Wednesday, August 10, 2016

NOCHIXTLAN and the Mexican Teachers' struggle again: What is at stake?

Militarized Federal Police confronting demonstrators in Nochixtlan
Nochixtlan is now a name that has gone down in popular memory along with Ayotzinapa.  Nochixtlan is the name of a small community in the State of Oaxaca where, on Sunday, June 19, a group of demonstrators composed of striking teachers, parents and their supporters, were blocking a major highway leading in and of out of Oaxaca City, the capital of the State of Oaxaca, when they were fired upon by elements of the Federal Police and the newly formed police unit called the “Gendarmaria”. At least nine people were killed and scores of others were injured. There is no evidence that the teachers, who responded to the aggression with rocks and Molotov cocktails, were armed or engaged in any of the shooting. This naked act of aggression on the part of the Peña Nieto regime against unarmed civilians has met with outrage and indignation by certain sectors of society within Mexico and around the world including the American Federation of Teachers affiliated to the AFL-CIO. [1]
The Mexican teachers, who are members of the rebellious Section XXII of the National Coordinator of Education Workers, (CNTE) form a dissident faction of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE), one of the largest unions in Latin America. The Oaxaca teachers and other sections of the CNTE in other states including Guerrero, Michoacán and Chiapas, which are among the most economically undeveloped regions of the country (and more recently teachers in Nuevo Leon, Veracruz , Sinaloa, Chihuahua and other states), have been on strike since May 15, 2016 as the continuation of the battle against the Education Reform Law that was secretly adopted and imposed as part of the “Pacto por Mexico” by a national coalition composed of the reigning Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the rightwing National Action Party (PAN),  and the so called leftist Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), all now part of the grand coalition that rules Mexico.  The Pacto por Mexico, which was concretized behind closed doors by the three major parties before Peña Neto came to office in December, 2012 consisted of an Energy Reform Law, by which the nationalized oil company, PEMEX, was dismantled; a Tax Reform Law; and the Education Reform Law. The “reforms” were pushed through the national congress during Peña Nieto’s first year in office in 2013 over much public opposition.
The Education Reform Law has been actively opposed by the CNTE from its inception.  In protest, the CNTE teachers have gone on strike, and have boycotted and disrupted administration of the teachers’ evaluations, which the law mandates, in various states. One of the CNTE’s major demands is the repeal of the law. For a more detailed account of the dissident teachers’ struggle and demands I refer the reader to earlier articles in this series posted on this website. [2]
The massacre of teachers in Nochixtlan is a reprise of the concerted attack on 43 students in Cuatla, Guerrero in September, 2014, in which several people were killed and 43 students from Ayotzinapa simply disappeared after being attacked by drug cartels, the local police and, some speculate, elements of the local military units stationed in the area. The attacks in Nochixtlan and Ayotzinapa form part of a longer list of recent attacks by military and police on civilians as part of repressive policies in the drug war initiated by Felipe Calderon (PAN) during his term as president (2006 – 2012). There have also been what appear to be summary executions of civilians in Tlatlaya, Puebla in which over twenty people were apparently shot at point black range and a supposed “shoot out” on a ranch in Tancaro, Michoacán in which over forty people allegedly associated with drug trafficking were killed. Again, evidence suggests that the victims were summarily executed. Even the New York Times called attention to the suspicious nature of these “confrontations” as they were described in the press in which the alleged drug traffickers were all efficiently killed with only few or no casualties on the part of the military. (New York Times May 26, 2016)[3]  The Mexican government felt obliged to respond to the article saying that there was no evidence to support the Times’ allegations. All of these recent incidents that have occurred in Peña Nieto’s term of office suggest that there is a concerted campaign of state terror being directed against indigenous populations under cover of and in the name of continuing Calderon’s War on Drugs which by some estimates may have claimed as many as 60,000 lives. Peña Nieto’s government is rapidly earning a reputation for being a ruthless and despotic dictator in its application of repressive force to intimidate and stifle popular dissent.
Peña Nieto’s handling of the CNTE teachers’ revolt is no different. The head of the Education Department (Aurelio Nuño) and the head of Gobernación (Osorio Chung) have steadfastly refused to negotiate with the CNTE teachers on the grounds that the law has already been passed and cannot be repealed. After the massacre at Nochixtlan, however, Osorio Chung relented and agreed to meet with CNTE delegates but without putting the teachers’ principal demand for repeal of the law on the agenda. As of this writing the fourth round of talks have begun and the agenda has been expanded to include educational issues. 
The strategy of the CNTE at this point is to continue their social agitation, engage in negotiations with the government and to gather as much popular support for their cause as they can from parents, members of the local communities, civil rights groups and civic organizations, and other unions including the Mexican Electrical Workers Union, (SME), members of the PEMEX workers union, the Telephone Workers Union (SUTERM), a popular coalition of unions called the OPT and other popular civic organizations.  On June 26, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), head of his own recently created electoral party, MORENA, on whose ticket he plans to run for president in 2018, also showed support for the CNTE by organizing a march and demonstration in the capital in which it is reported that participation was possibly in the hundreds of thousands. At this march AMLO gave a speech to his followers in which he publicly offered to negotiate with the Peña Nieto regime to provide some kind of peaceful transition of the national government to his own party in 2018. This suggests that maintaining the peace while harnessing the anger and discontent of the masses continues to play an important part of AMLO’s populist strategy.
