Incipient Revolution in Oaxaca

by G.S.  <>
from Aug 1 to 29, 2006

this page is at
The original text version was published under the title “From Teachers’ Strike Towards Dual Power: The Revolutionary Surge in Oaxaca” at on the Counterpunch website on 30 Aug 2006.

      Oaxaca shares, with Chiapas and Guerrero, the distinction of being the three most impoverished states of Mexico. These three contiguous bastions of extreme poverty, among the richest states of Mexico in natural resources, lie along the Pacific coastline in southeastern Mexico. Oaxaca, shown darkened on the map, is flanked to its east by Chiapas
and to its west by Guerrero. Its population, about 3 and 1/2 million (2003 estimate), is unique among Mexican states in containing the largest fraction, 2/3, and the largest absolute number of people with indigenous ancestry.

      Which of the 31 states holds top place for corruption would probably be impossible to measure in this intensely contested Mexican arena, as highlighted in the fraudulent July 2, 2006 presidential election, but for sure Oaxaca merits high recognition on the corruption scale. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the indigenous population is among the most impoverished. Naturally they are very sympathetic to the struggles of indigenous peoples in other parts of Mexico to better their lives, such as the attempts of the Zapatista base support communities in Chiapas, and elsewhere in Mexico, that have declared themselves “in rebellion” and asserted their autonomy, often at great cost due to state and federal efforts to crush their attempted independence.

First it was just the teachers in state schools and universities, or
more precisely, the teachers and other educational workers

      The 70,000 or so teachers in the state educational institutions, state employees, are, by Oaxaca standards, far from poor. They are part of the state’s “middle class”. So it’s not as though the majority of poor people are usually very sympathetic to them. The quarter-century-long tradition of a Oaxaca teachers’ strike each May never before was much more than a nuisance for the city business people for a week or so until the union and the state government negotiated a compromise settlement, the teachers ended their occupation of the city center and returned to their homes throughout the state. Why was this year so different?

There are unions . . . and there are unions

      It will come as no surprise to los Americanos that in Mexico, as in the U.S. there are ‘conpany unions’. But here, south of the border, the ‘company’ is the ruling party of the federal government, a big ‘company’ indeed. The National Union of Educational Workers (El Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Educativo, SNTE) is a very large and powerful union, hierarchical in structure. For over 70 years the SNTE had been in bed with the government of the ruling party, the Revolutionary Institutional Party, El Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). In fact, until recently, the General Secretary of SNTE, Elba Esther Gordillo, was second from the top of the PRI leadership, just below Roberto Madrazo.

      Section 22 of SNTE is the Oaxaca part of the National Teachers Union. Among Mexican teachers there is another formation, the National Educational Workers Coordinating Committee (Comité Coordinador Nacional de Trabajadores Educativo CNTE). In Oaxaca the CNTE, whose members belong to SNTE Section 22, play a leading role in setting Section 22 policy. Section 22 has long been regarded as one of the most militant, independent sections of SNTE.

Phase I, a rocky start
The annual teachers’ strike began

      On May 15, National Teachers’ Day in Oaxaca, the already frustrated leadership of Section 22 of SNTE declared that if their negotiations with the state government did not progress, they would initiate a state-wide strike the following week. They were demanding an upgrade in the zonification of Oaxaca, which would increase the federally-designated minimum wage for the state. The “logic” (i.e. rationalization) of the federal government for having lower legal minimum wages in poor states, like Oaxaca, is apparently that it’s cheaper to live in a more impoverished region than in one with a higher average income. Such an upgrade of Oaxaca would affect waged workers in Oaxaca who are paid the minimum wage, but would not affect those paid above the minimum, like the teachers. For themselves the teachers demanded a salary increase. Their other demands involved improved school facilities and meeting students’ needs. Much of the money supposedly budgeted for education is siphoned off by corrupt officials. There is no accountability, i.e. it is not even legally required in Oaxaca – no bookkeeping!

