By RICARDO CASTILLO
Suddenly – but not unexpectedly – the once-powerful National Education Workers Union (SNTE) leader Elba Esther Gordillo is back on track to regain the presidency of Mexico’s two-million-member-strong union, the largest in all Latin America.
During the administration of former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), Gordillo was thrown in the slammer on several charges, including embezzlement of union fees, tax evasion and other punishable crimes, such as leading an organized crime group.
Yet, with Mexico being what it is, as soon as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) was sworn into office in December, all charges against the now-75-year-old figurehead were dropped.
Now, just like the first time she was elected, back in 1989, at age 45, Gordillo will go campaigned all over the country to ask for the vote of teachers. In 1990, when she was elected for the first time, she had to deal with opponents who tried to block her way. Back then, she reportedly took off her fancy high heel red shoes and jumped barefoot onto the step below the side door of an old ambulance and ordered the driver to move forward. The stunned Red Cross driver did as she asked and pulled her out of the crowd, protesting her victory.
This time around, Elba Esther did not have to do much. In her first stump meeting in Cholula, near the city of Puebla, on Saturday, April 6, she attended a gathering of the Second National Encounter of Young Teachers and harangued them during 53 minutes, after which the young crowd, all SNTE members, finished shouting “presidenta, presidenta,” which sounded like music to her ears.
At that same gathering, she announced the formation of a new political party, to be called the Redes Sociales Progresistas (Progressive Social Networks), which will soon file for registration at the National Electoral Institute (INE). Gordillo had formed a political party before she was jailed. The New Alliance Party (Panal, which also means beehive), but that party went under during the 2018 presidential election and was denied registration by the INE for not garnering enough votes to survive.
In her speech at the Cholula event, she did not attack frontally AMLO’s derogation of Peña Nieto’s controversial Education Reform, but she said that AMLO’s proposed education reform “is not the reform we were hoping for.”
She was for the preservation of the now-gone National Education Evaluation Institute and differs with López Obrador on the issue of allowing unions to to mediate to fill up vacancies, (something AMLO does not want) like it was when she was secretary general of the SNTE.
“My respect for Señor Presidente,” she said, “but shoemaker go back to making shoes. We demand respect for union autonomy and independence.”
Under the new education norms, AMLO noted that vacant jobs for teachers were actually sold to the highest bidders and recently he warned the other teachers union, the Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE), that he would not allow “selling vacancies,” which he said should go to the best teacher candidates, not the highest bidders.
Gordillo added to her speech: “We don’t want a brawl with the government, regardless of color.” But she said that teachers would not be used by a political party as pawns, “be it by Morena (the National Regeneration Movement), the Networks, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) or the PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party).”
Gordillo got a strong response at the Cholula gathering, sponsored by the umbrella organization Teachers for Mexico (MXM), which appealed to MXM members to “waive as banners their regulatory laws (of the Education Reform).”
“If we are not on alert about the regulations, we’re going to have serious problems with that reform,” she said.
Gordillo said that she’s launching her candidacy because she “was exonerated of the crimes I was charged with and have the right to the union presidency, hoping there will be a clean, secret, direct and universal vote through a congress with which those characteristics the new leadership will be elected. That’s what I am going for, companions.”
The only people Gordillo did not take aim at with her poisonous verbal darts were the current leaders of the union. Instead, she simply labeled them as “mediocre, petty and ignorant,” adding “there’s no union anymore.”
On hearing of Elba Esther’s speech and asked about it during his Monday, April 8, morning press conference, AMLO sent Gordillo a clear message, telling her that he is cancelling Peña Nieto’s Education Reform “as a token of respect for teachers.”
AMLO added: “I am already reserving my place in the front row because I want to see the internal elections. I want to see teachers at the voting booths free, in secret, without being bused, without threats and with democracy.”
During her speech in Cholula, Gordillo said that AMLO’s education reform was more of the same, with a little makeup on. “It’s the same dead cat, only a bit rolled up,” she said. “It’s a little tiny reform.” (“Es la misma gata, pero revolcadita, la reformita,” which is an old Mexican idiom to claim something isn’t any different.)
AMLO also commented that Gordillo is in her right to promote herself, but said that his administration will not allow the arguments of those who in the past “allowed the legislative package that made vulnerable the rights of education workers and now try to pass themselves off as radicals.”
He added a warning, that “if no agreement can be reached through dialogue, I will opt for the cancellation of the entire Education Reform” approved by the Peña Nieto administration, thus leaving Mexico’s education system the way it was before Peña Nieto took office.
In any case, up until now, Elba Esther Gordillo is the only candidate running for union president that has officially tossed her hat into the ring, creating a very real danger that she could be running uncontested.