Catalyzed by a teachers’ strike against federal education reform, a new popular movement is gaining momentum in Mexico. And in expanding its agenda to encompass long-standing grievances ranging from environmental destruction to insecurity and indigenous rights, the movement is posing a serious challenge to not only the policies of new President Enrique Pena Nieto, but the broader economic and political direction of a country ravaged by three decades of neo-liberalism as well.
In the southern state of Guerrero, two mass demonstrations this month (which drew between 50,000 and 120,000 people each, according to different press accounts) exhibited the growing strength and future potential of the popular uprising. In both instances, teachers, students, small farmers, labor union members and housewives, Mestizo and indigenous alike, jammed the streets of the state capital of Chilpancingo in a show of unity by the newly formed Guerrero Popular Movement (MPG).
Declaring the defense of public education as its first priority, the MPG has also taken stands against new mining projects, privatization of the national oil company PEMEX and increasing the 16 percent national sales tax.
In addition to the Guerrero State Coordinator of Education Workers (CETEG)- a large dissident organization within the National Union of Education Workers- the MPG’s adherents include the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Guerrero, #YoSoy 132, the Mexican Electrical Workers Union and the Emiliano Zapata Campesino Organization, among others.
Significantly, the indigenous Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities (CRAC) forms part of the MPG’s backbone. Representing more than 120 indigenous communities (with another 50 communities reportedly on the road to membership) in the Costa Chica and La Montaña sections of Guerrero, the CRAC is the leadership body of the highly-popular community policing and justice system in indigenous regions of the state, which stands as an alternative to the top-down, centralized policing system being implemented by the Pena Nieto administration and the nation’s governors.
In an analysis of the first mass protest organized by the MPG in Chilpancingo on
April 10, the anniversary of Emiliano Zapata’s assassination, Guerrero’s Tlachinollan Human Rights Center observed that the teachers’ movement and the MPG have given broad sectors of society their “own channel” to make a deep disaffection known.
“The citizens who’ve suffered grave injuries caused by unemployment, hunger, violence and theft are in the majority,” Tlachinollan wrote. “They are pushing from below in a novel movement that’s struggling against torn-up structures nourished by corruption and which allow the co-governance of delinquency.”
Guerrero’s movement is reminiscent of the 2006 teacher’s strike in Oaxaca that transformed into a popular rebellion and occupation of the state capital before it was repressed by the administration of former Gov. Ulises Ruiz with the backing of the federal government under President Vicente Fox.
The current groundswell of popular protest began picking up steam last February when mass teacher protests against the federal education reform were staged in Chilpancingo, Acapulco, Zihuatanejo and other Guerrero towns. Pushed by President Peña Nieto, the reform was approved by the Mexican Congress just prior to last Christmas, a time when Mexicans are busy with family and holiday affairs. Teachers’ union members maintain they were not consulted about the content of the law prior to its passage.
Opposition to the new law centers around No Child Left Behind-like provisions that tie job security to mandatory, centralized evaluations achieved through standardized testing, and a seemingly innocuous section that gives individual schools more budgeting and maintenance responsibilities. But critics contend the shift will place more of the financial burden for education on parents and encourage privatization.
“You want an English teacher, Coca Cola might be the sponsor,” said teacher’s union activist Jose Nava during an Acapulco demonstration earlier this year.
“(Reform) is going to privatize our education,” agreed Patricia Meza Rendon, member of CETEG’s executive committee. In a separate interview, Meza criticized the reform for having little to do with Mexican realities and more to do with following the dictates of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The legislation, she said, fits into a broader scheme of privatization and austerity imposed in Europe and across the globe.
In a country where parents regularly pay enrollment and monthly fees to keep their children in public schools, the CETEG’s opposition to the charges has garnered parent support in areas where union outreach has been effective. In Guerrero, a state where indigenous peoples comprise about 16 percent of the state population of nearly 3.4 million people, support from native communities has been especially noteworthy.
Meeting in Taxco this month, representatives of the indigenous Mixtec, Amuzgo, Tlapeneco and Nahua communities that inhabit the state castigated the education reform law as an elitist, racist measure aimed at fostering competitiveness instead of bilingualism and critical thinking skills.
In a statement, the Taxco group concurred with the dire need to improve education in Guerrero and Mexico, but demanded that an evaluation system go beyond the one currently contained in the reform law to scrutinize teacher training institutions, educational authorities, elected representatives and the presidency itself.
“We are in agreement with the implementation of a system of evaluation as long as it is formative and contextualized, plus not standardized and exclusive as they propose,” said Abat Carrasco Zuñiga, former rector of the Intercultural University of Guerrero.
With the support of local lawmakers from the PRD party, a CETEG-drafted alternative to the federal reform has so far been blocked by President Peña Nieto’s PRI party and its allies in the Guerrero State Legislature. The opponents argue the legislation would usurp federal constitutional supremacy.
The union-backed reform would create a broad teacher evaluation system, guarantee jobs for college graduates, respect indigenous rights, take socio-economic realities into account, safeguard against budget cuts, and ban school fees. The alternative law declares that “education is a human right and of anyone who receives it, according to (federal) constitutional Article 3.”
