In late September Mexico was caught between two destructive tropical storms.The metaphor should not be taken too far, but Mexican public life is also under the influence of multiple and contradictory forces—in this case, ideological rather than meteorological. Various actors on the left compete against each other for the same space, while the reforms they oppose continue to gain traction. Who is on the right side of history here? Any answer, as Mexicans love to remind foreigners, “is more complicated than that.”
On September 13 the police expelled teachers’ union members from the zócalo in Mexico City, for centuries the symbolic center of national power. The teachers, camped out since May in front of the metropolitan cathedral, the national palace, and the city hall, were protesting a proposed education reform modifying the practices used to hire and assess public school teachers. They belonged to the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, a dissident faction of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabjadores de la Educación, whose 1.4 million members make it the largest labor union in Latin America (for more on the CNTE, see Benjamin T. Smith’s “Teachers, Education Reform, and Mexico’s Left”). The SNTE’s powerful leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, was arrested in February on easily demonstratable corruption charges. Gordillo had broken with the historical ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, and used the union’s army of activists to help the conservative Partido de Acción Nacional win the 2006 presidential election. The PRI recaptured the presidency in 2012 with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto, making Gordillo’s downfall almost inevitable. Her arrest also facilitated the educational reforms that have been in the works since the main political parties—PRI, PAN and the center-left Partido de la Revolución Democrática—had agreed on a broad legislative program in 2012.
The SNTE did not put up much of a fight after Gordillo was arrested. But the CNTE, strongest in Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest and least educated states, was another story. The CNTE was founded as an internal caucus opposed to the SNTE’s corrupt leadership, but it claims a broader social importance. It defines itself as part of a “class front” of public employees seeking to overthrow the bourgeois state and as the defender of socialist education against the government’s planned reforms. Several intellectuals on the left have questioned the CNTE’s methods and integrity. Is the appropriation of public spaces in Mexico City—blocking avenues, camping in the zócalo, and alienating the general population—a strategy to stop the education reform or simply to extract concessions at home in Oaxaca? The latter seems more likely: a negotiation between the CNTE leadership, the ministry of the interior, and the state governor resulted in a preliminary agreement to return to Oaxaca and resume classes. (Classes will not start just yet, a recent assembly decided, and the organization vows to continue the general struggle against the reform program and the local demand that teachers’ evaluations not be applied in Oaxaca.)
The protests also reveal the tensions within Mexico’s major left-wing party, the PRD, which has governed the capital since 1997. Political control of the city’s public space has been key to the PRD’s national projection. Continuing the PRI’s tradition of clientelism, organizations of street vendors remain one of its major constituencies. The party also derives symbolic legitimacy from running a cosmopolitan, liberal, and (relative to the rest of the country) safe city. Progressive municipal reforms including gay marriage, legalized abortion, partial marijuana decriminalization, cash transfers to the elderly, and a new university have increased its political capital.
The PRD is also increasingly invested in the continuity of the electoral system. Besides governing the capital, the party has a significant number of congressional seats and state governorships (including, through a coalition, the CNTE stronghold of Oaxaca State). To support the transition to a competitive democratic system that began in the 1990s, the federal government has funneled enormous amounts of money to the three major parties (PAN, PRI, and PRD) as well as to the smaller parties that qualify for the national ballots (one of which was owned by the disgraced SNTE leader Gordillo). Elections are more competitive now than they were at any time in the last century, but in congress the leadership of each party manages the vote of their members as a block. Senators and deputies cannot be reelected, so their main goal while in office is to keep the discipline that will secure them another candidacy from the party after their term ends. Yet another tension comes from the tendency of PRD Mexico City mayors since 1997 to seek national office, which provides an incentive to elevate anti-systemic rhetoric even while the logic of municipal politics points toward maintaining order and maintaining negotiations with the federal government over revenue and other resources.
The dissident teachers have disrupted the everyday lives of millions of workers, consumers, and bureaucrats, thousands of whom now rail in increasingly racist tones against the teachers through Twitter and Facebook. The mainstream press, the radio, and the television duopoly have taken the opportunity to scold demonstrators and defend the president’s reform initiative, approved by congress. In their coverage, the opinions of impatient drivers stuck in traffic suddenly acquired great political significance. Their resentment rekindles memories of 2006, when the PRD’s frustrated presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched a massive, months-long encampment on the capital’s main avenues. The city government facilitated the 2006 protests, whose unpopularity probably cost López Obrador many votes when he ran again in 2012.
