Corruption for All: Democracy and Education in Oaxaca

1 Jul

Somewhere between six and ten people died and lots more were injured during a protest in our state, Oaxaca, on June 19. It’s impossible to know for sure how many people died, or exactly what happened, because everyone has a different account, and you can’t really believe anybody. The government, the police, the media, and the teachers’ union are all notoriously corrupt. Both the causes of the protests and the way they are being carried out is a lose-lose situation for everyone in our state, especially for all the children and youth.

The government says six people died, but nobody trusts the government. Elections here are even more rigged and fraudulent than in the U.S. Buying votes is normal. You might get killed by the competition if you are running for office, partly because if you are elected you can (and probably will) steal enough money from the people to keep you set for life- therefore it’s worth killing over. The government is full of outright, blatant lies: just Google “the missing 43 Mexican students ” (here’s some of the info:  http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-35539727) if you haven’t already heard about the biggest government and police corruption scandal during this president’s reign. In this most recent case, in Nochixtlán, Oaxaca, the original official story was that some other organization or group jumped in and shot the protesters. Originally, reports even said the police went to the protest unarmed, which isn’t the slightest bit credible. So you can see why government and police reports aren’t believable.

Unfortunately, there are reasons to doubt the utter honesty of the teachers’ union as well. I imagine that accounts from teachers and other folks on site when it happened are more realistic than accounts by police or the media. But the union here is not really the voice of the teachers. Membership in the union is obligatory and participation in protests is mandatory, although they rotate participation some so they don’t have to be protesting every day for these month-long strikes, at least. While I don’t think our public school teachers are the bad guys in this scenario at all, and I’m in favor of unions, I think this particular union is not good for our schools or the kids, and not even particularly good for the teachers. (More info about the teachers’ union, sección 22: http://www.mexicogulfreporter.com/2013/08/oaxaca-education-at-mercy-of-omnipotent.html )

Some articles act like the teachers are screwing over the system, and it certainly sounds like it when you read that teachers’ and staff compensation account for 94% of education funding (http://gppreview.com/2016/03/10/mexicos-education-reform-what-went-wrong/ ). But teachers don’t get paid excessively, I can assure you (people aren’t shy about discussing income here, so teachers I know have told me how much they make). It’s not bad pay but it’s not outstanding, either. Thus, this statistic in context speaks way more to a) other folk that get paid, for example folks who only exist on payroll and not in a classroom, including dead people (yes this really happens here- some live person is cashing in the dead person’s paycheck) and b) just how little funding there is for education. Here, there’s no funding for transportation or food, and next to nothing for anything else. This means classrooms not only don’t have enough books, sometimes they don’t even have classrooms. (Conan and other students had to help build their own high school, for example.) Parents pay so much out of pocket that for “free” public education that school is inaccessible for many people. Not only do parents pay for school materials for their children- which is already hard on many families-, but also they regularly get asked to pay extra fees for whatever the school needs. Parents also have mandatory volunteer work days at the school (because schools can’t hire other staff), and they get fined if they don’t attend.

What Are They Fighting About? The Existing Problems, the Reform, and the General Lack of Confidence in the System

Mexico has some of the worst educational outcomes in the world. It “ranked 118th out of 144 countries in quality of primary education, behind many poorer countries, including Honduras, El Salvador, Bolivia, Bangladesh and Sierra Leone.” ( http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-reforms-idUSKBN0OI0AL20150602) Within Mexico, the state of Oaxaca is pretty much at the bottom of the barrel in education. The federal government passed a bill for Education Reform back in 2013, because pretty much everyone agrees that radical changes to the system are sorely needed in Mexico.

The reform sounds helpful on paper, and in general people seemed to be mostly in favor of it before. Some of its official objectives are creating more equity, and that it be free and accessible. The reform proposes lots of money for more schools, money to improve existing schools, money for food in schools in poor areas, and other such necessary funding. Who knows if it will be enough funding and where the money is coming from, but that part sounds great. It proposes transparency about where the money goes in schools. It calls for better textbooks, more parental and community involvement, and more access to teacher training. It will also require teachers to undergo evaluations and trainings, and to justify their absences if they miss more than 3 days of class. There are lots of things that it doesn’t cover that would be nice, like changing the curriculum, teaching critical thinking, things like that- but it’s a start. (this article gives a good overview in English and here’s some info in Spanish directly from the government about their plans: http://gppreview.com/2016/03/10/mexicos-education-reform-what-went-wrong/ 

http://www.nl.gob.mx/servicios/reforma-educativa

Since nobody believes the government, however, and the news can’t be relied upon for real, relevant information, either, we are also inundated with rumors and counter beliefs about the reform. The number one complaint is that they are going to use this to privatize education. The government viciously denies it, but they are working on privatizing other public things, like petroleum. The government also said the police weren’t carrying guns, among other lies; they don’t prove themselves trustworthy, to say the least. So the government repeats that the tenets of the reform are to make education free of fees, and people shrug their shoulders.