With very few exceptions, the reaction of the corporate media to the teachers’ struggle and MORENA has fallen perfectly in line with the government’s smear campaign and is opposed to every aspect of the teachers’ movement. Just as in 2006, when members of CNTE occupied the center of the capital city of Oaxaca with the support of other popular organizations such as APPO (Asociación Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca) for several weeks, and when AMLO and his followers occupied the center of Mexico City for weeks to protest the fraudulent presidential elections, the press has made every effort to disparage, stigmatize and demonize the teachers and AMLO as nothing more than common criminals and political opportunists by using unfounded accusations and innuendos to discredit the teachers and their movement. In the last few weeks as part of the governments’ smear campaign it has apprehended and incarcerated several members of the CNTE’s executive committee accusing them of disturbing the peace, the destruction of property and money laundering.
Much, in fact, has been made in the media by the opponents of the teachers’ movement, of the CNTE’s illegal tactics such as destroying government and private (usually corporate) property, physically attacking and detaining opponents, blocking highways and snarling up traffic in the cities with demonstrations and marches. This proves, according to the movement's opponents, that the dissident teachers are “violent people”, common criminals and gangsters who are depriving the rest of the citizenry of their constitutional right to free transit, private property and personal security. These accusations are obviously politically motivated and have the intended effect of dehumanizing the teachers and discrediting their movement and their justifiable grievances as if these latter were of little or no importance.  There is also an undertone of racism to the criticisms of the movement’s opponents.
But the matter of tactics is indeed an important issue and there are several considerations to take into account. Firstly, it is not clear how many incidents of violence are actually the work of the CNTE itself and how many incidents are perhaps the work of fringe elements for whom the CNTE cannot assume responsibility or are simply the work of provocateurs (government or otherwise) who are seeking to discredit the movement in the eyes of public opinion. Secondly, to criticize the legality of the teachers’ tactics is to take a hypocritically legalistic and intentionally obtuse approach to the problem since it is precisely the legality and legitimacy of the law and a corrupt authoritarian government that is in question. (One thinks here of the actions of civil disobedience of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.)  It is only in a totalitarian society that the law is beyond the citizens’ power to challenge.  Thirdly, the fact that the conflict has degenerated into acts of violence and borders on being an all out war is not entirely the fault of the teachers since part of the blame must rest with the intransigence of the government and its refusal to negotiate. The question of legality, in other words, is simply an effort to criminalize any kind of dissent that disturbs the peace. There have, in fact, been efforts by rightwing political parties in the nation’s capital to outlaw any demonstrations of public protest and measures have been implemented to limit this right. But while it must be conceded that acts of gratuitous violence may do harm to the dissident teachers’ movement, it is also true that if the movement deserves support it is not because of their more extreme tactics but rather in spite of them.
In the narrowest sense, what is at stake in the Mexican Teachers’ struggle against the Education Reform Law is the future of public education, the existence of teachers’ unions, the working conditions of teachers and the content and nature of the curriculum. This is similar to a struggle that is going on in the U.S. against so called “Charter Schools”, the privatization of public education, the destruction of teachers’ unions and the corporate control over curriculum being advocated by billionaires such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among others, and the OECD’s plan to standardize testing.[4]
But in the broader context the struggle of the CNTE for their rights also involves the struggle of indigenous peoples to preserve their cultural heritage, their language and their historical memory as well as their native territory.  It is a struggle for Democracy and democratic rights and the return of national sovereignty that is taking place all over Mexico.  As journalist and legal scholar John Ackerman points out in his recently published book El Mito de La Transición Democrática [5], the rise of the opposition party PAN in the 2000 elections when Vicente Fox came into office, did not mark any real democratic opening in the Mexican political system, as is usually believed, but rather signaled a broadening and deepening of the undemocratic and corrupt policies of the traditional PRI. The rise of a new supposedly “leftist” PRD party in 1988, on whose ticket AMLO first ran for president in 2006, has now been thoroughly discredited and completely co-opted by the ruling parties’ corrupt and repressive coalition. Since then, AMLO has formed his own party, the Movimiento por la Renovación Nacional (MORENA).  The return of the PRI to power in 2012, according to Ackerman, is just further proof that an electoral dictatorship has strengthened and consolidated its grip on Mexico.
But Mr. Ackerman believes that the imperial presidency in Mexico is coming to an end because the great masses of people are realizing that the king has no clothes. The Peña Nieto government like the Calderon government that preceded it, lacks legitimacy. It cannot negotiate because it has no solutions to offer. Its response to dissent and accusations of tyranny and dictatorship is force, violence, and the threat of violence.  Ackerman believes that some kind of synergy can be provided by a spontaneous movement which consists of the different varied interests of civil society, workers, peasants, indigenous peoples, environmental activists, cultural minorities etc. against the government’s authoritarianism which will force the government to recognize the democratic rights that were enshrined in the Mexican Constitution of 1917 after the Mexican Revolution. Among such rights are not only the right to free public education, but also to housing, food, health services and gainful employment. According to Ackerman, it is only up to the Mexican poor and oppressed to rise up and demand what is already rightfully theirs according to their own constitution. Mr. Ackerman supports the electoral strategy of AMLO and MORENA in this struggle.

