Teachers take a stand in Mexico

September 12, 2013

Since August 19, tens of thousands of teachers in Mexico have been on an all-out strike against proposed changes to the Mexican constitution aimed at making possible a No Child Left Behind-like law that would pave the way to privatization, the acceleration of high-stakes standardized testing, loss of tenure, and the end of union control over hiring.

Although the official leaders of the union have largely gone along with "reform" agenda, rank-and-file teachers in an enormous democratic opposition movement have taken the initiative. They are not only striking, but have established encampments or occupations in cities around the country--and organized massive marches in Mexico City, even blockading the main highway to and from the international airport. Then, on Wednesday, September 11, thousands of teachers broke through police lines to occupy one of Mexico City's largest thoroughfares in a confrontation near the National Auditorium.

Repression has been fierce and a showdown could come, as labor journalist Dan LaBotz warns, if Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, commonly referred to as EPN, tries to clear teachers out of the Zócalo, the massive plaza in Mexico City where independence celebrations are traditionally initiated on September 16. While teachers continue their strike, the government has also taken steps to ram through other neoliberal measures, including the privatization of the state oil company PEMEX.

Luis Rangel, a student organizer in Mexico City and activist with the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT, by its Spanish initials), talked to Todd Chretien about the developing situation and what could come next.

CAN YOU describe the so-called "education reform" in Mexico? What are the most important changes in the new law?

IT'S MORE than just an education reform like changes in curriculum. It's a labor reform. I think it's similar to what the teachers in Chicago are confronting. It takes away job stability, which is to say it makes it easier to get fired. It takes the ability to hire away from the SNTE [National Education Workers Union, by its Spanish initials], as well as the ability to grant tenure, and gives it to school management.

Union control over hiring is a legacy of the corporatist control of the teachers union by the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico from the late 1920s until 2000]. The principal mechanism to do this is the famous "evaluation." The official discourse of the government, without critically investigating the Mexican education system--you can imagine how complex and unequal it is--concludes that, practically speaking, the teachers are the problem, and therefore, it proposes applying the results of standardized test scores to teachers.

Electrical workers and teachers join in a mass march in Mexico City
Electrical workers and teachers join in a mass march in Mexico City

If students don't pass these tests, teachers would first be removed from their jobs by bureaucrats and eventually fired. But it's impossible to have a standardized test to measure the "quality" of education. How can you compare a teacher in Mexico City with a teacher in an indigenous community?

They are trying to close the circle, which they opened in 2009 when the PISA [Program for International Student Assessment, developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD] tests were given to students. If a teacher's students didn't do well on the tests, they could be sanctioned economically. Because of this, in practice, the teachers spend more time preparing students to pass the PISA test than to finish their courses.

So long as rank-and-file teachers have job security, this "reform" cannot be implemented [because teachers can't be threatened into administering the tests]. Therefore, the government is making constitutional changes.

In the middle of the night, they passed secondary education reform, which specified the evaluation mechanisms. Accordingly, the government created its own evaluation agency, the National Institute of Education Evaluation, which is supposedly autonomous, but whose board of directors will be named by the president. The way things are going in Mexico, it's clear that in many cases, coercion and political repression will follow.

WHICH POLITICAL forces support this law? What position has the PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution] taken and is there a real opposition inside the National Assembly? What is the PT [Workers Party], and is it a real left-wing force?

THIS REFORM is really coming from the president. It was presented as the "Pact for Mexico," an agreement to push forward various reforms between the three main political parties--the PRI, PAN [National Action Party] and PRD, including reforms in education, state budgets, finance, energy, etc. This measure was of great importance for President Enrique Peña Nieto when he "won" the election in the face of a lot of doubt about his legitimacy.

Here, it is important to underline the role of the PRD, which calls itself the left. In our view, this party is assuming the role of a "formal left," which says it is on the left and allows the regime to argue that there is democracy in Mexico; so much so that there are left-wing parties like the PRD. However, the great majority of the PRD voted in favor of the reform.

However, though the PT, the Citizens Movement [a small party that broke away from the PRD], and a few of the PRD voted against it, we don't believe that there is a real opposition inside the National Assembly. Our position follows from this. Just like with the other reforms, we don't recognize the debates and votes that have taken place, because we don't think that any real debate or discussion has taken place. The reforms in the "Pact for Mexico" were decided in an extra-parliamentary way, and were then brought into the parliament purely for show.

We do not consider the PT, which is much smaller than the PRD, a real left-wing party. It was founded with the help of Carlos Salinas [the ex-president of Mexico and a leader of the PRI] and was a way for the PRI to co-opt part of the socialist left, basically those of Maoist origins. Based on electoral calculations and for its own survival--in order to remain as a legally registered political party in Mexico, it is necessary to receive a certain level of votes--this party is close to Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador [AMLO as he is known in Mexico], but in a purely opportunistic manner.

