INTERVIEW WITH PEDRO MATIAS

Oaxaca, Oax. December 2006.

I wish to thank you for taking an interest in my well-being and in what is
happening in my country. I am not at all happy with what is going on here
and I am ashamed that in this day and age we are still living in primitive
political times.

For the last 20 years I have worked as a reporter here in Oaxaca. I have
worked in different areas and am familiar with the situation in Oaxaca.
Here, people live in extreme poverty. Past and present governments have
paraded social policies that are of no benefit to the people. Over the
years, I have seen how organizations, political parties and governments make
empty talk about poverty without ever really trying to eradicate it. In
fact, I think they maintain poverty as a way of holding their position and
their economic superiority.

Clearly, if there were real social policies to help the poor, we would have
seen some progress by now – but absolutely no progress has been made. On the
contrary, the victimization of the poor has only gotten worse – there is
more violence and repression than ever and those who protest have been
attacked.

YOUR STATUS AS A CITIZEN ONLY LASTS FOR A DAY

I am truly disappointed in the electoral system we have in Oaxaca and in the
country. I have come to realize that for Mexicans, especially Oaxacans,
their status as a citizen only lasts for one day – they day they go out to
vote, they are citizens. The next day, if they protest, if they try to
express what it is they object to in the system, they are accused of being
rebels, insurgents, guerrillas or criminals. It is very painful for me to
see that our institutions are only there to serve an elite political class,
a class that always protects its own members and has no concern for the
people. They are elected by the people, but they only represent one sector
and they abandon the community.

I find it surprising that they expect us to respect the Constitution of our
country, its institutions, the results of the elections and the political
class, but we can’t question anything without being accused of being a rebel
against the government. The result of this is that people feel they have no
protection.

What I saw in this major popular uprising in Oaxaca is that people went out
into the streets to protest. June 14th was the day they locked out the
teachers; it was the day the pressure cooker started to explode and a mass
protest rose up against a lot of injustices – bitter grievances stemming
from the many unjust acts of past and present governments that have arrested
and repressed the people.

JUNE 14TH WAS A WATERSHED IN OUR HISTORY: THE DIVIDING POINT BETWEEN THE OLD OAXACA AND THE NEW OAXACA

June 14th was the day it all exploded and the people demanded to be
respected. And all they got was repression, imprisonment, disappearings,
murder, demonstrations and  political propaganda against certain sectors for
daring to question the oligarchy- a government that is supposed to
represent the people but that no one can question; a government that is in
its own bubble, a government that subjugates the people and does not allow
them to speak up.

June 14th was a watershed in the history of Oaxaca – a dividing line between
the old and the new Oaxaca. Oaxaca is not the same, it will never be, and
should never be, the same Oaxaca. It is up to the federal authorities to
find a peaceful solution to the situation. If they don’t, we will find
ourselves in a revolt, a civil war in which each and every one of us will
have to defend our territory, our space and our personal selves.

I don’t want to be a prophet of doom, but I think that now is the time for
President Felipe Calderon to stop being held hostage by the political
parties. These parties are trying at all costs to maintain those in power in
the state of Oaxaca, despite the fact that our elected politicians are
corrupt murderers and criminals. President Calderon lost the election in
Oaxaca, but he could gain the support of Oaxacans. He has a chance to gain
the support of the people if he could only take hold of the reins of the
country and respond to the demands of those who have been badly treated. He
should get rid of this Governor who has committed grave offenses against the
people and behaved indescribably, making the whole state turn against him.

Members of the state government close to Ulises Ruiz have told us that 9000
of the 12000 communities in the state of Oaxaca do not support Ruiz. These
communities have signed community protests to insist that Ruiz be removed
from office. The protest says that the Governor has not represented their
community, has stepped on their rights and that a whole sector of the
population is joining together to demand that he be removed.

THREE IMPORTANT ASPECTS OF THIS MOVEMENT

I would like provide more information about the uprising, because many
people, even Mexicans, do not understand what is happening in Oaxaca. And
since you people are concerned about Oaxaca, I want you to have a good
understanding of the situation here.

