Our Fight for Social and Economic Justice
Fernando Mendoza has taught public school in Oaxaca, Mexico, for 26 years. He is father to four children, and his wife is also a teacher. Both have been on strike since May, along with 70,000 other teachers.
Fernando represents his section of Local 22 of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) in the People’s Popular Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO), the coordinating committee directing the struggle in Oaxaca. He was sent to California by APPO and his union to spread awareness and build solidarity. He has spoken to more than 50 meetings of students, union members and community activists.
This interview was held on October 29 after a meeting hosted by the Oakland Education Association -- just as Mexico President Vicente Fox was ordering 5,000 federal police to invade Oaxaca.
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Jessie Muldoon and Todd Chretien: Can you explain why Oaxacan teachers went on strike in May, and why the APPO was formed in June to support them?
Fernando Mendoza: The starting point for our struggle is the intense poverty that the vast majority of Oaxacans suffer. In our state, we have 16 indigenous groups, all speaking different languages, and we are the majority of the population.
Our demands were to prevent the privatization of education and to get funding for libraries, learning centers, breakfast programs and access to health care for our students. We also asked for work programs in Oaxaca so that our people don’t have to keep going to the United States to find work.
Of course, working in the United States gives us a chance to improve our situation, but we know that the situation for undocumented workers living here is very hard, and we are hoping that the laws are changed so that Oaxacans can live hear legally.
APPO was formed because the struggle of teachers, indigenous people, students, farmers and farmworkers in Oaxaca has a very long history. We have fought for years to win basic demands like education, health and work.
The state government of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz [Oaxaca’s governor from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), who is widely believed to have stolen the state election in 2004] refused to meet our demands. Therefore, on May 22, there was a great march of over 70,000 teachers and our supporters, and we established a permanent sit-in in the center of Oaxaca City.
APPO was formed on June 14, in response to the repression that Ruiz organized against us, in order to unite all the different struggles. Today, APPO is known all over the world.
APPO brings together delegates representing teachers, indigenous people, farmers, high school and university students, housewives, cooperative members, women’s organizations, political groups such as those in solidarity with Cuba, and workers from many different industries, such as the railways, telecommunications, electrical, health, university and roadways.
JM & TC: How are APPO delegates elected, and how many are there?
FM: Delegates to APPO are named by each group according to their historic traditions, but all of the delegates have to gain the respect of those they represent and demonstrate the capacity to lead with honesty, transparency and with justice.
For example, in the teachers’ union, you have to go through many levels of elections and tests to become a leader, and you have to prove yourself in the struggle over many years. Typically, there are between 200 and 250 delegates at an APPO meeting.
JM & TC: In July, the Party of Democratic Revolution’s (PRD) candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was cheated out of his victory in the presidential election by fraud committed by the National Action Party (PAN) and the PRI, handing the presidency to PAN candidate Felipe Cálderon. Millions of people in Mexico City took to the streets to protest. What impact did this have in Oaxaca?
FM: The two struggles come from the same system of corruption and of imposing governors and politicians on the people.
No one in Oaxaca believes that Cálderon won. Everyone believes the fraud was total, deep and shameless. Even the most humble farmer knows that Cálderon is trying to take office illegally, and they feel cheated out of their legal right to vote.
Thousands of us teachers are members of the PRD because our political beliefs coincide more closely with its principles. AMLO has said many times in the national press that he supports our demands, and the PRD delegates in the national assembly and senate have also spoken our for our struggle.
However, as a party, the PRD is not leading the APPO. For example, Section 22 maintains as a principle complete independence from any political party. Our struggle is organized from the base up, and we do not divide up on the basis of political parties because we feel that this will divide the unity of our members in Oaxaca and at a national level.
JM & TC: In mid-October, there were signs that the national leadership of the SNTE had reached an agreement with the government to end the strike, based on a substantial pay raise, but it was rejected by the rank-and-file teachers. Why?
FM: We have to be very clear. This struggle is run by the base, the rank and file, not by the leaders.
The national leadership of the SNTE met with the government and asked, “How can we return to classes,” but they didn’t consult with the teachers. Therefore, the teachers rejected the leaders’ right to enter into these negotiations.
