As Mexico celebrated its 203rd independence day this past weekend, teachers found themselves in the crosshairs of reactionary politicians.
In Mexico City on Sept. 13, heavily armed police drove protesting teachers out of the Zocalo, the massive public square in front of the National Palace, in part to make sure there was no disruption of the president's traditional September 15 independence message from the palace balcony. The teachers have been protesting in unprecedented numbers against the passage by the Mexican Congress (now done) of a so called "educational reform" bill which they claim will strip them of labor rights while also damaging the education of children in poor and minority (indigenous) communities.
The reform is a pet project of President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI). It provides for a national system of evaluation of teachers, and permits schools to do their own fundraising from private sources.
The teachers, who are from Section 22 of the National Coordinator of Educational Workers (CNTE), say that they don't mind being evaluated, but that a one-size-fits-all system of testing as the centerpiece of Peña Nieto's evaluation will not take into account huge differences among schools, communities and regions, for example between urban schools with entirely Spanish speaking students, and some very poor rural schools where none of the students speak Spanish when they first enroll. To allow schools to do their own private fundraising, instead of making sure that all schools get the government funding they need, opens the door to privatization, according to the teachers.
Anti-teacher propaganda in the media has tried to connect the protesting teachers with the former head of the National Education Workers Union, Elba Ester Gordillo, a political manipulator who was arrested for corruption earlier this year. But the protesters come from a dissident sector of the unionized teaching profession, that has a history of militant participation in social struggles in Oaxaca and elsewhere.
The ideal of free, universal and secular education is one of the triumphs of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. During the "Cristero Wars" of the 1920s, many idealistic young teachers were shot or hanged by armed bands who considered secular education to be "communistic." In many rural communities, including those where the majority of the population does not speak Spanish at home, government teachers have thrust upon them roles of social and political leadership because they are the only educated and bilingual people who are not part of the ruling cliques. There is a suspicion that the government's plan to "upgrade" the teaching profession might have a hidden agenda of going after teachers who have been active in people's struggles.
This may explain the strange case of Alberto Patishtán Gómez, who, by virtue of a judicial decision last week, is looking at serving another 47 years in prison for a crime, which almost nobody believes he committed.
Patishtán is a member of the Tzotzil Maya ethnic group, and comes from the small town of El Bosque in the Chiapas highlands, where he was a teacher. After the Zapatista insurrection of January 1, 1994, Patishtán was active in a struggle against the mayor of El Bosque, who was accused of corrupt practices. In 2000, there was an ambush between El Bosque and nearby Simojovel, in which seven police officers were killed by unknown assailants firing AK 47 and R-15 rifles. One policeman and the driver survived. The driver, who just happens to be the son of the mayor of El Bosque against whom Patishtán had made accusations, claimed he heard Patishtán's voice among the assailants, though he did not see him. Numerous people in El Bosque say they saw Patishtán in the town, miles away, teaching at the school as usual. The Zaptista command stated that it believed that the attack against the police was a provocation designed to discredit and incriminate the government's opponents.
But Patishtán was convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison. He has become a leader of the prisoners and a prominent martyr of the cause of social justice for indigenous people in Mexico. Due to his efforts, numerous prisoners have gained their freedom, but not him.
Patishtán's supporters have not given up. Basing themselves on the concept of "presumption of innocence", they took the case to the Supreme Court, but were turned down in March of this year.
They then took the case to an appeals court in Tuxtla Gutierrez, capital of Chiapas, but last week lost the case in that court also, on the grounds that they did not present adequate new evidence, though the whole problem is that no valid evidence against Patishtán was presented to begin with.
So now Patishtán's freedom depends on a pressure campaign in Mexico and internationally. Amnesty International has taken up the cause, as have public figures such as Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, founder of the left-center Democratic Revolutionary Party. Patishtán's supporters are appealing for more to join in.
Photo: Protesting teachers chant slogans at the Zocalo, Mexico City's main plaza, on Sept. 13. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)