Interview with Flavio Sosa: APPO is questioning the traditional ways of doing politics

Translated to English by Chuck Morse
November 9, 2006

By Hernán Ouviña

Flavio Sosa is a member of the “provisional collective council” of the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO, in Spanish). Despite being one of APPO’s most visible faces at the moment, he insists on stating that “ours is a movement of the grassroots, not leaders.” What follows are some fragments of a much longer conversation that we had with him and other comrades in the tent city in the emblematic Santo Domingo Plaza, a bastion of communalist resistance in Oaxaca.

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How did APPO begin?

There is a long tradition of assemblies in Oaxaca that goes back to the pre-Hispanic era–the popular assembly is the ultimate authority in indigenous communities–and APPO was born with the goal of being an assembly of assemblies; one that would include the Zapotecos, the Mixtecos, the Mixes, the rest of the indigenous peoples, and black people. It arose as an exercise in democracy carried out by the various people, communities, and organizations that want to participate in the movement.

There are 350 organizations in APPO?

Yes. Community and neighborhood organizations participated from the very beginning, as well as unions, political fronts, civil society organizations, and even professional associations. That’s why we say that APPO has many dimensions. We’re going to hold our founding congress on November 10 to November 12, in order to give ourselves a more solid and practical structure, with a platform of principles. Initially, APPO was a popular response to the aggression inflicted upon the teachers and a mechanism for reaching a common goal, which is the departure of Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. Later, the idea spread of working not only to topple Ulises Ruiz Ortiz but also to transform the conditions of life, to lay the foundations for a new relationship between society and government. In this context, there have been many interesting discussions about the reforms that Oaxaca needs and what direction the government we want should go. Intellectuals, academics, religious people, and members of other organizations have taken part. It’s as if there’s APPO on the one side and the street movement on the other, which is ultimately turning itself into a movement that is pacifist yet able to respond to attacks, such as those that we suffered at the hands of the Federal Preventative Police (FPP).

Why was the name changed from the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca to the Popular Assembly of the Peoples (plural)?

This happened in the beginning of September in response to a criticism. We used “popular assembly” because that’s the space in the community for discussion, where debates happen and decisions are made. However, after thinking about it, we decided that it had to be of the “peoples” not “people,” because we are many peoples, many ethnicities. We have different roots and therefore different perspectives.

How did the leadership emerge and what is its relation to the grassroots?

The leadership came out of a general assembly that took place on June 20. It’s a council that we call “provisional collective,” but we’re going to try to give it a more definitive character at our congress. It will represent regions as well as the movement’s most active organizations, considering that there are different levels of participation. Some people are active briefly, then withdraw a bit, and then engage again when there are marches or sit-ins. Involvement varies according to each organization’s commitment and ability. There are also some groups that are very localized in specific regions and so it’s difficult for them to be in the city all the time. Oaxaca is very spread out geographically. For example, it takes 10 or 12 hours to get to Isthmus (of Tehuantepec) and the Sierra is just as far. That’s why it wasn’t possible to have permanent leaders at a central level. We’ve made various efforts, but APPO’s regionalism still isn’t very consolidated. APPO needs to reflect all the communities, which is what we’re working to do.

What’s going to happen with APPO after the constitutive congress?

We don’t know what direction this will go in, because we first have to listen to what the grassroots say. This movement was born as a response to a brutal aggression, but began to question everything: to question the media, which it seized and took over in some instances; to question the traditional ways of doing politics and attempt to articulate new methods of doing them; to question the political parties and stop any one from calling the shots; even to question the leadership itself and create a collective leadership; and also to question a bad government and try to remove it. This has made it an anti-systemic movement that alarms the political class. “How can a protest movement challenge the status quo and how we do politics?” the politicians ask themselves. Well, since the people are questioning all the traditional ways of doing politics, we think that it’s the people who should invent something new at this congress.

Are there arrest warrants out for APPO’s leadership?

There are arrest warrants for all the leaders. In fact, apparently more than 300 orders have been issued. Yesterday we learned that there was a new search warrant for Radio Universidad, supposedly to look for arms and arrest some prominent militants. We do our best not to be there, in order not to give them any pretexts. The repression has been endless. They’ve even thrown Molotov cocktails at the homes of APPO’s principal activists and have tried to mess with the homes of others. Ulises has made terror a routine political practice. He uses the police as well as hired assassins and went after us up through Thursday, imprisoning us. There’s a radio station named Ciudadana, which we call Radio Raccoon, that tells people to persecute us, to go to our homes. They even try to implicate us in criminal acts like drug trafficking to justify the repression. None of this has any basis: ours is a popular movement.

What can you tell us about the dialogue due to begin this Monday, November 6, in the city’s Cathedral?

We had always wanted a space for dialogue between APPO and civil society, because we knew that we had to address the conflict. But then the FPP came and began to raid people’s homes and arrest popular leaders in some neighborhoods. That was when the idea of the dialogue in the Cathedral arose. We spoke with Oaxaca Church authorities, who imposed a series of conditions on us. At first we agreed, even though we thought that they were excessive, because peace is an urgent necessity. However, our position changed after the battle in the University City, given that the correlation of forces and also the spirit of the people had changed. The situation in Oaxaca also looks different from a national perspective. Since the FPP’s defeat in battle, the existence of the FPP itself is now at risk, politically speaking. This gives us a very important role in the national context and, although we think that peace is imperative, we don’t want to our actions to always be defensive and conditioned. We want to go on the offensive. This is the framework for the megamarch that we’re organizing on Sunday. But it was our discussions with organisms of civil society that prompted us to create the dialogue that will begin on Monday.

