The Struggle of Mexican Teachers. Interview with Francisco Salas, from the Jalisco-CNTE Teachers’ Front

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By: Mariano Casco / Source: Resumen Latinoamericano / The Dawn News / September 6, 2016

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Francisco Salas, speaker in the event held on June 7, 2016 in Jalisco, México

Over the last few months one of the most important union struggles in Latin America has taken place. The National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE), which nucleates teachers that oppose the bureaucratic leadership of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), unleashed a strike with mobilizations at a national level to demand the abrogation of the neoliberal educational reform promoted by President Enrique Peña Nieto since 2012.

In only 3 months over 1 million people participated in the demonstrations, there were hundreds of roadblocks, camps, occupations of public buildings, government institutions, shopping malls and airports. There were several detained and wounded and 11 deaths. This is the climax of over 3 years of constant protests and mobilizations against the reform imposed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its allies, the National Action Party (PAN) and the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

Although the core of the resistance is made up of unions, the movement is much broader. Because what’s at stake is not only working rights but Mexico’s entire public education system. Furthermore, this conflict can lead (if it hasn’t already done so) to a crushing political defeat for the government. Because of these reasons, dissimile social sectors have joined the claim, including: the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) and its most notorious face, Andrés Manuel López Obrador; municipal presidents; the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN); the families of the 43 students who disappeared in Ayotzinapa; and territorial, student and union organizations.

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The increasing questioning of the educational reform has also served to solidify criticism against the 12 reforms that the PRI is implementing since its return to the Federal government at the end of 2012. Irene del Carmen, President of the Santo Domingo Yanhuitlán locality, said, regarding the arrival of the “Motorized Caravan of the Indigenous Peoples of Oaxaca For Peace and Justice” to Mexico City last July 19, “it is only through unity that we will achieve (…) the suppression of the 12 reforms that harm our peoples. They harm real people who walk through their rivers and their mountains, who have lived on these lands for over a thousand years”.

The most notorious incident in the conflict between the CNTE and the Mexican government at the international level is perhaps the brutal repression by federal police in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca. However, little is known about the struggle that led the inhabitants of said community to block a road. In order to elucidate this series of events, we interviewed Francisco Salas, professor and spokesman of the Jalisco-CNTE Teachers’ Front.

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What’s the current status of the teachers’ struggle. What are the CNTE and the Federal Government negotiating?

At this point we believe we are very close to victory. The struggle has been very long, since it spanned over more than four years. Four years of relentless and frontal fight against the educational reform. Over this period of time, the CNTE has had a very clear demand —it is only one and it has never changed: we want more than the abrogation of the educational reform.

Needless to say, many things happened during this process. A high price was paid, precisely to be at the point where we are now, moment to negotiate. We’re talking about comrades who were killed —at least 30 dead in a four—, dozens of teachers in prison, administrative sanctions for a great many teachers and other forms of retaliation used by the state to put a limit on this struggle.

Regarding the negotiation, we’re discussing a threefold negotiation, with three negotiating tables: a political one, an educative one and a social one. Until this day, the only one that has made progress is the political table, which debates issues like the discounts on teachers’ salaries, layoffs, the freeing of imprisoned comrades and the union’s bank accounts that were illegally frozen by the Federal Government.

As for the educational negotiation, it’s about what kind of reform we want. And as for the social negotiation, a serious and strong reactivation is necessary, and every social group must be represented, it must include the Mexican people as a whole, who are side by side with the CNTE. We believe that their struggle is not different from ours. There can’t be a quality education with precariousness in the living conditions of our people.

The last 4 months were full of mobilizations for the CNTE. How did the current period of confrontation come to be? Which were the most important moments in the struggle?

I believe that last year [2015] was the peak of the democratic teachers’ movement nationwide. Marches began to emerge in places that had never mobilized before. We’re talking about Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua and Jalisco. In the latter, there were at one point mobilizations of 25,000 teachers at once. And there were also mobilizations in the four states were the CNTE is consolidated, which have historically been the most combative ones: Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacán.

Many of us think that it would have been optimal to spark the protests back then, when there was unrest all over the country. Sadly, the Coordination was unable to consolidate the strike process, and then came a moment of backflow of the masses. And that created a defeatist mentality in many of our comrades. Some believed there was no way to abrogate the educational reform. That was before, in mid-2015.

Things changed around the May 1st to 15th, prior to the outbreak of the strike. Tension could be felt everywhere, because the protests were huge. In Chiapas there were mobilizations with over 120 thousand people, in Oaxaca more than 80 or 90 thousand, in Guerrero over 20 thousand. The atmosphere was tense already and then the Federal Government made direct threats. The former Secretary of Public Education, Aurelio Nuño, announced that he had a backup pool of over 20 thousand teachers so he could lay off and replace any teacher that joined the strike. That was a definitory moment, we had to see who was really in charge: the government or the Coordination. It was like a train collision: two unstoppable forces about to crash.

The third stage of the conflict began on May 15th. The government began to mellow down the tone of its discourse, but simultaneously increased the intensity of repression. They basically stopped talking and started hitting.

In this conflict, the Coordination innovated greatly. Never before in our 36 years of struggle had the roadblocks and occupations had so much centralization; this is unprecedented in the history of the Coordination itself. We used to call, above all, to mass mobilization and marches. We made roadblocks but it wasn’t our core strategy.

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Roadblock in the City of Mexico, 2016

The second thing that surprised the government was the immense solidarity from the Mexican people. The support of mothers and fathers and of social organizations that invested themselves completely in the teachers’ cause. I can assure you that, had there not been this amount of support, the government would have made different decisions, and who knows where we’d be right now.

The third stage ended abruptly with Nochixtlán [where police repression killed 11 people on June 19]. The state realizes that these abuses have created (unlike others) a reaction in the public opinion. The people knew, despite the attempts to conceal it, that the murderer of those people had been the state, that the federal policemen had shot in cold blood. And then, there was a massive insurrection, with more struggle, roadblocks, open confrontation with federal forces and army troops. That’s how the fourth stage began, which is where we are now.

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Roadblock in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca

After the repression in Nochxitlán, the government kept silent for two or three days. And then they announced they would open the negotiating table. It’s noteworthy that the negotiating table had already been opened last year and it had been sabotaged by the Federal Government, when they said “we’re not moving a single comma in the reform bill”. So after Nochixtlán, the debate was opened again. But a very important thing is that we didn’t take this as a sign to stop the mobilizations, because this weakens us: one of the core strategies of the Coordination since its inception has been the pattern “mobilization-negotiation-mobilization”. We won’t stop mobilizing even though this was one of the fundamental demands of Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the Secretary of Government. He said that if we wanted to negotiate we had to free the roads. But we didn’t free the roads, and we’re negotiating.

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