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MEXICO: Oaxaca Children in Protest Camps, Not Classrooms

Diego Cevallos

OAXACA, Mexico, Oct 7 2006 (IPS) - Because of the unrest in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, public offices in the state capital have virtually turned into ghost buildings, with no local public institution functioning normally. But the biggest vacuum is felt in the classrooms of the empty public schools.

On May 22, at the end of the previous school year, the local teachers’ union went on strike for higher wages. After state police were sent in to break up the teachers’ protest in mid-June, thousands of local residents from around the state joined their cause, with some 350 social organisations grouping in the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca (APPO).

The main demand of the demonstrators, who have been camping out in city parks, squares and streets for over four months, is the resignation of Goveror Ulises Ruiz, who is accused of corruption, rigging his election victory, and authoritarian rule.

But he continues to enjoy the protection of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – which governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000 and continues to govern Oaxaca – and the conservative ruling National Action Party (PAN).

The strike has kept 1.3 million children from starting the 2006-2007 school year in August.

“It’s not my fault. It’s very bad not to go to school, because we don’t learn to write,” José Yatchi, an indigenous child of 10, told IPS. He was going with his mother to sell silver craftwork on a street in Oaxaca, a city of 300,000.

In the state capital, one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico, surrounded by archaeological sites and natural wonders, large numbers of children can be seen playing in the streets, while others accompany their parents, selling crafts, souvenirs and other products to tourists and local residents.

Not only have the teachers gone on strike, but the public authorities have practically abandoned the state to its fate, while most government buildings have been occupied by APPO activists.

State and municipal authorities and groups of concerned parents have re-opened a few public schools in the last two weeks, staffed by what teachers and volunteers they can get, in the capital city and the rural areas. In other cases, classes are being given undercover in private homes, because their organisers are afraid of reprisals from APPO.

The private La Ley radio station, occupied by APPO since Aug. 21, is broadcasting messages urging people not to take their children to class because, they claim, the children will be “at risk” from exposure to unqualified teachers of questionable ethics – a reference to the teachers who have not joined the strike and to the volunteers giving class.

The activists currently running the radio station also state that the authorities are giving out food parcels to families as an incentive to take their children to class.

An estimated 10 percent of the 1.3 million public school students in Oaxaca have been able to resume their education in the last two weeks, albeit in an irregular fashion. Only the 150,000 children attending private schools are not experiencing problems.

Ana Arellanes, a preschool teacher who has worked in Oaxaca since the 1990s, told IPS that she is “absolutely committed” to education and to the children.

But “today we have an important commitment to society and to our union, which means we have to fight through APPO to demand the governor’s destitution,” she said.

In Oaxaca, the average number of years of schooling is six years, lower than the national average of 7.8 years. Half a million people aged 15 and over cannot read or write in this state with a population of 3.5 million, of whom 1.1 million are indigenous people.

According to official statistics, 112,000 children between the ages of five and 14 do not attend school in Oaxaca, representing 12 percent of the children in that age group.

However, the problems are not merely quantitative, but qualitative as well.

“We see 10-year-old children who are just starting school for the first time, and others of the same age who have been attending school but who can barely read, or don’t understand what they are reading,” said Marlene Santiago, director of the non-governmental Centre for the Support of Street Children, which has worked in Oaxaca since 1994.

“Many children in the state attend school just as a matter of form, but they don’t really learn anything,” Santiago told IPS.

Out of the 3.3 million children aged six to 14 who work in Mexico, 170,000 live in Oaxaca state.

On the Index of Mexican Children’s Rights, which evaluates variables such as education, nutrition, family environment and other rights on a scale of zero to 10, Oaxaca scores 3.6 for children up to five years of age, 4.8 for children aged six to 11, and 4..1 for adolescents aged 12 to 17. Oaxaca ranks at the bottom of the index, along with the neighbouring states of Chiapas and Guerrero.

The Index is drawn up by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Mirsa Zárate, 11, told IPS that she is “quite bored” now that she’s not going to school, and that she has been watching television “more than ever before.”

The problem with the governor “is a separate issue that shouldn’t really be affecting us,” said Mirsa as she walked with her cousin along a street in the centre of Oaxaca.

Abisay Aragón, 10, thinks differently. “The teachers are fighting for a just cause. I don’t want to go back to school until Ulises (Ruiz) leaves. It’s true that we are not to blame at all, but I support the teachers,” she told IPS as she played in the city’s central square, which is occupied by dozens of APPO encampments.

“I haven’t been to school for a long time now, but here (in the square) I’ve learned a lot, about living with other people, and about making art. Sometimes I come and sometimes I don’t,” said Abisay, the daughter of one of the state’s 70,000 unionised teachers.

In the view of schoolteacher Arellanes, the children, “who also form part of society, have grown in social awareness because of the movement, and that’s a good thing.”

Many activists bring their children to the APPO camps in the morning and for part of the afternoon, even though there are rumours that the government might be preparing to use force to break up the protests. Children who live in the city go home at night, but others, whose families have come in from the countryside, stay overnight in the camps.

Some members of APPO have proposed organising a children’s march through the streets of Oaxaca, as another means of exerting pressure for the governor’s removal. The state government is also interested in doing something similar, but with the purpose of demanding an end to the protest.

Santiago, the director of the Centre for the Support of Street Children urged the parties in conflict in Oaxaca “not to use the children as a propaganda tool.”

The acting representative of UNICEF in Mexico, Oliver DeGreef, called on both sides to give the children a good example “of how conflicts of interest should be solved, in a peaceful, constructive way, through tolerance and dialogue.”

On Thursday the tension seemed to relax somewhat in the streets of Oaxaca, after a meeting between representative of President Vicente Fox’s administration and APPO, in Mexico City. They exchanged proposals, and agreed to meet again next Monday.

But on Friday, the situation became tense again when the body of Jaime René Calvo was found. The math teacher, a member of the CCL, a dissident group of teachers, had been stabbed in the neck with an icepick.

The CCL blamed leaders of the main teachers’ union for his death. But the union said he was murder by hired killers paid by the state government, with the aim of derailing the negotiations between APPO and the federal government.

Although there is enough evidence to justify the start of impeachment proceedings in the Senate for Governor Ruiz, neither the PRI nor the PAN is willing to take that step.

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