Putla, Mexico—On the road to this small town in the mountains of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, graffiti demanding indigenous rights and autonomy competes with government propaganda murals. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has had an iron grip on the state’s politics for more than 80 years, and the murals’ faded colors look like they haven’t been repainted in decades, except for a name: Ulises Ruiz Ortiz.
The administration of Ortiz, who became governor of Oaxaca three months ago, has attracted international attention for “violent suppression of protests, for its imprisonment and murder of dissidents, for its manipulation of justice and for the numerous ways it has abused human rights, immiserating and terrorizing its indigenous population to serve the interests of foreign capital and PRI political bosses,” writes Noticias, the state’s most popular daily. In Putla, one of the first areas to organize itself through the Committee Organized in Defense of the Rights of the People (CODEP), the problems are particularly acute.
Off a dirt road is a cement basketball court surrounded by lush mountains. A huge crowd waits there: men on one side, women on the other, kids running all around. I naively think that school has gotten out for the day; then I see a table adorned with a red cloth and vases of vibrantly colored flowers and three chairs behind it, facing an audience of more than a hundred plastic chairs. This is our reception. We begin to talk, our discussion translated between Mixteco and Spanish.
The injustices in the lives of the indigenous are systemic. There is minimal access to medical care. They have to wait days for treatment in a badly equipped hospital, hours away. Newborns are often disabled, or stillborn. The ones that live walk three hours to school, or can’t go because they are needed in the fields or they can’t afford uniforms. The uneven, rocky roads are impassable half of the year, rivers flood and there are no bridges. The one pay phone serving this remote mountain town of 500 people doesn’t work most of the time.
The disempowering poverty is maintained by an almost feudal system of caciques, PRI-connected middlemen who dominate entire industries and pay the farmers next to nothing while reaping huge profits by selling abroad. The campesinos generally earn slightly more than a dollar per day. They “are at the base of the economic system. We can’t compete,” says a man with a degree in economics. “My son goes to school, he needs to pay, needs a uniform; it’s not necessary. The teachers don’t understand; if you need to pay, the indigenous will not go.” And, he adds, “if they study architecture, engineering, etc., they can’t get a job anyway. They end up selling tickets for buses or working in the fields.”
Transportation and the roads are a major problem. Although there is very little villages can do about the roads without material support, the people have taken transport into their own hands.
In 1991, 24 of the communities organized through CODEP a taxi project to provide transportation services as an independent social organization. Although drivers pay monthly fees for their cars – as opposed to being granted cars as PRI gifts – they maintain their autonomy while earning a living.
Several prominent CODEP members have been killed in mysterious “traffic accidents.” Organization members call these assassinations. “The government is trying to break us, but we will not permit it,” says Praulia Lopez, one of the few female drivers, whose husband, Felix, was a prominent organizer and an early casualty. The “accidents,” she adds, “practically started the revolution in Putla.”
Since Ulises Ortiz became governor, 39 indigenous political prisoners have been incarcerated in Oaxaca. Since 1998, 10 activists have been killed in Putla alone, either in car accidents or shot by assassins hired by the local cacique. “They will use all the structure that they have – transportation, the police, the justice system, military groups, etc. – to fight independent social organizations,” said Señor Marcos, a CODEP representative for Putla.
The Zapatista uprising in 1994 breathed life into initiatives for unity in independent social organizing. Other than a small, now-dormant armed contingent called the Ejercito Popular Revolutionario, Oaxaca’s organizations tend to resemble the Zapatistas more in ideology than in tactics. In Oaxaca, the villages are organizing from varied and distinct locales, building a strong political network by allying with other groups in the state and in the country, as well as internationally.
Low income Mexicans, especially southerners who are more likely to be indigenous are confronting the same colonial pressures of corporate globalization through free-trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and Plan Pueblo Panama (PPP), and they have developed a fierce solidarity in responding to the threat.
Multinationals working through President Vicente Fox, the former CEO of Coca-Cola, openly seek to exploit the rich and varied natural resources of rural Mexico. Aside from sheer economic subjugation, the indigenous peoples contend with the destruction of their culture, languages, ancestral lands, religious practices and laws.
While there is a strong desire to maintain the life of the villages and to reduce emigration to the United States, emigration is one of the few economic avenues available for survival. This leaves behind debilitated communities, broken families and virtual ghost towns where maybe 80 out of 200 houses are occupied – often only by women and children. That is the price exacted for survival under capitalism. “Thanks to the people who have emigrated, we have the little that there is,” said one from a community of 400 people.
Social organizing and the inspiration of seeing their strength when they come together in manifestations in the capital have sparked hope and a sense of purpose. As our Mixteco translator explained, “We know, we believe and we trust that another form of organization will liberate us and this is what we work for. With our transparent democracy, we can go farther than dreaming.”