Crime and Punishment in Peña Nieto’s Mexico

Protesters from the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE) teachers’ union clash with riot police officers during a protest, in Nochixtlan

Protesters from the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE) teachers’ union clash with riot police officers during a protest against President Enrique Pena Nieto’s education reform, in the town of Nochixtlan, northwest of the state capital, Oaxaca City, Mexico June 19, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Luis Plata

By MANUEL AGUILAR MORA

On July 18, in the National Palace at the enactment ceremony of a package of laws to create the National Anti-Corruption System (SNA), in front of an audience composed of hundreds of public officials, and flanked on both sides by the presidents of the houses of the Congress and secretaries of state, President Enrique Peña Nieto “apologized.” These were his words: “Even though I acted in accordance with the law, this mistake affected my family, hurt the institution of the presidency, and damaged confidence in the government […] I felt the irritation among Mexicans firsthand. I understand it perfectly; for that reason, with all humility, I ask your forgiveness.”

He was referring to the scandal that Carmen Aristegui and her team of journalists sparked in November 2014, when they made public the Peña Nieto family’s acquisition of a mansion (the “White House”) worth several million dollars, that was built by a construction company favored by his government with contracts worth billions of pesos in a situation that appeared transparently to be a typical case of influence peddling and flagrant corruption.

A Fake Apology

As we know, in these times of permanent crisis, it is fashionable for presidents to ask for forgiveness. In the last few years many have, from Paraguay and Argentina to France and Norway. But the outrageous arrogance of the dictatorship of the “peculiar,” “adaptable,” and “flexible” Mexican presidency during the greater part of the 20th century has been decisive, so that in 100 years, there are only two such occasions, prior to the recent one by Peña Nieto.

The first was in 1911, when the dictator Porfirio Díaz, from the ship that would carry him to his exile in Europe, declared the he had never done anything to cause the revolution that forced him to resign, and if history found it to be so, he would apologize for it now. The second occasion was in 1982, when a tearful José López Portillo apologized to the poor for having been unable to eliminate their misery.

Why did Peña Nieto apologize? All the critical analyses agree in pointing to the terribly disastrous results of last June, in which, among other losses, the PRI [Peña Nieto’s party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party–Ed.] lost several governorships in states where it is traditionally dominant. The tremor that made itself felt in the highest circles—and the first victim—was the powerful president of the PRI, Manlio Fabio Beltrones, who had to resign immediately, thus removing himself as a possible successor for Peña Nieto in 2018.

In that defeat, which seemed more like an electoral massacre, Beltrones himself recognized that the PRI was paying for what the Peña Nieto government had done. And indeed, since 2004 the popularity and public approval of the actions of the president have plummeted, surpassing the record popularity drop of the previous PAN [National Action Party] government of Felipe Calderón. In fact, the electoral defeat cannot be separated from the decisive defeat of the policy of structural reforms that has been the hallmark of the Peña Nieto government—a defeat that even bourgeois groups recognize, including some leaders of the Catholic Church.

A year and a half passed between November 2014 and the “humble apology.” Much will have been discussed in the president’s inner circle that this man would decide to bend his arrogance before a nation that had turned its back on his overwhelming majority—if we pay attention to the “popularity” polls so in fashion.

But within this resounding fall of a government that aspired to restore the dominance of the PRI, the struggle of the CNTE (National Organization of Education Workers) against the school reform stands out without a doubt, having put in motion throughout the country the numerous education workers’ unions—mobilizations that since May have put hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets, resulting in the awakening of others in the working class.

The highlights of the career of decline and illegitimacy of the current government consist of a list in which the issue of the “white house”—even though it provoked not just “irritation,” as Peña Nieto said, but great popular outrage—is far from being the most serious. Tlataya, Ayotzinapa, Nochixtlán, greenlighting energy privatization, “education” reform that in reality is labor counter-reform, spiraling national debt, alarming devaluation of the peso, an unparalleled boom in corruption in the states and the federal government itself, these are the true highlights that have sunk the Peña Nieto government.

The president asked for “forgiveness” at the announcement of the new anti-corruption laws that have already brought his absolution, since they include presidential immunity. In addition, as he didn’t break any law in the matter of the “White House,” it was all legal. The “forgiveness” was for a “mistake” he made, not for a criminal offense.

