Mexican Teachers Protest, Demanding Raises

Tens of thousands of teachers on strike in Mexico's southern rural state of Oaxaca say they will not disrupt this weekend's presidential election with violence or boycotts. Instead, the teachers, who are seeking a pay raise, say they will use their votes to oust the party now in power.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Mexicans vote for a new president tomorrow. In the southern state of Oaxaca, tens of thousands of teachers from the powerful union there are on strike after a violent confrontation with police. While the teachers have promised not to derail the elections in their state, party politics have become entangled in the issue.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Oaxaca.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

Every May for the past 26 years, the teachers in the State of Oaxaca have gone on strike to demand higher wages. They occupy the main square in the picturesque capital, sleeping under tarps and tents. It's mostly symbolic, and after a few weeks they pack up their things and leave. This year, however, at around 5:00 a.m. on June 14th, things took a different turn.

(Soundbite of a mob)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Police violently stormed the square on the orders of the Governor, Ulises Ruiz, using tear gas and helicopters. The teachers fought back with sticks, rocks, and machetes; dozens were wounded. Instead of disbanding the teachers ahead of the July 2nd elections, the confrontation entrenched them more, and now they're calling for the governor's resignation, loudly.

(Soundbite of a mob)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tens of thousands of teachers took to the streets of Oaxaca again this week to put pressure on Ruiz to resign. On the surface, this could seem like a local issue of no larger consequence. Bu what's happening in Oaxaca might impact the national elections. Fifty-three-year-old teacher, Bulmaro Vasquez(ph) was among the marchers.

Mr. BULMARO VASQUEZ (Teacher): (Through Translator) Here in the State of Oaxaca there is going to be an impact on the elections because the people here do not want to support the PRI or the PAN. People here are very disenchanted, so what will happen is that Oaxaca will not vote for those two ruling parties.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What that means is this. In this election, the race for the top spot is a tight one between Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the left, and Felipe Calderon from the right of center PAN Party. The once all-powerful PRI Party and their candidate, Roberto Madrazo, is running a distant third in the polls. But Oaxaca has always been a staunchly PRI state. The governor belongs to it and Oaxacans have always voted PRI in a big way. In the teachers' desire to punish the governor and the president of Mexico, who belongs to the rightist PAN, the teachers are swinging left; and in such close race, they could decide the election.

(Soundbite of Mexican music)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the main square, musicians play while groups of teachers cluster together among a very few tourists. Many of the streets have been blocked by metal barricades. The famous green stone buildings here are covered in anti-government graffiti. Tensions are extremely high; everyone is accusing everyone else of trying to influence the strikers.

Standing along a side street, keeping a lookout for government spies, as she calls them, is teacher Anna Marta Juarez(ph). She says that in response to the strike, the parties that are being targeted are desperately scrambling to sway voters in their direction through vote buying.

Ms. ANNA MARTA JUAREZ (Teacher): (Through Translator) They've giving away mattresses. They give them bags of cement for their homes, to sway their vote for the PRI. And now the PAN is doing the same thing too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gifts in exchange for votes is a longstanding tradition here. But this time, it may not work; and some say that's because the big beneficiaries of all the troubles here could be trying to exacerbate tensions.

Ms. KANA YAMARA(ph) (Restaurant Owner): What I've heard is this whole thing, this will show it's run by PRD.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kana Yamara owns a restaurant on the main square. She has friends in government who have told her that the leftist party, or PRD, is stirring up the teachers union for their benefit. It's hard to determine what's really going on. Mexican political scientist Soledad Loaeza.

Ms. SOLEDAD LOAEZA (Political Scientist): There is some evidence that there are people from every political party involved in this strike.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Soledad Loaeza says that despite Mexico's democratic strides, what's happening in Oaxaca shows that the parties and the unions do still try to manipulate elections here; and with the race this close, they may actually succeed.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Oaxaca.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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