Popular Resistance Rises to Mexico’s Neoliberal Reforms

By  |  19 / September / 2013

This post is also available in: Spanish

061-Medium-701x395Last week teachers’ protests to the education reform spread across Mexico, just as the president introduced his next major reform-the fiscal reform.

The latest package of neoliberal reforms, from the labor reform to the tax reform, “is a massive blow to the interests of the middle class and below,” says anthropologist and activist Gilberto Lopez y Rivas. Although resistance is growing against the education reform, “the question is whether it can reach a critical mass to stop this wave”, questions labor lawyer Hector de la Cueva.

It’s essential to unite among the different social sectors to confront the negative repercussions on national sovereignty that the reforms will bring, says energy expert Heberto Barrios. Researcher Hugo Aboites noted that the impact on broader sectors of society due to growing poverty caused by the structural changes, will give more legitimacy to mobilizations in the streets.

The four interviewees spoke to Desinformémonos on the impact of the reforms launched by President Enrique Pena Nieto. The reforms in education, labor, energy and fiscal policy have mobilized significant sectors of the population in opposition, with the mass media playing an active role to discredit them for blocking traffic. This opposition faces a challenge of coming together and finding new ways of expressing itself.

The Mexican political class “feels completely sure that although there is resistance, they can carry out the reforms. Hence the closure, deafness and blindness from all the parties,” notes López y Rivas, who claims that the Pact for Mexico, an alliance between the administration and the major political parties) is actually an agreement to carry out the structural reforms. “They found this political space to carry out reforms and they feel they can do it.”

The announced energy reform to be submitted to Congress sometime in the next weeks, is “the hijacking of oil revenues” and “represents a direct blow to the income and expenditures of the State, and will have direct consequences in the pockets of all Mexicans, primarily in the poorest and most exploited,” López y Rivas stated.

A few days before the new PRI president took office, the government of Felipe Calderon was able to approve the Labor Reform, supported by Peña, de la Cueva, a labor expert, affirmed. In the nine months of Peña Nieto’s government, two reforms have been approved that the business and political class proposed years ago: telecommunications and education. Immediately after the education reform, the president announced that the energy and tax reforms are up next. The tax reform was sent to Congress on Sept. 8.

Meanwhile, the demonstrations continue. Dissident teachers have announced marches and call for a national strike. Opposition politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador held a march against the energy reform.

Government “manages” the resistance

With the labor reform, there was little resistance and not enough to prevent it; with education there have been stronger mobilizations, however the government took a series of measures that allowed them to enforce it, De la Cueva noted. “I guess the opposition to energy will be stronger and may combine with the others,” he predicted.

A march of thousands of people in Mexico rejected the August 31 announcement of the energy reform. Regarding the education reform, large demonstrations took place in the first week of September when regulatory laws were passed and the protest spread to 22 states of Mexico under the call from the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE) for “an insurrection”.

López y Rivas, a legislator who served on the Concord and Pacification Commission between the Zapatistas and the government concludes that although there is resistance from important sectors of society overall “it is not responding to the degree of the threats and attacks represented by these reforms.”

The executive branch and legislators are betting on conflict and atomization of the struggles to impose the reforms. “They deceived the teachers, sent them out to ten regional conferences and one in Mexico City, and the Secretary of the Interior never delivered the results of the consultation that ​​the teachers held”.

López y Rivas argues that the promoters of the reforms “are measuring forces, with the assumption that they will resort to repression if all else fails, as demonstrated throughout these months of Peña Nieto.”

The first structural reform, labor, passed quickly because Mexico has undermined the power of unions, states De La Cueva, from the Center for Labor Research and Consulting Association (CILAS). He notes that the government counted on the fact that a very small percentage of workers is organized in authentic unions, “so that when the reform came, the resistance was low.”

“As economic insecurity increases, it’s harder to count on collective organizations, and to the extent that ‘protection unions’ exist (unions that protect employers’ interests rather than workers’ rights), the strength of genuine trade unions in society and the work force is minimal.”

The educational reform was adopted in response to the pressures of international organizations and business and technocratic interests of the federal government, Aboites maintains. The model of those who promote it is that  “if Mexico behaves as corporate conglomerates want it to, there will be investment, jobs and prosperity.”

Resistance to the new wave of neoliberal reforms is growing, insists De La Cueva, “but the question is whether it will have enough strength to stop the hand of the neoliberal right, which will resort to anything.”

Labor Reform, first link

The importance of labor within the structural reform package is that it is essential to weaken the collective resistance of workers, with an eye towards the following reforms, notes De la Cueva.

“To the extent that it facilitates firings, job insecurity and instability, it makes it harder to form and foster authentic unions. Then it’s easier to assure that workers- the heart of the capitalist economy – do not put up effective resistance. A worker who is uninsured, and jumping from job to job, is difficult to organize.”

The labor reform was the first link in the chain of reforms because “they had the complicity of the old corporatist apparatus, and the reality that most unions are protection unions, which weakens resistance from authentic union – good, bad and in-between,” said De La Cueva.

De la Cueva notes that the education reform ropes together with the labor, since it terminates job security of education workers: “The overall labor reform created easier ways for employers to hire and fire. The education reform does the same thing with respect to teachers.” The labor expert warns that other coming labor reforms will affect public employees.

Contrary to the promises made during the promotion of the labor reform, it was soon evident that “it’s not generating jobs like they said it would”.

“In addition, employers use it to go further than what was approved–reducing collective agreements, degrading working conditions and laying off workers, abusing the ignorance of the new law.”

Labor reform is “clearly job insecurity, anti-flexibility and anti-stability. Every step Peña Nieto takes goes in that direction: the formalization of job insecurity in Mexico”.

