Understanding the roots of the ongoing teacher unrest in this Southern Mexico state
We all saw it coming. From the first day, it was a train wreck. A bad marriage? Nope. A horrible business deal? Not a chance. A get rich quick scheme? Not even close.
What we are witnessing right now in Oaxaca between the government and the powerful teachers union is more like a clash of civilizations. It’s the Yankees and Dodgers in the World Series once again, Magic and Bird at the Fabulous Forum, and Ali/ Frazier in the Thrilla in Manilla. All rolled into one.
Except in Oaxaca, we’re talking real life. Real lives. Hundreds of thousands of them across one of the poorest states in all of Mexico.
The story begins in the late 1980’s. That’s when, with little thought of the future, Heladio Ramirez, then Governor of Oaxaca, gave the state teachers union the right to hire and fire, control wages and distribute salaries.1
Those decisions, made almost 40 years ago are what is reverberating today across the state, even as President Enrique Peña Nieto struggles to implement his cherished education reforms on a national level. One of the signature features of those reforms are competency exams for the teachers. Essentially, Mr. Peña Nieto wants every teacher to pass a test to be able to continue teaching.
Almost all of the majority indigenous areas of Mexico have seen unrest related to the proposed reforms, however nothing has rivaled what is currently happening in Oaxaca. To understand why, we must look back and consider what took place in 2006.
2006 was a watershed moment for the teachers union of Oaxaca. As they had for over 25 years, the teachers marched on the zocalo of Oaxaca City, staged a sit-in and demanded an audience with the Governor of the state. It was once again time to demand more money. In previous years, this exercise was little more than a show. The teachers complained for a couple of weeks, staged their sit-in and then the state government decided to give them a token raise. Except this time, there was a change.
On June 14th, instead of acceding to the teachers wishes, Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz ordered state troops in early in the morning to dislodge the peaceful protestors. The teachers ran, trying to avoid the heavy blows from the batons raining down on them and their families. Soon tear gas canisters were being dropped from circling helicopters in the ongoing efforts to disperse the teachers.
Then on Friday, June 16th, the empire struck back, That day the maestros returned. With reinforcements. The specter of the government beating peaceful protestors 2 days earlier, was too much for the teachers, and Oaxaca to bear. More than 200,000 people joined the protest that day as a seemingly unending line of people marched to take the zocalo once again. To many, Governor Ulises Ruiz’ actions smacked of foul play, brutality and outright repression.
The government, outnumbered by the teachers and thousands of sympathetic Oaxacans also fed up with government inactions on their pet issues, effectively fell that day.
Bit by bit the teachers consolidated control over the city, even installing their own system of laws and governance. What had been up to that point, a nice safe tourist destination full of charm and beauty, had now become a war zone. Burned busses, cars and barricades surrounded the city center. Masked men and women stood guard at strategic points, in constant communication with allies at other check points.
I remember walking across the normally crowded zocalo one day that summer at about 7:00pm. I was stunned to notice that I was the only person there. Not the only gabacho, the only person. In a place normally so full of life, color and vibrancy, there I was alone in a surreal emptiness. The protests and occupation lasted until November of that year when federal troops finally dislodged the teachers.
After that, protestors turned to blocking streets and highways across the state to register their complaints with the government. The hope was that the constant disruption of the general public would compel a solution, or capitulation from the government. It was a solution that would never come.
Fast forward to 2015. After years of mostly peaceful protests and blockades following the 2006 uprising, order was starting to come once again to Oaxaca. Businesses were finally starting to claw their way back into profitability. For many, 2014 was the first year since the protests where they had seen an increase in sales, revenue and for hotels, occupancy rates. Oaxaca it seemed had finally started to turn around.
But the teachers, while somewhat quiet, were never far from everyones minds. The June elections that year featured the teachers disrupting the process and burning ballots across the state. The were intent on destroying any efforts that might give legitimacy to Peña Nietos’ education reforms. The Organization of American States, there to observe the process, called it a “farce”.2 Seeing the protests, intimidation of voters and the ongoing violence, they closed their offices and went home. Local protests centered around the election effectively blockaded Pemex, the national supplier of petroleum to Mexico. Across the city, gas stations were closed, for lack of supply.
In mid-June 2015, President Peña Nieto sent thousands of federal troops to Oaxaca, including the new Gendarmerie, a federal force created to specifically deal with persistent issues of mass disruption and rioting. With the Guelaguetza Festival fast approaching, and the teachers riled up over the elections, there was fear that Oaxaca, already a tinder box, would erupt.
Troops were everywhere.
You could not enter the airport without proper identification and a flight number. On almost every street corner and across the city, there were rows of armed soldiers waiting in full riot gear. Lines of busses stretched around the Eduardo Vasconcelos Baseball Stadium, all loaded with federal troops. They were sent to Oaxaca to keep the peace, and they did.
