Today is the first day of the celebration of the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca. The Oaxacan Day of the Dead ceremonies are a well known celebratory rite, rooted in indigenous culture and tradition. Entire families go to the local cemetery bringing food and dance, flowers and light, sweets and song to celebrate with their ancestors. This year, many Oaxacans will not only honor and feed their ancestors, but also their friends, fellow workers and neighbors who have recently fallen at the hands of hired guns, some of them off-duty police, put into action by governor Ulisses Ruiz to terrorize and provoke violent reactions among peaceful demonstrators seeking social justice and reform of the corrupt state government, which remains under the control of the PRI (Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, which maintained control over the country for more than 70 years under a series of different names).
Grassroots International has many partners and friends in Oaxaca, all of whom have supported the Oaxacan Peoples’ Assembly (APPO). APPO is a coalition of more than 350 rural and urban community organizations from across the state that formed a popular assembly to push for the resignation or impeachment of governor Ruiz. Since its formation in mid-June, APPO has developed into a form of parallel governing structure that has coordinated the work of a broad and growing social movement for institutional reform in Oaxaca.
We have received several reports from our partners over the past few months that have focused mostly on the increasing violations of human rights and government corruption as well as the story of the ongoing marginalization of Oaxaca’s poor indigenous majority. A Human Rights Report released in January 2006 indicates that 73% of Oaxacans live below the poverty line — unable to meet basic needs like growing or buying enough food. The same report showed that 80% of Oaxacan towns do not have a full compliment of basic services–access to potable water, basic sanitation, lighting of public areas or paved roads. Land rights and territorial rights disputes abound–656 land conflicts were officially registered. The defense of land and territorial rights has become a critical issue for campesinos and indigenous people who seek to control local resources in an effort to guarantee basic food security.
In mid-September Grassroots Board member Judith Radtke, who has worked with Oxacan women for over a decade, and staff member Stephanie Sluka Brauer were in Oaxaca to visit with the Mixteca weavers, women who form part of Judith’s El Circulo de Mujeres/Circle of Women. These indigenous women weavers come from Mixteca communities in the Sierra Madre of Oaxaca. Some of these are the same communities who form part of the coffee producing cooperatives of Grassroots’ partner, CEPCO–The Oaxacan State Network of Coffee Producers–or who are supported by Grassroots’ partner CAMPO–the Center for Support of the Popular Movement in Oaxaca. See our partners in Mexico page for more info about their work. The economic conditions in Oaxaca are so brutal that many need to leave the country in order to provide for their families; up to 250,000 rural Oaxacans, mostly indigenous campesinos, migrate north each year in search of paying jobs.
Stephanie reported that the mood on the street in mid-September was peaceful albeit bustling with popular activities, peace camps, neighborhood watch groups and anti-Ruiz protests. Neighborhood associations were getting together to get things done and take care of their communities. Entire families, including elders and small children were seen at road blocks, barricades, and neighborhood-watch stations.
« The mood was watchful but peaceful, with no sparks of violence evident. It was impressive to see how many posters of Gandhi and references to Martin Luther King’s methods of peaceful and non-violent resistance were everywhere, » Stephanie said.
In mid-October, after an attempt at negotiations with the federal government in Mexico City had failed, Grassroots received a document entitled « Citizens Initiative for a Dialogue for Peace Democracy and Justice in Oaxaca » that was signed by the APPO, all of our current and new partners, many artists and intellectuals, scores of indigenous organizations, church groups, non-profit organizations and local business people.
The Citizen’s Initiative called for a broad and far-reaching peaceful dialogue on the state of Oaxacan society. The document states that, « Given the breakdown in constitutional order and the rupture of the social fabric everyone should engage in the construction of a new social compact that would include all of the peoples and sectors of Oaxacan society… Instead of a return to ‘normalcy’, characterized by injustice, authoritarianism and corruption, … citizens might work together to transform this profound crisis into an opportunity to create a substantial change, by way of democratic and institutional processes, in the formal structures of government in the state. »
They chose October 12th (a.k.a. Dia de La Raza or Columbus Day) a day of great symbolism for indigenous or first nations peoples, to initiate the new process of dialogue.
Since then, the Ruiz government and PRI—party operatives have been using a variety of strategies to incite fear in the general population. In addition to the violent repression of the teachers in June, the government has ordered the interruption of basic services to specific communities, used rumors and death threats, beatings, fire bombings, and false arrests. Added to these tactics, that have not succeeded in stopping the growth of the social movement, were a more recent slew of kidnappings or « disappearances » of activists or members of their families and finally paramilitary forces, hired guns and thugs hoping to provoke terror and possibly a violent reaction on the part of protesters that might justify the intervention of federal troops.
On Friday, October 27th, several indigenous organizations from the southern states of Mexico, among them GRI partners from Oaxaca, went to a meeting in Mexico City with Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples to follow up on his report and recommendations with regard to the ongoing violations of indigenous rights in Mexico.
On Saturday, October 28th , 17 indigenous organizations jointly issued a statement lamenting « grave violations of human rights » in Oaxaca. In addition they stated that:
1.) they hold Oaxacan governor Ruiz and his Cabinet responsible for the violence and deaths of this past few days;
2.) they hold President Vicente Fox responsible for his failure to understand this as a social and political crisis and his failure to undertake an open and plural process of dialogue and negotiation in good faith;
3.) they hold the Senate responsible for not supporting the lower house’s call for the impeachment of governor Ruiz, a decision that they feared had resulted in a recent increase of extra-official government-sponsored violence.
This week we all heard the sad news of the death a young American independent media reporter along side that of yet another Oaxacan community activist. And we have read the reports of Mexico’s Federal Military Police marching on Oaxaca City. Today people in cities all across the United States are planning protests in front of Mexican embassies and consular offices.
This week as we commemorate the day of the dead, we remember those whose lives have been lost and celebrate the tens of thousands community activists in Oaxaca, still vibrant and alive, whose work to uphold constitutional rights and basic human rights we honor.
Today, in a last minute move to try and avoid further bloodshed both houses of the Mexican legislature have called for the resignation of Oaxacan governor Ulisses Ruiz.
Tomorrow we must continue to find concrete ways to be in solidarity with and support the ongoing work of our Oaxacan partners and allies.