      Negotiations from the 15th to the 22nd between the union and the state, instead of moving towards a compromise agreement, became even more acrimonious. Beginning May 22, a large group of teachers, other education workers, family members, allied individuals and members of allied organizations, numbering perhaps between 35,000 and 60,000 (hard numbers are impossible to know) from throughout the state occupied the center of Oaxaca City — the large central park (the zócalo) and some 56 blocks surrounding it — with their encampment. Local business, hotel and restaurant owners were by and large critical due to their financial losses caused by the disruption. Quite normal. The ritual of an annual teachers’ strike was by now about a quarter century old. But never before had it been so massive and so prolonged, and with no end in sight.

      During a period of barely three and a half weeks (22 May to 14 June) the strength of the teachers’ opposition to Governor Ulises Ruíz Ortíz (URO) continued to grow. Additional adherents, nursing their own grievances against the dictatorial regime, joined with the formidable SNTE contingent. Frequent marches, and two mega-marches, the first on Friday 2 June with between 50 and 100,000 (the police and SNTE estimates, respectively), and the second on Wednesday 7 June with 120,000 (according to La Jornada 8 June) [1] brought to the city demonstrations of size and vehemence never before seen here. I watched the 7 June march from the parapet on the north side of the Plaza de Danza as endless mockery of Ulises Ruíz paraded past, demanding boisterously that he leave the governorship. Undoubtedly there were state spies in civilian clothes with cameras, cell phones, video cameras and tape recorders, but no one seemed in the least intimidated or cautious. The entire event was permeated with a sense of ‘peoples’ power’.

Phase II, the state attacks the teachers violently.
The citizens react in outrage, transforming the struggle

      On June 14, when Ulises unexpectedly ordered state police to carry out a surprise early pre-dawn attack on the sleeping teachers (many of them women with their children), destroying their tents and other camping gear and firing tear gas and bullets, even using a police helicopter that sprayed tear gas on the campers, to drive them out of the city center, he ignited a mass uprising throughout the state and beyond.

Police torch protestors encampment. Photo from Indymedia México

The teachers fought back, drove out the police after about five hours, recapturing the city center and gaining admiration throughout the state for their gritty, seemingly fearless determination not to be terrorized into submission and to continue facing the risk their defiance entailed.

      In his year and a half in office since 1 December 2004, Ulises had succeeded in generating a reservoir of hatred in the state towards him because of the extremity of his tyrannical rule. This included his overt attempt to destroy the state’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, [2] Noticias de Oaxaca, his arbitrary destruction of much-loved parts of the capital city’s world-famous cultural patrimony, numerous killings by armed thugs tied to the ruling party in communities struggling against corrupt and oppressive state-appointed municipal administrations. In summary, it was his attempt to rule by “excessively overt” terror, including kidnappings, jailings on baseless charges, torture, and death, and always impunity for the state thugs terrorizing the people that turned the population en masse against him.

      Moreover, history was against him. Fresh in peoples’ memory was the shockingly brutal, unrelentingly sadistic early May attack in San Salvador Atenco in Mexico State by federal, state and municipal police,[3] and the massive outrage against the authorities then — always incarceration and worse for the victims, impunity for the perpetrators. A pervasive sense that in such a society, everyone is a “political prisoner unto death”. A multitude of civic organizations in, and outside of, Oaxaca swarmed to declare their solidarity with the teachers. Immediately after the attack the teachers announced, and two days later led a huge march, their third mega-march,

Giant protest march demanding Ulises removal. Photo by Marco Ugarte/AP

with 400,000 according to Narco News [4], that included many new adherents to the confrontation with state power. They all demanded URO’s resignation or removal from office.

      The show of strength, solidarity and determination quickly led to formation of a statewide assembly that termed itself the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, Asemblea Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca (APPO). Though instigated as a result of the teachers’ initiative and the ugly state repression, the assembly went much beyond the teachers’ original demands, which had been strictly limited to educational matters. Ousting a hated governor had been done before on three occasions in Oaxaca. Not trivial, risky of course, but not by itself a revolutionary act.

