A YEAR ago Felipe Calderón won a desperately close election for Mexico’s presidency by a margin of barely 200,000 votes. While there were many factors behind his victory, one that may have tipped the balance was the support of Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the National Educational Workers’ Union, as the country’s teachers’ union is called. Ms Gordillo is reckoned by many to be the most powerful woman in Mexico. Indeed, after Mr Calderón, she may be the second most powerful politician in the country.
Ms Gordillo’s political power comes mainly from the union’s sheer size: with 1.4m members teaching in primary and secondary schools, it is the largest labour union in Latin America. From that political base, Ms Gordillo controls a significant block of deputies in the lower house of the federal Congress, as well as two senators. And while no state governor will say so openly, “none of them will go against her will,” says Carlos Ornelas, an education specialist at Mexico City’s Metropolitan Autonomous University.
“La maestra” (“the teacher”), as Ms Gordillo is known, is widely reckoned to have reached an unwritten—and maybe even implicit—agreement with Mr Calderón, under which she has swapped her support in other matters for his acquiescence in her grip over the country’s schools.