On Saturday, Mexican riot police cracked down on the occupation of Zócalo Square by public school teachers — but why are Mexico’s teachers protesting?
On December 1, 2012, while protests were being brutally repressed in the streets, Enrique Peña Nieto addressed Mexico for the first time as the country’s newly-anointed president. He outlined the five main goals of his administration and announced ten “presidential decisions” to achieve them. To reach his third goal of “quality education for all,” Peña Nieto stated he had decided to pursue a program of educational reform requiring the modification of the constitution and the establishment of a national evaluation system for teachers. And in doing so, Peña Nieto — the Butcher of Atenco and the signed, sealed and delivered choice of the ruling elite — made clear his intention to target education and take on Latin America’s largest union, the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE).
He wasted no time in getting to work. The following day, the heads of the three main political parties signed the “Pact for Mexico,” a document committing them to Peña Nieto’s five goals. With such backing, Peña Nieto’s proposed changes to the constitution easily passed both houses of Congress and were quickly approved by a majority of state legislatures. On February 26, 2013, the constitutional reforms related to education went into effect.
Full implementation of the reforms required the passage of three regulatory laws, which Peña Nieto sent to Congress on August 14. While opposition to the reform was immediate, the impending start of the school year, along with the introduction of the laws, kicked the resistance into high gear. The struggle was and is led by the National Coordinating Committee of Education Workers (CNTE), a democratic formation within the markedly anti-democratic, corporatist and corrupt SNTE.
Since the announcement of the educational reform, the CNTE has organized marches, strikes, and meetings with government officials, presented alternative models to the proposed reform, and undertaken educational efforts to inform parents and the public in general about the repercussions of the reform. On April 19, teachers from the CNTE established an encampment in the Zócalo, the main plaza in Mexico City. With the state pushing the reform forward, the National Representative Assembly of the CNTE decided to call off the beginning of the school year and declared an indefinite work stoppage starting on August 19.
They called for a massive convergence in the Zócalo and for more than three weeks, over 40,000 teachers from all corners of Mexico reinforced the encampment, turning the Zócalo into a tent and tarp city. In an assembly on September 7, teachers from 25 states (out of 31, plus the Federal District) and 37 SNTE branches (out of 59), joined by 55 civil society organizations, announced their united opposition to the educational reform and their plan to amplify the scope of the struggle.
The neoliberalization of education
The attack on education did not begin with Peña Nieto. In recent years, Mexico’s teachers have seen the imposition of a nationwide standardized test, ENLACE; reforms to privatize and reduce the benefits available to teachers and other federal employees through the Institute for Social Security and Services for State Workers (ISSSTE); and, an attempt by previous president Felipe Calderón and SNTE boss Elba Esther Gordillo (now in prison for corruption) to exert more federal control over teachers through the Alliance for Quality Education (ACE) scheme.
The basis for Peña Nieto’s reforms can be found in a 2010 agreement Mexico signed with the neoliberal Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which in part stated, “Mexico urgently needs a standards-based teacher evaluation system…to reward excellent teachers or support lower-performing teachers. Teachers who permanently display a low level of performance should be excluded from the education system.”
Publicly supported in his efforts by pro-business lobbying groups such as Mexicanos Primero and the Employers Confederation of the Mexican Republic (COPARMEX), Peña Nieto set out to implement the OECD agreement and then some. The constitutional modifications and regulatory laws change Articles 3 and 73 of Mexico’s Constitution. Together, they create a standardized system of teacher evaluation, as well as granting schools “autonomy” — that is, autonomy to raise funds from the private sector — in other words, to become privatized.
A standardized evaluation system that is imposed from above without the input of teachers, yet at the same time placing the fault for low scores solely on teachers’ shoulders, is extremely problematic. The attempt to create a monocultural, one-size-fits-all education system that produces a certain type of student, as Gallo Téenek notes, “doesn’t, knowing the cultural diversity that exists, take into account the reality and local conditions of each of the regions, municipalities, communities and states in the country, as well as the inequality and poverty that prevail throughout the nation — for example, in regions of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero, contrary to the better conditions that exist in cities such as Monterrey, Guadalajara and the Federal District.”
