THE FIRE THIS TIME: Mexico’s New Revolt From Below
Special Report, Part I
On the eve of May Day 2013, the drum beat of protest and revolt beats loudly in southern and southwestern Mexico. First beginning as a teachers’ strike against a new federal education law last February, the protest is now transforming into a broad popular movement against not only the much-touted Pact for Mexico policies of new President Enrique Pena Nieto, but the political and economic structures from which they spring as well.
In the bigger scheme of things, the movement is squarely challenging an economic and educational agenda endorsed by the International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Wall Street.
If the movement could be said to have an epicenter, it is in the Pacific state of Guerrero, where the protest against the federal education reform took a big leap this month with the founding of the Guerrero Popular Movement (MPG). Opponents of the law passed last December by the Mexican Congress argue that a new evaluation system imposed on teachers jeopardizes labor rights, and contains other provisions that will foster privatization and increase the cost of sending children to school.
Formed by unions, small farmer organizations, indigenous communities and youth activists, the MPG declared its opposition to the education reform, new mining projects in indigenous communities, any privatization of the national oil company Pemex, and proposals to increase the 16 percent sales tax.
“Now this is not just a movement of teachers,” proclaimed the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities, the leadership body of the community police and justice system in scores of Guerrero’s indigenous communities. “It’s a struggle of all small farmers, parents, students, political and social organizations.”
Government officials routinely minimize support for the teacher strike, but the MPG flexed its muscles with two large demonstrations that paralyzed the Guerrero state capital of Chilpancingo earlier this month. According to different estimates, each action drew between 50,000 and 120,000 people.
As its first order of business, the MPG supported an unsuccessful attempt by striking teachers to modify the federal education reform law by passing union-drafted legislation at the state level.
Represented by the Guerrero State Coordinator of Education Workers (CETEG), a large dissident organization within the official SNTE teachers’ union, the strikers combined street protests and occupations of government buildings with intense legislative lobbying efforts and on-and-off again negotiations with Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre.
At one point sensing victory within its grasp, the CETEG suddenly suffered a major setback when state lawmakers from President Pena Nieto’s PRI party, backed by allies from other political parties including members of the once-emblematic PRD opposition party, approved a state law last week that ignored the CETEG’s main proposals and upheld the federal reform. The pro-reform lawmakers asserted that any legislation differing significantly from the federal law would not pass constitutional muster. They deny the reform will bring educational privatization.
Next act, Chilpancingo exploded
On April 24, as many as 9,000 CETEG and MPG supporters surged through the streets chanting slogans and denouncing the legislators. After a rally, protest leaders urged demonstrators to return to the strikers’ encampment in the capital city.
Whether due to manipulation by publicly unknown elements or spontaneous and uncontrollable rage, a large crowd that turned rowdy ignored the post-rally plans and began heading for the headquarters of the major political parties-left, right and center.
The crowd then trashed the party buildings- without political distinction- but dished out special treatment to the PRI, whose headquarters was thoroughly ransacked and torched. Columns of black smoke poured from the building before the blaze was extinguished.
“When the people rise up for bread, freedom and land, the powerful will tremble, from the Gulf to the Sierra!” the rioters chanted.
While some journalists were reportedly rousted, no one was injured in the violence, except for one protestor who suffered a hand injury.
The April 24 Chilpancingo incident put the CETEG and MPG on the defensive, as the Mexican commercial media, which has treated the strike with hostility since the get-go, flashed images of the vandalism and the PRI fire. A litany of denunciations flowed from the political and business classes.
While in Acapulco for a bankers’ convention, President Pena Nieto curtly condemned the Chilpancingo violence. Faulting unidentified “external forces” for stoking a violent and intolerant movement, PRD Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre announced that 39 arrest warrants were ready for strike leaders. Graco Ramirez, governor of neighboring Morelos state, called strike leaders “true delinquents” who should be detained.
Mumblings from shadowy government and media sources variously blamed the mayhem, with no concrete proof, on the EPR and ERPI guerrilla groups and even on left opposition leader and two-time presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Acapulco Mayor Luis Walton reiterated an appeal to the CETEG to refrain from blockading the Mexico City-Acapulco freeway, a tactic that led to recent confrontations with the Federal Police. Walton urged the strikers to conduct themselves in a manner that would not affect tourism in Acapulco, which accounts for 40 percent of the economic activity in impoverished Guerrero.
“Of course, the Federation should intervene,” added Walton. “It’s a federal law that motivated this problem. There has to be dialogue. If not, this will not be solved…”
Conversely, more than a few messages praising the trashing and arson attack on the PRI circulated on the Internet, with writers reflecting the seething anger a large sector of Mexican society holds for the government and all the political parties represented in it.
CETEG spokespersons eventually acknowledged that some of its supporters were to blame for a rampage not sanctioned by the leadership.
If the conflict over the education reform law wasn’t enough to literally inflame a political crisis, a Guerrero state court added fuel to the fire the same week as the Chilpancingo upheaval when it freed two state policemen accused of killing two students from the Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college, Gabriel Echeverria de Jesus and Jorge Alexis Herrera, during a demonstration in December 2011.
Ayotzinapa is legendary for its student militancy, and the school is the alma mater of the locally revered guerrilla leaders Genaro Vazquez Rojas and Lucio Cabanas Barrientos of the 1960s and 1970s.
Indeed, a favorite chant of thousands of demonstrators in recent weeks has been, “Cuidado, cuidado, cuidado con Guerrero, estado guerrillero.” Simply put, the chant warns the government not to mess with a guerrilla state.
Last week, Ayotzinapa’s current generation of pupils lived up to the college’s reputation when students- reinforced by thousands of supporters from the CETEG and MPG- briefly blockaded the Mexico City-Acapulco freeway in Chilpancingo in a protest against a judge’s decision to free the alleged killers of their classmates.
Rocks were tossed at a contingent of federal officers monitoring the march, who responded with obscene finger gestures, but no major escalation of violence ensued.
For teachers, their movement has entered a critical phase. Trial balloons of replacing the strikers are floating in the air, and students stand to lose an entire semester if the conflict drags on much longer. Regrouping during the past few days, the CETEG and MPG are organizing May Day marches in Chilpancingo, Acapulco and other towns.
While Guerrero simmers, allied popular movements in the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Morelos and Michoacan are turning up the heat in their localities. All four states have very active local affiliates of the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), the CETEG’s national organization, and are witnessing the formation of broad popular fronts like Guerrero’s MPG. The CNTE plans an escalation of protests after May 1, when a large national march with other unions will also be convened in Mexico City.