Groundbreaking reforms offered by Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto may lose momentum if his allies in congress bow to violent protests by teachers’ unions against a planned education overhaul. If the president capitulates on an issue where he enjoys popular support, it is difficult to imagine how he will manage the critical and thorny issue of energy reform.
Mexico’s congress now is debating plans to rehabilitate a notoriously inefficient education system, which has stunted the country’s economic growth for decades. According to many local commentators, the teachers’ fury is aimed at plans to require periodic evaluation of their performance. In a system in which teacher tenure is considered a birthright — literally treated as a family inheritance — such accountability is unthinkable.
Violent mobs of teachers mobilized by radical union leaders have descended on Mexico City, driving members of congress from their meeting rooms and occupying streets and the central plaza of the capital to press their demands. Local authorities refuse to impede let alone punish the protesters, who have vandalized public buildings and private property. On the contrary, the leaders of Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party appear to be yielding to the rioters by abandoning the central plank of the education reform package.
It was inevitable that reforms aimed at building a modern Mexico would have to run the gauntlet of entrenched interests — some of which have picked up the nasty habit of using violent demonstrations to paralyze the capital and pressure lawmakers. Many prominent commentators expressed surprise this week that Peña Nieto’s allies in Congress, presumably with the concurrence of the presidency, are preparing to surrender to such tactics despite having public opinion on their side.
Respected Mexican political analyst Federico Reyes Heroles criticized the authorities’ failure to defend the rule of law from these mobs, saying that “every concession to extortion undermines coexistence” and democracy. Another columnist, Jorge Fernández Menéndez, observed that surrendering to the protesters’ demands, “teaches a path of political blackmail and extortion. Will they act this way as well in the case of energy and tax reform?”
Peña Nieto insisted Wednesday that his administration will continue to advocate for the comprehensive education package. However, unless he demonstrates more vigorous and firm leadership in defending his agenda, he may undermine a coalition that was formed to back a series of crucial economic and social reforms known as the “Pact for Mexico.”
Even before the showdown on education, Peña Nieto has shied away from confrontation. Earlier this month, he unveiled a cautious energy reform proposal that he said would create new opportunities for private investment and foreign involvement to help modernize Mexico’s infrastructure and maximize its oil production. Apparently, the president feared provoking the radical left, the powerful petroleum workers’ union, or the old guard of his party, which nationalized the oil industry 75 years ago. So, Peña Nieto’s white paper consists of a minimalist vision, leaving the details to be hammered out in the congress, where he expects the free-market National Action Party to take the lead on politically sensitive issues.
One of the most outspoken opponents of any reform of the energy sector, radical leftist politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador, already has promised a massive mobilization to defend oil as the national patrimony. After losing the presidency by a razor-thin margin in 2006, López Obrador convened hundreds of thousands of his supporters to Mexico City to stake his claim to the presidency. The blockades of highways, city streets, public buildings, and businesses caused hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses. Although polls show that such mass demonstrations are rejected by a wide majority of Mexicans, politicians across the political spectrum are terrified by such confrontations.
Mexico’s political establishment, the president’s foes, the media, and the international community are watching carefully whether Peña Nieto will defend the pillar of his education proposal in the face of fierce resistance. Unless he musters the courage to salvage his reforms, he will embolden the populist left, demoralize advocates of reform, and undermine his plan for building a more competitive Mexico — particularly the modernization of the energy sector.
Frankly, the legacy of Peña Nieto’s six-year mandate hangs in the balance.
Roger F. Noriega is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He was assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and ambassador to the Organization of American States in the administration of former President George W. Bush from 2001-2005.