Friday - Apr 19, 2019

Blood in the textbooks

Mexico’s striking teachers stand firm against state repression

by David Bacon

OAXACA- Since the killing of eleven demonstrators at a street blockade in the Oaxacan town of Nochixtlán on June 19, Mexico has been in an uproar over the use of force against teachers resisting corporate education reform. As the Mexican school year is starting, teachers and supporters in four states have refused to return to classes until there is a negotiated agreement to change the government’s program, and until the perpetrators of the Nochixtlán massacre are held responsible.

The government says it will not negotiate, and Mexico’s corporate leaders are demanding that the government use force to suppress the teachers and reopen the schools. The danger of further bloody confrontation is greater than ever.

The resisting teachers are concentrated in a highly organized network, the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), within the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), the largest union in Latin America. The CNTE now controls the union in four states: Oaxaca, Guerrero, Chiapas, and Michoacán. In other states, especially Mexico City, it has a large base of support.

Teachers in assemblies in those four states voted on August 18 not to start classes on the 22. As of August 23, the government was claiming that over 90 percent of schools had opened. The CNTE says that over half of the schools in Oaxaca and Chiapas remain closed. Adelfo Gómez Alvarez, of the Chiapas teachers’ union, told the Mexico City daily La Jornada that “there were strikes and demonstrations in 28 states, including in Mexico City itself.”

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto declared: “There will be no more dialogue if we don’t guarantee beforehand that children can receive an education in their classrooms, which today are closed. First education, then dialogue.” Enrique Enriquez Ibarra, general secretary of Sección 9, Mexico City’s teachers union, responded that for a year teachers had tried negotiating with the government while continuing to stay in their classrooms, but the government didn’t budge. “Today we no longer believe in classes first and then dialogue. The teachers strike will continue,” he warned.

Mexican business interests began proposing changes to the country’s education system over a decade ago, as part of a series of economic reforms that have privatized much of the country’s economy and rolled back rights and protections that workers and farmers won decades ago. Supported by education reform groups in the United States and by the US Agency for International Development, these corporate reforms concentrate on standardized testing for students, and especially teachers. Testing is then used to eliminate educators’ job security and punish militant resistance.

“The real goal is privatizing education,” said Tranquilino Lavariega, a classroom teacher and general secretary of his union chapter in Santa Cruz Ocotlán, in Oaxaca. “These corporations see education as a business. And because our union has been part of the opposition to their growing power in Mexico, they see us as a political threat.”

Heading the push for corporate education reform is Claudio X. González, scion of one of Mexico’s wealthiest and most powerful families. He heads Mexicanos Primero (Mexicans First), the voice of the country’s right-wing ed-reform lobby, whose program for reform was pushed through the Chamber of Deputies three years ago.

Last year, as the government began implementing the tests, thousands of teachers refused to take them. In limited job actions, many refused to report to classes. When resistance mounted, the government began arresting CNTE leaders. (For more on how the conflict developed this past spring, see Bacon, “Why Are Mexican Teachers Being Jailed for Protesting Education Reform?”).

Adding fuel to the indignation were demands by González that the teacher-training schools, or “normals,” be abolished and replaced with private institutions (fresh in the memory of Mexicans is the disappearance, and probable murder, of 43 students at a normal in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero, two years ago). On March 22, Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño Mayer proposed a measure that would eventually fulfill González’s goal of eliminating them.

“The students in these schools come from poor families,” Lavariega explains, “so of course they are very critical toward the government and want to fight for their rights. That’s why the government wants them to disappear-those students are a threat too. Nuño Mayer went to private schools. He thinks any professional can teach-that there’s no need for a school to teach anyone to do it.”

After the two top leaders of the union in Oaxaca were arrested, police fired on demonstrators at the blockade in Nochixtlán, killing eleven and wounding dozens. People in Oaxaca and throughout Mexico reacted with outrage. A protest march in Mexico City, organized by the left-wing MORENA party (National Regeneration Movement), headed by former mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador, drew over 100,000 participants. More streets were blockaded, especially (but not only) in the four states, and plantóns (occupy-style encampments) sprang up in commercial centers targeting big enterprises like Wal-Mart, Bimbo, and Coca-Cola.