López Obrador doesn't have his own officially registered party and had to resort to those which were already on the ballot in order to run for office. Right now, he is trying to get his own party, MORENA, registered, but that is another discussion. In some places, the PT stood on its own in the June 2013 elections, and in other places, it made an alliance with the PRI, and even with the PAN in other places!

CAN YOU describe the situation inside the SNTE? What was the impact of the February arrest of Elba Esther Gordillo, the union's longtime leader, known for being autocratic?

THE SNTE is the biggest union in Latin America--it has more or less 1.5 million members--there are no exact numbers. This is why the education reform is so important for the neoliberals. It could all at once force many workers into a precarious employment situation.

Therefore, the very importance of the SNTE means that control over its bureaucracy is critical. In this case, the imprisonment of Gordillo demonstrates the depths of the reform. It aims to even throw out the "charros" [in Mexico, bureaucratic union leaders are called "charros," or cowboys] and take over their reserves of power and their base of corporatist control.

The reform goes against the entire SNTE--both the charros and the democratic opposition. Gordillo herself published propaganda against the reform, even if she didn't clearly call for a struggle against it, but she's never done anything like that.

WHAT IS the CNTE [National Coordination for Education Workers] and how is it organizing the struggle? What are the most important regions for the CNTE? How many teachers are on strike, and what sort of support are they receiving from parents and students?

THE CNTE grew out of the teachers' movement at the end of the 1980s to throw out union President Carlos Jonguitud Barrios, the predecessor to Gordillo. The CNTE was the group that united all of the democratic and leftist currents. However, even though the struggle got rid of Barrios, he was replaced by Gordillo, which is to say there was no substantial change in the union.

This was the last struggle whose massive size and nature was similar to the one we are facing today. There has been a long gap between the two, and other movements of smaller size or in specific regions have occurred, from which there has been a long and complex development.

Today, the CNTE is a reference point for many people inside the SNTE; for instance, it is important to point out that the CNTE has an absolute majority in Oaxaca. But the movement goes far beyond the formal limits of the CNTE, whose strongest base is in Oaxaca. The movement has appeared all over the country, in places where the CNTE doesn't have any formal representation or where it is very weak. Likewise, the democratic teachers movement has other organizational expressions, such as the CETEG [State Coordination of Education Workers of Guerrero], for example.

However, given how all of this is talked about in the press, for practical purposes, we can make a simple division between teachers aligned with the SNTE leadership and those who support the CNTE. In such a huge union, with such an absolute divide, as you can imagine, things are not so simple, and there are a whole host of currents and tendencies among the teachers.

PRT comrades in the SNTE are discussing the best way to describe the movement. It is clear that it cannot be limited to the CNTE, even if it is necessary to recognize that the population identifies the CNTE with the whole movement--this is important for the solidarity campaign and to counteract misinformation.

For these purposes, the CNTE, the democratic teachers' movement, the opposition and other forms are all interchangeable. The struggle to win more sectors to the movement itself is more important than the struggle between these tendencies inside the movement.

Regionally, different organizations have joined in. For example, on day recently, teachers, electrical workers and oil workers all took part in a demonstration in Veracruz. The oil workers union is even more corporatist and top-down than the SNTE under Gordillo, but it is nonetheless strategically critical.

SPEAKING OF oil workers, what are the most important political forces opposing EPN's plans to privatize PEMEX, the state oil monopoly, and are they related to the education struggle?

THE MOST powerful force against the education reform is essentially the big teachers front, which we could call the CNTE, and they figure prominently in the discourse about the struggle against the privatization of PEMEX. The education struggle, for now, is a union struggle. It is very important, but it is difficult to grow beyond these limits, despite the fact that there is a broad consciousness of the necessity of doing this.

The situation is even more complicated in the case of PEMEX. Here, López Obrador aims to be the only opposition to the privatization and is using the resistance to consolidate his political party, MORENA. Because he is a well-known public figure and has lots of resources, he has a great advantage compared to an independent and united mobilization, one which would clearly include MORENA, but would not have to be subordinate to it.

This is what we in the PRT are proposing to do. AMLO is organizing his first big protest in Mexico City, which will be very important, as it will be in the same place where the CNTE has maintained its encampment, in the Zócalo, for months.

Likewise, a section of the PRD, headed by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas [the son of President Lázaro Cárdenas, who nationalized the oil industry in 1938], is seeking to position itself as another factor in the defense of PEMEX. However, given the role played by the PRD, its prospects don't seem bright.

There are, however, a combination of movements which are attempting to mobilize--most importantly the Mexican Electrical Workers Union [SME]. The energy reform is not only about petroleum--although that is clearly the fundamental focus--but it's also about electrical energy, and so it also includes various movements of campesinos and different electricity users, among others.

