Mexico: Oaxaco Commune spirit lives as striking teachers defy repression

July 3, 2016

Ten years after the Oaxaca Commune of 2006 — when for nearly six months workers, students, peasants, women, youth, indigenous peoples and urban poor brought the government of the southern Mexican state to a virtual standstill — teachers in the Mexican state are back on the barricades. Once again, the state has responded with brute force.

In a statement released on June 17, the Zapatistas posed the following questions regarding the ongoing national teachers' strike in Mexico: “They have beaten them, gassed them, imprisoned them, threatened them, fired them unjustly, slandered them and declared a de facto state of siege in Mexico City.

“What's next? Will they disappear them? Will they murder them? Seriously? The 'education' reform will be born upon the blood and cadavers of the teachers?”

On June 19, the state answered these questions with an emphatic “Yes”. The response came in the form of machine-gun fire from federal police directed at teachers and residents defending a highway blockade in Nochixtlan, a town in Oaxaca.

Initially, the Oaxaca Ministry of Public Security claimed that the federal police were unarmed and “not even carrying batons”. After ample visual evidence and a mounting body count to the contrary, the state admitted federal police opened fire on the blockade, killing six people.

Meanwhile, medics in Nochixtlan released a list of eight killed, 45 wounded and 22 disappeared. On June 20, the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), the teachers union leading the strike, said 10 were killed the day before, including nine at Nochixtlan.

Teachers belonging to the CNTE, a more radical faction of about 200,000 inside of the 1.3 million-strong National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), the largest union in Latin America, have been on indefinite strike since May 15. Their primary demand is the repeal of the “Educational Reform” initiated by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in 2013.

A neoliberal plan based on a 2008 agreement between Mexico and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the reform seeks to standardise and privatise Mexico's public education system. It also aims to weaken the power of the teachers' union.

The teachers are also demanding more investment in education, freedom for all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, truth and justice for the 43 students disappeared from Ayotzinapa in 2014, and an end to neoliberal structural reforms in general.

The state has refused to even talk to the union. Instead, it has deployed thousands of federal police to areas where the strike is strongest — primarily Oaxaca, Chiapas, Michoacan and Mexico City, as well as in states such as Guerrero, Tabasco and Veracruz.

A late night attack on June 11 against a teachers' encampment blockading the Oaxaca State Institute of Public Education (IEEPO) by more than 1000 police led to teachers and residents establishing barricades and highway blockades. On June 18, the top two leaders of the CNTE's Oaxacan branch, Section 22, were arrested in Oaxaca and Mexico City, and 24 arrest warrants issued for other leaders.

The Nochixtlan blockade was one of those erected on June 12. For a week, it was successful in preventing hundreds of federal forces from reaching the city of Oaxaca, the state's capital. Dozens of highway blockades were in place by June 14, the same day that tens of thousands came out to the streets to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the start of the five-month-long Oaxaca Commune rebellion in 2006.

The CNTE controlled 37 critical spots on highways throughout the state, blockaded in part with 50 expropriated tanker trucks. The blockades were so effective that ADO, a major first-class bus line, indefinitely cancelled all trips from Mexico City to Oaxaca. Federal police began flying reinforcements into airports in the city of Oaxaca, Huatulco (on the coast, and Ciudad Ixtepec (on the Isthmus).

On June 19, the federal and state police attack on the people and teachers of Oaxaca began in earnest. Nochixtlan defended its blockade against a four-hour police assault, resulting in the previously mentioned nine deaths.

Police took over the local hospital and forbad entry to anyone not wearing a uniform. The wounded demonstrators were treated in churches and schools, likely resulting in more deaths due to lack of necessary treatment.

The next police attack on June 12 occurred at the blockade in Hacienda Blanca, 11 kilometres north of the city of Oaxaca. There police fired tear gas from helicopters, including into the school being used as a makeshift medical centre, and there were reports of live ammunition being fired.

After breaking the blockade, they began going door-to-door looking for people in hiding. The police advanced into the municipal boundaries of Oaxaca and heavy clashes occurred in the Viguera neighborhood at the Juarez Monument.

Police again used live ammunition, wounding a young man who later died of his wounds, making him the tenth fatality of the day. Another death occurred near the blockade in Juchitan, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, when a reporter covering the protests was shot by “unknown subjects” in circumstances that remain unclear.

That night, police began cutting power to various sections of the city and public transit was suspended, raising fears that federal and state forces would attempt to take the city and the teachers' encampment in the main square (the Zocalo).

Police also attacked a blockade in Salina Cruz, a major port city, but it was successfully defended by teachers and residents.

On June 20, at least 40,000 people marched in Oaxaca to protest the state violence. Eighty-one civil society groups issued a “humanitarian alert due to the armed state attack on a civilian population”. Of note is that none of those killed on June 19 were teachers.

Oaxaca Governor Gabino Cue claimed that teachers are in the minority on the blockades. This was an attempt on his part to delegitimise the struggle, but it instead speaks to the growing solidarity sparked by the teachers' strike.

Also on June 20, prominent Oaxacan artists released a call for an end to state repression and a “cultural barricade against repression” was held that afternoon. The Oaxaca Minister of Indigenous Affairs resigned in protest and students took over the Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca (UABJO), including its radio station, Radio Universidad.

Teachers in neighbouring Chiapas organised blockades at major points in the capital city of Tuxtla Gutierrez. Nine people, including journalists, were detained at a solidarity demonstration in Mexico City. The arrested women were threatened with rape by the police and were sexually assaulted. All were later released.

The situation continues to develop and change rapidly. One thing is certain: 10 years after the birth of the Oaxaca Commune, the ember of resistance has ignited again — as has the desire of the state to brutally stomp it out once and for all.

[Slightly abridged from ROAR Magazine.]

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