Ungovernable

Utter chaos and the cyclonic winds of revolution have caused the cancellation of UVM’s study abroad program to Oaxaca, Mexico this spring. A potent mix of political outrageand revolutionary spirit has thrown the region into anarchy. The turmoil began this May when 70,000 members of a teacher’s union in the state of Oaxaca went on strike, demanding higher wages. Similar work stoppages have taken place annually for the past 26 years, normally lasting only a few days. This year was different. Over 935 small organizations, unions, activist and church groups joined the teachers to incapacitate the government and demand the removal of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz from office. Last spring, 18 UVM students completed the first full semester of the recently developed exchange program with Oaxaca, led by anthropology professor Luis Vivanco. The UVM program focuses on a “grassroots political indigenous vision,” Vivanco said. “A lot of the people we’ve talked to and spent time with are the people involved and leading [the movement].”A fatal mistakeThe political movement is located primarily in the Z??calo, a famous colonial plaza. In May, when Ruiz refused to meet the protesters demands, 30,000 people set up a tent city occupying the square. After 23 days of Z??calo occupation, Ruiz made what Vivanco has described as his “fatal mistake”: at 3:00 a.m. on June 14, 3,000 police arrived to break up the strikes using tear gas, firearms and stun grenades. The intervention lasted 6 hours, until the police retreated and the Z??calo was re-taken by the protesters. The police action led to the creation of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO), made up of hundreds of small organizations, all rallying behind the cry of removing Ruiz from office. After the formation of the APPO, the police and all government officials retreated for nearly three months. The APPO seized the opportunity, commandeering government buildings and radio/TV stations. Ruiz, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for over 70 years, was reelected in 2006 in a highly controversial election. Called “El Mapache” (“the raccoon”), Ruiz is notoriously known as an expert in stealing elections for the PRI. He is suspected of stealing his own election earlier this year. “Ruiz is completely hated by everyone. His family is completely hated and known for being part of the old PRI at its worst,” said Irma Valeriano, a Spanish professor at UVM who grew up in Oaxaca.More than a political showdown The complete police absence and the vacancy of all government offices created a situation of both total chaos and pure democracy.”Some of the philosophies of political action are being put into action,” Vivanco said. “When there is no government, people take a more active role in governing themselves.” “In spite of the guerrilla attacks of the police, a human rights organization reported that in the last months there was less violence in Oaxaca than in any other month of the last 10 years,” said Gustavo Esteva, an Oaxacan intellectual who spoke at UVM’s 2006 commencementceremony.”The people are taking care of themselves better than the government or the police,” he said. However, Oaxaca is not a simple case of the APPO vs. Ruiz. There are many Oaxacans who support neither the APPO nor Ruiz. “Many normal people don’t want the APPO invading the city. They hate the APPO … They are completely angry; they were asking for the police to come … to get rid of the protesters,” Valeriano said.This summer, while Valeriano was visiting Oaxaca, she witnessed some of the destruction the APPO was causing. “It feels so horrible to see your city like this, the Z??calo has been our pride. I saw [the buildings] painted with horrible graffiti, you could see hate,” she said. However, Valeriano also sees the perspective of the protesters. “I stayed a whole night [in the Z??calo] just talking to them. They are rural leaders, people from the barrios (Mexican neighborhoods), people who were recently displaced, leaders from the university, teachers. I stopped feeling hate toward them,” she said. The APPO itself is primarily a non-violent organization, using “mega-marchas” (huge, thousands-strong demonstrations) to gather and display support for the movement. Therehave been six “mega-marchas” to date, with hundreds of thousands of people participating.On Oct. 29, President Vicente Fox sent the Preventative Federal Police (PFP) to Oaxaca.The PFP arrived in full riot gear and stormed the barricades using tear gas, water cannonsand armored vehicles, breaking up the protesters and take back the Zocalo.At least two protesters died according to The New York Times. The PFP forced theAPPO protesters out of the Z??calo and surrounded it in razor wire.As a gesture of nonviolence, members of the APPO greeted the soldiers with white flowers. “In a way, however, this is a romantic movement,” Nicole Kast, an American student studying in Oaxaca, wrote in an e-mail.”The women walked first and …when an older woman handed a soldier a white flower he took it and he cried. He cried, standing there with his gun and his shield,” she wrote.As a result of Oct. 29, the PFP control the Z??calo and have put up razor wire barricadesto keep the protesters out. However, the protesters reconvened and now surround the square, restricting PFP movement.According to the Mexican Constitution, the Senate is the only government body that canannul a governorship. If the Senate decides that the state government has disappeared, Ruiz will have to leave office.The APPO has embraced this, making it their chief tactic in arousing change: creating astate of “ingobernabilidad” – ungovernablity.”Nobody agrees on anything; both sides are making huge mistakes, both sides are destroying something valuable,” Valeriano said. In the past, social uprisings were solved temporarily within the PRI, using a system ofoppression and bribery. But the PRI’s old ways have broken down.”They are not going to do what they used to do and repress,” Valeraino said, explaining that the government intends to maintain the face of democracy. “When the government says `let’s sit and talk’ we don’t know how … we don’t have the experience of democracy.” Sophie Gray, a participant of the 2006 UVM semester abroad, is still in touch with her host family from Oaxaca.”It is really sad for our host families because they run a bed and breakfast/youth hostel. They don’t have any income now. No American students will go now that people arebeing shot,” she said.What happens next?”For now, one of the things that would help would be if the governor would step down and we could have elections … Everyday I think it will happen tomorrow, and it doesn’t happen,” Valeriano said.”I think it is hard for us to understand the magnitude of this,” said Eva Antczak, anotherstudy abroad student. “It is not really our fight, it’s a fight that’s been going on for 200 years.”Valeriano had a similar perspective: “Before you try to get involved, observe and tryto understand what is going on. I lived my whole life there and I don’t understand.”Yet, Valeriano maintains hope. “I am hearing stories now of women my age and my mother’s age going out with brooms and mops and cleaning the Z??calo,” she said. “That sends