It has been said that the popular movement is financed by political parties,
particularly the PRD. It has also been said that the movement is not really
a popular movement, that it is driven by political ambition and other
interests that have nothing to do with the people. But I want to tell you
that there are three very positive basic elements driving this movement:

FIRST, IT IS AN INDIGENOUS MOVEMENT

With the creation of the Peoples’ Popular Assembly, we are returning to our
native Oaxacan culture. There are popular assemblies in the 418
municipalities of Oaxaca, all of which incorporate a system of Oaxacan
indigenous habits and customs.

Every Sunday, these indigenous communities hold popular assemblies to decide
who will be the altar boy, the police agent or the municipal president
(mayor), who is going to pay for the village fiesta and who is going to set
it up. Everything is decided in these assemblies. So the first basic,
positive element of the Oaxaca uprising is that the indigenous tradition is
being put into practice –  the popular assembly is made up of all the
indigenous assemblies of Oaxaca.

THE SECOND IS “GUELAGUETZA”

Guelaguetza means “gift of giving”. Most Oaxacan people are used to giving.
For example, when there is a death in the community, people support the
grieving family and bring them corn, sugar, coffee and chocolate.

THE THIRD IS “TEQUIO”

When someone needs help, members of the community provide mutual support in
the form of cooperative team work (tequio). For example, if someone is going
to build a new room (bedroom, kitchen, etc.) in their home, everybody helps
with the construction. No one gets paid for doing the work but everybody
helps out and contributes physical labor for free.

The movement is based on these three basic important elements. The assembly
does not have a leader who says: ‘I order you to do this” or “I am going to
do that”. Everyone can speak up and have an opinion, agree or disagree. The
most important thing is that decisions are made communally.

It is also important to point out that the movement has not been maintained
through support from other organizations, or from the PRD. In fact, support
is provided through religious communities belonging to the church in Oaxaca.
When there is a problem, these communities are informed and they provide
what is needed – a kilo of rice or beans, sugar etc. That is why there is no
shortage of supplies for those participating in the movement; over the last
six months they have been provided with everything they need.

And where does the tequio come from? Women come to help out, cook, prepare
rice, beans or soup, to support those who are struggling to build something
new. They are the soul of the movement.

People outside the movement don’t like to see things this way. They see the
movement as a threat to those who do not participate in it because they
think “those rebels are going to start taking over here and then elsewhere
too”. But there will not be a movement like this in any other state in the
country, because other states don’t have the same conditions, they don’t
have the same culture or the same roots, and also because here, we are
struggling against the Priista dictatorship, and it continues to hold power.
THE CONSTITUTION IS ONLY FOR THE LIBRARIES

Another thing I want to point out is that the government has tried to
minimize the problem. When it had the solution in its hands it didn’t take
advantage of it. Why? Because all the political class wants to do is protect
itself. That’s the impression I have, that the political class wants to
protect itself, and the politicians will not pay attention to the people, no
matter how much they protest and demand justice.

It is very upsetting for me to think that the Constitution is only for the
libraries or for the use of the political class when they want to apply it,
but it simply doesn’t exist for the people. It says in the Constitution that
people have the right to express themselves, but in reality, if they do
speak up, they are accused of being rebels or insurgents. Why does the
government talk about constitutional rights and then just go ahead repress
people, punish them, imprison them and disappear them?

Another thing is that Mexico, which presently presides on the United Nations
Commission on Human Rights, does not comply with international human rights
treaties. Why did Mexico go ahead and sign all these treaties? It’s one
thing to sign a treaty but another to comply with the stipulations.

In the case of Oaxaca, there is clear evidence of human rights abuse –
people have been humiliated, beaten and imprisoned; their lives will never
be the same again because of the actions of the federal and state police.
And what is the federal government doing? It is supporting a state governor
who has committed grave offenses against his own people. Yet he says he
should be kept in power because he was elected by the people.