The kind of information that my students tell me they believe about the reform is that, for example, they just want to fire all the teachers. We’ve heard that they’re going to take away everyone’s retirement benefits. We’ve heard that you won’t even need teacher training to be a teacher- that anyone who can pass the exam will be a teacher (which is not a very credible claim, since so much of the reform emphasizes teacher training, but there you have it). A big concern is that if teachers don’t pass an exam they will be fired on the spot. According to the proposal, teachers with poor evaluations will receive more training and then take the exam again in a year- and have a third chance with more training if the fail the second time. Supposedly the evaluations will take many factors into consideration, including the environment and culture where teachers are, which is really important here in Oaxaca where there are many indigenous languages spoken throughout the state, and many kids growing up in a household where Spanish isn’t spoken. Of course the reform needs to take regional and cultural factors into account, and it does propose to do so- but once again, it’s easier to believe what your teacher friend down the street tells you than what the government puts out there. And the teacher may or may not believe what they’re being told about the reform, but regardless they have to protest it or there will be serious sanctions against them.

My impression before this protest was that most people do want evaluations for teachers, or at least some kind of accountability, to deal with the very real problem like teachers selling their guaranteed, lifelong position off to someone else when they retire. Some people are definitely concerned that there is ZERO oversight on teacher quality; teachers are guaranteed a position for life (and beyond, when teachers give their position to their child, for example), no matter what they do or don’t do. Parents are also sick of the strikes; Oaxacan kids have lost more than an entire school year in the past 7 years of strikes. (from this article, which was also one of the broadest and best articles I read covering the situation: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/27/world/americas/mexico-teachers-protests-enrique-pena-nieto.html?_r=0  ) And that’s not including the 6 or 7 months-long strike that happened in 2006, which was the 25th consecutive year of teacher strikes in Oaxaca under this teachers’ union. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Oaxaca_protests  )

But ever since people got killed, the tides have changed drastically in terms of public support. Most people are vocally or actively standing with the teachers now (including a lot of international folks who don’t seem to know what is actually going on here), which also means they’re against the reform now. Also, people down here still revere teachers and, more importantly, lack trust and faith in government to a much greater degree than the cynicism and distrust they have for the teachers’ union. The union talks a good talk, and the demands during the annual strikes (yes, every year for the past 30 years or something now, according to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_Oaxaca_protests  ) always include some demand or the other related to the wellbeing of the students.

While pretty much ALL the systems and agencies in this country are corrupt, the government is seen as the most corrupt. Certainly the federal government cares very little about Oaxaca, too. (For example, when the months-long strikes were going on in 2006, for ages the federal government washed their hands of the situation, saying it was a local issue.) So the union is robbing people, sure, but the government killing people- and getting away with it, as usual- is certainly worse.

At the very least, no matter how people down here feel about the union and the striking teachers, most people doubt that the reform will actually help Oaxacan children anyway. After all, it’s been proven over and over that people can’t rely on institutions here. It’s pretty depressing, if nothing else.

The Effects of the Protests

The protest is ongoing and the demonstrations and blockades, along with its secondary effects, are widespread throughout Oaxaca- plus there’s some similar action happening in our neighboring states of Chiapas and Guerrero. Teachers have been on strike since mid-May, first of all, although it was all pretty low-key until elections in early June. Things heated up, then calmed again, and then the killings happened.

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a shot from 2015 strikes (borrowed from ibtimes.com)

zocalo

teachers camping out in the zócolo, the main square, of Oaxaca City- a common sight…. (image from nvinoticias.com)… Teachers have rotating schedules for when they have to participate in protests- thank goodness! They have families, too. 

Since then, the government and teachers’ union have had two separate dialogues, both lasting for several hours, where NOTHING has been gained nor lost on either side. Nobody is reporting any clear news on what the hell they’re saying in there for all those hours (perhaps they’re talking about their grandkids, a la Bill Clinton), but there they are. So far they haven’t set up a third meeting. (Here’s an example of the very vague reporting: https://oaxaca.quadratin.com.mx/reforma-educativa-no-se-abrogara-osorio-cnte/)

The union and the government are at an impasse. The union won’t accept the reform, and the government won’t rescind the reform, which is now written into law and already partially implemented. The union is promising to get more drastic and expand their actions to other parts of the country. More and more police are arriving. There are rumors of military involvement. The only thing to do is to wait and see. Here’s a lot of relevant information about what’s happening:

http://www.theyucatantimes.com/2016/07/supplies-airlifted-to-oaxaca-as-blockades-continue-in-several-mexican-states/  I suspect things will get crazier before they get better, despite the government’s vague promises that they will resolve this within a few days.