Instead, we organized another consultation with the teachers and with our allies in the APPO to discuss the offers made by the government. After more than 13 people were killed by Ruiz, we could not simply forget about our demand for his resignation.
Our decision to reject this first offer led to a great increase in the amount repression against us. Also, the national leadership of the union was exerting a great amount of pressure on us to settle. After five months without pay and many threats, including the threat to cancel all collective bargaining agreements, some teachers began to feel that we had to return to work and continue the struggle in a different way.
In order to preserve our unity and not split our ranks, we voted to accept the government’s offer on October 24 and return to work on October 31 in order to continue our struggle while we taught our classes, without giving up our demand for Ruiz’s resignation.
JM & TC: After the teachers agreed to return to work, on October 27, Ruiz’s PRI thugs increased their repression by shooting many people and killing three, including IndyMedia journalist Brad Will. Why did they attack you after you agreed to return to work?
FM: This is the criminality of Ruiz’s government. Ruiz is continuing to kidnap our members and assassinate us in order to create the impression of violence and chaos, so that they can turn public opinion and international opinion against us.
Ruiz wanted to continue his criminal war against APPO and the teachers, and he wanted to provoke the intervention of the federal government to help crush us. As we speak, we are very worried about Vicente Fox sending in the troops against us. We believe that if the army comes in, it will be to assassinate the Oaxacan people who are rising up for justice and dignity.
JM & TC: Fox is portraying his decision to send in the federal police as a measure to keep the peace, and bring order to a fight between a small group of leftists on the one hand and a small group of vigilantes on the other hand. Is this true?
FM: Fox’s government is based on repression. In Mexico, there is a climate of repression, of violence, of jailing those who fight for social justice. The miners in Sonora were repressed and assassinated and jailed, as were the comrades from Atenco, from Guerrero, from Chiapas.
This is how this government operates, how it talks, how it discusses politics with the people. They want to create a blank slate based on terror in order to pursue their neoliberal projects, such as NAFTA and the Plan Pueblo-Panama. They want to steal all our natural resources and privatize everything.
DO YOU think there will be actions and strikes in other parts of Mexico to support you?
FM: Of course, yes. Just two days ago, the National Coordination of Education Workers [the CNTE, a powerful dissident, left-wing caucus within the SNTE] met to begin planning, and many other indigenous, anti-neoliberal, student, union and community groups all over the country are taking the first steps to respond to the crisis in Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is a mirror, a reflection of what is happening all over the country and really the whole world.
Our first step is to continue maintaining our unity. Then we must continue our historic fight to win back our rights to democratically elect our leaders, and win economic and social justice for the people of Oaxaca and Mexico.
JM & TC: After nearly a month of speaking in California, what is you opinion of the working people and students in the U.S.?
FM: There are many different types of people. I’ve met with immigrants from Oaxaca, teachers and students, union members, church groups, etc. But they all have something in common -- that they are all very concerned about the violence in Oaxaca, and they support our demands for education, health and jobs.
I have a great optimism that we are going to succeed in forming this new unity -- a permanent unity here in the United States between students and workers in solidarity with the struggle in Oaxaca. And that you are going to use that same unity to defend your own rights as workers, as immigrants and as students.
We need to form APPOs all over Mexico. You need to form APPOs in California. People all over the world must form APPOs in order to defend our universal rights as human beings against the attacks on our living standards and against repression
Jessie Muldoon and Todd Chretien write for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. Thanks to Alan Maass.
What You Can Do
Many well-known left-wing authors and activists have added their name to a letter honoring the memory of independent journalist Brad Will and supporting the struggle of the people of Oaxaca.
“We are extremely alarmed,” the letter reads in part, “to see that rather than cracking down on the violent paramilitaries who have been launching regular attacks on the people of Oaxaca, President Vicente Fox is using these murders as a pretext for escalating violence against the popular grassroots organization of the people of Oaxaca.
Signers include Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Mike Davis, Eduardo Galeano, Danny Glover, Naomi Klein, Camilo Mejía, Oscar Olivera, Francis Fox Pivin, John Pilger, Katha Pollitt, Arundhati Roy, Wallace Shawn and Howard Zinn.
To add your name to this letter -- as
well as for information on the struggle in Oaxaca and on events to
honor Brad Will-- visit the
Friends of Brad Will Web site.