APPO is established, assumes control, sets revolutionary
goals, and takes steps to begin implementing them

      In addition to the immediate third mega-march on 16 June (two days after the assault), the rapidly-coalescing, up to then loosely-structured popular movement of teachers and other members of civil society held the first state-wide popular assembly the following day, just three days after the attack of June 14. In this precedent-breaking assembly meeting, APPO adopted a truly revolutionary program by declaring itself the supreme authority in Oaxaca, and asserting the illegitimacy of the entire political structure, which had ruthlessly run Oaxaca as a PRI-terrorist-controlled state for nearly 80 years. (see added comments [5] )

      APPO’s deliberately broad representation evidently excluded any explicitly political groups, i.e. it was to be a “non-political” formation, truly a peoples’ government. As Nancy Davies wrote [6] in her report, “Popular Assembly to Oppose the State Government”, its initial meeting on June 17 “was attended by 170 people representing 85 organizations.” Included, or at least invited, “were all the SNTE delegates, union members, social and political organizations, non-governmental organizations, collectives, human rights organizations, parents, tenant farmers, municipalities, and citizens of the entire state of Oaxaca.” Its intention was to be open to all the citizens of the state. I believe it’s important to note that there was no attempt, so far as I know, to exclude wealthy people from the assembly. Naturally, most very rich people who saw their interests served by the URO regime would not want to be involved in an effort to remove him and the rest of the governing apparatus, but wealthy ‘mavericks’ who rejected social injustice were evidently welcome. The only ‘absolute requirement’ for participation was agreement that Ulises must go.

The immediate tasks – strengthening the protective
barricades – enforcing ‘ungovernability’ of the
state – winning the minds of the people

      Flimsy barriers such as those that had not prevented the police assault of 14 June were clearly inadequate. APPO adherents went about establishing stronger impediments against future invasions. They began commandeering buses, some commercial, as well as police and other government vehicles, using some of them to block access roads to the zócalo and other APPO encampments. Other of the commandeered vehicles they used for transportation.

      APPO’s major strategy for bringing pressure to bear on the government, in order to force either URO’s resignation or his legal removal, has been to literally prevent the institutional government from carrying out its functions: legislative, judicial and executive (i.e. administrative). The tactic adopted is what I think deserves to be called aggressive civil disobedience, meaning that APPO adherents carry out their forceful “illegal” actions as civilians (unarmed, i.e. no firearms). Some of them have poles, iron rods, and even machetes, but these are for self-defense. The culture here is not one of ‘turning the other cheek’. They don’t sit down and pray if police attempt to beat them. They have blocked highways, occupied government buildings and made a good many tourists and potential tourists reconsider Oaxaca as a desirable destination, thereby shaking the economy.

      As for ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of Oaxaqueños, the ‘hearts’ part of the task has been in large part already accomplished, thanks to the arrogant aggressiveness of URO — the hatred he managed to sow since taking office as governor on December 1, 2004 and which he’s now reaping. Even people who are, to put it mildly, not thrilled with APPO are so disgusted with URO that they are more likely to be passive rather than actively opposing APPO by supporting the governor.

      Winning the minds, as APPO well knows, is essential. They have made that a major part of their work. The government and its corporate allies fully realize the importance of what people think. The media of communication are therefore a prime arena in the contest to influence peoples’ consciousness.

The fight for the communication media

      The very first action of the state forces in their pre-dawn attack on 14 June was to destroy the teachers’ radio station, Radio Plantón. It had been serving not only as a source of pro-teacher propaganda since the start of the strike, but as a vital communication link broadcasting (within its limited range) 24 hours a day. Soon after the Radio Plantón equipment was smashed, students at the Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca (UABJO in its Spanish initials) seized the university’s station, a licensed station with a much more powerful transmitter and kept it going non-stop in support of the then rapidly-growing rebellion. The student-operated UABJO station was attacked several times, first on 22 June, and eventually put out of commission after a diversionary tactic the night of 8 August enabled three people [7] who had earlier infiltrated the movement in order to enter the studio and throw sulphuric acid on the equipment, ending, at least for a time, those broadcasts.

