Laura Carlsen of the Center for International Policy says that Oaxacan teachers are protesting not only teacher evaluations, but also the entirety of neoliberal reform under Pena Nieto
DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you here in Baltimore. This past weekend, Mexican police forces shot and killed at least eight teachers and one journalist in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The police struck down as teachers blocked a highway in protest against the national government’s neoliberal education reform. The new reform would institute teacher evaluations, which some say would lead to the dismissal of thousands of teachers, and the hiring of underqualified ones. This is not the first time that teachers in Oaxaca have faced state repression. The region has had a long history of standing up to the central government. So with us to discuss these recent events is Laura Carlsen. Laura is the director of the Americas program at the Center for International Policy in Mexico City. She focuses on U.S. policy in Latin America, and grassroots movements in the region. Thanks so much for joining us again, Laura. LAURA CARLSEN: Thanks, Dharna, for the invitation. NOOR: Okay, so for background, what are the teachers protesting against, exactly? Initial reports are saying that this is mainly about their opposition to the national teacher exams, these new evaluations. But is that really what this is about, or is there more to it? CARLSEN: There is much more to it. They are protesting the educational reform which is part of a package of structural reforms that were pushed through Congress by the government of Enrique Pena Nieto. These reforms are kind of the nail in the coffin of the neoliberal model which has been applied to extremes here in Mexico, with disastrous results. So the reform does cover evaluations. They create this huge institute for evaluations. It’s a standard evaluation. And the reform is actually designed by the Organization for Economic Development and Coorporation, and by the private sector here in Mexico with the help of the inter-American dialog, and a number of organizations on an international level that really represent the imposition of this neoliberal model. What it does is it really breaks down one of the largest unions in the hemisphere, which is the education workers’ union here in Mexico. And it’s really been called an educational reform, but when you look at the specifics of it it’s far more a labor reform, a labor counter-reform, because what it does is it rolls back a lot of the historical conquest of the education workers over the past decades. And it essentially strips them of their right to representation, and a number–even the right to hold their jobs and have a fair hearing in terms of their dismissal. So that’s where the evaluations come in. The top-down evaluation, which is just a standard kind of a template evaluation, doesn’t take into account that the teachers are working in very diverse conditions. There’s an educational crisis, but it has to do with the fact that there’s over 5 million illiterate people in Mexico. So 30 percent of schools that don’t have things as basic as a building, or running water, or sewage, or bathrooms. They’re working under conditions that are really impossible, so the application of evaluation that’s one-size-fits-all in these conditions, in communities where many of the people don’t even speak Spanish, is a recipe for an arbitrary firing of a number of teachers, especially the ones who are working in the most difficult situation. So they’re defending probably what is the biggest neoliberal strike against the right to unionize, and to organize for labor protections and labor rights, in the hemisphere in the last four decades. NOOR: And as I was saying before, this isn’t the first time that we’ve heard about this union engaging in teachers’ strikes in Oaxaca. There were teachers’ strikes in 2006 that got a lot of press, in 2013, ‘14, and ‘15. Can you talk more about the history here and what the trajectory has been? CARLSEN: Yeah, it’s important to point out. So we’re talking about, as I mentioned, the biggest union in Latin America, the teachers, workers. But that union, as is typical here in Mexico, was historically allied with the ruling party, the PRI, and was controlled by union bosses with very little rank-and-file democracy. So in the early ‘80s, the Coordinadora of education workers, or the Association, was formed as a democratic current within that union. So when we see the mobilizations today against the neoliberal reforms, what we’re seeing is the resurgence of that democratic current within the teachers’ union. They have historically held onto and won the elections to represent the teachers in a number of states, especially Oaxaca, for many, many years now, and that’s where we’re seeing the most intense mobilizations. But what’s interesting about this resurgence in the context of reform that strikes at the rights of all education workers, even many who traditionally weren’t formerly part of the democratic current, is that we’re beginning to see mobilizations of them through the country. And not only that, we’re beginning to see that there is an–and this is [inaud.] historically, as well, that there’s a lot of support from other sectors