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.
-Marking the first major protest of the year, over 100,000 Chilean students took to the streets to continue to push for educational reform, an issue that has garnered much support and been a consistent problem for conservative president Sebastian Pinera. (And for those wondering, this is what (part of) over 100,000 people in the streets looks like.)
-With the recent conviction of some of his former top aides for corruption, Brazilian federal prosecutors have opened an investigation into former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva to examine what, if any, role in or knowledge of payoffs Lula might have had during his first term.
-Uruguay became the third country in the Americas to legalize gay marriage nationwide (joining Canada and Argentina) after the Chamber of Deputies approved the Senate’s changes to the bill (the Chamber of Deputies originally passed an earlier draft of the bill last December). Meanwhile, in Chile, Congress has begun debating the legal recognition of same-sex couples; though the recognition would fall short of allowing gay marriage, it would grant gay couples the same rights as married couples.
-Although the frontrunner in Paraguay’s upcoming elections, conservative candidate Horacio Cartes apparently has quite the history of shady dealings and possible corrupt practices, including international smuggling, practices that, if true, could further strain Paraguay’s relations with its neighbors, relations that were already damaged when Congress rapidly removed former president Fernando Lugo through a dubious “impeachment.”
-A study finds that an overwhelming amount of the money donated to aid Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake ultimately ended up in the hands of US companies, with only one percent aiding Haitian companies themselves.
-Speaking of Haitians, they are among the thousands of immigrants who have recently entered into Brazil, leaving the small state of Acre to ask for federal aid in supporting the influx. I don’t quite agree with Boz that their desire to move Brazil automatically means that the economy there is doing well, but it at least suggests that people in other countries perceive the Brazilian economy to be preferable to their own.
-In spite of his family’s claims late last year, Alberto Fujimori does not actually have cancer, which was the reason his family initially called for his release from prison, where he is currently serving a 25-year sentence for human rights violations during his 1990-2000 presidency. Although the former president is not actually ailing, that has not stopped Cardinal Juan Luis Cipriani from calling for a pardon for Fujimori.
-As a hunger strike among prisoners at US facilities in Guantanamo continues, the US has begun force-feeding some of the striking prisoners.
-In the wake of the rape of a tourist from the US, Rio de Janeiro has banned the use of vans for public transit (rather than the larger buses) in the southern part of the city. Of course, that the ban is in effect only in the wealthier southern zone where tourism dominates provides yet another reminder of the social stratification evident throughout Rio, including in public transportation options.
-Hundreds of thousands of Colombians, including President Juan Manuel Santos, marched in support of ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC.
-Are Brazil and Russia close to a missile deal?
-Although scholarship and human rights activism have already torn much “the veil” off Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s regime, the recent exhumation of Nobel-laureate Pablo Neruda could further shed light on the poet’s death and end years of speculation over whether he really died of cancer, as had long been maintained, or if the regime had him killed, a theory that has been bandied about as well.
-Outrage continues over the appointment of evangelical politician Marco Feliciano as the head of the Brazilian Congress’s Human Rights Committee in spite of a history of public homophobic and racist statements. As a result, in a blow against transparency or accountability in government, the Committee recently decided to close all hearings to outsiders in hopes of preventing protests from erupting in committee hearings.
-Speaking of human rights in Brazil, police are finally facing trial for their role in the executions of prisoners during the Carandiru massacre of 1992. The massacre, which occurred 21 years ago this October, left 102 prisoners dead from gunshots after police entered the prison to break up gang fighting between prisoners.
-A Guatemalan court upheld the not-guilty verdict of former president Alfonso Portillo on charges of theft of state funds. However, his legal problems are far from over, as the ruling now opens the path for his extradition to the United States, where he faces indictment for embezzlement and money laundering.
-A Chilean court has suspended development on the Pascua Lama mine, originally set to be one of the world’s largest gold mines, ruling that the pollution and environmental destruction already caused by the Canadian mining company Barrick violates the original terms of the agreement. The shutdown marks a victory for indigenous groups, who had argued that the mine threatened their daily lives and resources, and is part of broader challenges to Barrick’s environmental toll and presence throughout Latin America.
-Finally, scientists have recently encountered a new species of porcupine in Brazil, but the future of the species is already uncertain, as the tree-dwelling Coendou speratus lives in an endangered forest.
-Brazil’s Federal Council of Medicine recently came out in favor of legalizing first-trimester abortions in Brazil, adding to the arguments and debate over the issue in a country where abortion is currently only legal in the case of rape, severe mental disability in the fetus, or if the pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life.
-A hunger strike at Guantanamo continues to expand and to last, adding to questions of indefinite detention at the US bas in Cuba.
-Students in Chile continue to demand educational reforms, and, after police attempted to force students onto a route other than the already-approved one, the march turned violent, a turn of events that could perhaps have been avoided had police not forced the last-minute change.
-In an attempt to reduce violence against women, Ecuador may categorize femicide as a separate crime within the country’s penal code.
