Peña Nieto’s “imbecility” and the teachers’ ability to keep struggling
Poet Javier Sicilia, leader of Mexico’s Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity,
wrote this about US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s visit:
“It doesn’t matter what Peña Nieto said to Trump or how he justifies that visit.
The act has been consummated and it shows, unequivocally, that
politics in Mexico no longer exist, having been devoured by imbecility.”
Right now it defines even better the teacher’s nationwide struggle against
the educational reform imposed by Mexico’s President Peña Nieto.
The Mexican teachers’ constant and determined struggle, underpinned by their unshakable resistance and convictions, continues in a context in which President Enrique Peña Nieto, despite expensive media publicity, has the lowest acceptance ratings of any President in Mexican history. Each step he takes worsens the national situation and further deteriorates his image.
An invitation to Trump
Peña has been governing with a handful of corrupt and incompetent friends. He’s responsible for the economic disaster that has taken the Mexican debt to scandalous levels just so he can continue having resources that guarantee his close buddies’ illegal enrichment. He has devaluated the Mexican peso with respect to the dollar to pitiful levels, proposing a budget with major health and education cutbacks to be able to pay that exorbitant debt without altering the high salaries of the political class.
Treasury Minister Luis Videgaray, a key figure in the presidential team, has actually been governing given his control over public finances. It was also he, perhaps claiming privileged information, who convinced his friend Peña to invite Donald Trump to Mexico. There is massive consensus that this invitation was a monumental mistake due to the insult it implied for millions for Mexicans living in the United States and those in Mexico who feel Peña doesn’t represent us.
With that decision, the Mexican government stuck its nose into the neighboring country’s election dynamic and relaunched Trump’s campaign at a moment when it was faltering. After the visit, Trump’s propaganda spoke of Peña as an important backer. The bottom line of the decision to invite him was thus totally negative because if Trump wins, he won’t moderate his position towards Mexico. And if Clinton wins, she’s not likely to forget Peña’s insulting boost to her rival.
“What Peña did was imbecilic”
Rejection of Peña has been tremendous in Mexico. He’s been likened to Santana, the traitor who gave up half of our territory to the “gringos.” The fact that he didn’t question Trump, and instead visibly groveled before him is unforgivable. Peña had to accept Videgaray’s resignation, not to calm the outraged general population as much as to temper the anger of the rich who are promoting Clinton’s campaign.
For Javier Sicilia, poet and leader of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity, the best word to describe what Peña did is “imbecility.” These are fragments of what Sicilia wrote in Proceso magazine: “Political life in Mexico is full of imbecility and imbeciles. It’s not only imbecilic to degrade what little was left of the presidential investiture by inviting Trump, the xenophobe, Mexico’s enemy, the apologue of segregation and crime. It’s also imbecilic to try to hide the reality of violence and human rights violations in Mexico. It’s imbecilic to still deny, in spite of civil society’s findings, the existence of hundreds... thousands of disappeared, and of clandestine graves made by the State. It’s imbecilic to destroy the life of Mexico’s people and environment, granting concessions to the country’s water, land and air to predatory transnationals. It’s imbecilic to keep criminal governors in power and impunity because just because it suits the interest of the parties and the State...”
Trump is only the tip of the iceberg
Sicilia didn’t stop there: “Trump’s invitation leaves no possibility to think anything else. Having brought him to the immense mass grave that our government, in complicity with organized crime and people like Trump in the United States, have turned our country into, is to say to ourselves and the rest of the world that this imbecile is right: Mexicans are despicable and it’s not only good to send back the 11 million who live in his territory so they can be persecuted and disappeared, but also a wall must be built between our borders to avoid their escaping again from the Mexican concentration camp...
“It doesn’t matter what the President said to Trump in Los Pinos or how he justifies that visit. The act has been consummated and already shows, unequivocally, that politics no longer exists, having been devoured by imbecility... The imbecility with which our political class has been governing for decades hasn’t stopped producing irreversible damage measured by the hundreds of thousands of dead and disappeared, insecurity, fear, mistreatment, human rights violations, corruption and misery. Trump in Mexico was nothing more than the tip of the iceberg of the imbecility that long ago destroyed a lot of the country’s political life and moral backbone.
“It’s also the demand that the country deserves a national re-founding if it wants to escape disgrace. Idleness, in this sense, is also a form of imbecility. If the moral reserve still in the country isn’t capable within its indignation to set aside its ideological differences and go out and protest in the streets to tell Trump, the President and all the corrupt parties that there’s something to defend, then Trump’s imbecility and that of our own political class would’ve been right about us.”
