Neoliberal “reforms” of Mexico’s schools and health care have sparked public protests, including a clash with police in Oaxaca that left some nine protesters dead amid a growing challenge to President Peña Nieto, says Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
Since May, protests have been spreading across Mexico in opposition to President Peña Nieto’s neoliberal “reforms” to health, education and energy policies, culminating in violent clashes with police in Oaxaca on Sunday that left about nine protesters dead.
Thousands of Mexican teachers have taken to the streets demanding to meet with officials of the Peña Nieto administration, but President Nieto and his Education Minister Aurelio Nuño have refused to meet with the union leaders and instead have begun a violent crackdown targeting the radical Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE) teachers union and their supporters.
Meanwhile, the protests have continued to spread with the country’s doctors announcing their support of CNTE and calling for a national strike to protest President Nieto’s neoliberal “reform” of the health system.
Flashpoints Chiapas Special Correspondent and human rights activist Alejandro Reyes has been following the situation as it unfolded in the last three months. Flashpoints reached Reyes on the ground on June 20, for an update on the crisis.
Dennis Bernstein: What did you learn about what happened? Then we’ll talk about where this is coming from.
Alejandro Reyes: At around 8:00 in the morning [on Sunday], several hundred federal police joined by local police attacked the demonstration of teachers, students, parents and local organizations and people who had been blocking the road for eight days. It’s the main highway that connects Oaxaca to Mexico City. There was a very large contingent of police trying to unblock the road. Things escalated and the police attacked, first with tear gas and rubber bullets, then live bullets with large-caliber weapons, including machine guns.
As far as we know, there are reports of between eight and 14 people dead. We were able to confirm the names of at least eight who were murdered in this confrontation. There are reports of 50-60 people wounded. The people wounded were not admitted into the local hospital because the police surrounded it. The local hospital was only tending to the injured policemen. The local population and church tended to the wounded. Finally at least some of the more seriously injured were taken out of the city to other hospitals. One of the casualties died because he was unable to get medical aid at the local hospital.
There are reports of children who went missing. During the confrontation they got lost from their parents. This started as a peaceful demonstration, so there were a number of children along, and some are still missing. There are over 20 people considered disappeared because there is still no news about their whereabouts.
DB: This is the CNTE union, a dissident union that has been fighting with the government on many levels against this neoliberal testing version of an educational system. Can you talk about the struggle they’ve been in the middle of?
AR: There are many institutional reforms that the current president is enacting, constitutional reforms to privatize education, health services, land and so on… The very first one, which was approved in a record time of 12 days, was the education reform. The government claims this will improve the quality of education when, in fact, it is nothing but a labor reform that makes teachers’ jobs very fragile. One means of doing that is by mandating that teachers take a test, which, according to teachers who have taken the test, is absolute nonsense. They are using this against teachers to make them feel uncomfortable.
The CNTE union is split. There is a long history of the union being a tool of the PRI government [the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which President Peña Nieto belongs to]. In the late ‘70s there was a split, with a new section in the CNTE, which is much more democratic and combative against government imposition. For example, they are the ones that started the movement in Oaxaca. They’ve been fighting to stop this educational reform.
The government is refusing any type of dialogue or negotiation whatsoever, so things are escalating. The movement started in the four states in which the CNTE is the strongest, but it is now all over the place, including where the CNTE isn’t even present like the northern state of Chihuahua… [and] Sonora…. The increasing use of repression by the government is joining students, parents and regular people in civil society. There are all sorts of social movement throughout the country.
One of the things that I found very scary about this event in particular is the government manipulation of lies. First they said, no, the police were not armed. But of course very soon social media started circulating pictures/images of the police shooting guns at the demonstrators. So they came up with a very strange version.
They are claiming now they had no weapons at first and there was a peaceful removal of the blockade. Then, the government says, some armed groups of people external to all of this, started shooting at both the police and the population, so in their duty to defend the population the police started shooting back. Of course it’s absolutely false.
This is scary because it justifies the use of armed violence with the excuse that there are these unknown armed groups infiltrating the movement and they must be combated. This opens the door to justify repression and militarization that is very scary because there’s an escalation of violence that is growing very fast and spreading throughout the country. There is a danger that if the government continues with this attitude, this is going to blow up. We have no idea where this is going to go.
DB: It appears that, in part, the government was getting jumpy because, as you said, these protest movements were beginning to expand even into states with no CNTE union. It’s starting to be reminiscent of the protests several years ago where the teachers were at the center of it all.
AR: That’s right. [On Sunday] there were 36 roadblocks throughout the state of Oaxaca alone, in repudiation of this violence. People are coming down from different parts of the Sierra to support the people in the town where the violence took place, confronting the police. There are demonstrations in many places in Mexico as we speak…. Mexico City, many parts of Oaxaca. There was a blockage in the southern part of Oaxaca at the annex installations of the national oil company, which was also violently gotten rid of by the police at the same time. … Things are getting out of control.
The government’s position is no negotiation whatsoever. The government could bring down this movement simply by negotiating the education reform, which nobody is in favor of. Not only the teachers, but also the general population of Mexico is very aware that this will benefit no one, but it will destroy public education.
It’s just the first of many reforms. The next one to come will be health reform. People are very scared they are going to be left without medicines, medical attention in many cases because of the neoliberal dismantling of the public health system, which isn’t very good anyway. The little we have is being dismantled. People are very angry but the government shows no sign whatsoever of backing down.
DB: Do we know where the survivors are at this point and whether they are being cared for?
AR: We don’t have enough details. Of the 50-60 injured, some are very gravely wounded. People are very angry that police prevented the injured from being tended to in the local hospital. We know about 20 who were in serious condition are now in two other hospitals in other towns, one in the capital city of Oaxaca. We have some names, but much information about the condition of the wounded is lacking.
DB: The CNTE union has a history of being an activist union that works very closely with the people and helps to train teachers who might not have another opportunity, in order to bring them into the fold.
AR: The main teachers union, historically, was a tool for power, especially for electoral purposes. In 1979, the split group was founded in Chiapas. Since then they have been very combative. They have a great deal of organization, political consciousness and political awareness. For example, it is around this group that the movement in Oaxaca took place in 2006. Again, it started with a teacher’s demonstration and escalated to a huge popular movement of many organizations and thousands of people who joined in support of the teachers. We are seeing the same thing now.
There’s a very clear emphasis on the part of the government to try to get rid of these teachers who are organized, politically aware and militant. Part of the educational reform is to eliminate the teachers union, get it out of the way, so they can easily move around without having to deal with teacher uprisings.
DB: It was again teachers under attack in the now infamous bus, resulting in many murdered and disappeared. Is this of a piece, the government’s resistance to those teachers who want to transform society?
AR: Yes, very much so. We have Normales, which are schools that traditionally train teachers – teachers’ schools. They are being defunded and dismantled systematically by the government, precisely because the schools have become seedbeds of political awareness, especially in the Normales Rurales, rural versions of the schools.
They were founded decades ago as places to train teachers who would then teach in rural areas, especially indigenous and peasant areas. The students are usually indigenous and peasant who will teach in those areas. Because of the conditions of poverty, discrimination and marginalization that rural communities live in, and because the students are from rural communities, historically these became places of great political awareness.
One is the Normale … in the state of Guerrero, one of the poorest and most marginalized states in the country. There are many movements of resistance. So these kids that were going to Iguala to get buses to go to the demonstration were brutally attacked as part of this attempt to get rid of these Normales Rurales. This is the most horrid thing that has happened to them, but they have a long history of being attacked.
DB: What are your concerns now as you see this escalation? What about the movements and the changes that have been made?
AR: There are many interesting, worrisome and some hopeful factors. There are so many people joining the movement despite a very strong campaign to discredit the teachers’ movement. There is an incredible media campaign in support of the government. Despite this, many individuals and organizations have joined the struggle. They have become very strong.
The government’s absolute unwillingness to negotiate, and the use of escalating violence, is not going to put a halt to the movement. Instead, it is inflaming the rage and resistance even more. I think we will see in the next few weeks and months a very fast escalation of violence, which is very dangerous. We are very worried about where this could go.
DB: Is there concern, as we have seen before, that the government will provide agent provocateurs who will try everything they can, as they have begun to do, saying there were shooters outside the crowd and they had no choice but to protect the people? Can we expect more of this?
AR: Yes. That’s my reading of the press conference held by the governor of Oaxaca and the chief of police. They are sending a message that there are armed groups dangerous to the population, therefore justifying the need for increasing militarization and violence. This could lead to a very grave situation of militarization in the country, with human rights violations systematic by the armed forces, which we know are extremely violent and violate human rights.
We’ve seen this over and over. The number of mass graves that have been found after…..that are related both to the military and police in conjunction with organized crime. To see this being justified, and to see the police and military coming out in the streets massively throughout the country, is very, very worrisome.
DB: Will this reverberate? Are there concerns where you are in Chiapas that it will reverberate there and the repression will increase?
AR: Of course. Chiapas is also a place where there is a lot of social consciousness and social movements. A couple of weeks ago the government leaked a false communiqué by the EZLN, the Zapatistas, saying the EZLN was going to rise up in arms again and there would be a bloodbath throughout the country. This is, of course, false. If you are minimally versed in how the Zapatistas write, you could tell by the first sentence that this was false. But many people believe it, which is a form of spreading fear. The Zapatistas are a piece of the movement for the last 20 years. It’s to spread fear among the population and to justify militarization. There are many signs of the government moving in the direction of increasing the armed presence in the country and it’s worrisome.