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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 4, January/February 2007

International support needed for Oaxaca teachers and indigenous communities

by Jinny Sims

Our teacher colleagues and the large indigenous communities in Oaxaca, Mexico need our solidarity support. I travelled to Mexico City and Oaxaca in mid-December as part of an international delegation to provide some of that support. I was representing both the BC Teachers’ Federation and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. Other representatives were from Quebec and Central American teacher unions.

The situation in Oaxaca is intolerable, with many violations of human rights. More than 200 people have "disappeared," including more than 100 teachers. Police have grabbed them when out shopping and even gone into classrooms and arrested teachers in front of primary children. Many have been shipped out of the state to prisons in other parts of Mexico. Several people have died in attacks from police and para-militaries.

Teachers, their families and other community activists are very fearful of retribution from the governor of Oaxaca in response to them challenging the fraudulent election that brought him to office.

How did things come to this?
In May, teachers in Section 22 of SNTE (the national teachers’ union) went on strike for resources for their schools and students and an increase in the very low salaries paid to teachers in Oaxaca. After a month, on June 14 the governor of the state ordered police to remove teachers and their families carrying out a peaceful occupation of the public square in the centre of the city. People were beaten and some were killed.

This action by the governor turned a teacher strike into a popular social movement to bring democracy to the state of Oaxaca. Hundreds of thousands from the community turned out in a protest march just days after the police action against the teachers.

For six months protestors occupied plazas in the centre of the city as a part of their protest. For a few weeks before the end of the last school year, classroom teachers returned to their schools to ensure that students would not lose a year. However, some non-enrolling staff continued the protest at the centre of the city along with activists from APPO (Oaxaca Peoples Popular Assembly), the community organization.

Throughout the six months, Section 22 and APPO had a radio station that broadcast 24 hours a day to provide information to the community and to warn of attacks from violent paramilitaries. A score of people were killed—there are disagreements about the numbers—mostly by shots into the crowds. One American journalist was shot while filming people being harassed by police in plain clothes.

Central to the actions by the governor of Oaxaca is an attempt to silence the voices of dissent from the teachers and the community, a common story in many places, although seldom as violently as in Oaxaca.

The purpose of our delegation being in Mexico was to shine a light on what is happening and to urge the Mexican government to live up to the ideals in law that are being ignored and violated in practice. We also wanted teachers in Oaxaca to know they have support from colleagues beyond the borders of Mexico.

Mexican teachers from the Tri-national Coalition in Defense of Public Education had arranged a press conference for us in Mexico City. This got coverage in the Mexican media with stories about why we were there.

Our delegation also met with an official in the Ministry of the Interior. This is the agency that is charged with ensuring that human rights are protected in the country. We asked the government to direct the release of the more than 200 people held in prisons and to provide protection to the people being attacked in Oaxaca. The federal government’s police had moved into Oaxaca in November, but they had been just as bad as the state police in attacking the protests.

The ministry official listened to our concerns. He called the authorities in Oaxaca to ensure we would not be harassed and provided us with documents.

In Oaxaca we were able to meet with teachers, union officials, and participants in APPO to hear their fears and express our solidarity.

We were told that the teachers had negotiated a truce and that schools had reopened several weeks earlier. However, the government was not living up to the promises it had made. Teachers were still being arrested. To replace any teachers taken away, the government was appointing non-qualified supporters to take over classrooms.

Teachers told us of the fear throughout the state, with police coming into classrooms with no warning or warrants and grabbing teachers, leaving frightened students behind. The repression directed by the governor has been allowed to continue, despite motions being adopted by both the national Congress and Senate weeks ago saying that he should resign from office.

International delegations are important because they can put more pressure on the government, particularly at the national level. An implicit message from outside the country is that Mexican tourism may be threatened if human rights abuses and repression are allowed to continue. These delegations also highlight the links in neo-liberal policies on a global level with the common elements of underfunding public education, promoting private education and trying to silence teachers who challenge these policies.

If there is no resolution and an end to the repression, we told the Mexican officials that we would be taking resolutions to the Education International Congress in July calling for action in support of Oaxaca.

More delegations from Europe and elsewhere in the Americas are expected over the next several weeks. The BCTF is hosting a strategy session of the Tri-national Coalition in Defense of Public Education the last weekend of January. The intention is to plan activities over the next several months to put pressure on the Mexican government and support our colleagues in Oaxaca.

The BCTF has provided financial support to Section 22, the teachers. It gave $10,000 in June and smaller grants to support a protest march of 340 miles from Oaxaca to Mexico City by teachers and to assist in the legal defense of those arrested.

The Tri-national Coalition organized a demonstration at the Canadian embassy in Mexico City—where staff rushed to lock the doors, surprised by a demonstration directed at Canada, rather than at the US embassy.

The situation in Oaxaca continues to be urgent and requires broad international support for teachers and the primarily indigenous communities in the state.

We know the power of the collective and international solidarity. As we continue to face the neo-liberal agenda with attacks on public education, health care and the social safety net, we must continue to work with teachers and others around the world to advocate for public education and a just society.

Jinny Sims is president of BCTF and vice-president of Canadian Teachers’ Federaton.

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