An exemplary struggle by the dissident teachers
At this particular moment, the teachers’ struggle against the educational reform imposed by Peña Nieto stands out even more. The essence of the reform became clear during the summer of this year: it isthe predatory voracity of those on top to take away teachers’ labor rights and commercialize education.
Basic and middle school teachers in Mexico have a long history of struggle. After several irruptions that crystallized into different organizations, the National Education Workers Union, the largest in Latin America, came into existence 73 years ago. Soon after, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) regime corporatized it, put in its own leaders who in return for certain benefits used this enormous instrument whose presence reached the farthest corners of the country to control the State party’s electoral results. It wasn’t long before this engendered resistance and there were struggles for democratization and workers’ welfare, but they were always repressed. At the end of 1979 the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE) emerged with a democratic profile. It soon began shaking free of its official tutors, organizing sectors in several states around the country.
The CNTE has waged many battles to democratize an authoritarian structure. Since 2013 its struggles have taken on a new look after Peña Nieto imposed one of the neoliberal reforms: educational reform.
Rejecting the educational reform
The teachers who opposed the reform were armed with many well-founded facts and documents showing how it was crafted in the executive office of international centers of power that, in their effort to squeeze every last drop of activity into earnings for capitalism, have pushed privatization processes that turn everything into merchandise.
The education reform was promoted and imposed in Mexico by powerful business groups that denigrated the teachers and violated their labor rights, demanding control over them. The reform did nothing to improve the quality of education or collegial collaboration but instead promoted individualism and competition. The State abandoned its responsibility for solving public education’s material needs and through the delusion of “autonomy” transferred the schools’ financial and managerial responsibilities to the parents. Result: the end of free education.
The reform promoted that public education be managed as a business. It used punitive standardized teacher evaluations without taking the country’s different social-cultural contexts into account. And it sought to replace the current teachers with people submissive to the interests of the rich.
Pablo Gónzalez Casanova, the former dean of Mexico’s Autonomous National University, as well as Bishop Raúl Vera and many more came out against the reform for violating both the spirit and the letter of the Constitution’s articles that protect education and work and for breaking the social pact. They criticized it as an authoritarian action of the neoliberal model because it was drafted without involving society and much more importantly without seeking the consensus of the teachers, who are the ones who uphold the national education system.
Strikes, sit-ins, marches...
The CNTE strongly resisted the educational reform from the outset. More recently, it has engaged in an intense four-month struggle since May 15, when Mexico celebrated Teacher’s Day, and after the Independence festivities in September. Their actions have included a national strike, shutdowns, sit-ins, roadblocks, marches, building takeovers and boycotts of big shopping malls and transnational corporations.
Initially, the authorities said they would dialogue with the CNTE teachers if they would first accept the reform, which was absurd as it was precisely what they were opposing. This naturally intensified the conflict, which first started in four states where the CNTE has been hegemonic: Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacán. Soon thereafter, states from the center of the country joined in followed by states from the north, and marches were organized in all of them. At the end of May, 200 university professors presented a document analyzing how the reform infringed upon the constitutional, labor and human rights of the nation’s teachers. They proposed a national debate and called upon the government to dialogue with the CNTE.
That repudiation of the educational reform soon gained support from other sectors. More marches, protests, roadblocks and public building occupations took place in many parts of the country and a caravan starting in the south began a several-day trip to Mexico City. In mid-June, the CNTE agreed to the university professors’ proposal to raise the level of dialogue to the highest spheres of the federal government.
The government, however, reacted with greater violence, detaining important union leaders with accusations such as “textbook theft.” It presumably thought that by throwing the CNTE leaders into high-security prisons as if they were the worst of criminals, that would put an end to the struggle. It didn’t understand that it wasn’t facing a hierarchical organization, but a democratic one. The protesting teachers just added to their demands the liberation of the unjustly detained teachers and increased their protest.
Repression in Nochixtlán
On June 19, after evicting teachers from a roadblock, police forces went into the town of Nochixtlán in Oaxaca and started shooting at people supporting the teachers, resulting in at least eight dead and hundreds wounded. The government claims the police weren’t armed even though foreign reporters have presented pictures of the police not only armed but shooting.
The government then tried to justify their actions claiming it was a confrontation, but in reality it was an armed attack by several state and federal police forces against the people, not only on land but also from a helicopter. Authorities simply tried to construct a false version, as they had in the case of the disappeared student teachers in Ayotzinapa.
World and national reaction was immediate. Different academic, church, student, artist, grassroots and human rights organizations and individuals from different sectors of civil society condemned the massacre and demanded truth and justice as well as an end to the repression. Massive protests in several parts of Mexico condemned the aggression and the excessive and arbitrary use of police force. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico called on the government to promptly conduct an independent, thorough and impartial investigation of the repression that took place in Nochixtlán.