      Revolutions are not, by their nature, tidy affairs. There is no simple chronology according to which, at certain key dates, one important group of actors halts its activity and a different group takes the stage. Rather, a multitude of groups fills the stage at any given time, and the flow of activity is continuous — no separation of the actions marked by curtin calls. Thus it may be a questionable effort to try to divide the flow into phases. While the attack of June 14 did clearly mark a separation of events into two different phases, the ensuing struggle has been, and will likely be a continuous flow. Nevertheless, the action of the women who seized the state television and radio stations on August 1 so powerfully upped the ante in the struggle to control the communication media that I will say that act initiated a third phase of the struggle.

      On 1 August 2006 participants in La marcha de las cacerolas (the march of the women beating their pots and pans with wooden spoons, a mode of protest made famous by the brave Argentinian women during the dirty war of that military

The March of Las Cacerolas. Photo by Nancy Davies

dictatorship) went on to seize the state TV and radio stations. On the day before, 31 July, only Radio Universidad was broadcasting for the popular movement. By then it had been on the air daily for almost seven weeks. It was to continue for another 8 days until the sulphuric acid attack shut it down. But by then Channel 9, TV Cacerolas as some folks dubbed it, by others TV (and Radio) APPO, had been broadcasting 8 days.

Phase III, stepping up the fight for control
of media to serve the popular struggle

      The move to seize, or as a graffiti on the wall of the control room at the transmission tower explained more fully, to re-appropriate facilities paid for with the peoples’ money, was a bold escalation in the struggle for the media.

Destroyed Channel 9 TV and radio transmission control facilities atop Fortin Hill after
the very early pre-dawn attack on August 21. The grafitti at the upper left reads [8]

"Todas estas instalaciones son financiadas con los impuestos del
pueblo y eran utilizadas por y para el gobierno y empresarios
Ahora el pueblo debe recuperlas"

"All these installations are financed with the taxes of the people
and were utilized by and for the government and [large] enterprises
Now the people need to take them back (or retrieve them)"

      Channel 9 and FM 96.9 covered the entire state. For 3 weeks, from August 1 until the early morning assault on August 21, the “voices and images of the people” dominated these previously state-controlled airwaves in the struggle aimed at “winning the minds” of the people, although of course the powerful national corporate channels, TV Azteca and Televisa continued their pro-state broadcasts. But what a vision of hope sprang from the screen those three weeks! Ordinary people in everyday clothes spoke of the reality of their lives as they understood them, of what neo-liberalism meant to them, of the Plan Puebla Panama, of their loss of land to developers and international paper companies, of ramshackle rural mountain schools without toilets, of communities without safe water or sanitary drainage, and so on, all the needs that could be met if wealth were not being stolen by rich capitalists and corrupt government agents.

      And not all was about Oaxaca and its problems. The horizon of consciousness reached abroad as, on one occasion that Nancy mentioned to me, Channel 9 broadcast a documentary videotape of living conditions of Palestinians in the occupied territories. One can only imagine the level of global grassroots solidarity if the media, worldwide, were controlled by popular groups instead of transnational corporations. Instead of promoting the sale and consumption of Coca-Cola and after-shower skin creams to enhance sex-appeal, we could all be learning from TV and radio of the realities of life as normal people actually live it.

      This flood of uncontrolled, unmediated, spontaneous authentic communication among the population must have terrorized the former economic and political rulers of Oaxaca by the threat it posed to their continued dominance, but they dared not try a repeat of their June 14 heavy-handed attempt to crush the now massive movement. Rather than risk another open failure the state authorities pursued a strategy of clandestine warfare, as described vividly by Diego Enrique Osorno in his 28 August special report from Oaxaca to Narco News.[9] The desperate authorities pursued their so-called Operation “Clean-Up”. As Narco News stated, “Following the CIA’s ‘Psychological Operations’ Manual for the Nicaraguan Contras, the State Government Has Unleashed a Bloody Counterinsurgency Strategy to Eliminate the Social Movement”.