Will a representative from the federal government attend?

I don’t think so, although we’ve asked to speak with them and for them to listen to us. And if the participants that are there tell APPO: “it’s not necessary for you to speak,” then we’ll respect that. We’ll leave this space to civil society. We think it’s an important space and that it will help us find a path to peace. There will be this route on the one hand and, on the other, that of popular mobilization, on which we’re going to push very hard. We also have a proposal for direct dialogue with the President, but we need our prisoners to be freed and the FPP to get out first. There’s no doubt that the solution to the conflict has to involve the departure of Ulises Ruiz and the implementation of the existing commitments for the transformation of Oaxaca.

If there is no governmental delegation at the dialogue, who will be your counterpart?

It won’t be a bilateral dialogue, but rather a multi-lateral space. We intend to say what we think so that we and various civil society actors can come to a conclusion about the best routes for peace and for getting the police and Ulises Ruiz to leave Oaxaca. That’s our objective, at least. What we expect from the discussion is good sense, proposals, and serious thought. We’ll see if we can come to an understanding.

What will happen if you force Ulises out but the federal government installs another governor with similar characteristics?

That’s not possible, because Oaxaca won’t allow it and they know it. There’s going to be a party here when Ulises falls. People who haven’t protested with us before are going to run into the street saying, “We won! . . . I was always with you!” We’ve already seen this happen during the marches. Some people don’t participate at first, but when they see themselves in this enormous mirror of the megamarches, they join.

What is the goal of this Sunday’s megamarch?

To demonstrate the movement’s strength and popular support. Also, to show our opposition to the FPP and our desire for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

Are you thinking of coordinating your struggle with the other great movements in Mexico, like the Zapatistas and the civil resistance to the electoral fraud?

Sadly, that’s not our priority right now, although we are committed to the democratic transformation of the country. We will see what’s the best way to fight for this. The social fabric in Oaxaca has suffered terrible wounds: people have lost jobs, the teachers aren’t teaching; there are problems in the communities; the health sector has shut down. Third parties have been affected, it has to be recognized. We’re in an emergency situation and need to resolve local matters first. But in no way does that mean that we will disregard national issues. In fact, we think it’s necessary to connect ourselves to the Other Campaign, the National Democratic Convention, and various additional organizations.

Some criticize you for focusing on the fall of Ulises Ruiz, given that the election of Felipe Calderón was also the result of fraud.

While it wouldn’t be right for Calderón to become president, that’s not our principle responsibility but rather that of the entire national movement. We don’t want to become the vanguard of the country’s movement. That isn’t our task. The people didn’t take to the streets of Oaxaca so that the APPO can become Mexico’s vanguard.

Members of APPO say that your movement isn’t about leaders but the grassroots. What are they talking about?

Look, you’re speaking to one of APPO’s most visible faces right now. Suppose that I decide to make a deal with Ulises: in that case, they’d push me aside and the movement would continue. I don’t make the decisions. I have a responsibility—to speak with the press and articulate a position—but I don’t control APPO. Sometimes my opinions are received favorably in the assemblies and other times they say “this guy is crazy” and simply ignore me. This isn’t a party-based movement. And you can’t try to discipline it, because it isn’t an army either. For example, yesterday it took the “provisional council” a great deal of effort to get something passed in a general assembly, despite the fact that we brought a proposal, agreed upon by consensus, arguing that the main highways should be cleared. We barely managed to get it passed. But it’s going to take a lot of work to get the base to accept that agreement, even if we explain all the virtues of the proposal. That’s something that no leader can pull off.

You’ll also clear the area around the Ciudad Universitaria, like the Cinco Señores Crossing (where the FPP was defeated last Thursday)?

There’s going to be a special situation there. If you suggest to the university people that they remove the blockades around the Ciudad Universitaria, they’ll tell you to go to hell. That’s why I said that this movement doesn’t depend on leaders. Here’s another example: they have a committee that runs Radio Universidad and, on the day of the fighting I said, “Listen, give me a moment to send a message.” They told me, “No, you can’t go in. There’s an emergency.” I insisted, telling them that I only needed a minute, but the response was the same. That’s why we say that this movement isn’t homogeneous, but multi-directional. It’s the conventional view of politics that leads people to search for someone to be the leader, perhaps someone who is at the head of the demonstrations or appears most frequently on television. Actually, some guys here painted “if you create a leader, you create a tyrant” on a wall. They have good reasons to say that and we respect them. That’s why it’s important to understand that this movement is about all of society, trying to live together and move forward together. There are comrades that wear the hammer and sickle symbol and then there are the base church communities that come with the Virgin of Guadalupe. That’s the great strength of our movement. That’s why we always say, “it’s not about the leaders.” On one occasion, when this phrase began to circulate, someone made a sign saying, “This isn’t a movement of leaders, but the grassroots” and the group later signed it. Shortly afterwards, some thoughtful young guys added underneath with a pen: “it’s not about leaders . . . or even groups.” That’s the reality.