The “damage to the institution of the presidency” and the “distrust of the government” must have been because the Mexican people are very cynical and attributed the fact to an act of corruption. But no, it was all a misunderstanding of “perception.”

At the same time, and despite the “humble apology,” Joaquin Vargas of the television channel MVS Communications, driven by Los Piños, is hounding Carmen Aristegui, who was in charge of making public the existence of the “White House,” and afterward was fired for it. Now bringing a lawsuit for “moral damage,” he is demanding millions of dollars of “compensation” from Aristegui for the prologue that she wrote for the book “Peña Nieto’s White House: The story that shook the government,” and demanding that the book’s publisher, Grijalbo, remove the prologue.

So, in fact there will be no punishment, and impunity will prevail, as it has always prevailed in the highest levels of the government. In that too Mexico is special. As in Spain, Brazil, and many countries, corruption is a congenital disease of capitalism, especially in its governments. But in many of these countries as well, the struggle against corruption sometimes has effective results and can appreciate as certain former rulers are imprisoned. Not in Mexico; there are innumerable cases to prove it.

There is the scandal of Humberto Moreira, the ex-governor of Coahuila and ex-president of the PRI, arrested in Spain a few months ago and freed immediately under pressure from the Peña Nieto government. At the same time, there are the scandalous cases of the two outgoing PRI governors of Veracruz and Chihuahua, who are publicly identified as being involved in dirty businesses that involve billions of pesos. And in the case of Veracruz, Javier Duarte is implicated in several infamous assassinations of journalists critical of his government. All indications are that they will go unpunished, thanks in no small part to the Peña Nieto government.

The crude, classist character of justice can be seen quite clearly in Mexico’s prisons, full of petty criminals and many innocent people caught up in a justice system that is also corrupt. Prisons that were created for populations three or four times smaller than what they currently hold. Cells designed for three or four prisoners that today are packed with 10 or 12 people, some of whom have to sleep tied to the bars. But also for a small minority there are cells that seem more like hotel rooms for stars.

CNTE: Igniter of the masses

Since May, demonstrations beginning in the southern strongholds of the teachers union, CNTE [National Education Workers’ Coordination]—Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Michoacán—have spread all over the country with more or less force. The waves have reached all the way north, with demonstrations in Baja California, Sonora, and Nuevo León. It even reached Mexico City, where Local 9 of the SNTE [National Education Workers’ Union], the largest union with around 100,000 teachers, began to mobilize.

The breaking point that caused the surge of protests nationwide was the Nochixtlán massacre [on June 19, when police opened fire on striking CNTE teachers who were blockading a highway, killing 13]. The government had to give in, agreed to “negotiate” with the representatives of the teachers, and even saw itself forced to move its biggest piece within the teachers’ union bureaucracy, the flashy leader of the SNTE, its general secretary, Juan Díaz de la Torre, propelling him to lead a “re-evaluation of education reform,” crudely trying to snatch away the banners of the dissident teachers.

For its part, the most extreme section of the bourgeoisie, that had been pushing for a no-holds-barred policy against the CNTE—a group called “Mexicans First”—along with business owners affected by the mobilizations, blockades, and occupations of highways and railroads (hotel owners in Oaxaca, and mining, automobile, and steel businesses) demand a government crackdown and proclaim in a manifesto, “We don’t want a government that folds its hands,” and openly call for the “use of force.”

All these movements, from an untimely trip by Peña Nieto to Washington to meet with Obama in recent days to the appointment of a new president of the PRI, a functionary completely unknown to the public, a technocratic government official (he was the director of the Federal Electricity Commission), are the palpable demonstration that in the upper layers of the establishment something very important is happening. And no wonder—the temperature of the crisis rises every day.

So July 26 arrived, 22 months after the Iguala massacre and the disappearing of the Ayotzinapa students, the demonstration of the family members of the 43 students was held again and coincided with the start of several days of mobilizations that the CNTE and its allies had planned in 27 states and Mexico City, in which the various contingents got together to defend the rejection of the government’s educational reform and the demands that they have in their local areas.

Confronting the official “bargaining tables” at which the government wants to ease teachers’ unrest, the CNTE announced a meeting on Aug. 3 to discuss a “democratic education project” in which a combination of intellectuals and progressive academics who had declared solidarity with the protests would participate, where they would present alternative proposals to the government’s education reform.