Education reform “surrenders to the corporate vision”

Education reform was intended to open the way for the energy and the tax reforms, says Aboites. “They thought that by giving the blow by surprise, the others would fall in line too. But instead, it produced a scene of rebellion that greatly hinders the government in introducing the other proposals,” says the expert on educational policy.

Researcher at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM), Aboites notes that the reforms meet all the demands by business groups such as Mexicans First and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). He states that since 2008, the OECD issued recommendations to improve the quality in schools which include the separation of teachers from their jobs according to the results of a test and Peña Nieto agreed in October 2012 .

Besides being a surrender to the corporate vision, the reform is an affront to the most basic rights of education workers, “because bilateral working conditions, job security and others are an obstacle to the improvement of the quality of schools”.

The researcher believes that the reform returns education workers to conditions of 150 years ago, contrary to international agreements, because “the employer may unilaterally set conditions, like on plantations.”

Aboites notes that proponents argued for the reform on the basis of the rights of children and improving quality, but “Quality is an empty concept, which is filled at the discretion of and according to the needs of employers.” He added that in the secondary laws adopted between the last weeks of August and first of September, there are up to four contradictory definitions of the term, demonstrating that “quality” or evaluation are not the real goals and adds that the law of the National Institute for Assessment (INE), contains no measures to assess, only for regional groups to issue guidelines.

These “abuses and fantasies” outraged teachers, so we see “a real teacher insurgency” in states that had never been touched by protests such as Chihuahua, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, among others. The “dirty” process of the approval of the reforms contributed to the inconformity.

Education is very important because it is “one of the few legacies of the Mexican Revolution that are relatively intact so far, and public education is the only asset that low-income families can pass on to their children,” he says.

The mother of all reforms

The energy reform is the most important of the whole package, considers the engineer Heberto Barrios. “Overseas they call it ‘the mother of all reforms’ because they will share the oil revenue and the main income of the nation, leaving us with fewer resources.”

The member of the Center for Energy Studies believes that reform advocates hoped to launch it after the others “because they needed to carefully consider the language and strategy, because it is not so easy. Everyone knows that it will affect us.”

The government has played all its cards on this reform, Barrios continues, and the campaign to justify it “is full of fallacies. We’re trading away secure oil revenues for fantasies, for things that supposedly will come about, but they won’t, as happened with the labor reform.”

“The Davos Forum recently evaluated Mexico for labor reform and we dropped 11 spots in competitiveness, meaning that instead of helping, it was a failure”.

“The orders that come from abroad say to pass the reform by any means, but it’s hard because people are realizing that means more taxes and fewer jobs,” says Barrios. “It would be very serious if they pass it at all costs, as it will create serious social fractures”.

Gap with society

The teachers “launched a dauntless struggle against the reforms. One needs to recognize their spirit of sacrifice and what Marti said: when many have no dignity, a few have the dignity of many” says López y Rivas. Teachers fought alone against “a media dictatorship that lynched them, and a society that could care less what happened to them”, he expressed​​.

“There are alarm bells for the teachers’ movement,” said Aboites, because “the media took advantage of the citizens natural discomfort to launch a fascist campaign against the teachers, which is difficult to resolve.” For the academic, the teachers quickly understood that they should explain their demonstrations and showed that they are not interested in violence, which lessened the effect of the campaign “but it did not go away.”
The defamation campaign affected the middle class “and sectors that call themselves the left,” says López y Rivas. “We have to think about new ways of expression and protest and reach different sectors, different ways of communicating and doing the giant task of information, so that they understand that teachers defended their labor rights and secular, free and popular education”.

Aboites adds that broader segments of the population are suffering the consequences of government policies – scarcity, decline in growth rate, lack of jobs – and important sectors now see it as reasonable and necessary to mobilize. The energy and tax reform will affect society, and will resolve be the gap now between the teachers and the rest of society, because there will be a more critical view of the government. “The government is actually building bridges with these aggressive measures,” he said.

The opposition, narrow and sectarian

López y Rivas believes that politicians are playing with fire and “are not measuring accurately the indignation of the people and the sectors that will be affected. The coming weeks and months will show major mobilization against the reforms.”

The problem, he says, is that the opposition fails to coordinate among factions. There are the victims of the reforms to Article 27 of the Constitution and implementing legislation on mining and water, “where we saw more than a hundred cases at the last meeting of the in National Indigenous Congress”, not counting non-indigenous protests; the independent trade union sector, “where there is no unity and support, and other unions did not support the teachers demonstrations despite the fact that they had to deal with media lynching and living in unsanitary encampments”; and in the energy reform, where movements didn’t join marches because when “Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas participated in the march and politicians took possession of the stage, other sectors did not want to participate because they felt manipulated”.

Within the opposition to the reforms “we see fragmentation and pettiness, ‘this is my march’, ‘this one is theirs’, when it should be convened together. It is very difficult to achieve the capacity to bring together all the struggles in one national resistance to the reforms,” the academic explained.

The political class, says López y Rivas, has no credibility to make the call, but “they are not the only ones who act with egotistical aims. Everyone acts in a corporate way and goes to the demonstrations thinking about what they are going to get out of it.” That’s why, “some consider it important that the calls arise from civil society”, without each presenting their cause as the only one, he adds.

Unity “has to be achieved at all costs, because if they pass the reforms the entire country will be changed, losing sovereignty and economic development,” said the engineer Heberto Barrios, who points out that in the case of oil, “there is consensus that that must be defended.”

“We have to make a huge effort of those of us from the left, but under the banner of the Zapatistas: Everything for everyone, and for us nothing,” Lopez y Rivas concludes.

Adazahira Chávez is director of desinformemonos.org. and a contributor to the Americas Program www.americas.org

Photo: Fabrizio Lorusso

Translation: Clayton Conn

Original in Spanish in Desinformémonos

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