differences also tainted the relationship between political parties and popular organizations, militants, and grassroots activists. A constant source of conflict was the tension between the leftwing parties’ “democratic centralism” and their egalitarian and participatory promises. Tensions between the “old” and “new” left, “revolutionaries” and “reformists,” turned deadly in the mid-70s when Maoists declared war on the Communist Party and other “legalist” organizations of the “social” left, killing at least two of their members.

As Mexico was entering a “democratic opening” after the electoral fiasco of 1988 –- when Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the candidate of a nationalist and leftist coalition was victim of a scandalous electoral fraud –- the state of Oaxaca experienced instead an authoritarian regression. In 2000, when the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), for the first time in seventy years, lost control of the national presidency, it managed in Oaxaca to keep its hold on the governor’s office, the state legislature, and a large number of municipalities. Confronted by a growing opposition, the PRI hardened and deepened its corporatist practices of social and political control. With the advent of the Plan Puebla Panama, a Washington-sponsored strategy for the globalization of the region, predicated upon the expropriation of public and communal natural, cultural and touristic resources, the PRI’s political machinery became an important asset for the partnership between local political elites and outside investors sustaining crony capitalism in Oaxaca.2 Incarnated in the administration of Ulises Ruiz, the interlocked predatory practices of corporatist caciques and neoliberal capitalists created exceptional circumstances for the coalescence of the different, intermittent and mostly subterranean streams of subaltern resistance and citizen discontent contemptuously ignored and disregarded by those in power as a nuisance easy to repress or to buy out. Caught between mounting social/political protest and the demands of capital, the PRI in Oaxaca held on with total impunity to the practice euphemistically known as plata o plomo (silver or lead -– as in cash or bullet) –- the choice given to unruly elements to end their criticism or opposition through either a hefty kickback or a violent beating and possible death.

Opposing this pernicious regime, yet at the same time rejecting centralist and statist modes of social organization and political action, the Oaxaca insurgency owes its strength to a broad-based, non-hierarchical, and communitarian approach to organizing. Not only did the insurrection weather the repression of November 25, one of the most brutal in contemporary Mexican history, but more importantly, it managed to expand the reach of its core institution, the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO), as an effective subaltern oppositional bloc.

One of many focos in the fluid Latin American political geography dotted by local, regional and national mobilizations, rebellions and insurrections,3 the Oaxaca insurgency is nonetheless the product of a particular history and concrete political conditions. To consider this insurrection merely as part of a continental chain reaction to neoliberalism, or as the direct consequence of a Latin American left turn allegedly led by Hugo Chavez and/or Fidel Castro, would not only be to misrepresent its trajectory; it would also be to deny historical agency to the Oaxacan people. The movement in Oaxaca, although part of a broader Latin American trend, is at the same time the product of Oaxaca’s own multiple subaltern traditions and cultures of resistance, galvanized by recent historical memory of the ousting of three governors (1947, 1952, 1974), and of the mobilizations, repressions, victories and defeats experienced by the oppositional popular movements that reached maturity in the 1980s.

Our first article here gives an in-depth account this recent historical trajectory, providing necessary background to understanding the events of 2006. It also analyzes three foundational moments in the development of a subaltern culture of resistance: (1) leftist efforts to link electoral participation to grassroots democracy and indigenous struggle; (2) the emergence of a democratic caucus within the Oaxacan teachers’ union and its emergence as a crucial national force in the struggle against corporatist labor leadership; and (3) the mobilization of indigenous peoples in defense of communal natural resources and Indian culture and language, and their defense and demands for autonomy.

In his contribution Gustavo Esteva offers a thorough and vivid examination of the history of the APPO. Describing APPO as a movement of movements, the author moves from the easy characterizations drawn by certain groups to favor their political interests to offer a trenchant account of APPO’s internal dynamics and the nature of its relationship with different popular organizations in the state. Focusing on the centrality of Indigenous participation in APPO, Esteva discusses the horizontality of its organization, its bottom up approach, and the importance of communal political practices as a key to understanding its broader appeal.

Through personal testimonials Lynn Stephen examines the participation of women, focusing particularly on their occupation of the state-controlled radio and television station and on how they converted it from a vehicle of government propaganda into a tool for democratic education, communication and participation. She explores how and why women occupied such a central role in the movement and explores differences and similarities with other groups calling for basic social, political, and human rights. Finally she discusses how the media -– particularly radio –- constituted a key channel for the expansion of women’s political and cultural spaces.

In the final contribution to this section Deborah Poole considers the right to speak -– and be heard -– as the central trait of APPO’s novel and creative approach to politics. Drawing parallels with the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign, she discusses the APPO notion of democracy as a radical ethical departure from both parliamentary and “revolutionary” approaches premised on the special entitlement of leaders to speak for their constituents. Instead, Poole argues, APPO offers the model of a political community premised on people’s ability to speak to each other, and thus of a democracy that requires direct grassroots participation in decision-making.

As the Oaxaca uprising enters its second year, APPO is faced with a difficult and uncertain political scenario. With the firm support of PRI, rightwing president Fernando Calderón’s repressive policies are deepening the already dramatic social divide between the haves and the have-nots. The center-left PRD on the other hand has not been able to transform the broad popular support it gained in the aftermath of the disputed election of Calderón into an effective long-term mobilization. Nonetheless, the repression of the Oaxaca uprising, far from deterring the popular movement, has consolidated APPO’s political legitimacy, thereby weakening the position of state governor Ulises Ruiz.


1. Raúl Zibechi, “Subterranean Echoes: Resistance and Politics ‘desde el Sótano’” Socialism and Democracy, no. 39 (November 2005). On authoritarian regression in Oaxaca see Víctor Raúl Martínez, Movimiento magisterial y crisis politica en Oaxaca (forthcoming, Oaxaca, 2007).

2. The brainchild of former Mexican president Vicente Fox and backed by the Inter-American Development Bank the Plan Puebla Panama is a multibillion-dollar development plan aimed at transforming southern Mexico and all of Central America into a colossal free trade zone. The PPP contemplates the construction of new ports, airports, railroads, bridges, 25 dams for hydroelectric generation, upgrading telecommunications facilities, including a fiber-optic network, upgrading electrical grids, highway construction and creating wildlife reserves to help facilitate “bioprospecting” by various multinational seed, chemical, and pharmaceutical companies.

3. For a discussion of the nature of the recent popular movements in Latin America, see Gerardo Rénique, “Introduction, Latin America Today: The Rebellion Against Neo-liberalism” in Socialism and Democracy no. 39 (November 2005).

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