Angry teachers paralyze Mexico City with protests
In Mexico City, some 10,000 educators protesting government proposals to weaken the power of teachers have disrupted international air travel, forced the cancellation of sporting events, rerouted a marathon and snarled already traffic-choked freeways.
The Associated Press
MEXICO CITY — This sprawling metropolis of honking cars and 22 million harried people has been brought to its knees, not by an earthquake or its ominous smoking volcanoes, but rather a small contingent of angry schoolteachers.
Some 10,000 educators protesting a government plan to curb the power of teachers have disrupted international air travel, forced the cancellation of two major soccer matches, rerouted a marathon and snarled freeways already choked by traffic.
The disruptions have shown how little it takes to push a city that is snarled on a good day over the edge.
Taxi drivers are so desperate they are refusing fares to certain frequently blocked parts of the city, and residents have turned to urban survival skills: driving the wrong way down streets, using rental bikes, clambering over fences and piling into the back of police pickups to get to their destinations.
The city launched an app Tuesday that warns drivers of protest locations, with a little orange icon of what appears to be a city resident climbing a mountain marking each blockade or march.
“It’s terrible. There’s no business ... people don’t even want to get into a cab, because the traffic isn’t going anywhere,” taxi driver Ernesto Gallegos said Wednesday, standing beside his parked cab on the city’s main boulevard.
“People will get out and say, ‘I’ll walk instead.’ They’ll get on these eco-bikes,” he said, referring to the city’s bike-sharing program.
Cesar Juarez, 30, who works repairing wireless systems for a telecom company, sat in his car at an intersection blocked by protesters, shooting photos with his cellphone to show his boss why he couldn’t reach a client. Others stuck in frozen traffic near the protests dialed in to postpone meetings.
“I’ve had to cancel two appointments so far today,” fumed well-dressed bank employee Arturo Gutierrez, 47, rapidly texting on his Blackberry. “That’s lost economic activity.”
“I just told my wife: ‘Let’s go live in the countryside. What are we doing here?’”
The cause of the upheaval is a government program that would subject teachers to periodic evaluations in the form of standardized tests, and end the unions’ power over hiring. That would be a jolt to an education system in which some teachers can inherit their jobs from their parents.
Juan Melchor Roman, one of the leaders of the striking teachers, said the union was aware of the growing anger among city residents.
“But we think that is being whipped up by the news media,” he said. “We are asking the public to understand the teachers’ struggle ... and understand us a little.”
The union says a standardized test is an unfair way to evaluate a teacher’s entire career and argues that parents and student evaluations and other factors should be taken into account. The government counters that teachers will have multiple chances to pass the test, and says failing teachers won’t be fired but reassigned outside the classroom.
The teacher protests, analysts said, illustrate how difficult it may be for President Enrique Peña Nieto to get through this and other changes he has pushed since taking office in December, including an energy and telecommunications overhaul deemed vital to revving up the economy.
Already, lawmakers, who passed the principal outlines of the education program in December, shelved one of the bill’s most vital provisions, an evaluation requirement aimed at halting the common practice of buying and selling teaching jobs.
Mexico ranks last in standardized test scores among the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The main political parties agreed to work together to pass the overhaul. In February, the seemingly untouchable leader of the powerful main teachers union, Elba Esther Gordillo, was ousted and jailed on suspicion of embezzlement, a rare rebuke to powerful figures.
By April, members of a small but militant faction of the union began pushing back with protests in Guerrero state, including the shutdown of the highway connecting the tourist hub of Acapulco to Mexico City. Demonstrators then paralyzed parts of Oaxaca and Michoacán states, in the south and west.
Last week, they arrived in Mexico City, where they turned the central square into a tent city, forcing the Mexico City Marathon, scheduled for Sunday, to be rerouted. They also blockaded the two buildings belonging to the chambers of Congress, forcing the legislature to meet at a convention center.
City police have taken to routing traffic the wrong way down one-way streets — something the government calls “reversing” streets. The country’s first-division soccer league said it was canceling two Mexico City matches because the police it would normally assign to keep the peace were too busy managing the protests.
The situation may get worse. The striking teachers plan to join other protesters Saturday in a giant march against the government’s proposed oil-industry overhaul, leading to fears that some demonstrators might resort to breaking windows and trashing stores, a tradition in some past marches.
Tourists and travelers were forced to take a circuitous route to the Mexico City airport last week after teachers blocked the main expressway leading to the terminal, causing severe flight delays. Some travelers pulling suitcases were forced to walk down the expressway, scale a chain-link fence or climb into the back of police pickups that carried them around the blockade and into the terminal.
Their problems haven’t ended as they seek to navigate the city.
Luis Torres, a tourist from Caracas, Venezuela, wandered across the city’s protest-blocked main boulevard Wednesday looking for the bright-red double-decker tourist bus that normally stops on the corner.
“You come to such a historic place, only to find that the tour bus has been rerouted and all your plans are delayed,” Torres said.
He compared Mexico City to his protest-clogged home country. “It’s not just the traffic, even the protesters’ slogans sound like the ones in Venezuela,” he said.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.