The summer of 2015 was one of the most peaceful summers I can remember in the city. There were still protestors in the zocalo, but the city was functioning. At least on the surface. As summer wound down, the final performance of the Guelaguetza was at hand. Fearing an uprising, the troops had been sent to surround the auditorium and keep the peace. They were also sent to other strategic places around the city, including the Office of Public Education in Oaxaca. [IEEPO].
On Tuesday, July 28, after the final performances of the Guelaguetza, I watched as planeload after planeload of additional troops descended on Oaxaca. Soon there were military helicopters flying regular missions around the valley. We soon learned why.
Governor Gabino Cue and President Enrique Peña Nieto had essentially inked a pact stripping the powerful teachers union in Oaxaca of most of their powers. Gone was the ability to hire and fire, granted the union back in the 1980’s.3 Gone was the power to sell teaching jobs to the highest bidder. Gone was the ability to control the distribution of wages. Gone was the power of patronage so prevalent for years in the education system of Oaxaca. The union, upon hearing the news, vowed to respond. But the dye had been cast.
In place were those planeloads of new soldiers guarding the entire city. Thousands of them. It seemed as if the years of blockades, teacher strikes and protests had finally driven the city and government to say, “Ya, basta… Enough!” Public support, while not in favor of the government, was certainly on side of order, as opposed to the continual chaos offered up by the teachers. Besides, many asked, what kind of education were their kids getting when they were routinely missing 50 of the required 200 school days each year as their teachers protested?
May 2016 marked the beginning of another round of protests. Union leaders Aciel Sibaja Mendoza and Heriberto Magariño López had been arrested and the teachers were increasingly angry and what they saw as the heavy handedness of the government. As they had in the past, they took over the zocalo. But this year had a feel much more like 2006 than in past years. The mega-marches, always a staple of Oaxacan protests, were bigger and more frequent. Teacher strikes were being called almost daily in some parts of town. And this year, even the streets surrounding the zocalo were choked by protestors and their tents.
As we approached the 10 year anniversary of the June 2006 uprising, the city was tense. The arrests of two more key union leaders, Francisco Villalobos Ricardéz and Rubén Núñez Ginez served as the match that lit the teachers fire. To the teachers, they were under attack and it was time to respond.
Strategic blockades went up in a coordinated effort around the state. Essentially, every access to the capital city was closed off to commercial traffic. That included busses, semis, gas deliveries, everything. Some people reported being stuck for over 24 hours in traffic backups on various highways. ADO, the popular bus line for travel into and out of the city, cancelled service indefinitely.
When the teachers commandeered busses for their blockades north of Oaxaca City in Nochixtlan, the state and federal government had seen enough. Troops were ordered to do what was necessary to open the road between Oaxaca and Puebla/Mexico City.
Sunday, June 19, a bloody battle took place between the teachers and the various police agencies of Oaxaca and Mexico at that blockade in the Sierra Mixteca. In the end, 6 people lost their lives and more than 50 people were injured. The teachers blame the troops, the troops and the government blame the teachers. Who fired the first shots, or struck first may never be known. But one thing is certain…everyone saw this coming.
For those intent on hanging on to power, whether it be the leaders of the powerful teachers union, or government leaders, the ongoing battle is a good thing. After years of each side telling their backers that the other side will eventually fold, a retreat will never go over well. 10 years of acrimonious relations with little or no interest in the students both sides claim to represent have shown us that neither side is willing to compromise. It’s as if the words, “El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz” [“respect for the rights of others is peace”], spoken by the first Mexican President Benito Juarez of Oaxaca do not matter anymore.
Many of the facts in this ongoing conflict are terribly hard to get at, but here is what we do know.
According to Milenio, a news daily in Mexico that combed newly disclosed records from the teachers union in Oaxaca, there are approximately 90 thousand teachers employed in the state. 12 of those teachers earn over $9000 USD a month. 85 of them earn between $5,000 and $7,000 USD a month. 670 of those teachers earn between $3,500 and $4,500 USD a month and an additional 5000 teachers earn between $1,800 and $3,500 USD a month. The remaining 84,000 teachers in Oaxaca earn between $250 and $850 a month.4 Until recently, all of those funds were administered by the union.
The school facilities in many areas are substandard. Depending on where you are, you may find classrooms with dirt floors, tin siding for walls, and leaky roofs. In some areas, electricity is a luxury. Desks, if they exist at all are frequently in poor condition.
Many classrooms in rural Oaxaca are staffed by local parents, or only partially qualified teachers who basically keep order. Oftentimes the actual teaching is done by satellite. Or to put it another way, kids watch a teacher on television explain the lesson, and then ask the local leader if they have questions. If they are lucky, the in class teacher is able to help them, if not, they are on their own.
While the goal of President Peña Nieto is to remove unqualified teachers from these rural classrooms and replace them with a qualified professional, no one is addressing who those professionals will be. In many cases the union is asking whether a dedicated, in some cases under-qualified person is better than no one. Because that is reality. If you remove those local leaders, who almost surely would not pass a competency exam, who will replace them?
