I started my work as a human rights defender about eighteen years ago in the mountains of Oaxaca state. Unfortunately, life in Oaxaca can be quite miserable, so one can’t remain indifferent. No one with a bit of dignity left in them can ignore all the injustices taking place.
The institutionalised injustice forced us to become human rights defenders, because we could no longer stand to see it committed with such impunity. That is what brought us there in the highlands in 1992, where we organised a group of people to raise awareness and establish an organisation that would make defending human rights a popular endeavour among the people. Barca was setup from the beginning to follow a specific course and guidelines, not to have a big office with high-profile lawyers and secretaries to solve people’s problems.
Those who founded it wanted people to have the theoretical and methodological tools to become grassroots advocates of human rights. So right from the start we emphasised human rights workshops, beginning with the universal declaration of human rights, the three generations of rights, the universality of human rights. And fortunately, looking back at everything today I can see that we contributed a lot to change the way people lived in the southern highlands.
Human rights violations in Oaxaca
First, there were only seven officially recognised regions in Oaxaca, so one of our first achievements was to have the region recognised as his was already a violation of people’s rights. It meant denying the existence of a region, which had consequences involving the allocation of resources for the development of the villages: roads, schools, hospitals, everything necessary for people to live their lives with dignity.
That was a difficult task. The local bosses in the region were well-entrenched… I remember one of the bosses in the area who controlled everything: he monopolised all the people’s produce – coffee, pepper, corn, beans – and paid them whatever price he wanted.
Then he sold them products manufactured in the city, and he owned the only large truck, so everything revolved around his shop, where people had to sell their crops before sowing them, and where many lost their houses and lands when they were unable to pay the interest.
So this obliged us, the Church, to develop an organisation dedicated to the people… We began to fund credit unions so that people were not charged too much interest. We set up community shops and businesses, selling coffee or pepper, to export the produce to various countries, sometimes at three times the price this boss was paying.
Naturally, that became a very serious threat to all the regional bosses. To them, we were guerrillas, destabilising the situation. This was a war against exploitation and against them. They were maintaining the trade, the exploitation and oppression of people and the region.
Also, women were not participating in the politics of many of the communities. We are pleased to see that women have begun to fight for the space they deserve, that they speak up on matters that affect them… standing up to centuries of machismo and patriarchy, during which men believed they were the only ones who could control the social and political life of the community.
So when women begin to participate and demonstrate that they are able, and often more able to do it, there is a beautiful transformation in the life of the region.
The region is now recognised, and we speak of the eight regions in Oaxaca, so every time I hear that it feels good – first because we contributed a grain of sand to this struggle, and second, because that means there are resources allocated for the development of the region; that is what caused oppression in many places in Oaxaca.
We believe in a holistic concept of humanity. This struggle has generated something positive in the lives of the people. From the question of women’s political participation to, for example, the question of violence and armed conflict, which took place in many villages because of land boundaries or other long-standing problems, and which caused much loss of life.
And with our struggle, we were able to contribute to the amelioration of this situation, and transform people’s living conditions, as our organisation’s motto says, “for a fairer, more dignified, more humane life”.
Threats on my life
In my case, it was two attacks that I suffered on October 7, 1998 in Teocomulco and in San Lorenzo, in a place called Cruz de Tierra. They shot to kill me, and ever since we have been convinced that working for the defence of human rights is a risk.
We know that being a human rights defender is an honour, but a different type of honour, not in the sense of personal ego, but one unfortunately related to defending people’s rights and dignity from those who seek to crush them.
On the other hand, we are glad to know we are fighting for the most beautiful things, which are dignity and justice.
So, since then, I have faced several situations of risk and conflicts, which have intensified lately. For example, in 2006 it happened that I was a member of a commission of mediation between social movements and the government.
Around that time, from 25 November, there had been a brutal repression against social movements, and for me personally, the threats peaked on December 10 when they threatened to kill me. Up to that point, they had been calling me or sending me messages in various ways.
Why we choose non-violence
Thankfully, that phase is now over. We had learned that one of the better ways to protect ourselves is to denounce them.
The situation is known. We strongly believe in this, because it is like [Edmund Burke] said, the worst thing is the silence of good people, and all that bad people need is for the good ones to do nothing.
That is why we asked for accompaniment, because by that time I was also suffering continuous harassment in the media, not only denigrating the work of human rights defenders but also attacking me personally to prepare the ground for an assault or for legal action against me.
That is why we requested the accompaniment of Peace Brigades International because we are peaceful. If we believed in violence, we would just go around armed to defend ourselves.
Yet we do not believe in violence and think that violence breeds more violence. We in the Church, believe in Jesus, who triumphed over violence with love, and I think that in this world the only way to set things right is through peace.
Obviously, there is no path to peace because peace is the path, and we have to take it. That is why we have asked for accompaniment, because we believe in peace and because we think that it is the path of dialogue and reason that will help us overcome all conflicts.
How the international community can help
I would tell the international community to learn more about the situation in Oaxaca, and to show more interest in the lives of human rights defenders. It is a very small contribution in this situation of such great and serious injustice.
So I would ask them to take interest in us because the best way to help us is to know and support the work we are doing. With letters and statements of support we can show that we are not alone in this world, right?
I would ask them to show support and solidarity because that is very important to us in Mexico. For example, when Father Solalínde was recently under threat, I used Twitter to ask for urgent action, but only in Spanish and it always has more effect if you say it in English or other languages.*
That is how things work in Oaxaca. It is a beautiful thing to feel international the solidarity of our comrades, our colleagues, the human rights defenders in other countries, so that the government knows we are not alone, that there are eyes watching.
This solidarity is visible through letters, through urgent actions or through presence on the ground, such as that of Peace Brigades International.
This is an edited translation of an interview with Padre Uvi in November 2010.
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