The penal system does not work; criminals that do jail time do not reform. We’ve heard these arguments in Mexico before—and for the most part, they seem to be true.
Stories abound of drug lords continuing to run their operations from within their cells by using unauthorized mobile phones, and of youth that are imprisoned for minor crimes, only to turn into full-blown criminals once they enter the penal system.
However, one case in Baja California sheds a beacon of light that could be a sign of better things to come in the Mexican penitentiary system.
Pedro Antonio Gerardo Acosta is a 29-year-old inmate in the El Hongo jail near the city of Tecate in Baja California, serving a 20-year sentence for kidnapping. This convicted criminal also recently obtained the highest score in the country on the national academic test for higher education (public and private), administered by the Centro Nacional de Evaluación para la Educación Superior A.C. (National Evaluation Center for Higher Education—CENEVAL).
Gerardo Acosta is one of the first inmates to graduate from a pilot program run by the Baja California State Penitentiary and the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC), which allows people serving a sentence in El Hongo to receive higher education while incarcerated. Along with Gerardo Acosta’s amazing achievement, two of his inmate classmates also received special recognition for outstanding academic performance in 2013.
The first nine months of Peña’s administration have kept the press busy and all of the country’s eyes and ears focused on what will happen next. He’s been characterized as bold, action-oriented and dynamic but clearly, not a team player.
He was celebrated by many (yours truly included) in February when he presented an ambitious and much needed education reform but disappointed just as many after having this effort easily thwarted by militant and disgruntled unionized teachers from the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), which has taken Mexico City hostage in the last week to avoid needed secondary laws to enact the reform passing through Congress.
The inability to prevent and the lack of resolve to disperse a non-justified blockage of Congress as well as a blockade of the city’s main arteries—including those giving access to the airport and the Zócalo—has proven once again that political leaders are making decisions not based on the greater good, the rule of law or the citizenry’s interests, but on a political agenda serviced by interest groups holding more power than they should and unable to cooperate with each other.
Mismanagement of this situation could soon spark violence and create a larger-than-ideological divide. The affected citizenry in Mexico City will only stand so much. In a recent poll by BCG-Excelsior, 52 percent of Mexicans stated that they are so fed up with the CNTE’s irrational resistance to the education reform and their militant actions that they would justify use of public force to disperse the picketers.
And while the teachers take to the streets, both Peña Nieto and the city’s government cower from taking necessary action because of the political cost it would imply. Mexico City is not the only thing that’s paralyzed because of this—a broken education system puts the nation’s future talent pool at risk.
The other current hot topic in the president’s agenda is energy reform. As recently described by Christian Gomez on AS/COA, “the proposal includes constitutional changes that would open up Pemex, the 75-year-old state oil monopoly, to profit-sharing contracts and foreign investment.”
This new notion of natural resources no longer belonging exclusively to the nation poses a huge shift in paradigm. Reactions from the nation’s Left include accusations related to autonomy, national patrimony and the role of government vs. private investors in extraction and having access to revenues from one of the nation’s most important sources of income. The opposition understands that PEMEX’s inefficiencies and the plague of corruption need to be addressed, but they propose that a problem should not be fixed by creating another one.
One of the most respected voices from the Left, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, has recently stated that both PEMEX and CFE (federal electricity company) can become highly productive without having to edit the Constitution and without allow foreign and/or private hands in the nation’s riches. If national patrimony is challenged due to reforms to articles 27 and 28 of the Mexican Constitution, Cárdenas has warned he would call for nationwide protests and he would even take to the streets along with López Obrador’s Morena (National Regeneration) movement.
Given its current party composition, Peña can easily get approval for the energy reform in Congress but he would be naïve to think that this is the only hurdle he needs to jump and he is doing a terrible job at trying to get public buy-in to this proposal through vague infographics on TV.
If there is a possibility for effective energy reform, an open and inclusive debate needs to take place. This topic is not one that his team should be discussing behind closed doors and the hard questions will require real answers, not 20-second TV spots.
Peña’s government has been characterized by a “my way or the highway” attitude, which is an easier temptation to fall into than trying to build consensus in a country as complex and fragmented as Mexico. This dictatorial style is only possible because of the fact that PRI has a stellar position both in Congress and in the State governments to push its agenda forward, something neither former Presidents Fox nor Calderón had. However, Peña would do well in understanding that his constituency is not limited to the political parties or even the power elites.
