Mexico’s Peña Nieto goes on the offensive against union protestors

Congress rushes through teaching reform amid complaints that national pact has become a steamroller

Salvador Camarena
Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest on September 1, 2013, in Mexico City.
Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest on September 1, 2013, in Mexico City.Ronaldo Schemidt (AFP)

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has gone on the offensive against protestors attempting to block one of his key reforms. Congress passed the government’s controversial new teaching law at the eleventh hour, putting an end to weeks of stalling due to widespread rejection from the powerful CNTE teachers’ union, which has been regularly shutting down parts of Mexico City with street marches and road blocks.

It was nearly midnight on Sunday when the controversial law was passed thanks to 390 votes from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and from some members of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). There were 69 dissenting votes and four abstentions.

Earlier attempts to get the bill approved had failed when protesters physically prevented congressmembers from entering the building. The government had originally been planning for its reform to get the green light in August.

But the project was put on hold by the arrival of thousands of angry teachers in the capital, heeding the CNTE’s call to protest. The demonstrators, most of whom hail from the southern state of Oaxaca, opposed new evaluation methods that would force them to regularly take a test in order to keep their jobs. To make their complaints felt, they did not hesitate to block access to the city’s international airport on August 23, or to shut down traffic on major thoroughfares such as the Periférico Sur beltway on August 27, when tens of thousands of drivers were stuck inside their vehicles for over five hours. Demonstrators have also been camping out at Zócalo, the city’s main square.

The growing street protests forced Peña Nieto to cancel a trip to Turkey

The trouble caused to city residents by the constant protests had become the most visible part of a debate that goes far beyond this particular issue. The real question is whether the Pact for Mexico, a national covenant subscribed to by the country’s major parties to advance democracy and social rights, can continue to see its reform agenda fulfilled despite opposition from some lawmakers and powerful groups such as the CNTE, which has a strong presence in Chiapas, Guerrero, Michoacán, Oaxaca and Mexico Valley. These detractors feel that ever since the cross-party agreement was signed in December 2012 soon after President Peña Nieto had come to power, major reforms are being rammed through Congress without proper debate. A few PRD members have gone so far as to state that the legislative chambers are only being used to give the stamp of approval to agreements previously reached by party leaders.

Ricardo Raphael, a university professor who has written a book about Elba Esther Gordillo — the former leader of Mexico’s other major teachers’ union, SNTE, now in jail on corruption charges – is one of the opponents of the new education law, which he says gets “professionalization and teacher evaluation confused” and lacks a system “to ensure a homogeneous minimum base for teacher quality.”

While both sides accused each other of obstinacy, the growing street protests forced Peña Nieto to cancel a trip to Turkey and postpone his first government report, traditionally scheduled for September 1, when the legislature reconvenes. Faced with criticism over a perceived lack of action against the public disturbances, the president came out with a statement that made it clear that education reform would get approved, and that it was only a foretaste of more reforms to come in the energy and fiscal sectors, among others.

Parliament is fortified, in all but a state of siege"

“We will not relent, we will not yield, we are firm and decided in our quest to bring in the kind of education reforms that will ensure a quality education for all Mexicans,” he told the nation on August 28.

Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong added that “in our country nobody can impose their truth on everybody else; ideologies cannot be above solutions, nor the interests of a few above the wellbeing of the majority. Mexicans are demanding solutions to their problems, not problems for every proposed solution.”

But Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, of the Citizens’ Movement party, has talked about “parliamentary infamy” in the way reforms are being handled by the Pact for Mexico signatories.

“With a fortified parliament, with police officers from several agencies in place, in all but a state of siege, they want to consummate an inadmissible holdup, a parliamentary infamy,” he said.

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