Ruben Valencia Nunez from Oaxaca Mexico spoke in Glasgow and Edinburgh at the end of July as part of a 2 month European Speaking tour campaigning against the criminalisation of social movements in Mexico. He is an organiser on the APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) council, a founder of VOCAL (Oaxacan Voices Constructing Autonomy and Liberty) and is active with the University of the Land, based on self-education, and the CASOTA (Oaxacan House of Solidarity and Self-Sustaining Work) social centre. He has protested against Dams and motorways. Ruben was the victim of an assassination attempt in January. 5 men in a car who looked like plain clothes police officers shouted insults about APPO. They followed Ruben to a cafe and attacked him with a knife on the head and neck.
To be an indigenous person is a crime and to defend the land is a criminal act. Since 2005 several different movements of resistance, the Zapatistas, the People’s Front of the Defence of the Land in Atenco, the National Indigenous Congress, grassroots trade unionist teachers and the popular assembly in Oaxaca have come together against the sale of natural resources. The state of Oaxaca is in the south of Mexico bordering Chiapas and Guerrero. The greatest concentrations of natural resources are found in the south-est of Mexico, mostly in Oaxaca on the land of indigenous people.
In 2005 Ulises Ruiz Ortiz came to power as governor of Oaxaca through electoral fraud with the aim of ‘modernising’ Oaxaca by turning it into a folk park. The new governor repressed social movements and indigenous people. There were 40 political prisoners, no negotiations and resistance was met with repression. On the 5th May 2006 Section 22 of a teachers grassroots trade union held a sit-in in the central square in Oaxaca. They demanded better wages and education for indigenous people. After one month an eviction of the sit-in was attempted. People rose up to defend the sit-in. 3 days later teacher and social organisations called for the Popular Peoples Assembly of Oaxaca. 37 organisations, including student organisations, street vendors, and women participated and demanded the resignation of the state governor, but also stated the aim to transform society. In the past struggles had got rid of 3 state governors They thought it would be easy. They aimed for social justice, and a sustainable ecological society. During 6 months of struggle all public buildings, including state government offices and TV and radio stations were occupied and roads were blocked. Mega marches of up to 800,000 people were organised out of a population of 3 million. The state lost the power to control people. A process of self-government started. They produced their own radio programmes and community policing and justice systems to deal with delinquency and drug addiction.
The movement of popular assemblies of people was peaceful and from the grassroots. Despite media lies, there were no leaders. Decisions were taken in peoples popular assemblies. The government tried two different ways to defeat the movement. Firstly they tried buying off the ‘leaders’ through bribes and secondly by used death Squads. In August the government assassinated comrade Lorenzo San Pablo Cervantes. Community radios called for defence. There were 100 barricades in Oaxaca. The barricades were staffed by the young, teachers, older people and kids to defend community radio stations and the people. The Federal Government were worried, fearing a country wide rebellion, but they couldn’t repress the movement as it was peaceful. On 22nd of October the American indymedia activist Brad Wills was murdered. This gave the state the excuse to move in 2500 plus police, causing chaos, to take back power for the state. During the repression 26 people associated with APPO were killed, but there was no government dead. On 17th and 18th November APPO held it’s first congress of the popular movement to work out a strategy of resistance and how to make the movement more co-ordinated. 600 delegates participated in the congress electing 260 people to APPO’s council. Before this time the government had imprisoned selected targeted activists, but the mass repression was now more like Chile and Argentina in the ’70s. More than 300 people were put in jail and there were rapes and disappearances. From December 2006 to January 2007 the main noise in Oaxaca was of police sirens, helicopters and police boots. A study by a human rights organisation from Barcelona, described it as a strategy by the government to repress the people of Oaxaca, because they could not cut off the head. From 25th December a blackout was imposed on information from Oaxaca. In working class and poor neighbourhoods there were death squads in cars and motorcycles without licence plates. The government through the mass media tried to create paranoia, claiming they were combating the narcotics trade. A woman comrade in one neighbourhood described how to overcome fear from a story on TV about a boxer overcome with fear. At the last moment before the ring, he had to decide if fear was on his side or against him. Our dignity and anger are stronger than fear.
A secret meeting in 2008 discussed why they couldn’t get rid of the state governor. They concluded it was for two reasons. 1. In 2006 Marcos was running the Other Campaign, there was the campaign of Obador, the candidate of the Party of Democratic Revolution, plus the citizens’ movement campaign tour protesting at the electoral fraud. The commune of Oaxaca, as a symbol of grassroots popular struggle, would have inspired country-wide struggle and had to be stopped. 2. Since 2005 the new state governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz worked with the Federal Government and multinationals on mines, biopiracy, high speed railways and hydro-electro dams. The movement has identified many companies in Europe, in France, Germany and Spain, as well as China and Japan, plus the European Union, working with the Oaxaca government and the Federal Government against the peoples’ wishes. In a very windy area of Oaxaca for example there has been the imposition of a windmill project involving companies from Spain (Union Fenosa, Iberdrola, owners of Scottish Power) and France. The energy is sold to the U.S.A. The movement is asking for help, what corporation are involved and how much money is involved? A word to investors, your money is not safe in Mexico, because of the resistance.