Organized teachers have already proven what they can do in Mexico City given enough motivation. Sparked by national patrimony rhetoric, larger, non-organized social mobilizations could easily flare up in different key cities in Mexico and cause larger havoc. As former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza recently wrote, “these red flags, so to speak, are especially relevant given the influence and disruptive potential of many of today's social movements. The eruption of mass street protests in Brazil is just one recent example of a government being forced to change direction on a policy initiative and find a way to rapidly and constructively respond to the desires, often inchoate, of a newly emboldened and empowered population. It's a cautionary tale that begins with frustration and finds expression in mass action.”
Even when theoretically, Peña could powerball his reforms forward, both him and the PRI need to wake up and understand that they cannot be the only voice to determine the nation’s destiny. Vargas Llosa sarcastically called the previous PRI era “the perfect dictatorship” but today’s Mexico will not stand for a return of that so-called “perfect” model. Peña needs to learn to play well with others.
Just like the cueca (Chile’s national dance that will be on full display during Independence Day celebrations this weekend) Chilean politicians were running round in circles last week over controversial tax reform legislation to overhaul its protested education system.
The bill, which will increase education-allocated government revenue by $1.23 billion, originally did not clear the Senate—where it was rejected on August 28 by a vote of 6 yeas, 19 nays and 7 abstentions.
The legislation had included a welcomed increase of the top corporate tax rate to 20 percent. But it also included controversial measures, including a 2-to-5-percent tax decrease—compared to 2011—for the top income-earners in Chile as well as incentives for children in private subsidized schools.
Senator Ricardo Lagos Weber from the Partido para Democracia (Party for Democracy—PPD) opposed the hefty tax cuts for the country’s most wealthy—or about 81,000 Chileans that fall within the top two tax brackets, earning between $7,142 and $12,040 per month.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Fidel Castro’s birthday; Buenos Aires subway shutdown continues; public teachers to end striking in Panama; talks to renew in Colombia between the government and the Indigenous Nasa; and a possible dialogue over Venezuela’s detained U.S. Marine.
Fidel Turns 86 Years Old: Cuba’s revolutionary leader and former president, Fidel Castro, turns 86 years old today. He faces health issues, having stepped down from the presidency in 2006 after undergoing intestinal surgery—and has not been seen in public or mentioned in the news since June 19, according to Reuters. AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini notes of the occasion, “Six years ago when Fidel Castro stepped aside to pass the torch to his brother Raúl, people thought the end was near. Give the man's staying power credit, but really, what modern country in the region and in the world remains as centered and fixated on an 86-year-old man? It's a sign of how little Cuba—and U.S. policy toward the island—has progressed. We're all stuck in the past.”
Subway Shutdown in Buenos Aires: A strike by union employees of Buenos Aires’ municipal subway system is entering its tenth day today, with no end in sight after talks broke down on Friday with the administration of Mayor Mauricio Macri. The subway shutdown has inconvenienced between 600,000 and 1 million daily commuters. Macri, the most prominent figure of the opposition Propuesta Republicana (Republican Proposal—PRO) party, is blaming the ruling Frente para la Victoria (Front for Victory—FPV) party, to which President Cristina Fernández belongs. Macri is accusing FPV operatives of inciting the union workers, who are demanding a 28 percent increase in pay. Buenos Aires Deputy Mayor Maria Eugenia Vidal stated that the city officials “just don’t have the means to pay for this.” Pay attention to see if there will be any breakthrough in negotiations this week.
Teacher Strike to End in Panama: Leaders of a teacher strike in Panama reached an understanding with the government on Saturday to end the weeklong strike today. Teachers were protesting over issues such as decaying classrooms and insufficient pay.
Santos-Nasa Mediation To Resume in Colombia: Leaders of the Indigenous Nasa group expect to set a date by this Tuesday for the resumption of mediated talks with the government of Juan Manuel Santos. More than 10,000 Nasas marched in the department of Cauca yesterday demanding the government return to the table. Cauca, in southwest Colombia, is home to many rebels belonging to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—FARC). The Santos administration, therefore, has placed many Colombian soldiers in Cauca as part of the ongoing internal conflict with the FARC, which the Nasa view as a threat to their territorial sovereignty. The Nasas and the government, however, hope to reach an agreement through mediation.
