While ongoing protests in Brazil have (understandably) occupied a growing amount of space in recent days, Brazilians are not the only ones making their voices heard.
In Chile, as the fight for educational reform approaches its third year, over 100,000 people took to the streets, continuing to demand educational reform. And while the linked article focuses on the tiny number of vandals in the article, what is worth taking away is that around 100,000 people gathered peacefully, continuing to insist that education in Chile (like in Brazil) receive better investment and infrastructure.
Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, Ticos throughout the country have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with the government over a variety of issues, ranging from the temporary cancellation of an agreement with China to develop an oil refinery, to a recent presidential scandal regarding Laura Chinchilla’s traveling on a private jet apparently owned by a drug lord (to say nothing of the organ-trafficking ring recently uncovered and mentioned in the first link).
And in Paraguay, following up on a protest of 3,000 late last week, citizens took to the streets throughout the country last night, drawing inspiration from the demonstrations in neighboring Brazil to demand better infrastructure and public services and an end to corruption.
To be clear, these demonstrations are not mere imitations of what is going on in Brazil - the Costa Rican protests are born of the individual issues facing the Costa Rican nation, and the struggle for educational reform in Chile goes back to 2011. And even the Paraguayan protests, which demonstrators admit have been inspired in part by Brazil’s demonstrations, are based on their own internal issues and struggles particular to lived experiences in Paraguay. Nonetheless, when considered alongside Brazil, it is clear not only that people throughout the region believe demonstrations to be an appropriate and effective means of shaping politics and politicians, but that these democracies are open enough that large groups can gather to make their voices heard. Even when there is police violence (and there still is), it is not repressive enough to stifle public dissent altogether, and that is a not-insignificant thing in countries like Brazil, Paraguay, and Chile that have seen far more repressive crackdowns on smaller rallies under dictatorships in the last 50 years.
As for Brazil, the demonstrations that are now entering their third week continue to affect politics and local economies. Yesterday, the Senate passed a bill that made corruption a “serious” crime – effectively elevating it from a misdimeanor to a felony – increasing the penalties for political corruption. At the same time, the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for former Federal Deputy Natan Donadon, who in 2010 was convicted of embezzlement. By upholding the conviction, the Court made Donadon the first politician to be actually sentenced to prison for corruption since Brazil’s constitution went into effect in 1988.
-Nicaragua and China have entered into an agreement through which China could help build a canal through Nicaragua that would rival the Panama canal. Of course, Nicaragua has long been seen as a potential site for a canal; even in the 1800s, the US and European powers considered the possibility of building one. As it stands right now, the canal would take eleven years to construct and would cost $40 billion, but there is nothing to yet indicate that the construction would start soon or that it would be brought to completion.
-An audit of the April elections in Venezuela has confirmed that Nicolas Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in a very close election. Meanwhile, the economic and political instability that has been a significant problem in Maduro’s still-young administration (a problem that Maduro’s own policies and rhetoric have not helped) is hitting society hard: in addition to reports of shortages in basic goods like toilet paper, it appears beer prices have gone up 92% in Venezuela as well.
-An oil-spill in Ecuador now threatens both the Peruvian and Brazilian environment as it flows into the Amazonian basin, threatening river communities and riparian ecosystems. The spill began after a landslide damaged an oil pipeline, providing another reminder of the predictably-unpredictable nature of environmental processes and the risks of pipelines in dynamic ecosystems.
-Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have resumed after a brief break. The ongoing talks are the first significant talks between the two sides since the 1990s, as the two sides try to bring an end to a civil war that has lasted nearly 50 years. Prior to the talks, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Israel, where he signed a free trade agreement between Colombia and Israel.
-In a tragic example of the ways in which women in Nicaragua continue to be treated as second class citizens, conservative activists and politicians are seeking to create a law that would require abused women to negotiate with their abusers.
-In dual cases of justice in Peru, President Ollanta Humala (who is currently on his first official state visit to the US) denied a pardon to former president Alberto Fujimori, who had been convicted for his role in state repression and human rights violations during his 1990-2000 administration. And on the other end of the spectrum, a court sentenced former guerrilla leader and Shining Path leader Comrade Artemio (Florinda Flores) to a life sentence for his role in guerrilla violence, drug trafficking, and money laundering.
-Speaking of the Shining Path, though a tiny number continue to fight for revolution ostensibly in the name of the movement, a new political arm of the movement, the Movimiento Por Amnistia y Derechos Fundamentales (Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights; MOVADEF) is increasingly gaining support among some in Peru and beyond, prompting further reevaluations and considerations of the legacies of the Shining Path, state violence, and social divisions in Peruvian memory.