On exactly that day, the representatives of the CNTE, after a break in negotiations, restarted the endless, exhausting series of talks, delaying tactics, and empty words with management, in which the government only delays, in hopes of overwhelming blows that put an end to the protests. The problem is that in Nochixtlán they knew what they were confronting, and that to put themselves at risk of even greater repression—perhaps even a new Tlatelolco—would be totally counterproductive.

But also the favored action of the leadership of the CNTE is becoming wearying, consisting of mobilizing and negotiating and then doing it all over again. It has taken them more than 20 years with these tactics. It is a vision that stays within the limits of trade unionism without having been able to forge a comprehensive independent strategy that displays totally and forcefully the potential for struggle not just of education workers but of all Mexican workers.

It is on this strictly political level where we find the heart of the problem. The firm and intransigent struggles of the CNTE teachers and their allies still have not led to the forging of revolutionary political objectives, despite the social context urgently demanding them. It is evident that today the level that the extraordinary mobilization of primary and secondary education workers has reached—for they are the ones who make up the rank and file of the CNTE—is inspiring many other groups, especially workers. But we must bring them together into a combined struggle.

For example, we must organize all of the teachers in order to form a movement that covers the entire country. This would mean a democratic restructuring of the leadership of the CNTE that would allow for the inclusion of representatives from the different movements of the center and the north of the country that currently are not part of the CNTE. Or also address itself to the tens of thousands of workers in universities who are beginning to understand that the consequences of this “education reform” will be devastating for them. Everything indicates that on the agenda in the next period is the preparation of overwhelming actions that have never been done in the history of Mexican workers, especially the struggle for a national strike.

Presidential succession in 2018

Peña Nieto and the leaders of the parties are now preparing for the 2018 presidential elections. The situation of the PRI makes it almost a “mission impossible” for the novice politician Enrique Ochoa, the party’s new president, to know and ensure that the PRI’s presidential candidate will succeed Peña Nieto. But nor was the Mexican bourgeoisie in a comfortable position before the disaster of the restoration of the Peña Nieto government. The other bourgeois party that it counts on, the PAN, isn’t exactly very popular in the hearts of the masses.

The PRD [Democratic Revolutionary Party] is dismissed as a major player—and its role is that of a satellite of the two main bourgeois parties, since it has remained in tatters after its shameless alliance with those in the Pact for Mexico, and above all for its nefarious role in the events in Iguala. Morena (National Regeneration Movement), the party of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is only supported by a minority of bourgeois groups, and it appears very difficult—in spite of its openly conciliatory politics—for it to gain the support of the more significant groups of the dominant class.

Up to now, the majority of the leadership of the CNTE has come from popular-front organizations and traditions, promoted by Stalinist groups and their offshoots (Maoists, Hoxhaists, etc.). In practice, this has meant that, without openly saying it, the CNTE’s orientation initially clearly favored PRD-style politics. Today, with the PRD’s resounding crisis, many are turning to López Obrador. But an alliance with Morena will be the classic case of what Trotsky called—referring to the alliance of the socialist, communist, and anarchist leaders in the Spanish Popular Front in 1936—an alliance with “the bourgeoisie’s shadow.”

Indeed, why should Mexican workers, instead of forging their own political alternative, independent and powerful, loyal to their own interests, support a party that subordinates them to “the bourgeoisie’s shadow?” Why continue with the traditional copying of bourgeois groups that characterized the workers’ movement in the 20th century, led by the nationalist leadership and Stalinist reformists like Vicente Lombardo Toledano?

The CNTE, its allies, and the combination of independent, socialist, and revolutionary groups that work in the movement of resistance and struggle against the policies of the Peña Nieto government and the rest of the bourgeois parties must prepare themselves before the next crucial challenges that they will confront very soon and begin to discuss and forge the anti-capitalist strategy that for the first time in the history of Mexico will allow the strength of its workers to rise up as the only democratic and independent alternative politics capable of liberating the people from the convulsive state of decline that they find themselves in today, as a result of the policies of violence, corruption, and repression of the ruling class.

The education workers’ fight has created the conditions to put into effect this inspiring and revolutionary perspective in Mexico today. It is the task of the most conscious sectors and the vanguard to begin the efforts to reach this objective, bringing together meetings and actions that work in that direction.