The contradictions within the left crystallized in the departure of López Obrador from the PRD. He now heads a new party, MORENA, whose main rival will not be the right-wing PAN or the governing PRI so much as the party that twice ran him for president. López Obrador has continued to embrace protest politics. The teachers’ encampment forced him to postpone a planned demonstration against the government’s plan to reform the state-run oil industry, his short-term strategic goal, yet he has maintained a cautious support for the CNTE.
Miguel Mancera, the current PRD chief of the city government, has had to weigh these competing demands, maintaining order and working within the system with his party’s traditional support for the use of public spaces by social movements. Mayors need to constantly negotiate revenues with the federal government and the party depends on subsidies and high-salary seats in congress that create powerful incentives to work within the system. The images of billowing smoke and bloodied teachers after the police expelled the CNTE and destroyed its encampment weaken Mancera’s influence within the left as well as the symbolic legitimacy of the city as an open space for politics. Yet those images also signal the city government’s commitment to order and the control of politically neutral public spaces. The precarity of this position was exhibited again on October 2, anniversary of the government massacre of students in Tlatelolco in 1968, as the police could not prevent the action of provocateurs in what is usually a respectable commemoration of the left’s coming of age. Images of looting, journalists beaten, and plainclothes men arresting young people are still being sorted out, and responsibility is still being assigned.
The urgency of the police action against the CNTE was also a product of the zócalo’s importance as a patriotic space. The teachers were expelled from the square on September 13 so that President Peña Nieto could perform the traditional grito (a ceremonial repetition of the pronouncement that launched Mexico’s War of Independence in 1810) on the fifteenth. Hours after police surrounded the square and cleaned up the remains of the teachers’ encampment, buses delivered ready-made crowds of PRIístas, some of them dressed in the same red clothes used during the presidential campaign, to fill the square and cheer his name. The scheduled military parade went without incident on the sixteenth.
Peña Nieto is often mocked from the left as a vain and stupid figurehead who owes his office to the PRI’s powerful political machine. Even after twelve years out of the presidency, the party is still defined, as it was for seventy years before it lost the presidency in 2000, by the power, resources and discipline that descend from the president down to the lowliest municipal officials. But Peña Nieto has managed to get the congress to pass laws that his two PAN predecessors also desired but failed to achieve. He is replacing some of the country’s bad international image, linked mostly with drug trafficking violence and a failed military response, with a narrative of Mexico as the next emerging industrial economy. This reflects good public relations as much as reality: violence is not diminishing and the economy is not growing very fast. But many of the enraged middle-class Mexico City dwellers who voted for the PAN or the PRD are now finding some sympathy for his project, which at least promises to get those teachers out of the steady jobs that allow them to teach in Oaxaca and demonstrate in Mexico City. Peña Nieto is still far from the popularity that the Economist or the Wall Street Journal would like to grant him. But reigning over the zócalo, if only for a couple of days, helps.
The teachers of the CNTE say that they might return, but it is not clear that the federal or local governments will allow them. A couple of days after the grito, Mancera astutely turned the zócalo into the distribution center for food and other goods for the storm victims. López Obrador stopped his rescheduled demonstration against the oil reform short of the zócalo but later bragged that he had still filled two zócalo’s worth of crowds in the city’s main avenues. That flat, grey square in the middle of a 20 million person city is still too valuable to remain uncontested. It will be the scene, sooner or later, of another fractious, complicated dispute among progressive forces. And those forces will still be struggling against a government that is challenging, with considerable public support, some of the left’s most cherished revolutionary ideals: public education, state control of oil production, and official support for labor unionss’ prerogatives. Yet the obsession with the zocalo may come at the expense of more imaginative strategies to recover the initiative in a political process whose direction remains clouded in obscurity.
Pablo Piccato is professor of history at Columbia University. He writes about the history of crime and the public sphere in Mexico and Latin America.