of the society. There’s always been a lot of protest against these structural reforms, one of which was the privatization of the oil industry, which is a real flashpoint for Mexican nationalism. And so the teachers in these mobilizations and in the resistance to education reform are bringing together a lot of discontent that’s been brewing in Mexican society, especially under the government of Pena Nieto, for a long time. This latest mobilization and the massacre at Nochixtlan happened almost exactly ten years after the 2006 uprising of teachers. And not just teachers, but all of Oaxacan society, practically, after a similar act of repression when the state government forcibly evicted the teachers from the central plaza. That uprising lasted for months, led to the deaths of, the assassination, of some 26 professors, of some 26 education workers, and the U.S. journalist Brad Will. So there is a long history there. It’s always been a lightning rod for general discontent within society, not just of the neoliberal reforms, but also with these kinds of repressive responses of government and the authoritarian nature of Mexican federal and state governments. NOOR: And can you talk a bit more about that state reaction? Why is the state reacting so violently? There’s been these eight or nine who have been killed, but then hundreds of others have been injured. Shooting and killing teachers seems to be one of the most extreme reactions possible, so what’s going on? CARLSEN: Absolutely. And I think they crossed a line, and it would be very difficult for them to maintain any type of an image of just a reformer. It’s clearly a crackdown on the teachers, a violent crackdown that’s worthy of some of the most authoritarian dictatorships that we’ve seen throughout Latin America. And I think this has revealed the true nature of the Pena Nieto government, which is one of the most interesting things, and tragic things, about it. And unfortunately we’re likely to see more of that kind of response. So why would they go to such extreme measures in the case of a teachers’ uprising? A teachers’ uprising, teachers who traditionally, and in this case, have a great deal of sympathy among the general population because of their sacrifices to educate young people, which is something that families and citizens throughout the country feel very strongly about. And the reason is that they have a lot at stake, here. If the teachers succeed in renegotiating and in setting back this privatization, neoliberal education reform, then it could and should open up a lot of public debate on the other reforms that were never sufficiently debated within Mexican society when they were passed, and that have caused a lot of opposition, but that never got to the point where they were able to block it in a PRI-controlled Congress. So they’re afraid that the teachers are setting a bad example for a population that they need to control right now, that they need to control in order to impose a very unpopular economic model. Not just evaluations. It goes way beyond that. It has to do with this whole package of structural reforms. And that if the teachers are successful in bringing together other sectors of society and creating a model where these reforms are opened up and actually debated in society to see if there’s a consensus on them or not, then their whole plan of imposition will fall apart, and that’s why the government has chosen repression. NOOR: Okay. We’re going to pick this up in Part 2. Thanks so much for joining us, Laura, and thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
DHARNA NOOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. My name’s Dharna Noor and I’m joining you here in Baltimore. We’re here speaking about the recent events in Oaxaca over the past weekend. A teachers’ strike has been occurring and eight teachers were killed as well as one journalist, and we’re here discussing this with Laura Carlsen. Laura is the director of the Americas program at the Center for International Policy in Mexico City. She also focuses on US policy in Latin America and grassroots movements in the region. Thanks again for joining us. LAURA CARLSEN: Thank you. NOOR: So, Laura, we left off speaking about this teachers’ strike and the neoliberal reforms that the teachers are opposing, but as you were saying, it’s not just the teachers who are being affected, and this is demonstrated in some ways by the fact that the doctors’ union in Oaxaca has said that they will join the teachers in protest. Are they facing any sort of similar neoliberal reforms, any similar measures? CARLSEN: Yes. Absolutely. In the package of structural reforms there’s also a health reform. And as you can imagine, since they’re out of this neoliberal model, basically it also tends toward privatization of services, stripping the poorest and the most vulnerable sectors of access to public services which become a dirty word in the neoliberal lexicon that were gains of the revolutionary period in Mexican history. So, you’re looking at this really major change in how people consider the role of the state and how people consider their right to have basic services within a society, basic services that are public, you know? So the privatization is at the root of much of the labor discontent throughout Mexico in