      The spectacular attack [10] by these clandestine heavily-armed police officials, in reality un-uniformed state thugs, on the transmission facilities of TV Cacerola and Radio APPO up on Fortin Hill above the city revealed the government's frantic state of mind. This assault, in the very early hours on Monday 21 August, totally destroyed the control equipment housed in a building at the base of the transmission tower. The racks of electronics were smashed and sprayed with automatic weapons fire, bullet holes only inches apart in some of the panels, which I photographed that Monday evening. There are, as explained to me by a student friend involved with one of the movement radio stations, several components that made up the state’s TV and radio stations: 1) the studios where interviews, news reporters, panel members, etc. met, 2) a repeater station whose antenna received the signals from the studio building and “bounced” them to the transmission station, and 3) the transmission facility atop Fortin Hill, which broadcast the programs to the entire state.

      By knocking out the transmission tower facility the government-directed thugs insured that APPO could not operate the occupied state TV and radio stations. The damage wrought at the transmission control room was a shocking double admission: 1) the URO government knew it was unable to retake and hold each of the three components of its broadcasting stations, and 2) the impact of the APPO broadcasts was an intolerable threat to traditional ruling class hegemony. Therefore they destroyed a key component of what they surely regarded as their own governing infrastructure.

The popular movement counterattacks, seizing many stations

      The battle for the air waves continues. Later that day, the 21st, having lost the use of Channel 9 and FM 96.9, APPO groups seized twelve commercial radio stations belonging to nine different companies, according to La Jornada [11] on 22 August. The number of seized stations broadcasting for APPO varies from time to time. This morning (29 August) we were able to pick up three, one AM and two FM at our location below the base of Fortin Hill. Apart from radio, the movement produces and distributes a great deal of printed material, videos and CDs, and seeks to spread its point of view by all means of communication. Radio of course remains particularly important.

Broadening the struggle beyond Oaxaca

      On August 16 and 17 a national forum was held in Oaxaca to discuss “Building Democracy and Governability in Oaxaca.” Sponsored by fifty organizations within Oaxacan civil society, as Davies wrote,[12] it provided “an opportunity to analyze the crisis and propose alternative solutions from the perspective of civil society, including a new Oaxacan constitution, and by implication, a blueprint for the nation.” The basic problems that beset Oaxaca exist throughout Mexico and so it is not surprising that the invitations to attend brought people from all parts of Mexico. What is taking place in Oaxaca is clearly inspiring people throughout this nation. And if we can get the truth out in spite of the terribly distorted pictures painted by The New York Times, Associated Press, and much of the rest of the corporate media, even the people in the United States might be inspired to also think of other things besides late summer outdoor barbecue picnics. That, of course, is the real danger to the ruling class that runs the empire — an informed and thoughtful citizenry.

      In the meantime, the situation in Oaxaca remains full of uncertainty, with much seemingly dependent on the power struggle centered in Mexico City over the presidency. Those currently in the saddle are doing everything possible to insure continuance of PAN/PRI rule, but the majority of Mexicans (I’m guessing) are thoroughly fed up with politicians and may be ready for much more fundamental changes than those possible within the electoral system. Education, true education, is indeed subversive. Adelante!

—G.S., 29 August 2006

George Salzman was a long-time maverick physics faculty member at the University of Massachusetts Boston Campus. Now retired, he has lived for seven years in Oaxaca. He can be contacted at


[1] Second mega-march report in La Jornada at .

[2] Noticias de Oaxaca .

[3] San Salvador Atenco. See for example “Atenco: After the Lies Come the Facts: The People Tell the Story the Mass Media Tried to Hide”, by Bertha Rodríguez Santos at .

[4] Third mega-march. Figure of 400,000 from Narco News report at .