At the same time, the SME is promoting the creation of a new political center for workers, alongside sections from the teachers, the Honda workers union (which is on strike), the RTP (public transit workers in Mexico City), among others. This is also important.

On the other hand, the student movement, where I organize and which was a very important actor last year during the elections, is stuck and uncoordinated because of a reduction in the mass participation during the first months of the Yo Soy 132 campaign ["I Am 132," the student movement against political corruption that arose during the 2012 presidential elections]. As a consequence of this, greater spaces have opened for anarchists of the Black Bloc type. Plus, we believe that there has been clear police infiltration, which has had some success.

However, given the conjuncture, it appears that a new wave of large-scale participation is close at hand--perhaps beginning on October 2, the anniversary of the student massacre in 1968.

WHAT IS EPN's strategy? Does he want to organize a big confrontation with respect to public education and the privatization of PEMEX in order to defeat the left and the popular forces? Or is this a case of political miscalculation?

YES, IT appears that EPN is seeking to go ahead without negotiations or concessions. At the same time as PEMEX and education reform, there is also a financial reform, which hasn't received as much attention, but it is equally grave. It was approved at more or less the same time as the soccer game between Mexico and Honduras was taking place, which absorbed the population's attention.

Also, budgetary reform will be presented, which will aim to recoup the costs to the government that it will have to contribute to PEMEX under the energy reform. This reform aims to put taxes on food and medicine, and this will be accompanied by monthly increases in the price of gasoline. The next increase will raise the price of a liter of gas by almost 1 peso.

EPN's strategy is to govern with the support of a huge media apparatus, monopolized by Televisa; a majority in Congress which is not representative; and an increased use of the police. For example, the education reform was approved--specifically, its secondary laws--in the middle of the night while the Congress was surrounded by thousands of police and military personnel.

It is clear that EPN, as an individual, is not in charge. His intellectual capacities are very limited--he is only an actor who repeats trite and empty phrases for television and governs through it for the neoliberal upper echelon: ex-President Salinas, Interior Secretary Osorio Chong, Treasury Secretary Luis Vidagaray, etc.

The offensive against the left is clear. Since EPN took the oath of office on December 1, there has been a noted change in the level of repression against demonstrations in Mexico City. Each time there has been a march of any importance--above all, the students--it has been met with beatings and arrests, something which did not happen before.

At the same time, the space for electoral participation is being closed--a little more than 200,000 members are required for a party to have the right to stand in elections, and the bureaucratic process to be registered is long and difficult. This is all with the approval of the PRD, which clearly functions as a satellite party--formally on the left, but attached to the regime.

With respect to the drug cartels, EPN evidently has made some agreements with different cartels, which have supported the PAN state governments. However, the violence has not subsided; what has been reduced is its coverage in the media.

For example, as the PRT, we are involved in a support campaign for community policing in Aquila in Michoacán, where, as in other parts of the country, because of the serious level of violence, among a largely indigenous population, the community organized self-defense groups against the drug cartels. The cartels collude with the mining bosses that operate in the area--27 percent of the national territory has been granted to mining concessions already.

In Aquila, a little less than a month after we started, the government organized a police operation, not against the drug cartels, but against the community policing! Their leaders were disarmed and detained, and the same thing happened to the community police in Guererro, where one of its leaders is in prison.

WHAT IS the policy of the PRT with respect to the collapse of the PRD? Do you support the OPT [Workers Political Organization] and expect that this formation will develop, or is it still to soon to tell?

OUR POLICY in general is to seek the construction of a political alternative, which is not MORENA. This may seem to be the primary alternative to the PRD, but in reality, it has many similarities to the PRD with respect to how it is formed: one caudillo [political boss] in each, AMLO in MORENA, and Cárdenas in the PRD.

After having been the victim of stolen presidential elections, AMLO convened the creation of a party with a nationalist program like that of the PRI in the middle of the 20th century--essentially, offering the past as the future. Because of this, we argue that MORENA is condemned to degeneration like the PRD.

Because of this, our main policy is clearly focused on the OPT. It aims to be a broad workers' party, where the principal support comes from the SME. This is very important for the construction of a workers party--it's a great step forward for the political independence of the working class in Mexico.

However, its development is very complex, and from the beginning, it does not have the profile or the resources of MORENA. This is mainly because the SME has spent the last four years resisting a lockout over privatization. So despite its political radicalization, weariness and exhaustion is evident, and the OPT is in great measure linked to the future of the SME.

But that's where we are, supporting it and building it. The OPT is also, like MORENA, in the middle of a campaign to get its legal party registration. More important than this, its activists find themselves at the head of some of the most important struggles in the country. But its development and consolidation is a battle which is not yet been won.

Interview conducted in Spanish and translated by Todd Chretien

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