And I would say to the Governor:” What about the people who want to
have you removed?” Where are they? Ruiz has been accused of rigging the
elections to become Governor. And now, instead of trying to gain the
people’s support, he has begun to repress and punish those who did not vote
for him. And this has only generated more anger, more violence, more
outrage.

As I see it, he is taking revenge on the people who didn’t vote for him,
that is, the urban population, the people with a little more education. He
has decided to release his fury on them. And the rural indigenous people,
who supposedly voted for him, are simply forgotten. So here in Oaxaca City,
to take revenge on the urban population, he has begun to damage and alter
the symbols of Oaxacan culture.

We Oaxacans are very rooted in our land and very proud of our culture. We
like to receive visitors. We like people and are friendly to them. But we
like to maintain our dignity and we refuse to be victimized in this way.

But the Governor has gravely offended us. He came here and attacked and
attacked our cultural symbols (using gestures with his hands). Why? He
changed the zócolo in Oaxaca. He removed the old historical stones and put
in new paving stones; he converted the Governor’s Palace into a museum; the
Chamber of Deputies has been converted into a theater, the Judiciary Office
is to be moved to another location, the Plaza de la Danza is being replaced
by concrete slabs. The Llano Park is also being changed. They are putting
cement and bricks and concrete slabs around the trees and this will make
them dry up.

They also altered the fountain (Fuente de las Siete Regiones).And they say
they changed the images of the women that represent the different regions of
the state. People feel that this is an insult to them and to their cultural
symbols, which represent who they are. So the people are saying they will
not tolerate any more of this treatment.

THE PEOPLE’S POPULAR ASSEMBLY OF OAXACA

So it was an accumulation of things that led to this situation, of the
creation of the APPO (Peoples’ Popular Assembly of Oaxaca). As I see it, the
APPO is made up of four different sectors:

There are some radical people in the APPO – they want to do things like
bring the government down and put in a people’s government.

There are also more moderate people, from the church. I have a document
signed by at least 42 priests from the Archdiocese of Oaxaca, the Dioceses
of Tehunatepec and Puerto Escondido, the Prelate’s office of Huautla de
Jiménez, the Dioceses of Tuxtepec and Huajuapan and the Prelate’s office of
Los Mixes. There are priests involved in the movement and so are the
religious communities.

And then there are the NGO’s that deal with human rights, equal rights,
women’s rights, rights for the indigenous, children’s rights and family
rights. There are a large number of groups in this sector.

In addition, there are a number of organizations that are financed by the
state, i.e. organizations created by people who managed to get funding from
the government. Here in Oaxaca, if you don’t apply pressure, the government
does nothing for you.

So, if organizations want to be heard, they have to stage demonstrations,
sit-ins, meetings, hunger strikes and all those kinds of things. Then the
authorities say “Ok, we heard you, we will give you this, we will give you
this much” and then they just disappear.

THE PEOPLE ARE WAKING UP

For the last six months, I have been involved in putting out information as
it becomes available and I have witnessed what has been happening in the
movement. I saw the attack on the teachers on June 14th and the violence of
the state police. And then I saw how the police backed off, because they
never thought that the people and the teachers would react the way they did.

When the people saw what was happening, they began to join in solidarity
with the teachers. It was amazing to see how older women and men came with
pots of rice and beans to feed people and how people came out into the
street and gave out bags of water to people saying “Here, protect yourself
with this.”

There was a strong response from the people, as can be seen in the marches
that took place later. The first, the second, the third and then the fourth,
that was the biggest march ever held in the history of the state of Oaxaca.
Some say that a million people marched, others say 800 000. But 800 000
people in the capital, Oaxaca, marching to remove one person from power is
evidence that the political system is coming apart at the seams.  This was a
major rejection of a leader, the like of which has not been seen in the
country, not even the protest against the government of Puebla (that had
been linked to attacks on freedom of expression and corruption in the
justice system) led to anything of the magnitude of the march in Oaxaca.

800,000 people marched in a peaceful demonstration, in the rain, because it
was raining that day. They tried to mobilize at 4pm, then at 5pm. Then the
rain stopped but there were large puddles of water and people put on their
rain coats, took their umbrellas and went out into the street. And the
people applauded them from rooftop terraces, balconies, schools and along
the roads.

As a Oaxacan, I felt like crying, shouting, laughing. I said to myself: “My
people are waking up. They are speaking out, they want justice.” (He pauses
a little, cries silently).

What happened? After people had asked for things to be done in a peaceful
way and after they had sent documents containing evidence that would force
the Governor to step down, and after they tried every legal way to make the
government listen to the people who had been victimized, all that happened
was that they had the doors slammed in their face and the government turned
against them.

Why? Why did the political parties who represent themselves and not the
people, why did they slap the people of Oaxaca in the face, rejecting the
only remaining peaceful solution? You can now see the consequences of that
rejection.

Were there some radicals in the movement? Yes, there were some people who
challenged the Federal Preventative Police (PFP). When the PFP arrived … it
was … (He breaks down crying) … people were holding up religious images
begging “please don’t come here, we don’t want any violence.” They threw
themselves onto the street so that the tanks could not move in. Others were
bleeding, they called out: “Do you want blood? Here is my blood.” (Long
pause, he can’t keep talking because he is crying).

AND THEN THE FIESTA CAME TO AN END

On that day, October 29TH, I thought that people would be terrified, afraid
of the presence of the PFP. But I was really surprised to see that people
flooded out into the streets and shouted at the police that it was a good
thing they had come to remove the Governor.

It was like a fiesta, but it suddenly came to an end when they realized that
the PFP had come to provide support for the Governor and put down the people
who had dared to protest. Unfortunately, since then, the government has
never tried to understand our movement. The people were saying: “Here we
are, listen to us, can’t you see? We are telling you that something bad is
happening in Oaxaca, do something about it.” But the government did hear us,
or see us – they just sent in the police.

Since then, people have felt abandoned. Then, there was November 2nd, which
is another day I will never forget, because the people confronted the police
that day. At a certain point, they wanted to remove five men from the
barricade because they were being obstructive and acting out. The police
came to take them away. All five of them are what we call humble people,
people who have no way of earning a living, people who have always been
excluded and humiliated. These people were on the barricades because they
have nothing to lose. And that is the case for most people in Oaxaca. 75% of
our population in Oaxaca is indigenous, or have some indigenous background,
and these people are being excluded.

Then, they tried to defend the area, because this was where Radio
Universidad was located and they didn’t want it to be shut down (it was the
only communications media that was defending the movement) – and they
managed to get the police to move back.

So this time, the people came out on top. But it didn’t make any difference
to the government because they still kept that corrupt tyrant in power and
he still has control of all three levels of power in the state.

NOVEMBER 25th WAS TO BE A PAINFUL DAY FOR THE PEOPLE

So there was no other alternative left for the people – there was nothing
left but repression, uprisings, imprisonments – and then there was November
25th which was a tragic day for the people.

There were people infiltrating the movement. The government had figured it
all out. They came up with the idea that it would be useful if some
buildings were set on fire and if there were confrontations with the PFP. This
would give them an excuse to further repress the people. No one is stupid
enough to believe that a Molotov cocktail can burn down a building the size
of the Supreme Court, a building, as it happens, that contains documents the
government would have liked to see disappear… who could believe that! Well,
who did this then? It had to be government infiltrators. Is there any proof?
Of course, there is no proof. They are not going to turn themselves in. But
it was useful for the government, because it allowed the PFP and the state
police to have more clashes with the community.

THEN THERE WERE TANKS AND THEN BULLETS

We were there the whole day on November 25th. The police attacked and
attacked, and pushed us back to the Centro Pastoral, and then there were
tanks and then they started shooting. And we had to run, you couldn’t just
stay there and say: “I’m with the press”, because they were arresting
everybody. They beat up a colleague from El Financiero and he had to be
treated with 10 stitches.

