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Mexico’s teachers hold their ground in capital’s main square

Peña Nieto wants them to leave the Zócalo before Independence Day observance

Police clash with protestors during demonstrations on Wednesday.
Police clash with protestors during demonstrations on Wednesday.Alex Cruz (EFE)

Tensions continue to flare in Mexico over President Enrique Peña Nieto’s education reform plans. Protesting teachers have been camped out at Mexico City’s main Zócalo square, and are refusing to budge, despite the fact that officials are expected to hold Independence Day celebrations there on Sunday night and a parade on Monday.

Education workers and their supporters blocked the central square for a number of hours on Wednesday before they left but the teachers have insisted on staying camped out in the Zócalo for an unspecified period.

The National Education Workers Coordinating Group (CNTE) – the country’s dissident teachers’ association, which is organizing the protests – issued a call to its members in April to set up camps in the Zócalo to protest Peña Nieto’s reform.

Traditionally, ceremonies for Dieciséis de Septiembre are held in the main square with a fair the night before, when the president appears on the palace balcony to shout the celebrated “Grito de Dolores” (or, “vivas”) to all the people who helped Mexico obtain its independence. It is followed by a military parade the following day.

Protestors tried to hold demonstrations near the presidential residence Los Pinos but police prevented them from approaching

Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, Peña Nieto’s chief of staff, said that the celebrations as well as the parade will be held at the Zócalo and confirmed that he was in talks with representatives of the protestors to try to convince them to abandon the square.

Entire families have moved into the 46,000-square-meter Zócalo, which is also known as Constitution Plaza, setting up tents where they sleep and eat with their families.

On Wednesday, protestors tried to hold demonstrations near the presidential residence Los Pinos but police prevented them from approaching. Some violent confrontations occurred when they also tried to block one of the capital’s main arteries. It was the first time in three weeks that violence has broken out among the teachers.

The protests are being staged in 22 states across the nation but the main concern for the government is to convince the campers to leave the Zócalo. Osorio Chong was expected to hold another meeting with their representatives later Thursday.

The Mexico City government has also tried to intervene. Last May, Héctor Serrano, the city government’s chief of staff, said that force would not be used to dislodge the teachers.

“The Federal District government is not repressive. Police are here to crackdown on crime, not to attack protestors,” Serrano told EL PAÍS.

While the city government hopes that an agreement with the Peña Nieto administration can be reached, teachers vowed to hold their ground. Rubén Núñez, one of the CNTE leaders, said that protestors would not leave the Zócalo.

“There is no agreement with us and we haven’t been approached by anyone,” he said, adding that the teachers would reconsider late Wednesday whether to leave the square.

But on Thursday, the protests mushroomed around the capital. About 2,000 demonstrators marched from the Bella Artes Palace to the main artery, Reforma Avenue, the Mexico City daily El Universal reported via its website.

The teachers’ insistence on staying in the square has also affected other groups that are protesting reforms planned by Peña Nieto. Former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador tried to organize a rally Sunday night in the Zócalo with 44,000 people to protest the president’s proposal to open up the state-run energy sector to private investment.

The leader of the left-leaning National Regeneration Movement (Morena) was forced to change his plans and move the rally to the nearby Juárez Avenue.

The Zócalo has been a traditional ground for protestors to hold their demonstrations. In 2006, López Obrador camped out with his supporters for weeks to protest the results of the election, which he lost to Felipe Calderón. Nevertheless he abandoned the site on the morning before the Dieciséis de Septiembre celebrations were to take place.

Last year, Independence Day festivities – the last to be conducted by Calderón – were disrupted by the social movement Yo Soy 132, which was organized to protest Peña Nieto’s election.

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