[5] Comments added 1 Sept 2006. In writing of the first (17 June 2006) general assembly, “In this precedent-breaking assembly meeting, APPO adopted a truly revolutionary program by declaring itself the supreme authority in Oaxaca, and asserting the illegitimacy of the entire political structure, which had ruthlessly run Oaxaca as a PRI-terrorist-controlled state for nearly 80 years” I misstated what happened. First, the final clause, “which had ruthlessly . . .” is my opinion, not a statement by the assembly. Second, the 8-page report on this assembly meeting (which I have available only in Spanish — unfortunately it has not yet, so far as I know, been translated) clearly sets forth the intention of the participants to formalize APPO and to have it assume the mantle of authority in Oaxaca, but it did not claim such authority at that time. On p.3 the report reads, in part,


. . . la serie de acontecimientos que se han registrado en nuestro estado de Oaxaca en los últimos 27 días en donde el magisterio ha puesto al descubierto el rostro del fascista denominado Ulises Ruíz Ortíz, lo cual ha sido el catalizador para lograr que las diversas organizaciones sociales, estudiantiles, populares y sectores independientes de la sociedad nos hayamos convocado y organizado con el propósito irrenunciable de liberar a nuestro estado del ejercicio autoritario que trasgrede el estado de derecho y devolverle los sueños a este heroico pueblo, que hoy lucha por hacer realidad el lema que nuestro ilustro Oaxaqueño Benito Juárez enunciara "No reconozco mayor poder que el que emana del pueblo" . . .

      My translation of the preceding passage is:


. . . [in] the series of events that have taken place in our state of Oaxaca in the last 27 days in which the teachers have uncovered the face of the fascist named Ulises Ruíz Ortíz. He was the catalyst for enabling us to bring together and organize diverse social organizations, students, popular and independent sectors of the society. Our absolute commitment is to liberate our state from the authoritarianism exercised over us that transgresses the state of law, and to return to the dream of this heroic people, which fights today to make reality the motto enunciated by our illustrious Oaxaqueño Benito Juárez, "We recognize no power greater than that which emanates from the people."

      Part IV. (on pp. 5-6) contains the following:



      4. La APPO será la instancia organizativa concreta de participación y ejercicio de los derechos ciudadanos para el pueblo, convirtiéndose en la máxima autoridad que puede tomar resoluciones aplicando los principios de la democracia participativa mediante la discusión plural, democrática, respetuosa y el ejercicio de una ciudadania activa en el ámbito politico, por lo que sus integrantes, deben tener una representatividad garantizada por la participación y proporcionalidad de sus miembros.

      My translation of the preceding passage is:



      4. APPO will be the concrete organizing agent for participation and exercise by the people of the rights of citizens. It will become the supreme authority that can pass resolutions [i.e. legislate]. It will adhere to the principles of participative democracy by means of open, democratic, respectful discussion exercised by an active citizenry in a political environment in which its members must have guaranteed representation by their participation and proportionality of its members.

      I mistakenly said that the assembly had done what in fact was a proposal by the SNTE-CNTE delegates for what APPO was to become. Since then this proposal has largely guided the actions of APPO, at least that is my current understanding.

[6] Nancy Davies’ report is at .

[7] The three people who disabled Radio Universidad were identified. See, for example, , the report in La Jornada. They stated that someone from the PRI had paid them 500 pesos to infiltrate the movement with the intent to throw the sulphuric acid on the equipment. That’s roughly equivalent to 450 U.S. dollars, depending on the exchange rate at that time.

[8] This ‘full screen’ view of the grafitti on the wall of the control building for the transmission tower of Channel 9 and the state radio station makes the full text readable.


[9] Diego Enrique Osorno’s “must read” report in Narco News is at .

[10] An account by Octavio Velez Ascencio of the attack on the APPO transmitter on Fortin Hill is in La Jornada at .

[11] An account by Hermann Bellinghausen of the attack on the APPO transmitter and the “counterattack” is in La Jornada at .

[12] Nancy Davies’ article on the national forum is at .

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