The Mexican street lives on


Street politics.


Yuri Cortez

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Days after lawmakers here passed sweeping education reforms, disgruntled teachers continue to besiege the capital and several states, the latest incarnation of Mexico's enduring culture of protest.

Tens of thousands of striking teachers and their supporters marched through the heart of Mexico City Wednesday, and blockaded the international airport Thursday. Their leaders are vowing to keep up pressure until the government relents and scuttles the new laws.

Many teachers say they will join even larger protests against energy and other reforms pushed by President Enrique Peña Nieto, with the backing of Mexico's three largest and normally antagonistic political parties. The wider movement is expected to seize Mexico City on Sunday in a march against the energy reforms, led by former mayor and two-time presidential contender Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

“Teachers hold out, the people are rising up,” a sign carried by a middle-aged woman at Wednesday's demonstration read, as marchers chanted “listen, people, this is your fight.”

Marches, blockades, sit-ins and strikes have defined politics here since the fraud-plagued 1988 presidential election win by Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Mexico City alone saw some 8,500 such demonstrations in the year ending in March, according to police.

Thousands of protests in Mexico over the years helped pry loose the PRI's seven-decade stranglehold on Mexican politics. 

But now, 15 years after opposition parties first gained control of the national congress and then drove the PRI from the presidency, many Mexicans still see public protest as their only recourse.

“The political parties all have putrefied. The street is our only tool," university student Juan Lopez, 20, marching with the teachers Wednesday, said with youthful bravado. "If the street doesn't work then all that's left are weapons, just like in the Arab countries."

Since beginning his six-year term in December, Peña Nieto has pushed hard for an array of long-delayed reforms, many of them blocked by his centrist PRI while the conservation National Action Party held the presidency.

With the PRI's lawmakers in his pocket, Peña Nieto has enlisted leaders of both National Action and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party in a “Pact for Mexico,” compelling their own legislators to enact changes he says will dramatically transform the country.

"Mexico faces a great opportunity to launch deep structural changes to take advantage of its riches and wide potential," the president said Monday in his first state of the nation speech. "We have a mature democracy that must permit us to reach agreement. Let's trust in our potential. Let's be audacious and dare to take a great leap forward in our development."

Economic reforms seek to increase the tax base, loosen the wallets of loan-wary banks and open the nationalized energy industries to private, including foreign, investors. The new education laws aim to require teachers to meet professional standards and, like other labor reforms on the table, to loosen mostly PRI-affiliated unions' control of workforces.

So many reforms at once are bound to step on a lot of toes simultaneously, drawing ire particularly from Mexico's large but fairly tame organized labor. The teachers marching in the Mexican capital belong to dissident locals of the 1.4 million strong National Education Workers Syndicate, or SNTE.

Alleging corruption and other malfeasance, Peña Nieto's prosecutors jailed longtime SNTE boss Elba Esther Gordillo in February when she returned on a private jet from her house in the swanky Coronado Island section of San Diego.

While Gordillo and most of the SNTE's members watch from the sidelines, the dissidents have flexed their muscles. Nearly three dozen other unions, many of which have broken from PRI control in recent decades during Mexico's walk toward democracy, announced they're joining the strikers' movement.

“This is not an education reform, this is a labor reform intended to destroy the unions,” said Luz Maria Torres, a 26-year-old kindergarten teacher marching Wednesday. “We're not going to permit that.”

Though they failed to stop congress' approval of the education laws, the strikers won concessions on how teachers will be evaluated and under which circumstances the results will be made public. They may be able to win even more by pressuring state government in the coming years.

Similar opposition may serve to weaken implementing laws and regulations of other economic reforms, opponents hope and backers fear.

"What we want are profound reforms," Gerardo Gutierrez, president of the Business Coordinating Council, which represents some of the country's largest companies, said. "Without them it's difficult for Mexico to transition to the country we want it to be."

Peña Nieto aides are expected to propose tax hikes Sunday that have been on backroom planning tables, largely unnoticed by the public. The new taxes are essential to freeing up the finances of Pemex, the national oil company that provides about a third of the government's budget. But with the economy slumping, perhaps toward recession, any tax hikes are bound to rankle.

“The great challenge is how to create a productive and competitive country,” Gutierrez said in arguing against more taxes on businesses and the wealthy. “The same Mexicans can't continue carrying the whole country. We are very few."

But business executives tend to press their cases huddled with lawmakers and officials behind closed doors or over pricey meals.

Peña Nieto's more immediate challenge lies in the street, with more disenchanted and disenfranchised citizens.

Yet after weeks of addled traffic, missed flights and other mayhem covered feverishly by the national media, many Mexicans might well side with the president against the protesters. That's what happened when Lopez Obrador's supporters occupied the capital's iconic artery, the Paseo de la Reforma, for months after the 2006 elections they insist he'd lost through fraud.

"Mexicans feel proud when our democratic institutions fulfill their responsibility in the face of pressures or group interests," Peña Nieto said in his Monday speech.

"In today's Mexico, democracy respects minorities but the minorities always should respect democracy, its institutions and the freedom of others."