And then you said to yourself: “I had better move back.” And we were on this
side of the Centro Pastoral and they said to us: “The federal courthouse is
on fire.” So we went to Llano Park and saw that, in fact, one of the rooms
in the courthouse was on fire, as well as some cars in the parking lot. It
was around 8.30 at night, and the state police came to the park and then we
ran away and then the federal police turned up so we ran off to the
Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social and took refuge in Niños Heroes Avenue.

That was a very important day in my life as a journalist and a reporter. I
saw a lot of things that day. I wanted to be part of the people and stand up
with them so I could observe everything that was happening … it was such an
experience, it is very difficult to explain what it was like. In my 20 years
of being a reporter, I have never seen anything like it. The people went out
into the streets, demonstrated and protested. There was no official
organization, they just organized themselves. It was really amazing. At five
in the afternoon, a group of teenagers started looking for trouble. They
wanted to confront the PFP and then it all exploded, because people on the
rooftop terraces were throwing marbles at the demonstrators.

So there was a big confrontation, a big clash, with tear gas, shooting – oh
yes! there was shooting – and after that there were fires. Between 5pm and
11pm, Oaxaca went up in flames. The cloud of gas became a cloud of black
smoke – we are still waiting for the plume of white smoke but I don’t think
that’s going to happen. (smiles)

Then they made us move back, the 15, 16, 17, year old boys with their
make-shift shields were in the front line, confronting the police. Then
there was a second line of protesters who were firing bazookas, and behind
them were the women, who were throwing stones… they had taken hundreds of
bricks from a construction site and broken them into pieces, they had also
taken up paving stones from the road and were throwing them on the ground to
break them into pieces.

THEY BEAT ME MERCILESSLY

The crowd of men and women was shouting and moving forward forcefully. And
behind, were the older people who were carrying water… (He pauses, his voice
breaks again, trying to stop the tears), they also had towels for people to
cover their mouths, and vinegar, and behind them were medical students from
the university, who were looking after people who had been exposed to the
tear-gas or had wounds on their head. They gave us soft drinks and vinegar
and offered help if we were hurt. Then the police came and we had to
retreat. They burned the APPO encampment in Santo Domingo Plaza and made us
move on to the Seguro Social building.

At the Seguro Social, two groups of police came towards us – one from the
Llano Park and the other from Santo Domingo Plaza. So about 100 men, women
and elderly people had to flee down the road to el Fortin. We got to el
Fortin about 9.30. Then we thought that we had better leave. I was alone so
I joined a group of independent journalists from France, New York and Spain.
There were eight or nine of us. I decided I would stay with them for
protection, since I figured they wouldn’t attack foreigners or do them any
harm. But I knew they could detain me and even disappear me.

We were at the Hotel del Fortin intersection. About ten or twelve people got
into a red van and  headed for Colonia Estrella but we were stopped, so we
got out and walked about ten metres to look for a taxi. Then, PFP and state
police vans came from either Crespo or Tinoco Palacios Street (I’m not
sure). And they surrounded us. (He pauses again, his voice breaks, and he
cries.)  They beat me mercilessly. We didn’t know what to do. We ran to
(Fortin) Hill. (He continues crying, he can barely speak) and people kept
shouting. (He cries while Anna proceeds with the translation) .

Sorry, but sometimes you just get overwhelmed. The truth is, I have never in
my life had an experience like that day. I witnessed the EPR attacks here
in Oaxaca – several people were killed at that time, and I’ve also witnessed
farmers’ protests. I’ve seen clashes and confrontations in my time, but that
day, November 25th made me feel powerless, afraid. You really don’t know
what to do in a situation like that.

The international journalists were terrified by what they saw. And so was I.
A van pulled up and some people were knocked down onto the street. I don’t
know if the police knocked them down. Women were calling out in desperation.
We couldn’t take any photos. Even the photographers who were there were
afraid to take photos in case they were caught. We didn’t want the police
coming after us for that.

I didn’t know what to do. We were powerless, we couldn’t really help out or
do anything. Then, to avoid being hit or being killed, we had hide out on
Fortin Hill, like criminals, so they would not find us. In the distance,
about as far as from here to the Centro Pastoral, you could hear people
crying out … it was terrible. (His voice breaks again.)

