Protest against the education overhaul in Mexico


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Peña Nieto’s first state of union comes amid uncertainty in Mexico

Nine months after Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto assumed office, his well-choreographed reform plans have met some unexpected obstacles.


By Tracy Wilkinson and Richard Fausset
September 1, 2013, 11:00 a.m.

MEXICO CITY — When President Enrique Peña Nieto delivers his first state of the union message on Monday, he won’t leave home to do it.

The unusual venue — his residence, Los Pinos — is replacing the more traditional spot, the presidential National Palace, because striking teachers  have laid siege to the plaza surrounding it. Government officials and invited dignitaries would have a tough time reaching the palace.

Nine months into Peña Nieto’s presidency, not everything is going quite according to his well-choreographed, carefully hyped plans.

Leading the Institutional Revolutionary Party that had ruled autocratically for seven decades until getting the boot in 2000, the telegenic politician came to power in December by promising a new Mexico, one that would take its rightful place on the world stage, impressing audiences here and abroad with an ambitious project of “transformational” economic changes.

In addition, he was emphatic about minimizing the issue that had dominated global discussion of Mexico in the previous years: the government’s deadly battle with drug traffickers and the criminal networks they have spawned.

Instead, the economy has stalled, shrinking this quarter for the first time in four years, and violent drug-and-extortion gangs have so overwhelmed citizens in some states that they have taken up arms to protect themselves. The government, they say, won’t.

Meanwhile, Peña Nieto’s reform agenda is hitting unexpected speed bumps with disruptive protests in recent days.

Teachers enraged over Peña Nieto’s plan to overhaul the educational system have managed, day after day, to shut down Congress, block major streets, besiege embassies and government buildings here in the capital, ground people trying to reach the main international airport, and force the cancellation of cherished soccer matches.

In a rush to build momentum, Peña Nieto succeeded in getting legislative approval and even constitutional changes to pass major education and telecommunications laws. Two more, dealing with energy and fiscal policy, are on deck.

The teachers’ street fight, however, shows that stiff and disruptive opposition could still derail his plans.

“The reality has impinged on him at last,” said Federico Estevez, a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “It’s not easy to ward off the pessimism that will be spreading really quickly in the next few weeks and months.”

The demonstrations by thousands of members of a dissident teachers union are in protest of a requirement that teachers be evaluated, hired and promoted based on merit. While tying up the capital, the demonstrators have succeeded in persuading the lower chamber of Congress to delay, at least temporarily, the enabling legislation that would allow the changes to kick in.

An even larger danger for Peña Nieto is that the teachers’ actions could inspire similar chaos when his proposal to open oil and gas exploration to private and foreign investment comes up for a vote.

“What’s at stake is not just [one] reform,” said Claudio X. Gonzalez, head of Mexicanos Primero, an education advocacy group, “but the administration of President Peña Nieto and his entire reform agenda.”

The political left is already voicing impassioned opposition to the energy plan and has called for a massive rally Sept. 8. Opponents see the plan as a thinly veiled move to privatize Mexico’s lucrative oil industry, with the benefits going to an elite few.

In his speech, which had been set for Sunday but was moved back a day, Peña Nieto is expected to reiterate claims of several important accomplishments in this initial season of his six-year term. He takes credit for what he calculates to be a 20% decline in homicides in the first six months of his government, compared with the same period the previous year.

He has not provided statistics to back the claim, though the number of homicides did begin to decline well before he took office. Moreover, his government’s policy has been to order its spokespeople to release only minimal details about killings and arrests. And some experts question the government’s methodology in counting the dead.

Throughout his campaign and the first months of his presidency, Peña Nieto pledged a “different” security strategy that would reduce crime without the army-heavy focus on dismantling drug organizations. But he has failed thus far to articulate the details of a different approach.

His most visible actions are reminiscent of the controversial tactics of his predecessor, PresidentFelipe Calderon. After initially criticizing the so-called kingpin strategy of focusing on the detention or death of drug cartel bosses, Peña Nieto’s government in recent weeks has rolled up two major drug gang chiefs. And the administration’s first major military operation involved sending troops into the inflamed state of Michoacan, replicating Calderon’s first major military operation in December 2006.

The centerpiece of Peña Nieto’s security strategy has been the creation of a gendarmerie, a special police force that would replace the controversial military deployment. But last week, the government revealed a vastly reduced and delayed gendarmerie that will be a fraction of its originally planned size, is running a year behind schedule in its formation and is being relegated to a subdivision within the federal police.

Even some of Peña Nieto’s most important achievements have begun to lose their luster. His government was cheered when it ordered the arrest of notorious teachers union boss Elba Esther Gordillo, whose lavish lifestyle and other excesses finally resulted in charges of embezzlement and involvement in organized crime.

But some Mexicans now wonder whether Gordillo was being punished because she had refused to support Peña Nieto, while another union leader of equally ill repute, the steadfastly loyal Carlos Romero Deschamps, remains a government favorite.

Peña Nieto’s Pact for Mexico, a consensus-building arrangement of the major political parties, was hailed as a breakthrough in good governance. It’s possible that the consensus, despite numerous threats of coming apart, will hold together in the long run, and that the president, who is constitutionally barred from seeking reelection, will be able to ride out the street protests and see much of his reform agenda enacted. For the time being, though, the voices of discontent are rising.

“What’s left of the Mexican moment?” Alberto Aziz Nassif, a political expert at Mexico City’s Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology, wrote in the newspaper El Universal. “An expectation, full of smoke, that disappeared in the face of a lack of growth. The poverty that remains, the violence that hasn’t diminished, the inertia of regression, … the reforms that, at the moment, are blocked.”

In an interview, Aziz said the imminent timing of even a seemingly wonky piece of legislation like fiscal overhaul will potentially add to popular unrest because it includes taxes on food and medicine that the left and poor oppose.

“You can see a complicated situation,” Aziz said. The government probably has the votes to pass its proposals in Congress, but would have to deal with a growing opposition movement. That could force the administration to choose only the most “urgent and necessary” reforms, Aziz said, and postpone the rest.

Peña Nieto’s government received laudatory if premature praise for what was often portrayed as a booming economy. But in recent weeks, growth projections for 2013 have been slashed to as low as 1.2%. Even Peña Nieto’s right-hand man, Finance Minister Luis Videgaray, was forced to label the country’s economic performance “mediocre.”

Analysts blame the poor rate of U.S. importation of Mexican goods, which hurt production here, and slow, hesitant spending by the government. But they are not writing off the slightly more distant future.

“Growth figures for 2013 have been disappointing; expectations were high,” said Alonso Cervera, a Mexico-based research analyst for Credit Suisse. “Medium-term growth, however, remains quite promising — if the reforms go through.”

As Cervera spoke, he looked down from his 27th-floor office window at Mexico City’s most important thoroughfare, Reforma Boulevard, where it intersects with the main north-south freeway.

It was completely shut down in the middle of a weekday, lined by police guarding against striking teachers.

Copyright © 2013, Los Angeles Times

Photo: Members of a teachers union block a street Friday outside a government building in Mexico City. In another part of the city, thousands of the striking teachers have laid siege to the plaza surrounding the presidential National Palace. (Alex Cruz / European Pressphoto Agency / August 30, 2013, via LA Times)

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