The competency exams favored by the federal government and scorned by local leaders in Oaxaca and indeed, in other indigenous areas of Mexico, do not, the teachers claim, even deal with the fact that many students in Oaxaca enter school not speaking Spanish. For thousands and thousands of children across the state, the first language they learn is the heart language of their family.
What qualified teacher many ask, is going to leave the city and move into an impoverished rural area where Spanish is a second language, for oftentimes less than $500.00 a month? Unless and until the government can answer that question with facts and real solutions, this debacle is going to continue. And that is before we even begin to address the crumbling facilities that pass for schools in many indigenous communities.
Digging just a little deeper, we learn that Oaxaca is a two sided state. On one side we have the beautiful capital city, the prosperous beach communities like Huatulco, and a few mostly business oriented towns like Tlaxiaco, Tlacolula and Miahuatlan. These more urban cities have an ability to generate outside economic activity and provide a tax base for their local governments to invest in their citizenry and school.
On the other side are the mostly rural communities with sometimes little or no outside economic activity. Whatever money is present within the general community, comes from that community. And overall, that amount pales in comparison to their urban counterparts.
The state government has not done a good job at addressing the growing inequality between these two ever present sides of Oaxaca. Part of the problem is structural. The state of Oaxaca has over 550 municipalities, each needing separate funding. In contrast, the state of Baja California with a like division between rural and urban areas, has 5 separate municipalities. This disparity siphons pesos off the top of the state economic pie to provide separate government control of even the smallest of communities. That is money that were it not going to fund local city halls, could be redirected into the education system of Oaxaca.
At it’s heart, the issues of education in Oaxaca are economics, power and corruption. Solve these and you solve the education issues.
I have tried to shed some light on a very difficult issue to understand in Oaxaca. In my travels, reading, and conversations with people around the state, I have heard from a variety of sources. Some of those are strongly pro-teacher, and others strongly pro-government. I have talked with teachers holding steel pipes as busses burned behind them and political leaders across kitchen tables.
I have listened to parents trying to figure out what to do with their kids when teachers go on strike and I have heard people wonder why government seems powerless to restore order. Business owners have told me the constant blockades and protests are killing their businesses. Taxi drivers, forced almost daily to navigate a changing on-street reality, are beside themselves.
People in other states in Mexico, even if they agree with the teachers, are amazed that the government has not stepped in. If this had happened in their state they say, the teachers would have already been replaced, fired long ago for striking.
One thing is certain, to a person, everyone I know desires an end to the chaos that has engulfed their city and state. They know this is hurting the community, business, their reputations and the children in this deeply troubled state.
Finally, I live in a state, Nevada, where the divide between us city folk and those that live a more rural lifestyle is huge. Just like Oaxaca. Whether we like it or not, many of us in the Las Vegas area accept the fact that revenue from our corner of the state must be used to guarantee a certain standard of living across the entire state. Without tax revenue from Las Vegas, places like Ely, Tonopah and Goodsprings would struggle to survive.
That is a struggle the teachers union and many of those supporting them are giving voice to. The reality in Oaxaca is that government has not made the decision to share the wealth and take care of the poorer areas of the state.
I live and work in those communities during the year. I see exactly what the teachers are talking about. The schools in many cases are terrible. The state government does not provide any services in these areas. Health care can be non-existent. Malnutrition is chronic and the infant mortality rate is way too high for an emerging nation. These conditions must change, but the burning of buildings, the mass and oftentimes violent disruption of society and commerce is not the way to make that change a reality.
Likewise it should be said that the government response, shooting and then working to cover up the truth of their actions is certainly worse. It is one thing to protest, another to kill. Government should exist to protect her citizens, not kill them.
Is there likely to be an answer anytime soon? As someone who has spent the last 25+ years traveling around Mexico and Oaxaca, I doubt it. Because a real solution would require people to cede power for the sake of what essentially is a voiceless, powerless group of people… children.
1 “Heladio Ramírez López Y Varios Más, Protectores Históricos De Los.” Pagina3 Noticias Desde Oaxaca Con Perspectiva De Gnero Y Responsabilidad Social. N.p., 24 July 2015. Web. http://pagina3.mx/2015/07/heladio-ramirez-lopez-y-varios-mas-protectores-historicos-de-los-maistros-de-la-xxii/.
2 “OAS Suspends Its Election Observing Mission in Oaxaca, Mexico.” TeleSur, 7 June 2015. Web. http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/OAS-Suspends-Its-Election-Observing-Mission-in-Oaxaca-Mexico-20150607-0013.html.
3 “Peña Nieto Gambles in Key Education Reform.” Fast FT. Fast FT, 21 July 2015. Web. http://www.ft.com/fastft/2015/07/21/mexicos-nieto-takes-gamble-key-education-reform/.
4 Michel, Victor Hugo. “No Equality in Pay for Oaxaca’s Teachers.” Mexico News Daily. Milenio Noticias, 18 June 2015. Web. http://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/no-equality-in-pay-for-oaxacas-teachers/.