-The Brazilian Senate passed a law this week that gives domestic workers the same rights as other workers, including overtime pay, finally extending workers’ rights to the millions of domestic workers (almost all women) who work for Brazil’s middle- and upper-classes. Unsurprisingly, those who employ domestic servants have pushed back against the idea of their workers actually enjoying basic rights (an attitude the Washington Post itself reinforces by declaring the law will “impinge” upon the economy).
-Police violence in Honduras continues to be a major issue, as police act excessively and with impunity in ways reminiscent of the 1980s, even as the US allegedly continues to funnel money to forces that operate as death squads (a charge US officials of course deny).
-In tales of opposite results, the Peruvian government is working on setting aside lands for indigenous peoples who voluntarily remain isolated from most of Peruvian society, even while one of the few Bolivian indigenous groups that is growing faces opposition from ranchers who continue in their attempts to relocate native groups and seize their lands.
-A Brazilian doctor and her medical staff are under investigation for the murder of seven patients at a hospital; however, reports suggest that at least another 20 deaths could be tied to her team, with 300 more cases under investigation. According to one recording of the doctor, she allegedly committed the murders in order to open up beds in the hospital.
-As Paraguay’s elections approach, conservative candidate Horacio Cartes appears to be in the lead.
-Speaking of elections, Michelle Bachelet has officially announced she will run for president for a second time (she previously served from 2006-2010) as Chile prepares for elections next year. However, in spite of her incredible popularity when she left office in 2010, the path to a second term is far from assured. She is already facing harsh criticisms from other politicians and has significant work to do among social groups (including students and those who support the indigenous Mapuche, whom Bachelet targeted) who have grown critical not just of the right-wing Pinera government, but of the post-Pinochet governments in general.
-Finally, in a bit of potentially good environmental news, Brazil’s supermarkets have agreed not to sell beef from cattle raised in the Amazonian forest. It is not clear how they will monitor this or prevent all Amazonian beef from reaching the shelves, but given that ranches are responsible for much of the deforestation in the Amazon, this is a not-insignificant step.
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.
-With Hugo Chávez in Cuba convalescing from further cancer treatment even while his inauguration looms, there is growing tension over whether Chávez will assume power constitutionally or not. Proponents say he does not have to be in the country to assume, while opponents say if he cannot be inaugurated on Thursday, then a new leader must be appointed. A new plan that could be implemented would delay the inauguration until Chávez is able to take office. Now, the Catholic Church in Venezuela has weighed in, proclaiming it to be “morally unacceptable” should Chávez remain in power without officially being present for his inauguration. While the Church’s stance is unlikely to turn the tide one way or another, it adds a powerful voice to a situation that’s already uncertain, and could add to the political tensions in the country.
-Students in Guatemala continue to take to the streets to protest the government’s planned educational reforms. The reforms include a plan to make teachers’ certification take five years instead of three (as it currently requires), a move that students say will cost them more, an issue that was at the heart of similar protests last year.
-Chilean authorities arrested eight military officials for the murder of folk singer Victor Jara in 1973. Jara, one of the best and most popular of the Nueva Canción movement that highlighted social inequalities and was often associated with leftist politics, was arrested, tortured, had his hands cut off, and was ultimately shot shortly after the military coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and led to Augusto Pinochet’s regime. And while Chile has finally arrested eight officials tied to the murder, his widow, Joan, has asked the US to extradite Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, another official tied to the murder who currently lives in Florida.
-Haiti renewed ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s passport after a judge ordered Duvalier not face charges for human rights violations during his regime.
-In another example of the deep social impacts that migration and xenophobia filter into everyday life, rights activists in northern Mexico are increasingly facing threats from unnamed groups over their role in helping migrants.
-Argentina sentenced another sixteen former military officials and seven police officers and civilians for their roles in human rights violations during the military regime of 1976-1983, capping off a relatively successful year that saw a number of successes as human rights violators faced justice (and victims and their families saw some sense of closure) for their actions during the dictatorship.
-Speaking of human rights in Argentina, the use of torture, while widespread under the military rule, has never gone away. Fortunately, officials and rights activists are set to start using surprise visits to prisons, juvenile detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals in an attempt to discourage and prevent the torture of inmates.
-Honduras has fired its ambassador to Colombia after two computers were stolen during a party in which at least two suspected prostitutes were in attendance. Of course, this is not the first time that Colombian prostitutes have been connected to high-level security controversies for foreign powers.
-In an attempt to reduce the number of real crimes committed with fake weapons, Mexico City destroyed thousands of toy guns this week. While the effort to reduce crimes like robberies through the measure, one can only hope the move leads to a reduction in crime and not criminals using real guns that actually kill people in order to commit robberies.
-Last week, Salvadoran bus drivers and microbus operators launched a work stoppage to protest an end to government fuel subsidies. As Tim points out, although the work stoppage came to an end over the weekend, there’s the chance it could resume, as the issue of the subsidy has not yet been resolved.
-Finally, though it’s a few weeks old, Chilean Justice Minister and former rector of the Autonomous University of Chile, Teodoro Ribera, resigned his position as minister after he was tied to allegations of bribery and corruption, as well as to questionable accreditation practices, allegations that further hurt the already-unpopular president, Sebastián Piñera, who has faced mounting criticism and protests over the issue of the cost of higher education and demands for reforms.
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.