“Bloodshed no, dialogue yes”
Firm in their stance, the teachers announced that the protests would continue until a dialogue was set up with the secretary of government, as the education secretary had been so incapable of solving the conflict that it had now reached the point of bloodshed.
In the protests were posters that said “Bloodshed, no; dialogue, yes.” Such outrage over the repression in Nochixtlán forced the government to agree to dialogue with the teacher’s movement. At the dialogue table, after pointing out that it had been achieved by the intense protests that had developed, the teachers demanded the end to the discounts, dismissals, cessations and punitive evaluations ordered by the educational reform. They proposed that a model be designed that would guarantee comprehensive public education.
But President Peña insisted that the educational reform was not subject to negotiation.
The result was that the protests continued and increased. There were even marches by doctors and nurses in solidarity with the protesting teachers in 19 states around the country. The bishops of Chiapas asked the government to listen to the teachers, a petition that more and more sectors joined.
As expected, the business sector intervened in the conflict by pressuring the government to stick to the reform and urging it to use force to take down the roadblocks the teachers kept putting up. They also kicked off a heavy media campaign arguing that the roadblocks were producing major shortages. Several investigations by independent reporters showed that nothing was lacking in the popular markets and that the big malls were the ones being affected because the roadblocks were only holding up vehicles with transnational imports.
Support for the teachers grows
At the end of June, even teachers submissive to the pro-government union leadership also began to rebel. With that the government promised to repair the damages in Nochixtlán. But the CNTE held firm, continuing to insist that the only way to solve the conflict was to review the educational reform.
When the secretary of government threatened that time was about up and the roadblocks upsetting the business sector would soon be removed by force, the CNTE warned in response that violence would only increase the conflict. Many mayors and local agrarian authorities rejected the Government Secretariat’s ultimatum and defended the teachers. Municipal presidents in Oaxaca said they intended to expand the protest statewide. Indigenous people from Juchitán set up a big communal kitchen to support the teachers’ struggle.
Eighteen days after the Nochixtlán massacre, federal authorities had visited the place and promised total reparation of the damages, but the investigation had gone no further. After two months with no response, the people, parents and CNTE teachers organized a march in the country’s capital to demand punishment of those responsible for the massacre; they charged that the government was making up lies to explain what had happened in Nochixtlán, trying to place the responsibility on the victims.
As details of what happened in Nochixtlán became known, it was learned that the local community hospital had suffered attacks by Mexican armed forces and been turned into a war hospital surrounded by the military, which attempted to take out the wounded. A representative from the Office for the Defense of the Human Rights of the Indigenous People of Oaxaca defined as biased an investigation conducted by members of a special Senate commission appointed to follow up the happenings in Nochixtlán, as they were not listening to all parties involved.
The commission turned in its report at the end of August. Validating what the Oaxacan indigenous human rights office had said, the Committee of Victims from Nochixtlán challenged the report, claiming it only had testimonies from the attackers, and none from those affected. It demanded the creation of a special prosecutor’s office to investigate the operation with international participation to give credibility to the results.
A route and a process
As the struggle continued in several parts of the country the government opted to mount a simulation of agreements between the government and the pro-government union leadership that had initially accepted the educational reform but had later begun taking on some of the protesting teachers’ demands.
Before that dialogue with the government opened on July 11, the protesting teachers marched again to demand the end of “merely talking tables,” from which no results emerged. They posed the need for a national debate to build a true transformation of the educational model with all the sectors. The CNTE has always insisted that three concrete demands need to be resolved: permanent suspension of the reform, the construction of a comprehensive education model and immediate reparation of the reform’s damaging effects.
The Education Secretariat’s presentation of a new educational model and plans and programs for basic and high school formation levels created new tensions in the dialogue taking place between the CNTE and the Ministry of Government. Specialists in educational research analyzed the new proposal and found it contradictory and insufficient to guarantee authentic education and charged that the educational reform threatened children’s right to receive quality education.
Calling the Education Secretariat’s proposal a failure, the protesting teachers presented a document titled “A process route for the construction of a democratic education project.” They warned that the CNTE teachers would not attend the forums programmed by the Education Secretariat because they had no intention of validating a rigged process.
A national conflict
And so the marches and the roadblocks continued, even reaching the point of blocking railways. The business sector also continued trying to abort any plan that would affect the educational reform they wanted. The business organization called Mexicans First announced it would oppose any agreement against the educational reform. The Employers Confederation of the Mexican Republic presented a petition requesting that “grave human rights violations” caused in several states by the CNTE be investigated and urging the government not to yield to the teachers’ “blackmail.” The Confederation of Chambers of Industry complained that the teachers’ actions were affecting many industrial activities.