But the teachers’ movement must, as they themselves are well aware, also fight against the domination of global finance capital in the form of “neoliberalism”, the “Washington consensus” and “Globalization”, a struggle that takes the form of Mexico’s re-assertion of its independence not just from its Northern neighbor but from global capital.  It is becoming apparent that the capitalist model of globalization that has predominated since the fall of the USSR in 1989 is crumbling. While the CNTE teachers were demanding negotiations with the government, Peña Nieto was in Canada for a meeting with other leaders of the so called North American Union, Barak Obama and Justin Trudeau, urging further integration of the political/economic union of the three North American countries that was begun with NAFTA in 1995.  Peña Nieto was also in Latin America meeting with leaders of other signatory countries of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (Peru and Chile) and other Latin American countries.  For decades, the Mexican government has been opening the country up to foreign investment, especially investment seeking to exploit the country’s vast mineral wealth and cheap labor force, and steadily privatizing the country’s nationalized industries (“para-estatales”), an effort that was begun under President Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988), was accelerated in the term of President Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) and continues to the present day.  The dismantling of the national oil company PEMEX under the Energy Reform Law passed by the Peña Nieto regime as part of the Pacto por Mexico and the return of the big oil companies to Mexican territory is the one of the clearest indications of Mexico’s transformation into a neocolonial state. 
In any case, the unrest and discontent of broad sectors of civil society epitomized by the dissident teachers’ movement appear to be heading on a collision course with the government. With the massacre of Nochixtlan on June 19, the conflict between the two reached a tense and explosive standoff.  Now that negotiations have begun, however, the question that arises is what outcome the teachers’ struggle can possibly have. Can a solution to the teachers’ demands be found? Can a broad spontaneous popular movement which consists of the different varied interests of civil society bring about real structural change and institute a lasting alternative to the antidemocratic authoritarianism that has held Mexico in its grip for the better part of its history?  What are the hopes that AMLO’s MORENA, which is offering an electoral alternative and is making gains on the state and local levels of government, can bring about such change?
As to the latter question, AMLO and MORENA’s bid for political power is deeply divisive. The private sector and middle classes view him with the same suspicion and class hatred with which they view the Chavistas of Venezuela with whom he is often associated and compared. AMLO’s election to the presidency would probably only intensify the political polarization and instability within the country and his populist strategy to harness the discontent of the poor and working classes while placating Mexico’s foreign masters could very well backfire leading to greater instability and conflict within the country and precisely the kind of violence and bloodshed that he seeks to avoid. This is why President Peña Nieto publicly declared recently that populism was one of the gravest dangers facing the country today.
But Mexico’s problems cannot be resolved within the borders of Mexico alone. The struggle for basic democratic rights in Mexico is being played out in other areas of the world as well. This struggle is evident in the U.S. which is seeing the erosion of democratic rights as part of a phony “war on terror” and is entering a political crisis in an election year where the electoral process has failed to provide presidential candidates that a majority of voters can support while the country is embroiled in foreign wars and occupations. The struggle for democracy is also evident in Europe where the European Union is on the verge of disintegration as evidenced by the recent decision of the UK to leave the union and the crisis caused by the ‘NO’ vote in the referendum in Greece last year and an immigration crisis caused in part by the EU’s and NATO’s aggressive foreign policies.  The world is in the throes of political convulsions dominated by a wave of reaction in which democracy, national sovereignty and the capitalist model of globalization are all being called into question. There is also the ever growing danger of world war on the one hand and the rise of reactionary, national-chauvinist, fascistic parties on the other. All of the political struggles being waged in Mexico today, however isolated, local or chaotic they may seem, are part of a much broader movement in Mexico and around the world for democracy, against the barbaric conditions being imposed on the working class as Mexico is forced to conform to the iron laws of globalization and neo-liberalism, the form that capitalism has taken on today. 