-Even while stories of government surveillance have occupied headlines in the US, it appears that secrecy at Guantanamo has only intensified, where a government ruling has gone into effect, and “those who’ve read it can’t say what it’s about, and those who haven’t don’t have a clue. Not even the accused, who, unless the judge rules for the defense, is not allowed to get an unclassified explanation of it – and cannot sit in on the court session when it’s argued in secret.”
-In another reminder of the gross socioeconomic inequalities in Brazil’s legal system, Thor Batista, the son of Brazilian billionaire who hit and killed a bicyclist while driving his car avoided jail time for the death. Instead, a judge ordered Batista to pay a R$1 million fine and serve two years of community service. In spite of the relatively lenient sentence for killing another person, Batista still plans on appealing the sentence.
-Finally, more than ten years after Brazil enacted affirmative action laws that created quotas for university admission, it appears the law has gone a long way in addressing inequalities, if a report on the University of Brasilia is representative. The study finds that there would be 71.5% fewer Afro-Brazilians in the school without the law, and that students admitted under quotas have outperformed non-quota students. [English version available here.]
Certainly, the demand for educational reforms in Chile is a major cause of student mobilizations over the last two-plus years. But reform is rarely enough in and of itself to sustain a long-term movement; there have to be other systemic and political issues that revitalize the movement. In Chile, the structural problems with the educational bureaucratic apparatus has played an important, if overlooked, part of that revitalizing force. Howso? Well, last night, Chile’s Senate voted to impeach the Minister of Education,[update: less-detailed English version here] Harald Beyer, finding him guilty for failing to act against profiteering within universities, among other charges. The vote followed the Chamber of Deputies’ recent vote to impeach Beyer. Although President Sebastián Piñera’s government insisted Beyer would remain in his post “until the end,” the end is now apparently nigh, as the impeachment means Beyer is banned from holding public office for 5 years. Additionally, whoever replaces Beyer will become the fourth Education Minister in just two years in Chile, as his previous two predecessors had resigned in the face of student protests demanding free higher education.
Given the apparent government corruption in the Ministry of Education, this type of turnover is exactly the kind of issue that can reignite student movements and give them strength both in terms of internal organization and in terms of creating broader social support for them and/or opposition to the government. Indeed, the fallout of Beyer’s policies and his lack of oversight were significant issues in recent protests that saw over 100,000 students march.
The turnover and malfeasance of the ministers of education under Piñera certainly reflect poorly on his administration, and there seems to be little doubt that, when he leaves office next year, education will be one of the key defining issues and failures of his government. Indeed, it is of little surprise that presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet has already made educational reforms a key part of her platform as she seeks the presidency for a second time. That she has done so, and that so much of Piñera’s government has been defied by his intransigence or inability to address educational reform, provides a powerful reminder of the political and social power of student movements and of the educational issues they embrace in the twenty-first century.
Nearly two months ago, Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law an educational reform bill that reduced the power of teachers’ unions, and then promptly arrested union leader Elba Ester Gordillo on charges of corruption. At the time, I commented that “it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see some pushback from teachers.” It would appear that that pushback has happened.
Easter vacation was over, but there wasn’t a teacher in sight at the boarding school for indigenous children on the edge of this sunbaked southern Mexico hill town. [...]
Pena Nieto’s first major legislative victory after taking office in December was a constitutional amendment eliminating Mexico’s decades-old practice of buying and selling teaching jobs, and replacing it with a standardized national teaching test. That’s heresy to a radical splinter union of elementary and high-school teachers in Guerrero, one of the country’s poorest and worst-educated states. The teachers claim the test is a plot to fire them in mass as a step toward privatizing education, although there is little evidence the government plans that.
Reform advocates say the dissidents simply fear losing control over the state education system and the income it provides, despite the need to reform a system that eats up more of the budget and produces worse results than virtually any other in the world’s largest economies.
The 20,000-member group walked out more than a month ago, turning hundreds of thousands of children out of class. Then it launched an increasingly disruptive string of protests.
