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Teachers OK Pact in Oaxaca

Mexican officials hope a deal to end the strike will halt civil unrest. Others are skeptical.

October 21, 2006|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Striking teachers in Oaxaca have agreed to return to classes as early as next week in what federal officials hope is a first step in restoring order to the state's historic capital after five months of civil unrest.

But a key protest leader said Friday that demonstrators would maintain street blockades, daring authorities to intervene. The teachers' pact, he said, could isolate the more radical among the many unionists, farmers, Marxists and indigenous groups that make up the Oaxacan protest movement.

"We could take over more government offices, more radio and TV stations, or take over the airport," Flavio Sosa said. "At this point, anything can happen."

Meetings this weekend of teachers, as well as the leftist umbrella group that took up their cause, will signal whether the southern Mexican state can expect a resolution soon.

The teachers' strike that began May 22 with demands for higher pay evolved into a broad movement that called for the resignation of Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz. Thousands of people who joined the cause turned Oaxaca city from a colonial tourist town into an unruly and sometimes dangerous squatters' camp.

Business fell dramatically during the normally busy summer season after protesters erected roadblocks around the city's central plazas, chased away police, seized radio stations and kept local and state government employees from their offices. At least five killings are connected to the protests, which called for more government support and better jobs in Oaxaca, one of Mexico's poorest states.

Many residents and business owners demanded federal help. But government officials feared that using armed force to clear the city would spread the protest and mar the end of President Vicente Fox's six-year term.

Government officials hope the deal with the state's 70,000 teachers will divide protesters, who coalesced under the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, or APPO. The pact will give teachers a 30% raise over six years. The current average salary for an elementary school teacher is about $600 a month.

Federal Interior Minister Carlos Abascal last week also offered to release arrested protesters, send more government money to Oaxaca and replace leaders in charge of local and state police.

But the accord with teachers is no guarantee of a settlement.

"If Ruiz comes back, I assure you there will not be peace in Oaxaca," said Sosa, a former state lawmaker and a member of the national council of the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. The party's presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, led protests after narrowly losing the July 2 election.

Fox gave Abascal the job of negotiating with APPO at the end of August after earlier declaring Oaxaca's troubles a local matter. The resignation of Ruiz was the protesters' main demand and the main sticking point for the Fox administration.

Ruiz said he would neither step down nor take a leave of absence, despite mounting pressure.

President-elect Felipe Calderon last month called on Fox to settle matters before Calderon takes office Dec. 1, but there appeared to be few good options. After decades of authoritarian rule and violence against dissidents, an overwhelming majority of Mexicans oppose sending police or soldiers to corral citizens.

Mexico's shifting political landscape also complicated matters in Oaxaca.

Calderon, of Fox's National Action Party, or PAN, needs support from the Institutional Revolutionary Party to get his proposed changes through Congress once he takes office. Ruiz belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which continues to back him. And polls show most Oaxacans have a favorable view of Ruiz, despite allegations that he cheated to win election in 2004.

Mexican presidents once easily replaced troublesome governors during the era of PRI's single-party rule that ended in 2000 with the election of Fox. Calls for the ouster of Ruiz forced lawmakers to examine the nation's impeachment rules.

Mexican law authorizes the Senate to replace a governor, but only after determining that a state government is no longer functioning. The Senate voted Thursday, 74 to 31, against such a declaration. The vote split along party lines, with the PRD losing.

"The problem in Oaxaca has grown big because there is a governor who not only has an authoritarian streak, but is also very foolish," said PRD Sen. Pablo Gomez Alvarez in Senate debate Thursday. "We have to admit we have authoritarian governors in this country. But none so foolish."

Oaxaca's trouble began when Ruiz sent police to the central plaza June 14 to break up the teacher protest camps, which had appeared every spring in an annual appeal for better wages but had always ended peacefully. This time, the resulting injuries, and the failure by police to remove teachers, escalated protests and drew thousands of sympathizers.

"I've never seen people so hurt, so bitter and so willing to die for their conviction," said PAN Sen. Alejandro Gonzalez Alcocer, who was part of a Senate delegation that visited Oaxaca last week.

Some teachers denounced the vote by 1,500 union representatives Thursday to continue seeking Ruiz's resignation but return to work. "We don't want any sellouts," Jorge Alberto Vazquez told Reforma newspaper.

National teachers union leader Elba Esther Gordillo last week threatened to expel Oaxaca's Section 22 union and to replace its teachers with those from other parts of the country unless union leaders agreed on a resolution.

Section 22 leader Enrique Rueda Pacheco said Friday that the decision to return to work was based not on pressure from Gordillo or the government, but from "the commitment we have to the children of Oaxaca."

Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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