Oaxaca is between impunity and dignity. The Mexican government signs human rights documents, but does not uphold them. The image of Oaxaca and Mexico is of a boiling pot with the lid, the boots of the military, coming off. APPO and the popular movement is succeeding Not one Corporate project has been implemented. People need new social relations and alternatives beyond capital and state. There are lots of initiatives: city farms, drinking water projects, new ways of exchange and economics like LETS, and self-managed education. There were 50 community radio stations, before the repression, now there are 160-170 community radio stations. There are not just political organisations in the movements, but also grassroots organisations. Two examples: a working class neighbourhood had no drinking water It made demands and struggled with APPO for alternatives to problems with sanitation and polluting rivers. They built compost toilets and collected rain water for drinking. The construction of the water system was self-managed, and independent of government. A poor neighbourhood assembly elected a rep. to APPO. Before this they had a Institutional Revolutionary Party (P.R.I., now a neoliberal party) structure connected to the local council. The young were involved in the barricades. They had no public space, but wanted a cultural centre for young people and children. They put the demand to the council who agreed after a year. Politicians wanted the credit, but this was rejected by the people as the centre was built by the contributions of the people. The politicians in Oaxaca are corrupt. The future is widespread popular assemblies democracy, self-organisation, not voting for politicians. After travelling through and analysing Latin America, the imposition of a fascist state is possible. There is the possibility of a civil war. Guerilla groups are organising. The Oaxaca proposal is for the grassroots to come together, the indigenous people, the students, the anti-privatisation trade unions to create a constituent assembly with the aim of a new constitution from below.
Do you think there are any universal lessons from Oaxaca that can be applied anywhere, say, Scotland for example?
This question gets asked everywhere. It is difficult. Think of the model of development. Resistance in Europe is a question of a consumer society. In Latin America it is a struggle with austerity, not unlimited consumption. The resources are stolen from the Third World, South America, Africa.
What is your interpretation of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Left-wing Presidents, and the Sandinistas and the Honduras coup? Any proper movements?
In Latin America and Central America in general there is unhappiness with governments, but it is limited. There is privatisation in Chile and Brazil The example of Honduras could happen anywhere, keep your eyes open, it could happen more and more, but there will be nothing in the news. Conditions are difficult. There is no dignity, no freedom. People have to beg. There are sellers of local products, but foreign products are cheaper. This is an obstacle to a life with dignity. There is no defining ideology. It is not Marxist or Anarchist. It comes from people selling local goods, but foreign goods are cheaper.
Are social movements developing their own technology?
It is a war context, there is not enough time. There is no technological development, but people want sustainability. The movement in Britain is about consumption and includes environmentalism. The poor and black people have a different experience. From the experience of travelling Europe there needs to be a bridge. In the struggle against racism and imperialism there needs to be cultural diversity, a multi-cultural society, the concept of co-existence and agreement in a difficult world. Some beliefs will have to go, you can not always get your own way.
The description of the boiling pot with the lid coming off in Mexico. In Britain the water in the pot is tepid. Wouldn’t it be better if the pot was boiling in both places. Why don’t you just call the movement what it is, Anarchist Communism?
There is no crystal ball, you can’t see the future. From own personal experience, this a difficult question. My background is in socialism, but feeling in hearts is more important. It is not about teaching Marx or Kropotkin. We need to get together, beyond our own experience. My APPO involvement comes from my family. My father was killed in the 80s as a Che Guevaraist. My own view is of Communalism across South America, freedom, autonomy and dignity. Marxists and Anarchists are happy to share values. It doesn’t really matter. They are welcome in the movement. As a personal belief I share the cosmological vision of indigenous people.
Do not struggle alone. I get strength from elderly women who have lost their children and families. They are an inspiration for the movement. 3 months after the assassination attempt, I had a physical problem, a rash from the stress. I did not have an image of death, but an image of my father, a revolutionary who died when I was 5. Dad and mum taught me values. I was not worried by physical death, but by the death of their values. I put on a strong front. Life is not certain. I live everyday as if it is my last. I need to do what is important in this life, my beliefs.
In Mexico City there is lot of support from everyday common people and there are autonomous assemblies in lots of states. They do have not as much experience of assemblies as in Oaxaca. People still believe in political parties. Then there is the Other Campaign. There is a need to generate a consensus in the movement.