In pressing their cause, CETEG and the MPG have employed a variety of tactics including public demonstrations, highway and shopping center blockades, home visits, leafleting brigades, occupations of state government buildings, and seizures of radio stations to read messages. Simultaneously, the educators have formulated a serious legislative proposal while engaging in on-again-off again negotiations with Governor Angel Aguirre. Apart from some window-smashing, the movement has remained peaceful and nobody has been killed until now.
Whether the government will wear down the movement through a combination of sheer inaction and repression, as has happened in many other Mexican social conflicts, remains to be seen.
In an Acapulco speech, a prominent Mexican educational researcher and analyst expressed support for the educators’ demands but cautioned the movement to avoid falling into “radicalization” and a government trap designed to isolate the teachers and their allies. Axel Didriksson, former Mexico City secretary of education, instead urged the teachers to seize the moment and force a state and national debate on real education reform, not the new federal law that is really a piece of labor legislation.
“The teachers should tell Peña Nieto and the PRI, okay, we’re going for education reform,” Didriksson was quoted in the Guerrero daily El Sur. “We’re going to reform constitutional Article 3, but we’re going to the depth of reform, not to the superficiality of just evaluation.”
Reaction has emerged against the movement. Acapulco’s tourist-dependent business community, in particular, has been very vocal against the strike and blames the protests for reduced visitation to the port city during the critical Holy Week-Easter holiday break, even though many accounts judged the season a good one, especially in light of the city’s reputation for criminal violence. The Canaco business association announced it would file a complaint against local, state and national leaders with the National Human Rights Commission for the alleged ineffectiveness in managing the protest.
Local columnist Esthela Damien even charged the “movement is full of violence and intolerance.” An anti-strike line is also quite prevalent on television newscasts, which the majority of the population relies on for information.
Supporters of the education reform deny it would privatize schools, insisting it is a necessary step in ending a corrupt teacher placement system and bringing the country out of an educational hole. State officials routinely minimize the protest movement’s impact, but many schools have been shut down since February 25.
To contain the movement, the Federal Police, a force beefed up by the U.S. to ostensibly to fight the so-called drug war, have deployed an impressive arsenal of high-tech surveillance and crowd suppression tools-high-powered water cannons, anti-riot tanks, helicopters, and a drone.
If the government opts for repression like in Oaxaca almost 7 years ago, some analysts warn a “social explosion” could ensue. The prediction is not idle speculation. A favorite chant of thousands of young people in recent demonstrations? “Cuidado, cuidado, cuidado con Guerrero, estado guerrillero.”
Translated into not-so-rhythmic English, it means: “Careful, careful, careful with Guerrero, guerrilla state,” and refers to the entity’s long traditions of spawning guerrilla uprisings like the movements led by school teachers Genaro Vazquez and Lucio Cabanas in the 1960s and 1970s or the Popular Revolutionary Army and Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People of more contemporary times.
Viewed from a national perspective, the Guerrero movement is the grease in a dialectal wheel of resistance that is extending across the land. In the thousands, teachers and allies are taking to the streets in Michoacán, Oaxaca, Chiapas and other states. As in Guerrero, teachers and students are joining broad popular fronts and proposing alternative educational reforms. According to La Jornada newspaper, more than 200,000 have filed legal actions against the government reform in Mexican courts.
The National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), the CETEG’s national group, plans a congress in Mexico City on April 25-26 in order to unveil a 20-point alternative education plan for the nation. Work stoppages, indefinite strikes and mass demonstrations could spread in different states in the weeks ahead.
In April, teachers from 10 states, #YoSoy 132 and the National Movement for Regeneration demonstrated against the education reform in Mexico City chanting “Todos somos Guerrero.” “We are all Guerrero.”
In the final analysis, the Mexican movement cannot be divorced from events elsewhere on the planet. The fight for public education and labor rights and is a struggle that, in one form or the other, has gelled in the boycott of standardized testing by Washington state teachers in the United States; the teacher-community protests against school closures in Chicago, Philadelphia and other places; the mass protests of Chilean students for free public education; and the revolts against tuition hikes by students in Quebec and Puerto Rico.
While each struggle has its own particularities, all are bound together by a common thread: the shift toward turning education into a union-free marketplace for the training of worker bees, and one that is paid for by the trainees and their progenitors instead of the Queen Bee. Inevitably, as in Mexico today, the education issue quickly exposes a host of inequalities and injustices, and becomes a key arena for challenging prevailing government spending priorities, governmental decision-making processes, tax policies and worker-management relations. Fundamental matters of race, class and gender are intertwined in contemporary struggles. And in one important sense, like the factories of the 20th century, the classroom is ground zero for class struggle in the 21st century.
Writing in California’s Spanish-language La Opinion daily, Ricardo Ibarra compared the movement to save the City College of San Francisco from the Austerity, Inc. to movements in Chile and Mexico. “Free public education is at risk on the American continent,” Ibarra wrote. “Teachers and students will have to give us a social lesson, but outside the classroom. An example of the struggle for public education is happening in Guerrero..”
Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwestern United States, Mexico, and Latin America. He is an analyst for the Americas Program at www.cipamericas.org
Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountain: