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The National Context of Mexico City's Teacher Protests

4 MINS READSep 4, 2013 | 10:27 GMT
The National Context of Mexico City's Teacher Protests
Demonstrators clash with police during a protest in Mexico City on Sept. 1.
(Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Ongoing demonstrations in Mexico City that began as a challenge to Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto's education reform have attracted support from political movements opposed to the president's various other policies. Most notably, opponents of a proposed energy reform have joined forces with Mexican public school teachers, who have called for a nationwide strike on Sept. 4. The sustainability of the demonstrations may be limited, but the unrest is concerning for the government nonetheless, particularly because it stems from certain fundamental issues facing Mexico. The country must address the socio-economic roots of instability in poor, mountainous regions around the capital and find ways to control dissent near the political core. In the meantime, the growing conflict over education reform portends similar bouts of instability in the future.

Mexican public school teachers have been holding disruptive demonstrations in Mexico City since early August, with an estimated 10,000 teachers erecting a protest camp in the Zocalo, the capital's main square, and shutting down several of the city's main traffic arteries with marches. The rallies have persisted for several weeks, allegedly causing an estimated $44 million in losses for local businesses and forcing the legislature to temporarily relocate to a new building. 

The primary issue is education reform, especially a contentious section of the reform bill that establishes a nationwide criteria for the hiring of educators and mandates regular performance evaluations — legislation that the National Coordinator of Education Workers, the powerful union known locally as CNTE, says will threaten teacher job security. The lower house of the Mexican Congress passed the bill Sept. 1. The sources of funding for the protests are unclear, but the government paid the teachers' salaries before they took to the streets in Mexico City and does not appear to have ceased payments since the demonstrations began.

Meanwhile, opposition to Mexico's proposed energy reform has also been mounting. Protests against the legislation have been led primarily by Democratic Revolutionary Party founder Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, but several other movements have joined as well, including student group Yo Soy 132, an electrical workers' union and self-proclaimed anarchist groups. And on Sept. 2, the teachers joined a march against energy reform with the other groups, during which some protesters threw rocks and incendiary devices at police en route to the congressional building.

The opposition to energy reform is only loosely linked to that over education, but the interests of both anti-reform movements run counter to those of the Pena Nieto administration, and the two camps appear to have found common cause in rallying against him. As a result, the passage of energy reform that had been expected in the third quarter of the year may be delayed if protesters are able to continue disrupting daily life and economic activity in Mexico City.

However, the labor union from Mexico's state-owned energy firm Petroleos Mexicanos has not joined the protests — and it is unclear whether it ever will — limiting the effects of the energy-related protests. Regarding education reform, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party has the support of its two main rivals, the National Action Party and, despite Cardenas' opposition to the energy legislation, the Democratic Revolutionary Party. These parties also support energy reform, albeit to varying degrees. Without backing from a major party, the current protests are unlikely to achieve their ultimate aims.

Roots of Unrest

Nevertheless, the unrest stems from certain fundamental issues in Mexico that may lead to similar bouts of instability in the future. The mobilization of teachers, for example, reflects a socio-economic divide between Mexico's core and peripheral territories. The majority of protesting teachers come from the rural, mountainous states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Michoacan, which are part of what is known as Mexico's outer core. The central government has traditionally had difficulty administering these states effectively and maintaining authority over their remote populations.

The lack of central authority has empowered institutions such as the teachers' unions with a level of autonomy. Government attempts to extend its control — as with the current education reform — tend to meet resistance from locals. And as seen with the willingness of teachers to coordinate with the anti-energy reform movements, unrest over local issues can have effects on nationwide issues as well.

Moreover, regional isolation has led to relatively low standards of living in peripheral states. Despite Mexico's overall economic growth, not all regions of the country have benefited equally. Some states have seen significant industrial expansion, while others — especially those isolated by geography — have largely been left out. This divide between the Mexican core and outlying states worsens the risk of social instability, and the country will be vulnerable to disruptive protests like those going on in the capital so long as the disparities remain.

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