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Pena Nieto's plans clash with realities in Mexico

A well-choreographed agenda hits stumbling blocks before his state of the union message.

September 02, 2013|Tracy Wilkinson and Richard Fausset
  • Members of a teachers union block a street Friday outside a government building in Mexico City. In another part of the city, thousands of the striking teachers have laid siege to the plaza surrounding the presidential National Palace.
Members of a teachers union block a street Friday outside a government building… (Alex Cruz / European Pressphoto…)

MEXICO CITY — When President Enrique Pena Nieto delivers his first state of the union message Monday, he won't leave home to do it.

The unusual venue -- his residence, Los Pinos -- is replacing the more traditional spot, the presidential National Palace, because striking teachers have laid siege to the plaza surrounding it. Government officials and invited dignitaries would have a tough time reaching the palace.

Nine months into Pena Nieto's presidency, not everything is going quite according to his well-choreographed, carefully hyped plans.

Leading the Institutional Revolutionary Party that had ruled autocratically for seven decades until getting the boot in 2000, the telegenic politician came to power in December by promising a new Mexico, one that would take its rightful place on the world stage, impressing audiences here and abroad with an ambitious project of "transformational" economic changes.

In addition, he was emphatic about minimizing the issue that had dominated global discussion of Mexico in the previous years: the government's deadly battle with drug traffickers and the criminal networks they have spawned.

Instead, the economy has stalled, shrinking this quarter for the first time in four years, and violent drug-and-extortion gangs have so overwhelmed citizens in some states that they have taken up arms to protect themselves. The government, they say, won't.

Meanwhile, Pena Nieto's reform agenda is hitting unexpected speed bumps with disruptive protests in recent days.

Teachers enraged over Pena Nieto's plan to overhaul the educational system have managed, day after day, to shut down Congress, block major streets, besiege embassies and government buildings here in the capital, ground people trying to reach the main international airport, and force the cancellation of cherished soccer matches.

In a rush to build momentum, Pena Nieto succeeded in getting legislative approval and even constitutional changes to pass major education and telecommunications laws. Two more, dealing with energy and fiscal policy, are on deck.

The teachers' street fight, however, shows that stiff and disruptive opposition could still derail his plans.

"The reality has impinged on him at last," said Federico Estevez, a professor of political science at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. "It's not easy to ward off the pessimism that will be spreading really quickly in the next few weeks and months."

The demonstrations by thousands of members of a dissident teachers union are in protest of a requirement that teachers be evaluated, hired and promoted based on merit. While tying up the capital, the demonstrators have succeeded in persuading the lower chamber of Congress to delay, at least temporarily, the enabling legislation that would allow the changes to kick in.

An even larger danger for Pena Nieto is that the teachers' actions could inspire similar chaos when his proposal to open oil and gas exploration to private and foreign investment comes up for a vote.

"What's at stake is not just [one] reform," said Claudio X. Gonzalez, head of Mexicanos Primero, an education advocacy group, "but the administration of President Pena Nieto and his entire reform agenda."

The political left is already voicing impassioned opposition to the energy plan and has called for a massive rally Sept. 8. Opponents see the plan as a thinly veiled move to privatize Mexico's lucrative oil industry, with the benefits going to an elite few.

In his speech, which had been set for Sunday but was moved back a day, Pena Nieto is expected to reiterate claims of several important accomplishments in this initial season of his six-year term. He takes credit for what he calculates to be a 20% decline in homicides in the first six months of his government compared with the same period the previous year.

He has not provided statistics to back the claim, though the number of homicides did begin to decline well before he took office. Moreover, his government's policy has been to order its spokespeople to release only minimal details about killings and arrests. And some experts question the government's methodology in counting the dead.

Throughout his campaign and the first months of his presidency, Pena Nieto pledged a "different" security strategy that would reduce crime without the army-heavy focus on dismantling drug organizations. But he has failed thus far to articulate the details of a different approach.

His most visible actions are reminiscent of the controversial tactics of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. After initially criticizing the so-called kingpin strategy of focusing on the detention or death of drug cartel bosses, Pena Nieto's government in recent weeks has rolled up two major drug gang chiefs. And the administration's first major military operation involved sending troops into the inflamed state of Michoacan, replicating Calderon's first major military operation in December 2006.

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