November 3, 2006

Oaxaca’s Unrest Echoes America’s Civil Rights South

By Louis E. V. Nevaer
New America Media

MERIDA, Yucatán – Mexicans were both apprehensive and relieved to see Federal forces seized control of Oaxaca City’s central square last Sunday, where thousands of protestors had occupied since May demanding the resignation of Oaxaca State governor Ulises Ruiz.

In the nation’s decade-long evolution into a multi-party democracy – Vicente Fox’s National Action Party, or PAN, defeated the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which had ruled undefeated for seven decades, in 2000 – it is Mexico’s impoverished South where change has come most slowly.

Mexicans have long been frustrated by the persistent poverty of the southern states, not unlike Americans who were stunned to see the level of poverty and oppression in the American South during the civil rights movements of the 1960s. In 1994, when the Zapatista launched a “rebellion” in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, Mexicans were as horrified by revelations of the poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition that characterized the lives of the Maya highland peoples.

Other regions of Mexico are witnessing the blossoming of democratic institutions – opposition candidates were being elected to governorships, city halls and both houses of Congress from around the nation- but in the southern states the PRI’s oppressive hegemony seemed untouchable.

Not unlike the American South, where the vision of black men lowering their eyes in the presence of whites and muttering, “Yes, sir,” made many cringe, the continued practice of PRI governors busing thousands of into their state capitals for “spontaneous” rallies made Mexicans in the rest of the country enraged with shame.

Critics long complained that Vicente Fox turned his back on the democratic aspirations of the Oaxacan people by ignoring them. One of the poorest regions, Oaxaca has grown more impoverished under NAFTA which flooded Mexico with cheap U.S. agricultural imports. As a consequence, hundreds of thousands of Zapotec and Mixtec peoples from Oaxaca have migrated to the United States over the past decade, becoming a major source of undocumented workers. For those who have remained, their standard of living has continued to decline, prompting greater resistance to the status quo.

Fox preferred to remain distant for two reasons. First, he believes each state’s democratic evolution should reflect its internal dynamics and history. Second, unlike Ernesto Zedillo, Fox could not “order” a PRI governor to resign his post – something Zedillo could do simply by demanding that the PRI party leadership broker a deal behind closed doors.

Taking a page from American history, PRI governors had defended their right to run their states as they saw best, invoking the claims of “state’s rights.” This was as much of an affront to the democratic sensibilities of millions of Mexicans as the sight of Alabama Gov. George Wallace standing in the doorway of a school in Montgomery to prevent black students from entering.

Wallace’s statement in June 1963 – “The unwelcomed, unwanted, unwarranted and force-induced intrusion upon the campus of the University of Alabama today of the might of the Central Government offers frightful example of the oppression of the rights, privileges and sovereignty of this State by officers of the Federal Government” – has been mentioned by Mexican commentators demanding that the Fox administration move to restore order in Oaxaca, and impose justice. Fox resisted, hoping that leaders within the PRI itself would convince governor Ulises Ruiz to resign as governor.

Ruiz, who took office after a disputed election, imposed his will through intimidation. He demanded that unions – teachers, farmers, workers, state employees, and so on – humiliate themselves by pledging their gratitude in public for his “generosity.” This backfired, however, when he ended subsidies to the poorest indigenous communities and seized farmland of Zapotec and Mixtec villagers. Ruiz was forced to ban protests and marches, further alienating Oaxacans and enraging the rest of Mexico.

The civilians occupying Oaxaca’s central plaza – unconvinced that the federal government would champion their cause – feared that intervention by the military would result in a bloody confrontation. To Fox’s credit – and that of the Mexican Army – thousands of troops entered Oaxaca, using water cannons to move onlookers aside, with helicopters directing police and troops wearing riot gear and carrying defensive shields.

In less than 24 hours, federal troops had taken control of the city square. Sunday night, as the breaking news reported calm in Oaxaca, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief, realizing that Fox had orchestrated federal intervention without the loss of life.

What happens now?

An unprecedented civil crisis this decade is now defused. It is time for president Fox to appoint an interim governor, in consultation with the PRI leaders, and for gov. Ruiz to step down.

Felipe Calderon, Mexico’s president-elect, will take office on December 1st. He deserves to have a manageable situation handed to him. Fox has done a remarkable job reassuring the people of Oaxaca this week. Arguing that local and state officials in Oaxaca failed to guarantee the public’s safety, he used the federal government to put an end the threat of violence.

In the next four weeks order has to be maintained, which means that Governor Ruiz cannot be allowed to return to Oaxaca state, and the concerns of the various interests of Oaxacan society have to be addressed immediately. Teachers need to be paid, farmers’ seized lands need to be returned, and civic organizations from across the spectrum of society must be assured that their concerns will be addressed in an open, public and fair manner.

This success will depend on finding the right interim governor who understands that, although the democratic institutions of each state develop at their own pace, no one state can be left to languish. Mexico’s South, not unlike the American South, has come of age, and no governor – whether he is blocking the doorway to a school in Montgomery, or standing before a balcony in Oaxaca demanding the public’s adulation – can stand in the way of a people’s belief in a better future, and their demand for a democratic society where government is responsive to their needs.

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