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Mexican Teachers Hit the Streets

The first nine months of the Enrique Peña Nieto administration have been a cleverly-orchestrated exercise in media manipulation. But you can’t really ignore 20,000 pissed-off teachers dragging monstrous Mexico City to a halt. As the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) golden boy gave his first Informe, or State of the Union address, on Monday, the Chamber of Deputies, the Senate and the great Zocalo square were all hit by the latest public backlash to his much-hyped reform agenda.

Peña Nieto faced resistance even before he was elected; tens of thousands of students correctly predicting a fraud-drenched July 2012 vote. Police clashed with protesters on the day of his inauguration, now immortalized on social media as #1DMX. Although Mexico’s Big Media (Televisa and the rest) are firmly behind the new PRI administration, the resistance is now digitized, tweeted and fully-Facebooked.

The centerpiece of the new administration has been the “Pact for Mexico”; a very vague political consensus for the structural reforms that the Right says the country needs to move forward. And everybody’s on the Right these days – the leaders of the National Action Party (PAN) and the center-left(ish) Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) defied much of their rank-and-file to get with the program. If the drug war years of Felipe Calderon portrayed a Mexico on the brink of chaos, the Pacto is intended to show a thriving Latin American democracy boldly pushing ahead.

For the last two weeks, however, thousands of teachers from the National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers (CNTE) who oppose a controversial education reform have been marching daily on the two chambers, the Interior Ministry and the capital’s international airport. Metro and bus stations have been closed. The city’s main square has been swamped by tents. Frustrated capitalino motorists – simultaneously the most patient and volatile drivers in the world – have been turning the air every shade of blue.

The crux of the education reform is standardized testing for teachers across the nation; some of the most underfunded and beleaguered maestros in Latin America. Monopolized by a crooked union that hands out jobs for cash, Mexican public education has long been a national embarrassment (a recent World Economic Forum report ranked the system 107th in the world). And this in a country where over eight million young people neither work nor go to school, according to a study by the OECD.

The 20,000 or so teachers from southern Mexico who have held the capital’s downtown hostage in recent days thus fiercely divide opinion. Are they progressives contesting the privatization of the public education system, or hapless country bumpkins refusing to move with the times?

School’s Out for Protests

The CNTE should not be confused with the SNTE – the largest labor union in Latin America and former plaything of political kingmaker and “Mexico’s most powerful woman” Elba Esther Gordillo. La Maestra, who ran the syndicate like her own private mafia and embezzled vast amounts of public funds, also opposed the new reform and threatened protests that would have been considerably larger than the CNTE’s. Cue a political coup d’état as Peña Nieto scuppered Gordillo’s plans by arresting her on corruption charges. Her money-grabbing exploits had been public knowledge since the 1990s but this was a shrewd preemptive strike. No surprise that her successor is one hundred percent down with the bill.

The CNTE has therefore been dubbed the “dissident union”. The majority of its members hail from impoverished southern states like Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, where resources are scarce and teachers would suffer most heavily from the proposed shake-up. These are men and women working in classrooms that often don’t have electricity; let alone access to the worldwide web.

Like everything in Mexico, it’s a case of the haves and have-nots. The teachers I’ve spoken to from the CNTE don’t oppose testing – on the contrary, many want better training and support from the government – but they’re well-aware of the lunacy of applying a one-size-fits-all evaluation to vastly unequal regions of the country. Not to mention that in many of the poorest areas, teachers work outside of the national curriculum, giving classes based on usos y costumbres – traditional customs – to students for whom Spanish is a second language.

To call the CNTE “radical” – as much of the media has done – is laughable. Presumably they’re on the same side as the “radical” students who opposed widespread vote-buying and fraud during last year’s election. This, too, is part of media relations under Peña Nieto. Opposition to the reforms is a sign of backwardness; a failure to embrace the neoliberal future. Private investment in education is also a key element of the reform bill.