The overtly anti-labor tone of the article aside, this taps into several main issues. On the one hand, just because there is “little evidence” that the government is using the reform to move towards privatization, that does not mean such a move is rendered impossible down the road; that the teachers are mobilizing to try to ensure that doesn’t take place at some future moment is understandable. On the other hand, the system for hiring teachers as it currently operates is also open to plenty of cases of corruption and abuse. And of course, the issue of teachers’ pensions in Mexico’s poorer areas taps into broader socio-economic problems: that the benefits and pay for teachers in rural areas is much higher than other employment opportunities is a harsh reminder of the impoverished conditions and exploitation of workers that continues in Mexico’s countryside; and that that pay is used to keep a lot of families fed and supplied with goods makes the pensions issue not just a teachers’ issue, but a social issue for non-teachers as well in these areas.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t be surprising if Peña Nieto uses the strength of the federal government to crack down on the teachers. The arrest of Gordillo is already increasingly looking like an early warning shot across the bow of the teachers’ unions, making clear Peña Nieto’s efforts to curb their power. And in the face of the state police apparatus, teachers are relatively outmatched in power. And that is not automatically a good thing for, if there are real problems with education in Mexico today, eliminating the power of unions and allowing the government to unilaterally control and dictate the terms of education is equally problematic. Things could work out, but quite honestly, right now, there does not seem to be a real encouraging exit one way or the other to the political struggle between the President and the teachers.
Apparently, it won’t take so long to see at least one of the consequences of Mexico’s massive educational reform. Just one day after Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law a reform that greatly weakened the teachers union on Monday, yesterday afternoon, the government arrested teachers’ union leader Elba Ester Gordillo for the alleged embezzlement of 2 billion pesos during her 23 years as the head of the teachers’ union (English version here). The reform Peña Nieto signed already had gone after Gordillo’s authority, granting the federal government power to fire and hire teachers, rather than letting Gordillo exercise such power. Apparently, though that was not enough, as the government has now gone directly after the powerful union leader herself.
It’s tough to say what the fallout from this will be right now, but it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see some pushback from teachers; though opponents have long accused Gordillo of corruption, she also enjoys massive support among her constituents, having been recently reelected to another 6-year term at the head of the union without a single vote against her. The government’s swift action against a popular union leader is a bold move, and one that is not without risks. Though far from definite, it seems far more conceivable today than it did yesterday that the government and teachers could be heading towards a face-off over just how far the new educational reforms should go.
Certainly, some components of the reform will take time to develop and make their impact felt. Clearly, though, the government has wasted little time in attempting to assert its authority over the teachers’ union. How that move will play out remains to be seen.
We’ve discussed the wave of educational reforms (or lack thereof) throughout the Americas here periodically, from Chile to Guatemala, from the Dominican Republic to Brazil. Now Mexico has also officially entered the fray, as yesterday President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a major educational overhaul into effect. Among other things, the reform weakens Mexico’s teachers unions, expands federal oversight of the educational system, and seeks to improve completion rates among middle school students. Although Peña Nieto insisted the reforms will improve Mexico’s educational system, some critics charge that the new bill will lead to increasing privatization of education in the country. There are definitely some potential negatives in the reform, but it will all depend on how the government acts and implements the reform going forward. It’s hard to argue against improving the quality of education, but the devil is always in the details; it will definitely be worth watching what the specifics of Peña Nieto’s vague platitudes about the reform will be going forward.
For those interested in the causes and fights of student leader Camila Vallejo who, along with Noam Titleman, was awarded the Letelier-Moffit Human Rights Award this week, check out the interview she did with IPS a few months ago. In the interview, she outlines what students have achieved (and can achieve) in Chile, discusses which tactics she thinks can work and which don’t, and talks about what it means to be a communist in the 21st century. It would have been nice if the interview spent a bit more time on the educational reforms Chile’s students are fighting for, but that caveat aside, it’s still a fascinating and well-done interview, and well worth the time.
Students in the state of Michoacán have recently protested changes in the curriculum, leading to increasing antagonisms and the occupation of three teachers’ colleges. The protests, and the government’s responses, get at the heart of the complexity of student movements and their connections to society more broadly.
The protests started with recent announcements that students at teachers’ colleges would have to take courses in English and computer science, fields that students felt were useless for programs designed to train teachers to help rural (and often still impoverished) areas. In the protests, some students ended up intercepting delivery trucks, not permitting the drivers or the trucks that entered the campuses to leave, leading the government to crack down by sending troops to the campuses to arrest anywhere from 120 to 300 students (based on initial reports), citing the loss of “hundreds of thousands of dollars per day” as the reason to violate the autonomy of college campuses.
This last point is not a small matter, neither in Mexico nor in Latin America more generally. Historically, university campuses have been seen as autonomous from government interference, and with justifiable reasons: the autonomy of the campus means that professors and students alike have the academic freedom to think and ask questions that may unsettle politicians or other powerful sectors of society. Campus invasions have happened in the past throughout the region – in Brazil in the early years of the dictatorship or in Mexico City in 1968, for example. But the repression involved in these invasions only reinforced the importance of campus autonomy, as the invasions were explicitly tied to dictatorial regimes. That’s not to say the occupying forces are dictatorial, but the move to occupy a campus is a rare one, and one fraught with political, social, and historical implications. It will be worth seeing if this becomes the new tactic for student protests in Mexico, or if this is an isolated incident.