the health sector, in the education sectors and in other sectors as well. Now, within the petroleum, the oil sector, we’re seeing a lot of changes, very radical changes, happening, probably the most radical round of changes that we’ve seen since the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, in 1994. NOOR: The government of president Enrique Peña Nieto was supposed to be more moderate than that of his predecessor, Vicente Fox, so why are we seeing this kind of state violence and these imposition of these totally neoliberal reforms? CARLSEN: The PRI, for a long time, has been very firmly in the neoliberal camp. We can date that back to the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari. So, since then what’s happened is that the nationalist strain of the PRI and the revolutionary values that were somehow incorporated, if not completely at least in the discourse of the ruling party that ruled for 71 years as a single party system, practically, within Mexico, have fallen away to a bald-faced, neoliberal, globalization economic model that’s affected the politics as well. So, this is not something that was unexpected. The right wing has been very close to the PRI. The PRI has abandoned the more left public services, safety net policies that characterized it before, since several decades ago. NOOR: And, as I was reading about this strike, the events of this past weekend in Oaxaca, I saw that CNN in their reports noted that Pemex, the oil company of the state of Mexico said that, quote, if these road blockages continue that there could be a shortage of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel in the region. They have a refinery in Oaxaca. So, what does all of this have to do with oil refineries? Why are they even getting involved? CARLSEN: Well, Dharna, this is a good example of what’s been happening in this gigantic media campaign, much of it spurred by the government which has control over the media conglomerates in a very close alliance against the teachers. And this has been going on since they rose up against these reforms three years ago. Basically everything bad that happens in the country, when there’s mobilization of teachers, is the teachers’ fault. Like I was saying, you have an education system that is completely underfunded, that is completely unequal in terms of how it provides services to different communities, and all that supposedly is the teachers’ fault, and if they were just better and went through these examinations, these evaluations, everything would improve. So, this campaign has been going on for a long time, and if you could hear the kind of media barrage that we get from the radio, from the television, from the printed press every single day in Mexico. There’s a traffic jam, it’s the teachers’ fault. It might be the teachers’ fault, but they don’t bother to say what it is the teachers are defending or asking for. They just say, you didn’t get to work on time today because the teachers are out there. In the case of Pemex, it’s a completely speculative article when you look at it. Are they saying that oil is not arriving because the road to the refinery is blocked? No. They’re just speculating that Pemex thinks that this could happen and wouldn’t that be terrible? And wouldn’t it all be the teachers’ fault? This is the kind of campaign that’s going on. So when they’re not shooting them in the streets, which now they are, they’re defaming them throughout all the media to try to break that connection between the teachers’ movement and general society and discontent in other sectors, which is a very strong connection. NOOR: Okay. And do you think, are these confrontations between the unions and the government going to escalate or will one or the other side back down? Will the protests spread to the rest of Mexico, as we seem to see from the doctors’ strike? CARLSEN: Everyone’s agreeing that this is not just a crisis in the educational reform. This is a national, political crisis, and with the government clearly taking the gloves off and shooting eight people dead in the streets, more than 50 wounded. All, you have to mention, too, but when they talk about a confrontation we’re talking about all the dead being on the side of the teachers’ movement and the society. They opened fire in an indigenous market and there was a direct order, according to news reports, to shoot to kill. So when that happens you can expect that there will be more blood, and we do expect there to be more confrontations. The teachers are not going to give up. This is a sector that’s very militant, and they know that they have everything on the line right now. So the teachers are not going to give up. There’s many calls for dialogue. They’re asking for dialogue and the government has said, in some contexts yes, we’ll enter into dialogue, but at the same time they’re saying, we’re not going to touch a comma in the educational reform. So you have a dialogue from the outset that’s destined to go nowhere. In this situation, I’m afraid that things could get even more violent. NOOR: Well, as these protests continue we hope to have you again back with us, Laura. Thanks so much for joining us again. CARLSEN: Thank you. NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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