The archdiocese of Mexico questioned several of the government’s structural reforms, among them the educational reform, while the Episcopal Conference declared that the priority should be to open up spaces for the government and society to decide the needed steps to take in this educational reform conflict. They pointed out that Mexico, as a diverse nation, required different treatments. At the end of July, using the “moving like ants” technique, the teachers slipped past the police and took their protest all the way to the main square of the capital city.
In just a couple of years, the imposed educational reform has produced a conflict that not only threatens public education, but has also disrupted national life.
The threats continue
Education experts recalled that the private sector has sought to control national education ever since Vicente Fox’s presidential term (2000-2006). Writer Adolfo Gilly pointed out that education isn’t an industry, a business or a banking or financial system based on capital. He congratulated the thousands of teachers who have stood firm for months exposed to the elements in the sit-ins, the many teachers who have suffered in prison and those who even lost their lives in this struggle.
On Friday, August 12, some of the leaders who had been detained during the repression were released. The CNTE demanded that 75 more political prisoners be freed. The private sector went so far as to publicly regret the release of the teachers’ leadership because they wanted revenge. The secretary of government again tried warning that force would be used if the dialogue didn’t produce satisfactory results. The National Institute for the Evaluation of Education reported that authorities will not select teachers who should be tested for evaluation for the rest of 2016, that this procedure would be voluntary except for those who received bad results the year before. At the same time, however, it announced that the obligatory evaluations imposed by the educational reform would continue next year. This tug-of-war in which threats abound are prolonging the conflict.
Teachers go on strike
State Parents’ Committees in Chiapas, Guerrero, Michoacan, Oaxaca, Campeche, Quintana ROO, Tlaxcala and Mexico City marched on August 13th from the Mexican capital’s “Angel of Independence” monument to the Government Secretariat demanding that agreements reached with the CNTE be fulfilled, and giving the teachers their full support if classes didn’t start on August 22, as marked on the school calendar.
Given insufficient results at the dialogue tables, the CNTE discussed what measures to take with its rank and file. On August 18, the CNTE assembly decided to maintain the teachers strike and not return to classes. The teachers argued that it was better to lose some school days than to lose public education.
When the government declared that there would be no dialogue if the teachers did not return to teach, the CNTE reminded President Peña that the government itself had closed down the dialogue tables while the teachers were teaching, so they had no reason to trust it to renew the dialogue if they went back to classes.
On August 26, the government announced that it would fire hundreds of teachers in several states. The CNTE responded that the only thing intimidation could achieve is deeper conflict. At the same time, it pledged that its teachers would apply programs for the students to recover any missed classes once the conflict was resolved. The CNTE in Oaxaca agreed to start the 2016-2017 school year on September 7. In Chiapas, it decided to continue the roadblocks, strike and occupying of businesses, and warned that the arrival of thousands of police to intimidate them wouldn’t scare them.
On September 10 the CNTE held several marches in different parts of the country to clarify the fact that even though each section decided what to do autonomously, it didn’t imply a rupture in the movement or its demands. The struggle that had started in mid-May would adopt different modes according to what each section decides. And the strike would continue being the central element of the teachers’ strategic plan.
Shouts of independence...and alternative parades
On September 15, during the country’s independence celebration, the traditional shout of “Long live Mexico!” was celebrated with alternative activities and parades for the struggle in several cities. The CNTE stopped its sit-in in the capital city and the teachers’ contingents returned to their states to start a period of reorganization and regrouping of the struggle.
In Chiapas, the CNTE agreed to stop its sit-in in the state’s capital that day and return to classes on September 19, based on the commitment that the educational reform would not be applied in that state for the rest of Peña Nieto’s six-year term. Chiapas’s teachers said they were only withdrawing to recharge their batteries because the struggle isn’t over.
Oaxaca’s police repressed the teachers who wanted to celebrate September 15 with an alternative slogan and several were wounded. In Juchitán, teachers and students protested the educational reform during the parade of the official Independence activities. In Michoacán classes started up again, but the protests didn’t cease.
This moral reserve
The struggle is continuing. The CNTE is debating the next steps they need to take to cancel the educational reform and has evaluated the four months of intense struggle as fruitful because it has kept the reform from being applied and shown that a better educational model is not being sought.
The teachers in the struggle are an expression of that “moral reserve that is still left in the country,” described by Sicilia. They are driving home the conviction that this country deserves not only free quality education but also a “national re-founding if it wants to escape from its disgrace.”
Jorge Alonso is a researcher for CIESAS West and envío correspondent in Mexico.