This battle between the city and the countryside, corporatization and autonomy, is key to understanding civil resistance movements in Mexico. Only this summer the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Chiapas invited journalists and activists the world over to visit their autonomous schools in the caracoles, ahead of the twentieth anniversary of their legendary 1994 uprising.

As such, it’s easy for the Mexican government to turn public opinion against protesters. The CNTE, like the Zapatistas, are “rebels” who refuse to enter the modern world. They don’t speak for the average person, even if very few Mexicans in the short term stand to gain anything from these reforms. What’s lacking, above all, is any honest debate about where the country is headed.

The reforms being pushed by the new administration – which include labor, fiscal and energy reforms – are inevitably going to widen the gap. They’re part and parcel of Mexico’s ongoing “structural adjustment”, which began in the 1980s and is now being repackaged with a big red-white-and-green bow under the banner of the “new PRI”. They mark the country’s ongoing shift away from the social and labor rights guaranteed by the 1917 Constitution towards full-on liberalization of the economy.

Nobody doubts that Mexico needs reforms – and how – but the political and judicial reforms that should be the foundation for growth have been put on the backburner in favor of business-friendly bills that downsize government and increasingly push civil society to the margins. Combine this with notorious amounts of public and private sector corruption and you’re looking at a disaster already in progress. In this sense, Mexico is stuck between a rock and a hard place – bent politicos and crony capitalists operating without restraint thanks to the lack of anything resembling rule of law.

Civil Society Hamstrung (For Now)

There have been ongoing protests – great and small – since President Peña Nieto took office in December. Indeed, according to the Public Security Ministry, over 8,000 public demonstrations take place in Mexico City every year. One by one the various reforms have been vocally shot down by groups who oppose them. But we haven’t seen anything on the scale of the recent protests in Brazil, Egypt or Turkey. Beyond the current CNTE gathering, there isn’t even really a “movement”.

In comparison with other Latin American countries, the Mexican left often struggles to find common ground. A handful of students left over from last year’s election protests briefly joined the CNTE demonstrations on Sunday but the #YoSoy132 movement is a shadow of what it promised to be last summer and has long been infiltrated by violent elements. This was the justification – or excuse – for a slew of arbitrary arrests at this week’s protests.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), one of very few voices of reason within the establishment left, split with the increasingly centrist PRD last year and now has his own political vehicle in the form of Morena, a party built around his Movement for National Regeneration. The two-time presidential candidate, who still commands considerable support among the country’s working class, has been written off as “irrelevant” for years but can still grandstand with the best of them when the moment calls for it.

AMLO will hold a massive rally in the Zocalo this coming Sunday, ostensibly to oppose the privatization of state oil company PEMEX, another of the administration’s goals. But even he is viewed with varying degrees of suspicion by the wider left wing and struggled to bring social movements on board his campaign in 2012. In short, the Mexican left is all over the shop, including its social base.

Edgardo Buscaglia, one of the shrewdest observers of the country’s politics, has pointed to Mexicans’ love for the marchita and long, flowing speeches without the organizational capacity to actually generate political pressure. The result is a passionate yet always fragmented civil society that rarely coalesces into anything transformative. A revolution this isn’t, and the PRI knows it.

Meanwhile, Peña Nieto is trying to put the bloody drug war headlines of the Felipe Calderon era behind him. While parts of Mexico remain extremely violent, the administration is playing down both homicide figures and the power of the country’s organized crime groups, preferring to focus on the business at hand – Mexico’s emergence from years of economic underachievement.

The PRI is infinitely more skilled at managing dissent and pulling the strings of the media than the clueless Calderon. But with more teachers from around the country arriving in the capital every day and plenty more for Mexicans to get angry about, it’s a case of how long the carefully-manicured façade will last.

Paul Imison is a journalist based in Mexico City. His book, Blood and Betrayal: Inside the Mexican Drug Wars, will be published by CounterPunch / AK Press next fall. He can be reached at: paulimison@hotmail.com.

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