Indigenous activists want peace in Oaxaca

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      They're here to talk peace this week, but members of the indigenous communities of Mexico's Oaxaca state are desperate to draw attention to the ongoing political instability and full-scale violence in Oaxaca City.

      Joining the group of indigenous Oaxacan human-rights activists is retired Roman Catholic bishop Samuel Ruiz, from the neighbouring state of Chiapas, at the World Peace Forum, happening in Vancouver from Friday to Wednesday (June 23 to 28; see for a full program).

      Vancouver Anglican priest Emilie Smith is a long-time advocate for indigenous rights in the impoverished states of southern Mexico and Guatemala, where she worked for 22 years to improve conditions of indigenous people who she says are often disenfranchised and poverty-stricken. Argentina-born Smith belongs to the local chapter of the Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca (CIPO), and she recently supported exiled Oaxacan Mixteca activist Raul Gatica Bautista in his (now successful) bid for refugee status.

      “Everything is supertense right now, and the group is on high alert,” Smith told the Georgia Straight on June 20. “We are in close contact with our people in Oaxaca and monitoring the situation.”

      For almost three hours on June 16, Smith—coordinator at the Ecumenical Task Force for Justice in the Americas—occupied the offices of the Mexican consulate on West Hastings Street. She was joined by Gatica's sister, Refugio Gregorio Bautista, and Antonio Villanueva. Meanwhile, outside on the street, 10 Vancouver police officers attended the scene as 60 protesters and activists voiced their support.

      “We're not leaving until peace breaks out,” Smith declared on her way up the elevator.

      Smith attributed much of the unrest to the upcoming July 2 Mexican national election. On June 14, she said, more than 3,000 police officers attacked a peaceful protest organized in Oaxaca City by some 15,000 teachers. They were demanding the right to free access to quality education, support for poor and underprivileged students, a wage raise, and better working conditions.

      Smith and other CIPO members say Oaxaca state governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz is allowing excessive use of force by police and soldiers.

      “We want our disappeared people back, we want the army out of the state of Oaxaca, and we want the police out of the state of Oaxaca,” Antonio Feliciano told the crowd outside the consulate, speaking in Spanish, with Smith translating. “If indigenous people lose this struggle, the whole world loses. Why? Because this is about land, freedom, and the exchange of ideas.”

      Smith told the Straight that she, Villanueva, and Bautista had an appointment with Mexican consul general Héctor Romero, and they eventually got to speak to him regarding the situation in Oaxaca.

      “He said the same thing he has said in the past,” Smith said. “He said he had no new information for us and no power to take any action. I told him he should resign and that if I were him I'd be ashamed to be a representative of a repressive, murderous government.”

      Romero did not return messages by the Straight's deadline.

      Outside the consulate on June 16, UBC student and CIPO Vancouver member Geoff Horner told the Straight the protesters' grievances are multifaceted.

      “One angle is education,” Horner said. “In B.C., we need to be aware of struggles going on elsewhere regarding education. In Oaxaca, there has been no [teacher] agreement, in terms of wages and benefits, in the last 10 years.”

      Oaxaca has a rich indigenous history and was colonized by Spain in 1521. Horner said there has always been political instability since those times, but he added that increased tourism in Oaxaca City is driving prices so high that ordinary people can't afford to live there.

      Smith told the Straight that she and her Oaxacan colleagues plan a return to the consulate on June 23.

      “There will be a workshop, led by Oaxacan women, at the Downtown Eastside Women's Centre at 9:30 [a.m. Friday (June 23)],” she added. “It will be on migration and violence against women. Then right after that we'll be moving on to the consulate.”