News and Analysis: December 10-23

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1 - ZAPATISTA MOBILIZATION
2 - EDUCATION REFORM SCAPEGOATS TEACHERS
3 - PENA NIETO’S POLITICAL AGENDA
4 - WALMART OUTED AGAIN
5 - HSBC AVOIDS CRIMINAL PROSECUTION

Tens of thousands of Zapatista support bases occupied the cities of San Cristobal de las Casas, Las Margaritas, Altamirano, Ocosingo and Comitan early Friday morning in a peaceful and silent replay of the January 1, 1994 uprising.  An estimated 40,000 Zapatistas demonstrated an organizational capacity not seen publicly in several years.  Marchers carried signs demanding justice for Acteal on the 15th anniversary of the infamous massacre in which paramilitaries, supported by government troops, killed 45 indigenous members of Las Abejas.  Several weeks ago the EZLN promised a communique which would break a year-and-a-half-long silence.  On Friday Subcomandante Marcos published a short piece of poetry, but a more extensive document is expected in coming days.

2 - EDUCATION REFORM SCAPEGOATS TEACHERS
The Senate approved constitutional reforms on Thursday - in an unprecedented 24 hours - directed at the public education system, including reform of Article 3, considered one of the centerpieces of the Mexican revolution.  Senators offered only minor changes to measures passed earlier in the week by the lower House.  Initially, the reforms were designed, in part, to weaken Elba Esther Gordillo’s hold on the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), perhaps the most corrupt and politically powerful union in Mexico.  But it appears newly-elected President Enrique Pena Nieto and Gordillo reached a private agreement that will give Pena Nieto the appearance of a victory while maintaining Gordillo’s hold over the union’s finances, at least in the short term.  The PRI was pushing for competency testing that could have cost hundreds of thousands of teachers their jobs, but the bill will only apply job sanctions to newly hired instructors unable to pass the exams.  The measures return teacher selection to a federal board, removing part of Gordillo’s near dictatorial control over the union.  Gordillo must have figured it was the best deal she could get.  She announced organized teacher opposition to the law, but only during the weekends and not involving job actions or public demonstrations.  Rather, teachers are expected to distribute educational fliers and conduct a national consultation, a strong indication that Gordillo is putting up the pretense of opposition while accepting the basic deal.

The CNTE, a Left opposition group within the SNTE, opposes the constitutional reforms and promises more active opposition.  The CNTE argued that politicians are scapegoating overworked and underpaid teachers - toiling with inadequate budgets in poorly maintained schools - for all the problems with public education, similar to arguments made by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  Pena Nieta also wants to move toward privatizing education at primary, secondary and high school levels, and is unwilling to address poverty and crime as important factors in poor educational quality.

3 - PENA NIETO’S POLITICAL AGENDA
Newly-elected President Enrique Pena Nieto gives the appearance of an ambitious political agenda during his first month in office, though a closer look reveals a neoliberal commitment to the rich shrouded in a populist sheen. 

His new approach to crime emphasizes centralized policing that will give federal forces significantly more control over all aspects of the justice system – not a welcome specter given the former Governor’s history of human rights abuses in Mexico State.  The President’s staff launched early critiques of former President Felipe Calderon’s approach, which tended to focus on arresting/killing cartel capos.  According to Pena Nieto’s new security team, this tended to break large cartels into smaller - and often more violent - operations, thereby increasing kidnapping and extortion as well as narcotics sales.  Newly-appointed Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam estimates there are now 80 small and medium sized cartels operating in Mexico.  Pena Nieto will almost certainly try to reach backroom agreements with the largest cartels that loosen drug enforcement in exchange for reduced public violence, hence the centralization and politicization of public security in the hands of a strengthened Interior Minister.  In a country where only 8% of crimes are reported, and only 15% of those reported are solved, almost nothing could be worse.  Perhaps the biggest problem is rampant corruption within security forces, including the trained and vetted Federal Police.  Pena Nieto’s plan is unlikely to resolve this issue.  Rather, the corruption would – theoretically – be controlled by a well-defined political hierarchy, much like the PRI of old.

In his first federal budget proposal, Pena Nieto increased taxes and presented a balanced budget.  He got everything he requested, and more.  Critics noted that foreign investors and large corporations are still largely exempt from taxes – for example, the mining industry, dominated by Canadian companies, pays only 1.2% on production.  But the President will have a larger budget for business promotion, public security, and social investments.

Even before his swearing-in ceremony, Pena Nieto and the PRI supported a PAN-backed labor reform that reduced wages and job security.  As a counter-balance, he now proposes to extend federal health care to the 60% of workers in the informal sector and develop a retirement program for senior citizens.  Both measures are straight from Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s recent failed presidential election campaign.  This author looks for Pena Nieto to talk a lot about extending social programs as cover for his neoliberal agenda, which will certainly take precedence.  He may even implement some modest reforms, taking a lesson from the corporativist political successes Lopez Obardor had with his “viejitos” (senior citizens) program that made monthly payments of 50 pesos while he was Mayor of Mexico City, providing lots of political clout for very little cost.  The PRI has a long history of successful corporativist organizing, and this could be its new neoliberal face.  But don’t look for much.  Federal authorities raised the minimum wage this week by a measly 3.9% to about US$4.65 for an eight-hour day – the lowest raise in the past four years.

4 - WALMART OUTED AGAIN
In an investigative piece worthy of a Pulitzer, David Barstow and his assistants from the New York Times revealed this week an international WalMart operation sullied with corruption, payoffs and illegal activities that threaten thousands of small Mexican businesses, the integrity of communities, and the sanctity of Mexico’s most revered historical site.  Barstow managed to collect an impressive spectacle of damning information on bribes, official corruption, altered zoning maps, and influence peddling by WalMart officials, both in Mexico and the US.  Since publishing an article on WalMart’s illegal activities in Mexico last year, the Times reporter has uncovered detailed new information that apparently a raft of highly paid investigators and attorneys on the payroll of WalMart have missed - or covered up - in their own purported investigation.  Barstow’s article should lead to prison sentences, fines and the demolition of at least one WalMart mega-store in Teotihuacan, less than a kilometer from Mexico’s most famous pyramids.  Read the full article at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/business/walmart-bribes-teotihuacan.html?pagewanted=all.

5 - HSBC AVOIDS CRIMINAL PROSECUTION
HSBC, the British-based financial behemoth and Europe’s largest bank, avoided criminal prosecution for money-laundering last week by agreeing to a US$2 billion fine to be paid to US banking authorities.  HSBC reportedly laundered at least US$7 billion in Mexican funds, much of it from illegal drug sales, between 2007 and 2009.  At least US$881 million originated with the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico’s largest, and the Colombian cartel Norte del Valle, according to the US Justice Department.  But not a single bank official will face criminal prosecution, and the bank will continue operating in the US and Mexico.  Authorities feared that criminal charges involving one of the largest banks in the world could destabilize the international financial system by annulling their license to do business in the US.  This is the third time in the past decade HSBC admitted illegal money laundering activities, leading experts to wonder if bank personnel are immune from prosecution.