Friday, March 1, 2013

Mexico's Teachers' Union Replaces "La Maestra"

The Mexican National Educational Workers Union (SNTE), which was headed by Elba Esther Gordillo until she was arrested this week on embezzlement charges, has wasted little time in choosing a replacement leader.

In an extraordinary congress yesterday, the SNTE unanimously voted for Juan Diaz de la Torre as its new leader. According to a profile of Diaz de la Torre in Vanguardia, he is a longtime heavyweight in the union and is considered the successor least likely to cause fractures in the SNTE in Gordillo’s absence.

The election of Juan Diaz de la Torre so soon after the arrest suggests Gordillo will face the charges without significant SNTE backing, and illustrates just how far the once mighty “Maestra” has fallen. According to El Universal, Diaz de la Torre failed to even mention Gordillo in his first speech as the SNTE’s head.

Gordillo also appears to have been abandoned by the party she helped found, the New Alliance Party (PANAL). Although PANAL was initially based on members of the teacher's union and was even headed by Gordillo’s daughter at one point, the party issued a statement on Wednesday saying it would not comment on the charges against her.

In a surprising shift, Diaz de la Torre also announced that the union would no longer fight the recent education reform passed by the government, saying that it amounted to an opportunity for teachers to improve the education system while representing their interests. The announcement is a significant reversal for the SNTE, which organized a series of major demonstrations in the weeks leading up to President Enrique Peña Nieto’s signing of the bill into law on Monday.

This is good news for Mexican education reform advocates. The law signed on Monday makes it easier to track teacher performance and hire and fire educators, but Congress still needs to pass a number of supplementary bills in order for the law to take its full intended effect.  With the SNTE’s participation, these provisions will have a much greater chance of passing.

News Briefs
  • For the first time ever, former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier was brought face-to-face with the victims of human rights abuses ordered by his government yesterday. After successfully postponing a court appearance three times, Duvalier arrived at the Port-au-Prince hearing yesterday to determine whether he can be charged with crimes against humanity. While the prosecution argues that Duvalier is responsible for overseeing the torture, disappearance and murder of hundreds of human rights activists during his 1971-1986 rule, The Guardian reports that Duvalier testified that the abuses were committed by rogue officials acting on their own accord. The hearing is set to resume next Thursday.
  • The Guardian’s Global Development blog takes a look at the Haitian government’s 10-year plan to eradicate cholera in the country. Over the next decade, officials hope to increase access to clean drinking water from 69 percent to 85 percent of the population and broaden access to healthcare from 54 percent to 80 percent.
  • El Universo reports that Ecuador’s foreign minister, Ricardo Patiño, has begun a regional tour to promote reforms to the Inter-American Human Rights System (consisting of the Inter-American Court and Commission on Human Rights) currently under consideration in the Organization of American States (OAS). According to the AFP, Patiño arrived in Mexico on Wednesday, and is expected to visit Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Venezuela ahead of a March 8 meeting in Guayaquil in which representatives from Unasur will solidify their countries' positions on the proposed changes. The full OAS General Assembly is expected to vote on the matter in an upcoming Mach 22 meeting. As noted in a previous post, many regional human rights advocates oppose the reforms out of concern that they will threaten the independence of the Inter-American Commission.
  • In a televised speech last night, Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro somberly told the Venezuelan public that President Hugo Chavez is “fighting for his life” in the Caracas military hospital where he is receiving treatment. “Our commander is sick because he gave his life for those who don't have anything,” Maduro said. Despite the increasingly dim outlook for Chavez, the AP reports that a recent Datanalisis poll suggests that nearly 58 percent of Venezuelans believe Chavez will recover. Some 30 percent don’t expect him to return to power and 12.5 percent say they are unsure what will happen, according to the survey.
  • Venezuelan prosecutors have formally charged opposition figure Leopoldo Lopez of influence peddling, a crime punishable by up to four years in prison, El Nacional and the L.A. Times report. Lopez appeared in court on Thursday to respond to the allegations, claiming he is the victim of political persecution. The charges stem from a donation that Lopez received in 1997 from the PDVSA state oil company while he and his mother were high-level employees there. Prosecutors say he used the money to fund the creation of his Justice First Party, a violation of election campaign law in the country.
  • The Inter Press Service looks at the political price Argentina could pay for the recent approval of an accord with Iran to set up a truth commission to investigate the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center. As one expert told the IPS, “from now on Argentina’s foreign policy will be viewed as anti-West.”
  • Although the Colombian government met with the organizers of the coffee growers’ strike yesterday to discuss their demands for greater government subsidies, Caracol reports that the two sides failed to reach an agreement.  The strike has continued into its sixth day and large scale demonstrations continue around the country, although another round of talks is slated for this morning.
  • This week’s issue of the Economist assesses the arrest of Elba Esther Gordillo, asking whether it represents the beginning of a campaign by President Enrique Peña Nieto to go after corrupt political bosses in the country. It also provides an overview of the coffee growers’ strike in Colombia, as well as a critical look at the United Nations’ controversial decision not to assume responsibility for Haiti’s cholera outbreak.
  • The Honduran Congress last week passed a series of reforms to the criminal code, including a new libel law which mandates a 3 to 5 year prison term for those who "incite hate or attack against ideological groups, sexes, or genders,” El Heraldo reports. As Honduras Culture and Politics notes, there is potential for the new law to be used against the Honduran media by politicians unhappy with their portrayal in the press.
  • The proceedings in a Miami immigration court against former Salvadoran defense minister General Jose Guillermo Garcia ended this week, the AP reports. The U.S. is attempting to deport Garcia in accordance with a 2004 law which prevents human rights abusers from taking refuge in the country. According to the AP, Garcia admitted to failing to prevent abuses against civilians during the Salvadoran Civil War, but said internal divisions in the army made it difficult to control those under his command.
  • The Center for Democracy in the Americas has translated an interesting piece by El Salvador’s Hector Silva Avalos on the various lobbying groups that Salvadoran political parties have set up to represent their interests in Washington ahead of the 2014 presidential elections. The original piece can be read in Spanish at El Faro.
  • The three Bolivian soldiers held in Chile after allegedly crossing the border illegally have been allowed to return home after a month in a Chilean prison, a case which has taken a toll on relations between Chile and Bolivia in recent weeks. La Razon reports that the men were released after a deal was reached between prosecutors and the defense which allows them to return to Bolivia on the condition that they do not enter Chile for at least a year.
  • The Council on Foreign Relations’ Shannon K. O'Neil offers an overview of how the mandatory government spending cuts looming in the U.S. could affect Latin America, noting that the cuts might mean longer visa lines, less military aid transfers, and could even impact the economies of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. According to a January 2013 World Bank report, total GDP growth in Latin America could fall by as much as 1.2 percent as a result of fiscal uncertainty in the U.S.

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