A big part of the protest is the numerous blockades that the teachers union and their allies have set up throughout the state. They’re mostly letting people pass (with some delays) but blocking commercial trucks. So some areas are short on food supplies, and the gas supply is short everywhere, although it’s coming through sporadically, here at least.

I can’t attest to the extent of the problems happening due to the protests, because there’s also a lot of misinformation and false information about it. For example, I just read an article saying that in Puerto Escondido (where I live) and in Huatulco, there’s gasoline but only for 12 hours a day and each car can only get 200 pesos of gas. In reality, the situation here is that gas seems to randomly arrive at one or two gas stations and everyone lines up to fill up. At times there are cars parked lining up hours before a pipe even comes in. At times people are waiting in line 3 hours to get gas. Sometimes you can get lucky and get a short wait. But it’s not how they painted it in the media.

The news is also stressing how much people are suffering from a lack of food, and it’s hard to say to what extent that’s true. Here we still have plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables at the market. The prices of the stuff that gets trucked in from Oaxaca City has gone up, but even that seems to still be plentiful enough. The two supermarkets in town have some empty shelves, but they are at least getting sporadic shipments of things or they’d be totally empty by now. I have been able to get most of the things on my grocery list every week despite the situation, for example. But I don’t know how it is in other areas. Supposedly Oaxaca City is seriously affected, but a friend of mine there said she’s not seeing that. The government just set up a schedule to airlift food to our state, but I’m not sure exactly where it’s going, or what food they’re taking. Our family in Juquila says they aren’t getting stuff like cookies and other commercial food, but nobody’s going hungry there, either, or at least not because of the strikes. It’s all a bit 1984-esque to me.

The strikes are hurting a lot of the small businesses, though, which a large portion of people rely in for their income. Less people are travelling, for example, so all the folks who have their restaurants along the (very slow, winding) “highway” are not getting as much business. Our friend in Juquila had to come down here for hamburger buns for his restaurant, as another example. It is making people late to work for transportation problems in some areas. It means my friend has extra hours added to her weekly journal to her Masters-level class in the next state over. It’s definitely inconvenient and costly for a lot of people who already have enough economic problems. I don’t think it’s as bad as it sounds on national news, but again, it’s hard to know for sure. I do know that people are a bit sick of it. “I don’t know why they can’t protest in Mexico City instead of here,” one friend said. It’s a good question.

selling gas photo

Surviving beyond the system: individuals selling gasoline at higher prices for desperate folks- here in Puerto Escondido (sorry it’s not a great pic- taken from our moving car)

Conclusions: What about the kids? What about a total revolution?

Regardless of the outcome of this battle, the kids are not winning. The children of Oaxaca, already living in the poorest state of this country, living in a country with one of the worst educational systems and outcomes in the world, are not benefitting in any way, shape, or form from any of this protest, and they might not benefit from the reform, either. I don’t know what the answer is to all this, but it would be nice if some institution did something with the best interests of the children in mind as their primary motivation. I’m sure President Peña Nieto and Local 22 Teachers Union are open to your suggestions, dear Reader. (lol)

We do desperately need reform, or, better yet, revolutionary improvements for our students here in Oaxaca. Yes, we need books, food, transportation, uniforms, and so, so much more. We need a different curriculum, dynamic teaching and learning strategies, a way to make school worthwhile, relevant, and accessible for kids so they’re not routinely dropping out at 12. We need institutions that serve the people, institutions that people can count on. We need police who don’t shoot protesters as the status quo. We need governments that don’t order, support, and cover up killings and disappearances. If corruption is always going to exist, we at least need a bit less corruption in all levels of our public institutions and agencies. We need much more than what anyone here in Oaxaca can even realistically imagine receiving at this point. And that’s the worst part of all, perhaps- that there’s so little hope, for our state, for our youth, for our future.

 

 

2 Responses to “Corruption for All: Democracy and Education in Oaxaca”

  1. fml221 July 1, 2016 at 9:43 pm #

    This is a really rich and nuanced look at a complex and confusing situation. Thanks for all the research and explaining!!

    • exiletomexico July 4, 2016 at 10:00 am #

      Thanks for reading! It was an exciting challenge! Still not sure I did justice to the topic, but I did my best!

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