Peña Nieto’s Challenges: From Teacher Strikes to Energy Reform

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Here is a link to my latest article on AQBlog, titled “Peña Nieto’s Challenges: From Teacher Strikes to Energy Reform“, published on August 29th, 2013. Please feel free to visit and comment. Here is a verbatim copy of it in case you prefer to read it on my personal blog, though I recommend actually going to the site because of additional content, other blogger’s articles, etc.

The first nine months of Peña’s administration have kept the press busy and all of the country’s eyes and ears focused on what will happen next. He’s been characterized as bold, action-oriented and dynamic but clearly, not a team player.

He was celebrated by many (yours truly included) in February when he presented an ambitious and much needed education reform but disappointed just as many after having this effort easily thwarted by militant and disgruntled unionized teachers from the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), which has taken Mexico City hostage in the last week to avoid needed secondary laws to enact the reform passing through Congress.

The inability to prevent and the lack of resolve to disperse a non-justified blockage of Congress as well as a blockade of the city’s main arteries—including those giving access to the airport and the Zócalo—has proven once again that political leaders are taking decisions not based on the greater good, the rule of law or the citizenry’s interests, but on a political agenda serviced by interest groups holding more power than they should and unable to cooperate with each other.

Mismanagement of this situation could soon spark violence and create a larger-than-ideological divide. The affected citizenry in Mexico City will only stand so much. In a recent poll by BCG-Excelsior, 52 percent of Mexicans stated that they are so fed up with the CNTE’s irrational resistance to the education reform and their militant actions that they would justify use of public force to disperse the picketers.

And while the teachers take to the streets, both Peña Nieto and the city’s government cower out of taking necessary action because of the political cost it would imply. Mexico City is not the only thing that’s paralyzed because of this—a broken education system puts the nation’s future talent pool at risk.  

The other current hot topic in the president’s agenda is energy reform. As recently described by Christian Gomez on AS/COA, “the proposal includes constitutional changes that would open up Pemex, the 75-year-old state oil monopoly, to profit-sharing contracts and foreign investment.”

This new notion of natural resources no longer belonging exclusively to the nation poses a huge shift in paradigm. Reactions from the nation’s Left include accusations related to autonomy, national patrimony and the role of government vs. private investors in extraction and having access to revenues from one of the nation’s most important sources of income. The opposition understands that PEMEX’s inefficiencies and the plague of corruption need to be addressed but they propose that a problem should not be fixed by creating another one.

One of the most respected voices from the Left, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, has recently stated that both PEMEX and CFE (federal electricity company) can become highly productive without having to edit the Constitution and without allowing foreign and/or private hands in the nation’s riches. If national patrimony is challenged due to reforms to articles 27 and 28 of the Mexican Constitution, Cárdenas has warned he would call for nationwide protests and he would even take to the streets along with López Obrador’s Morena (National Regeneration) movement.

Given its current party composition, Peña can easily get approval for the energy reform in Congress but he would be naïve to think that this is the only hurdle he needs to jump and he is doing a terrible job at trying to get public buy-in to this proposal through vague infographics on TV.

If there is possibility for effective energy reform, an open and inclusive debate needs to take place. This topic is not one that his team should be discussing behind closed doors and the hard questions will require real answers, not 20-second TV spots.

Peña’s government has been characterized by a “my way or the highway” attitude which is an easier temptation to fall into than trying to build consensus in a country as complex and fragmented as Mexico. This dictatorial style is only possible because of the fact that PRI has a stellar position both in Congress and in the State governments to push its agenda forward, something neither former Presidents Fox nor Calderón had. However, Peña would do well in understanding that his constituency is not limited to the political parties or even the power elites.

Organized teachers have already proven what they can do in Mexico City given enough motivation. Sparked by national patrimony rhetoric, larger, non-organized social mobilizations could easily flare up in different key cities in Mexico and cause larger havoc. As former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza recently wrote, “these red flags, so to speak, are especially relevant given the influence and disruptive potential of many of today’s social movements. The eruption of mass street protests in Brazil is just one recent example of a government being forced to change direction on a policy initiative and find a way to rapidly and constructively respond to the desires, often inchoate, of a newly emboldened and empowered population. It’s a cautionary tale that begins with frustration and finds expression in mass action.”

Even when theoretically, Peña could powerball his reforms forward, both him and the PRI need to wake up and understand that they cannot be the only voice to determine the nation’s destiny. Vargas Llosa sarcastically called the previous PRI era “the perfect dictatorship” but today’s Mexico will not stand for a return of that so-called “perfect” model. Peña needs to learn to play well with others.

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