Mexico: The Oaxaca Teachers’ Long Revolt Against Neoliberalism

(Photo by Pedro Pardo/AFP)

The tension over neoliberal education reforms in Mexico’s southern State of Oaxaca continues to escalate as the school year looms.

Late in the night on September 15, a march by protesting teachers from Oaxaca, Mexico’s Section 22 of The National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE) ended in violent clashes between teachers and Mexico’s Federal Police. Police fired teargas on the protesters as they tried to enter Oaxaca’s central square, locally known as the Zocalo. At least two were injured. The march was part of the alternative Grito de Dolores, a Mexican tradition that commemorates the cry of independence from Spain on September 16, 1810

Two weeks prior, on August 27, the teachers of Oaxaca announced that they would not be returning to classes at the beginning of the school year, but rather they would continue with their protests against neoliberal education reform in Mexico. The protesters made the decision following months of escalating tensions between the teachers, their supports, and the Federal government.

The teachers of Section 22 are at the forefront of the movement against the structural reforms of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. The reforms were passed in February 2013. They target key sectors of the Mexican economy including energy, health care, telecommunication, and education. Federal authorities argue that these reforms are meant to break up monopolies, increase competition and foreign direct investment, and improve education through new oversight for teachers.

Mexico’s Teachers and their supporters claim that the reforms are thinly veiled labor reforms and would lead to the privatization of these public sectors. The energy reforms already led to the privatization of the national oil company, Pemex, which was nationalized in 1938 following the Mexican Revolution in 1910. The reforms to healthcare system, which were included in the 2013 reform package, have meant rising costs for care.

“The position of CNTE comes from our feelings against the neoliberal project,” said German Salinas, the representative of delegation 1-159 of the Periphery Sector of Oaxaca’s Section 22. “It isn’t only against the education reforms. We are drawn together as union of teachers or education workers in a resistance against education reforms, but we too are against the structural reforms that are causing harm to the communities. We can talk about the topic of the privatization of water or natural resources. We know that they legislated this plan in order to have the power to intervene and obtain these natural resources without the consent of the communities.”

The protest in Oaxaca continues in spite of coordinated state violence against the teachers.

State Repression Against Teachers

The protests jumped back into international headlines on June 19, 2016 following the massacre of 11 supporters of Oaxaca’s teachers by Mexican Federal Police at a roadblock in Nochixtlan, Oaxaca. The shooting also left over 170 injured.

The roadblock was established 5 days prior after residents of Nochixtlan observed large movements of Federal Police and military along the federal highway. The supporters of the teachers worried that the troops were mobilizing to evict the teachers from their encampment in the state’s capital, Oaxaca Juarez.

The dead from June 19 are not the only victims of the latest repression against teachers and their supporters. Early on July 5, José Caballero Julio, a 51-year-old primary school teacher from Oaxaca, passed away due complications from injuries he sustained from repression by Federal Police against Oaxaca’s teachers on June 11.

On June 11, Caballero Julio was participating in a barricade at the State Institute for Public Education (Instituto Estatal de Educación Pública de Oaxaca – IEEPO) as part of the national action by CNTE against the education reforms of President Enrique Peña Nieto. Federal police were deployed against the protesting teachers in order to clear the highway. During the brutal eviction he was struck in the head by a gas canister, causing massive lesions.

“He was hit in the head by a projectile by the federal police during the eviction at IEEPO,” said Salinas. “This is one more death that Aurelio Nuño and the federal officials must be held accountable for.”

The teachers of CNTE have also faced arbitrary firings for their resistance.

On May 19, Mexican Education Secretary, Aurelio Nuño Mayer, announced the firing of 3,000 teachers from Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacán when they did not work for 3 days in 2016 during days of protest. This was an unprecedented firing, which is considered to be blowback for the resistance to the education reforms.

“The repression that has come since the legislation of the reforms began with repression [from the administration]. For example, they began cutting our labor rights,” said Salinas. “Afterward, the repression was converted into a judicial or legal repression, with the detention of the leaders.”

Oaxaca is not the only state to suffer from the heavy-handed repression of the State. Armed gangs and state police attacked protesting teachers at a road block in the southern State of Chiapas less than a month after the massacre of supporters in Nochixtlan. One teacher was gravely injured during the attack.