Venezuela-U.S. Showdown Over Detention: After Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced late last week that police have detained an American citizen who claimed to be a former U.S. Marine, tensions have flared between the U.S. and Venezuelan governments. According to the Associated Press, a State Department official said that the U.S. authorities were not notified of his arrest. Chávez has openly suspected that the detainee, whose name has not been released, may be a “mercenary” scheming to destabilize Venezuela. Stay tuned to see if there may be more updates on this case in the coming week.
EXTRA, Rio 2016: After yesterday’s closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, the world’s attention turns to Rio de Janeiro for 2016. But is the city ready? Check out AQ’s television segment on Brazil and the Olympics on the “Efecto Naím” program on NTN24.
This week, the Brazilian Senate approved a bill that regulates the system of social and racial quotas in public universities. It is expected that President Dilma Rousseff will sign the bill into law.
Designed with the objective of ensuring equal opportunities, the bill reserves half the spots in the country’s public federal universities for graduates of public high schools. These spaces will be distributed among Afro-Brazilian students, mestizos and Indigenous proportionally according to the racial and ethnic composition of each state.
Although Brazil has the biggest Afro-descendant population outside of Nigeria, students in private schools are still predominantly Caucasian. Private-school students are usually better prepared than their public-school peers for the difficult university entrance exams, and as a result, they are better represented at the prestigious, heavily subsidized, federal universities.
Afro-Brazilian Senator Paulo Paim said that the bill will benefit the majority of Brazilian students because only 1 in 10 students graduate from private schools. Further, according to Senator Ana Rita, "the bill brings social justice to most of the Brazilian population." She and other supporters of the bill argue that racial quotas will help reverse the country’s historic inequality.
Others have criticized the measure. Aloysio Nunes Ferreira, a senator who voted against the proposal, argued that the bill "puts a straightjacket on universities because it violates their autonomy." He further stressed that federal universities should select students with the best grades, regardless of race or social class.
Though females constitute the majority of college graduates in many countries, three of every five workers in the region are male, and males earn about 30 percent more income than females with the same age, level of education, type of employment, and average hours worked per week, according to an article released today in Americas Quarterly.
Hugo Ñopo, author of “The Paradox of Girls' Educational Attainment” and a research economist at the Inter-American Development Bank, looks at the continuation of gender disparities in the workforce despite females outpacing males in educational attainment. Ñopo explains that these disparities lie partly in the fact that women hoping to balance work and household responsibilities often seek part-time or flexible employment, limiting their access to top-paying occupations.
Yet part of the answer also lies in the type of education women are receiving—even at the highest levels. In seven of nine Latin American countries, girls’ test scores in quantitative fields like math and science lag far behind those of their male peers; and the many women who do receive college degrees comprise only a fraction of those studying engineering, manufacturing or construction.
Negative stereotypes and perceptions about gender roles are a major factor in leading males and females to pursue certain fields of study. As fewer women choose paths that require quantitative skills, they limit their opportunities for attaining high-paying positions and/or positions of leadership, deepening gender disparities in the workforce.
Ñopo recommends investment in early childhood development, which includes teaching children before they enter school that “mathematics is for me” and “yes, I can.” Although teachers’ training to eliminate stereotypes is suggested, it is equally or more important for children to understand gender parity from their parents and support structures at home.
On July 22, the Mexican Education Ministry (Secretaría de Educación Pública, or SEP) published the results for the Knowledge, Ability and Teaching Skills National Exam, the annual test the Mexican government uses to award teaching positions in the country. The outcome paints a grim picture for children seeking quality education in Mexico.
A year ago, I wrote about the fact that the test in itself is not exigent enough and that the passing grade is a meager 30 percent. Back then I took a deep dive into the way the test is structured and concluded that it was practically impossible to fail. Well the results are in, and unfortunately, I underestimated the level of ignorance in the people responsible for preparing Mexico’s youth for the challenges of tomorrow. There’s something categorically wrong in Mexico’s education system when out of 134,704 people that took this simple test, over 70 percent don’t get half of it right and only 309 (0.2 percent) get a perfect score.
