By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Schoolteachers in Mexico City staging disruptive protests against education reform have fired a warning shot at President Enrique Pena Nieto's government as it prepares to push an ambitious economic agenda through Congress.
On Friday, thousands of teachers held up traffic bound for Mexico's main international airport a day after federal lawmakers were forced to meet in a convention center next to a race course when the demonstrators blocked access to Congress.
Teachers are fighting measures that seek to improve oversight of their profession and stamp out the abuse of privileges they enjoy. If the protests continue, they risk generating momentum that could hit other bills in Congress.
Lawmakers are already discussing central planks of Pena Nieto's plans to ramp up growth in Latin America's no. 2 economy, including a contentious proposal that aims to open up the state-run oil industry to more private investment.
Another of the president's biggest plans, a drive to increase Mexico's weak tax take by about 4 percentage points of gross domestic product, is due to be presented by September 8.
Some government and opposition lawmakers have privately voiced concern that the demonstrations could undermine the administration's resolve to pursue troublesome measures.
"This is going far beyond a simple street protest, it's a clear challenge to the institutions (of the state)," said Ruben Camarillo, a lawmaker in the opposition National Action Party, or PAN, who has been a key negotiator on energy reform.
Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, attempted to defuse tensions this week by setting aside one of the three laws at the heart of his education reform to give time to the teachers to air their grievances.
But PRI lawmakers said that third bill would be passed, and Pena Nieto addressed the protests on Friday by stressing the need to sign off on the legislation.
"Society demands of those whose vocation is to educate that they really are committed to provide (this) to children and young people," he said in a speech in the capital.
The reform would take away control of teacher assessment from the sector's trade union and seeks to end the practice of educators passing on posts to relatives, or simply selling them.
Teachers are one of the most militant groups in Mexico, and have periodically staged vigorous resistance when the government has tried to change education practices.
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Many inhabitants of Mexico City have suffered delays and traffic chaos because of the demonstrations by the teachers, although the airport continued to operate normally on Friday. Local media reported many travelers arrived late because of the protests and missed their flights.
If the protests keep interfering with Congress, it could encourage opponents of other pending legislation to take to the streets to turn up the pressure on Pena Nieto.
For its part, the government is eager to avoid any bloodshed or violence so as not to aggravate the situation. But further demonstrations are almost certain to follow.
Next month, leftist firebrand Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, twice a runner-up for the presidency, plans to try to mobilize mass protests against the energy bill, and the fiscal reform will also be in his sights once the government unveils it.
As part of its fiscal reform, the government has been considering widening the application of the value-added tax to include food and medicine, which have avoided the charge so far.
Levying VAT on food and medicine is controversial because of the effect it would have on the poor. Government officials have stressed the need to offset any negative impact with other measures - for example, broadening social security coverage.
Some PRI lawmakers said the teachers' protests made for a trickier environment for divisive measures, and that the government might lower its sights on fiscal reform.
But other PRI officials in Congress, also speaking in private, said the government should not be put off, and must press ahead with a broadening of the VAT regime.
(Additional reporting by Miguel Gutierrez; Editing by Peter Cooney)