Some historians insist that authoritarian governments become more adamant, more arbitrary and more brutal just before they collapse.
If that is true, Mexico’s government is near the point of collapse.
What on the surface seemed to be a consolidation of federal activities under the returned-to-power Partido Revolucionario Instituciònal (PRI) disguises the fact that citizen participation in Mexican government is virtually non-existent. Immediately after Enrique Peña Nieto’s disputed presidential victory in 2012, the PRI, under the behind-the-scenes leadership of former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, co-opted the Congressional leadership of two theoretically opposition parties to form a federal power thrust and “reform” the nation’s constitution. Mexico’s Congress approved sweeping changes to labour, energy, education and tax laws, many of which were designed by the Organization for Economic Coordination and Development (OCDE for its initials in Spanish), whose director, Àngel Gurrìa, is a former Salinas de Gortari associate.
In Mexico the federal government is an exclusive minority whose only relationship to the nation’s 110 million inhabitants is incidental, much like a ranch owner’s relationship to livestock that are his to manipulate. Only if they’re starving or frightened do the livestock stampede. Mexico’s complacent citizenry, hypnotized by television and struggling to survive in an economy ranked among the lowest in the western hemisphere, has been starving for decades while a few chosen entrepreneurs (among them the capos of the drug corporations) have reached the ranks of the world’s richest individuals.
The constitutional reforms gutted labour laws and paved the way for privatizing the national oil and energy industries. Disenfranchised union workers protested; uprooted campesinos protested; victims of criminal violence protested but the first to stampede were the nations’ teachers.
Led by the teachers unions of Mexico’s most impoverished states - Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacàn - in September 2013 tens of thousands of maestros surged through Mexico City, blockading government offices, closing thoroughfares, transforming the Zòcalo into a tent city protest of women, men and children. As described in openDemocracy on September 27 Peña Nieto’s government arrested and jailed union czaress Elba Gordillo on corruption charges (although some Mexico City journalists insist her incarceration had more to do with her bolting to the opposition National Action Party(PAN) in 2006 since equally corrupt union leaders affiliated with the PRI have not been accorded similar treatment).
Government-controlled media (or media-controlled government) labelled the demonstrators “vandals” and “leftists” but no longer was the PRI dealing with bare-existence sharecroppers or railroad workers: despite meagre salaries the teachers are among the best educated and most influential members of their communities. Laughably, President Peña Nieto insisted that a “minority” shouldn’t thwart the will of the majority - as if he and his small coterie of political and entrepreneurial cohorts were in a fact a “majority.”
The protest brought to public awareness the background of the reform, labelled “educational” but in fact all about the labour force. It imposed teacher evaluations dictated by OCDE guidelines (and administered by private sector enterprises) and slid control of teacher placement and job (in)security under federal rather than state and union control. But it did not address school conditions, educational programmes, drop-out rates and non-attendance or the quality of programmes, textbooks or school facilities. Hence the rebellion.
Not that this was an overnight thing. The protests had been brewing for years. In 2006, Oaxaca’s PRI governor, Ulisès Ruiz, ordered his police to “clear the bastards” out of the city of Oaxaca’s Zòcalo - the bastards beings Oaxaca’s striking teachers union, Section 22 of CNTE. They had set up an encampment in the centre of the city as part of their bid for higher salaries, better school facilities and an increase in the state’s minimum wage. Some 2,000 police, backed by tear gas and helicopters, stormed the tent city, bashing heads and ripping apart plastic tarpaulins and bedrolls.
To their astonishment the teachers fought back. They commandeered city buses to use as tanks and hurling paving stones, swinging rebar and tent poles stormed back. The police, disorganized and undisciplined, fled and the teachers and their supporters took over the city of Oaxaca and most of the state and virtually ruled it for five months, succumbing only to a militarized force of over 4,000 combat-trained federal troops in November of that year.
During the militarized operation 141 Oaxacans were arrested and without trial sent to a maximum security federal prison even though most of them were not teachers and had nothing to do with the sit-in. When I protested that those arrested and charged with sedition and other federal crimes were innocent a PRI-associated attorney told me, “All the better. It will make the rest of the people more afraid.”
Since 2006 Mexico’s federal government has been quick to crush incipient uprisings, including a normal school protest in Guerrero in 2007 that evoked the criticism “You’re Oaxacanizing our demonstration!” - Oaxacanizing meaning to use undo force to break up a student protest - and the formation of community police forces in areas victimized by drug trafficking organizations that Peña Nieto’s government views as more threatening to authoritative government than the cartels themselves.
The Oaxaca protest “lit a spark,” according to Oaxaca journalist Pedro Matias, that spread throughout Mexico.
“It proved that people can take a stand, can force an abusive government to back down,” he told me. Almost all of the 30,000 Oaxacan teachers who surged into Mexico City’s Zòcalo to protest the so-called educational reform this September were veterans of the 2006 demonstrations. They knew what they were in for. They’d been there before.
The education reform’s constitutional changes did not address criminal violence and the deaths and disappearances resulting from the invasions of drug corporations. In attempting to minimize the impact of the ongoing violence the Peña Nieto administration curtailed federal propagation of information about deaths, confrontations, and human rights violations. The death/disappearance toll hasn’t decreased - it has increased under the returned-to-power PRI. But you wouldn’t know it. According to Peña Nieto’s federal government the teachers, not the Zetas or the Sinaloa cartel, are the really despicable culprits.
No matter how issues of education, energy and labour reform shake out the stampede the teachers once started won’t disappear. After all, livestock, though disregarded and abused, can break down fences, alter the environment, make a difference. How much difference is yet to be seen.