The second major aspect of the reform, making schools “autonomous,” opens up each school to be directly influenced by capital. As CNTE Section 22 from Oaxaca explains in a letter to parents, “Parents will have to pay for the education of their children, since the federal government has disowned its responsibility to maintain schools, meaning it will not send funds to build, equip or provide teaching materials for schools. It also clearly states that parents and teachers will manage the financial resources to maintain the operation of the schools, which will lead to the establishment of compulsory monthly, bimonthly, or semiannual fees.”
By forcing schools to continually fundraise in order to exist, CNTE Section 9 points out that the legislation “opens the door for, in the name of autonomy, and with the pretext of involving parents in the management and maintenance of the schools, the de facto legalization of fees, allowing the entrance of businesses into schools and turning the constitutional provision guaranteeing free public education into a dead letter. This has a name: privatization.”
The teachers fight back
Given the broadside attack on education, it is no wonder teachers have mobilized in such numbers. As Lev Moujahid Velázquez Barriga, a teacher from Michoacán who even in 2002 was teaching students under a tree as there was no classroom, told Contralínea, “If we aren’t here, in the future the children aren’t even going to have a school or a place to study.”
The teachers and their supporters organized daily marches from their encampment in the Zócalo. Carolina previously reported for El Enemigo Común, “Since they set up camp in the Zócalo, they’ve held marches and protests, encircled the national House of Representatives and Senate, blocked the highway to the Mexico City Airport, made ‘courtesy calls’ to Televisa and TV Azteca, cordoned off the Public Education Department, carried out a megamarch to Los Pinos (the Mexican White House), joined a multitudinous march against the energy reforms, and despite extreme harassment, encirclement and armed violence by the Mexico City riot police, marched on the federal Congress at San Lázaro on September 1.”
Along with attacks from the police, the teachers have been under siege from all sides. The corporate media have embarked on a “satanization campaign,” relentlessly painting the teachers as violent, lazy, greedy vandals responsible for generating chaos in Mexico City and holding the nation’s children hostage. Congresspeople have called for investigations into the CNTE, claiming that outside groups are funding the encampment in order to foment rebellion. Their own union — loyal to power, not its members — has been calling for them to return to work, while SNTE President Juan Díaz de la Torre tours the country extolling the educational reform and the SNTE website lauds the plan.
Realizing what is at stake, the teachers have not been moved. In recent weeks they have carried out several massive marches. On September 1, as noted above, teachers and their supporters marched on Congress, forcing Peña Nieto, who was due to give his first State of the Union address there, to delay it until September 2 and deliver it from Los Pinos. The September 1 action saw clashes and police violence, with over 20 people arbitrarily arrested, including three independent journalists. All but seven were promptly released, and after paying exorbitant bails of 126,000 to 135,000 pesos each, all are now free, but still facing a litany of trumped-up charges.
Large marches also occurred on September 4, 5 and 8. On September 10, Peña Nieto signed the three regulatory laws, completing the legal process of his education reform. Unwavering, the teachers moved forward with the previously announced national general strike on September 11. Marches and other actions took place in at least 23 states. In Mexico City, tens of thousands of teachers and supporters took the streets. For hours they blocked major roads such as the Paseo de la Reforma and the Circuito Interior. Clashes with the police occurred on numerous occasions, with police beating, kicking and spraying fire extinguishers at protesters. At least 12 protesters were injured by the police violence.
On September 12, the negotiating committee of the CNTE met with Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, netting no results. The CNTE demanded a meeting with Peña Nieto and for a detailed analysis of the impact of the educational reform to be carried out. Osorio Chong asked for the teachers to leave the Zócalo before the Independence Day celebrations on September 15 and 16, after which riot police violently cracked down on the teachers’ encampment this Saturday.
Peña Nieto, with the collaboration of the media, the corporate class and the main political parties, may have been able to move his educational reform package through the legislative process with relative ease. Yet, when it comes to implementation, that is another matter. CNTE Section 18 from Michoacán, which had 12,000 teachers in the Zócalo, has already announced its intention to ignore the reform. In the face of unceasing attacks and pressure, the teachers continue to steadfastly reject the latest neoliberal offensive against Mexico’s education system.
This article was originally published under Creative Commons license by El Enemigo Común on September 12. It was slightly edited following the eviction of the protest camp at the Zócalo on September 14.