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Oaxaca Strike Dragging On

Teachers ignore an order by the governor to return to work. Union leaders meet into the night about ending the four-month walkout.

September 27, 2006|Sam Enriquez and Rafael Bucio | Special to The Times

OAXACA CITY, Mexico — Parents and children gathered early Tuesday in front of the Enrique Rebsamen Primary School after the governor over the weekend ordered teachers to end a four-month strike that has ballooned into a chaotic leftist rebellion.

Handwritten signs were posted at the school: "Welcome to class. Bring your children with confidence." When the bell rang at 9:05 a.m., about 150 students went to class.

But the teachers were still missing.

As pressure grew from all sides to settle the simmering conflict, Gov. Ulises Ruiz launched a public relations offensive Tuesday to declare that peace was near. "It's always darkest before the dawn," he told Televisa.

Teachers union leaders were meeting late Tuesday to talk about returning to class.

Oaxaca's statewide teachers strike has spawned a protest movement that is demanding Ruiz resign for a number of alleged abuses, including a heavy-handed police crackdown on strikers in June that increased the dissidents' ranks.

Continuing civil unrest threatens the impending departure of Mexican President Vicente Fox and adds to the troubles of his successor, Felipe Calderon, who already has his hands full trying to convince some in the country that he won the July 2 election fairly.

Dozens of protesters armed with poles and rocks swarmed the stately courtyards of the historic El Camino Real hotel on Sunday. They searched guestrooms after one of the radio stations seized by protesters reported that Ruiz was there. He wasn't.

But two lawmakers were being interviewed at the hotel by TV Azteca, and the network showed them being hustled out a back door, their departing car pelted with rocks. The crowd scattered at the sound of gunfire, and two people were reportedly hit and wounded.

Oaxaca's 70,000 teachers stayed away from 14,000 schools on May 22 to demand higher wages and better working conditions. The strike has since attracted a collection of farmers, unionists and Marxists with similar demands who have taken over the capital's main plaza and blockaded City Hall and state offices with protest camps.

Tourists in the popular colonial city have all but disappeared, and scores of businesses have closed their doors since protesters chased police and local officials from their downtown offices. Two demonstrators have been killed.

Hours before the invasion of the El Camino Real hotel, which is temporarily closed, the U.S. Embassy extended a travel advisory on Oaxaca for another month.

"Vandalism, arrests and injuries continue as a result of the ongoing confrontations," the advisory said. "The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City has received reports of robberies and assaults in areas of the city not normally known to pose a high crime risk."

Mexican officials bristled. Presidential spokesman Ruben Aguilar said Monday that "there have been no problems with tourists in Oaxaca City or in other parts of the country, despite violence committed by organized crime."

But Oaxacan business groups, local officials and Calderon's transition team have asked the Fox government to restore order in Oaxaca's capital. Overall, Mexicans oppose using force, according to a poll published Tuesday by El Universal newspaper, but nearly half predict the unrest will spread to other states.

Ruiz, who had been largely absent from public view, reemerged Tuesday for TV interviews after a meeting with Fox a day earlier. He said he was offering a teacher salary package that was four times greater than what he had offered in the spring.

Oaxaca's teachers are among Mexico's lowest-paid educators, earning $400 to $600 a month.

In an almost contrite tone, Ruiz echoed the complaints of the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca, the umbrella group that includes striking teachers. He agreed that Oaxaca needed reforms: better public education and social programs, and more jobs and investment.

But he said he wouldn't resign.

"With these offers, we'll end the conflict," said Ruiz, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has run Oaxaca for decades. "We've opened 1,000 schools since Monday [without teachers] and I'm sure we'll open many more by the end of the week."

Teachers have been drawing their salaries during the strike, but the payments ended over the weekend when the governor ordered them back to work. Ruiz's strategy rests on the idea that the protests will fade once teachers go back to their jobs.

Calderon went public this week with his frustration over the Oaxaca conflict, asking Fox to restore order in the eight weeks he has left in office. Calderon's aides have been complaining behind the scenes for weeks.

"We're expecting a public administration in good order and without open files like in the case of Oaxaca," Calderon said Monday.

Fox, who met Monday with Ruiz and 10 other PRI governors, promised the situation would be straightened out by the time Calderon is sworn in Dec. 1.

Parents at the Enrique Rebsamen school, meanwhile, were grateful for the half a dozen volunteers who were teaching their children. They were afraid to say much about the governor, teachers or protesters.

"What we want is our children to get an education," said Enrique Arturo Vazquez.

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sam.enriquez@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Enriquez reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Bucio from Oaxaca City. Carlos Martinez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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