This is the background behind the education “reforms” against which the Mexican teachers are struggling. It is a movement with which Marxist socialists must actively engage. They must support the teachers’ struggle. They must not set themselves apart or remain aloof on the sidelines of this struggle secure in the truth of their dogma, unwilling to commit themselves or compromise the purity of their principles, waiting for the day when revolution comes knocking on their door asking for leadership…a day which may well never arrive.  But it also important to note that while engaging in this struggle Marxists must insist that there is no national or capitalist solution to the problems faced by the Mexican working class and peasantry. The illusion that it is possible to solve the social and economic problems of Mexico through an appeal to Mexican nationalism has been the ideological cement used by the Mexican bourgeoisie for decades to prevent the emergence of an independent working class and socialist movement and it is this appeal to nationalism that epitomizes the error of AMLO’s populist movement.  While the struggle of the Mexican teachers begins on a national level, it can only be resolved through the struggle for the United Socialist Federation of North America. It may not be clear yet where the teachers’ struggle and the larger struggle of which it is part are leading or will end, but the dissident teachers of Oaxaca are making a beginning and showing the way.

--Ramon Rodriguez  G. July 13, 2016

Mural commenting on the Nochixtlan massacre

[1] Sindicato magisterial de EU, contra represión a profesores mexicanos Por David Brooks, corresponsal in La Jornada dom, 26 jun 2016 19:37


[3]  The New York Times, Mexican Military Runs Up Body Count in Drug War By AZAM AHMED and ERIC SCHMITT MAY 26, 2016

[5]  El Mito De La Transicion Democratica: Nuevas Coordenadas Para La Transformacion Del Regimen Mexicano by John M. Ackerman  Ediciones Temas De Hoy 2015

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