People were coming out of their houses and saying: “The police are here, go
over that way.” So we spent a half an hour trying to hide from the police. I
think the international reporters had never seen anything like this in their
lives. I was concerned about them because I did not see them the next day. I
think they left on the first flight out of Oaxaca. After that, I got phone
calls from friends at Radio Red in Mexico City: “Pedro, how are things going
there, are you alright?” “Yes, I’m Ok but I can’t talk.”

I spoke to the newspaper Noticias and told my boss that I couldn’t go out,
that I was trapped, that the police were detaining everybody and beating
them. Then they sent a motorcycle for me around 10 or 10.30 and I managed to
get to the center to the newspaper office, but there had been fires all
around there.

When we had been on the hill, we had seen a lot of smoke in the air. It
looked like the whole state was on fire, really, that’s what it looked like
to me. But the hardest thing for me was that they were accusing innocent
people (among them an elderly lady) of starting the fires. No, no, they
really went too far this time, this is really unjust. (His voice breaks
again.)

I don’t understand this government. They were given every change to resolve
the situation and they end up imprisoning people who were only asking for
justice. And meanwhile, Vicente Fox allows the drug traffickers to go free.
His anti-drug campaign never worked; they have never come down hard on drug
traffickers here. For this government, it’s the people who are asking for
change that constitute the real threat.

WHERE IS DEMOCRACY IN MEXICO?

About a year ago, I had the opportunity to go on a trip to the United
States. And people there said to me: “Oh! Mexico is a democratic country.”
But where is the democracy in Mexico? If Mexico City stands for democracy,
then we’ve had it. Because there is no democracy in Oaxaca. For years, the
PRI has been in power. Our government leaders have been nothing but tyrants.
They have exploited, robbed and arranged rigged assassinations and they have
gotten away with it. They have been allowed to go free, even rewarded, and
they get to sit in the Chamber of Deputies. They are the ones who legislate
on behalf of the people. But they are the criminals and people who protest
against them are in jail.

For the last 20 years, I have been working in Oaxaca for the magazine,
Proceso. I have seen three governments and not one of them has allowed
criticism. I have been threatened and intimidated by all three of them. I am
lucky because the media protects me and backs me up. But what can the people
do? They have no one to stand up for them.

YOU ARE THE ONLY DEFENSE THEY HAVE

This is why I agreed to do this interview because you are the only defense
these people have. There are organizations here in Oaxaca and in the country
that try to defend them, but they are not Mexican. Mexicans in Mexico have
no way to defend themselves. Unless there is pressure from outside the
country, nothing happens.

Take for example, the fatal shooting of Brad Will. If he had not been
killed, they would not have sent in the PFP. They would have just kept on
killing more and more of our people and nothing would have been said about
it. Twelve dead Oaxacans is not news. But it was another matter when they
killed Brad Will. The state prosecutor changed the whole story of what
happened and rigged the medical report.  This is the height of injustice and
cynicism. It is complete abuse of power. Authorities in Oaxaca are now going
to put out the story that Brad Will killed himself.

And that is how things are in Oaxaca. They are going to say that those who
were imprisoned were asking for it because they rebelled against the
government and that there was no other way to deal with them. Anything can
happen here. Justice exists on paper but it is a different thing when it
comes to applying it.

The media’s part in all of this has been a disgrace, with the exception of
the newspaper Noticias, which, because of the problems I experienced, became
an important communication media for the movement. And of course Radio
Universidad also helped the movement. But no other media helped out. People
had to find alternative ways to get information. The experience of this
movement taught us a lot. The media represents the business world and its
interests. This is understandable. The media is a business. Nonetheless,
they should give a voice to those who have no voice. But the voiceless  were
silenced and had to make themselves heard by using force.

And what happened? Now there are orders to detain human rights leaders who
didn’t even participate in the barricades. All they did was make inquiries
to ensure that workers were not hurt. But this is a crime in Oaxaca, it is a
crime to protest, a crime to think.

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