Of the over 18,000 teaching-position vacancies that will be filled this year, 309 applicants are up to par based on the already low standards SEP was able to negotiate with the National Educational Workers Union (SNTE). The rest of our new teachers present huge deficiencies in curricular content (actual subject matter), scholastic competencies, logic, and/or ethics.
Proposed reforms to the education system have resulted in tense stand-offs between students, their teachers and riot police across Guatemala. Just this week at least 40 people were injured after riot police were called in to break up a protest.
The crux of Education Minister Cynthia del Aguila’s proposed changes is a requirement that those who are studying to become primary school teachers will have to study for two additional years—for a total of five years of training—and complete a university degree. This has split public opinion between those who believe the country's educators should be well-educated and those who are concerned that there will be fewer teachers because of the increased costs that will result from more training.
Teaching is one of the few professions that does not require a university degree in Guatemala, with the result being a surplus of teacher supply.
Complicating the picture is the pending reelection of Joviel Acevedo, the general secretary of the Guatemalan Education Workers Union. After 14 years in the position, Acevedo has overseen numerous labor disputes but remains popular with teachers after helping to push through two recent pay raises despite warning from consecutive finance ministers that there is no money in the budget to pay for them.
The role of the education minister is also fraught with uncertainty. Over the past 12 years, there have been 18 education ministers, including three appointments in a six-month period. A combination of poor infrastructure, dilapidated buildings and a lack of teaching hours has resulted in the mandated 180 school days per year remaining a pipe dream. Guatemala generally places poorly on international standardized tests with a system plagued by difficult labor relations.
Chile's proverbial education debate has this taken a new turn this week after a seven-month investigation revealed that a number of universities are illegally operating as profit-oriented businesses.
According to a report conducted by a special investigation committee, eight universities violated anti-profiteering laws amidst findings of increased salaries among executives, circulation of finances between companies under the same private ownership and outsourcing of services as means of generating revenue.
Among the universities accused are: Universidad de las Américas; Universidad Andrés Bello; Universidad Viña del Mar; AIEP-Andrés Bello; Universidad Santo Tomás; Universidad de Artes, Ciencias y Comunicación; Universidad del Desarrollo; and Universidad del Mar.
The findings of the investigation, which will be sent to the Ministry of Education for further action, exemplify the disparity between Chile's ever-growing student movement gunning for free, higher-quality postsecondary education and the perspective of Chile’s federal executive branch, led by billionaire President Sebastián Piñera.
Piñera's cabinet includes Ministers Cristián Larroulet and Joaquín Lavín who are both founders of Universidad del Desarollo. When questioned on the issue while in Mexico for the G-20 summit earlier this week, Piñera deflected attention to a youth uprising influenced by ideas that in his view are simply wrong: "Remember that the main leaders of this movement belong to the Communist Party and they have a vision of society that is very different to this president."
Please find the original text below, submitted in Portuguese.
A 10–0 decision by Brazil’s Supreme Court, O Supremo Tribunal Federal (STF) on April 26 was a landmark verdict for Brazil’s Afro-descendant population. The STF approved the incentive program for black and underprivileged students to attend college in Brazil, ProUni (Programa Universidade para Todos—University Program for All); after the end of slavery and the passage of the Racial Equality Law, this was the most important public policy addressing the Afro-Brazilian population.
The challenge to ProUni’s constitutionality was filed by the Democratas party, which argued that the universities’ adoption of the system violated constitutional principles of equality. On the other hand, social organizations claimed that quotas are a mechanism to reverse historic exclusion and create opportunities for thousands of descendants of African slaves. In 2003, only 3 percent of Afro-Brazilians had a university degree; in 2010 this number was 10 percent. These figures pale in comparison to the actual number of Afro-Brazilians: 51 percent of the population, according to the latest census.
The approval of quotas marks the end of a decade-plus debate in Brazil—one that saw biased opposition to the system by the mainstream media outlets, despite strong support from the Afro-Brazilian rights movement. The media’s opposition contradicted public opinion: Datafolha polls from 2006 and 2008 showed that the 65 and 62 percent, respectively, of Brazilians actually supported the affirmative action plan.