Another issue at play, and one that is all too often overlooked, is the heterogeneity of student voices, and the ways in which it ultimately inhibits students’ ability to have input into how education in the Americas operates. While some students are protesting, many others are opposed to the protests. Separate protests at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM, the same school that the armed troops invaded in 1968) provide a powerful reminder of this:
This month, about 100 students at Mexico City’s Autonomous University rushed the gates of their seized campus and briefly forced out striking students, who later returned with a pickup truck to bash in the gates and retake the school. The two sides are now in talks to end the standoff.
With only a dozen or so masked students holding some campuses at the school, frustration has boiled over among hundreds of locked-out students who tried to take make-up classes in improvised classrooms. The strikers were backed by some professors and university employees.
“We are now holding classes in tents, at the soccer field next to the campus, and the conditions are deplorable,” said Gustavo Martinon, 23, a media arts student at the university’s Cuautepec campus. “When it rains, the tents flood.”
“The engineering students need labs and computers, and they don’t have them. We (media arts) students need the radio station, the video facilities, and all the equipment we need.”
Like most of the other students trying to take back the campus, Martinon said he has no position on whether the strikers have a legitimate grudge. Taking over a campus and affecting thousands of students, he said, isn’t the way to air a grievance.
This isn’t surprising. Although the tendency in the US media is to portray student movements as a unified bloc, they never are; even Chile’s student movement, which has been able to mobilize tens of thousands of students in recent months, it has not managed to have all students in Chile join, and it is one of the more successful of recent student mobilizations. Nor is it surprising that, when students find their own studies interrupted by those in other programs with different issues, they tend to be antagonistic towards the mobilization and strikes; as Erik Loomis has repeatedly pointed out (most recently with the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike), people who claim to support a movement suddenly turn against it the moment it interrupts their daily lives.
Martinon’s comments are a perfect example of that, and his failure to even consider the legitimacy of the demands shows the ways students themselves can undermine their own causes. By failing to consider whether the striking students’ demands are legitimate (and thus, worth supporting), he and thousands of others have refused to show solidarity. That matters for a number of reasons. First, by fragmenting internally, students ultimately weaken their position in the face of administration and state officials who gain the upper hand in imposing their vision and will on curriculum and campuses without necessarily listening to or heeding students’ voices or needs. Secondly, and in turn, such divisions hurt long-term student organization and defense of student interests; if one group fails to support another when they mobilize to protect their interests, why should the second group mobilize for the first group when the time comes for them to make their demands?
Additionally, Martinon’s argument that protests aren’t the appropriate way to air grievances is at best highly problematic. More often than not, protests and occupations are the best and even only way for students to make their voices collectively heard, and are usually a last resort after failure to use more “quiet” methods, such as petitions, lobbying, etc., have failed; this is the case throughout Latin America, be it in Mexico in 1968, Brazil in the 1960s, or even Chile today. Martinon himself doesn’t seem to realize that this is true; he complains about students protesting and shutting down campus because their educational experience is lacking, but then complains that everybody suffers on campus, as if these two things were unconnected, as if the university is not being run as an institution by state officials and university administrators; they see universities as a single, large organism, something students like Martinon fail to do.
And there are likely thousands of Martinons in these protests, both in Mexico City and Michoacán, whose irritation at inconveniences spurred by protests and campus shutdowns blinds them to the fact that the students are in fact all in this together, even if the immediate demands of the protesters has little to do with other colleges on campuses. Students could realize that curriculum reform, much-needed infrastructural improvements (like the engineering students’ needs for computers and labs or Martinon’s own need for a radio station and video labs) are part of the same struggle, and that protests are often the fastest way to bring attention to your causes and to see they are addressed; students in Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s increasingly took to the streets to make such demands, and ultimately the military regime ended up trying to address some of those issues students raised in protests via a massive university reform in 1968; though the regime had its own reasoning and defenses for the reform, there’s little doubt student complaints had created a broad awareness of the failings of the university system, failings the regime had to address. And again, more recently, by taking to the streets and making public their complaints themselves (rather than relying on media or politicians to frame the debate), students in Chile have been able to draw massive support to their cause of educational reform, leading to very low support for President Sebastián Piñera.
These are just some of the issues at play in the recent Mexican protests, but they do provide a good example both of the challenges facing students throughout the hemisphere today, not only in terms of opposition to governmental policies or weaknesses in curricula and infrastructure on campuses, but in terms of the challenges in working as a collective with shared interests as well.