The Continued Protest Against Privatization of Education

The teachers of Section 22 and the CNTE mobilized in 2013 to challenge these reforms. Their protests have included marches, occupations of public space, and widespread blockades of highways. The stakes are high for teachers as the reforms fundamentally impact their rights as workers.

During the early 1980’s, Mexico faced a financial crisis as their foreign debt reached nearly $1 billion dollars. The International Monetary Fund intervened by imposing the first structural adjustment program in order to stabilize the economy. The IMF’s program opened up the economy to transnational companies, broke down trade barriers, and cut social spending, but they hit Mexico’s poor hard through new competition with imports and lower wages.

The North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed on January 1, 1994, expanded and solidified the economic liberalization and integrated the economies of Canada, the United States, and Mexico. It also put in place new protections of investments for foreign companies, and led to over 300 changes to the Mexican constitution, including the reform to Article 27, which ended land distribution to campesinos through the ejido program.

The signing of the trade agreement was met by widespread protest, most notably by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which launched an armed uprising on January 1, 1994 against the neoliberalism in Mexico. The Zapatistas mobilized after they had seen their subsistence obliterated through the importation of cheap products, and territory reduced because of the advancement of extractive industries into indigenous communities, which arrived with the trade liberalization.

Most Mexicans have seen their livelihoods ravaged through the neoliberal economic model. Liberalization may have meant improved Gross Domestic Product, but it led to the decimation of Mexico’s small farmers and worsened the conditions for workers across the country.

Oaxaca’s History of Resistance

While the onslaught against workers’ rights in Mexico deepened after the passage of NAFTA, grassroots resistance continued in Oaxaca.

In 2006, Oaxaca was the site of an uprising against State Governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. The protests began with a series of actions by teachers’ union Section 22, but when the governor sent in police to repress the teachers, the popular frustration with the governor exploded. Eventually the protests took on the mantle of continuing the resistance to neoliberalism that was put in place in the mid 1990’s, with the teachers at the forefront of the movement.

The people of Oaxaca took the city center in protest, and eventually the governor was forced to resign. Amongst the barricades that stayed in place for five months, Oaxaca saw the emergence the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO).

The heavy hand of the Federal Government fell upon the teachers and their supporters, with police and death squads killing teachers and arbitrarily arresting thousands. The movement was official put down in November 2006, after the Federal Police were sent in.

The teachers of Section 22 used this experience in 2006 to build solidarity with their supporters in the communities. These bonds built between the teachers and the families of students are what permit them to find their base of support in this current struggle against the reforms. This has also allowed the teachers to incorporate the struggles of the communities into their fight as teachers.

“All the parents of the families are supportive,” said Miné, a teacher in Nochixtlan, Oaxaca. “This shows that this is not just the struggle of the teachers’ union; this is a popular struggle. We cannot separate the union from the parents of the students. Here, we’re all involved in this.”

This approach has connected the teachers to the struggle in defense of territory. Since 2006, Oaxaca has become the site of increased interest from companies looking to exploit the state’s natural resources. Yet this increased interest has not benefited the communities, which are often left with the externalities of exploitation.

The expansion of these industries is part of the re-branded Plan Puebla-Panama, an infrastructure integration plan originally proposed by President Vicente Fox in 2001. Re-named Plan Mesoamerica in 2006 after the signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the plan calls for the integration of energy, highways, telecommunications, and production with Central America. The plan has already generated extreme economic and social inequalities and led to the displacement of communities for the construction of projects in southern Mexico and in Central America.

Furthermore, very nature of the teachers’ position within communities provides a link between the interests of the union and residents concerned with the expansion of extractive industries in rural areas.

“The connection between the teachers and the people comes from the very social function that we represent,” said Salinas. “We work with children in the classroom, but we always work alongside the parents in the community. This connection has always existed. We are all different voices, but we’re all part of one big voice against neoliberalism.”

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social moments in Central America and Mexico. His work has appeared at VICE News, Truthout, the North American Congress on Latin America, and Upside Down World. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo.