Headlong toward a confrontation
Marco Ugarte, AP/Wide
MEXICO CITY — Flapping from the splattered doors of the
School of Philosophy & Letters on the barricaded campus of
Mexico’s strikebound National Autono mous University (UNAM) is a set
of jocose instructions for what to do when and if the military shows
up: "Run into the kitchen, pour ketchup all over yourself, and play
Now, as the massive strike at 38 campuses of the 270,000-student
institution persists into its third month and authorities suggest
the use of force to dislodge paristas (strikers) from the
schools they have occupied since April 20, the joke on the
philosophy building’s doors doesn’t seem quite so funny.
Pumped up by the university’s hard-line rector, Francisco Barnes,
nonstriking students are threatening to take back their occupied
classrooms, and thousands have mobilized to stand on traffic bridges
and bang on pots and pans in counterdemonstrations "in defense of
the university." President Ernesto Zedillo, powerful business
interests and the monopoly media are all professing outrage at the
"kidnapping" of the UNAM, a national touchstone since its founding
in 1551. Some hint darkly that public security forces — or even the
military — may be called in to take the campus back, much as they
were during a tragic student strike 31 years ago.
The shadow of the monumental 1968 student movement hangs
malignantly over the contemporary UNAM conflict. Three decades ago,
hundreds of thousands of young people defied the iron fist of
then-President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz on the eve of the Olympic Games
here. The president, calling the students "traitors" and
"communists," sent the military to the UNAM and National
Polytechnical Institute campuses, dismantling the student strike
committee and jailing virtually all of its leaders. On October 2,
1968, during a strike rally in the Tlatelolco housing proj ects,
government soldiers gunned down hundreds of students and their
parents. The Tlatelolco massacre is today considered a watershed in
the slow disintegration of the 70-year hegemony of the Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI) that governs Mexico.
Unlike the 1968 movement, which was rooted in the nation’s
profound Cold War anti-democracy, this year’s student strike is a
response to a very contemporary crisis — the Mexican government’s
zeal to privatize its leading public institutions.
The student critique is sharpened by the express interest of
international agencies in Mexico’s domestic agenda. University
education was addressed in the North American Free Trade Agreement,
which opened up Mexican markets for U.S. and Canadian private
educational institutions, as well as the Organization for Economic
and Commercial Development. The World Bank is also pushing
privatization. A 1997 memorandum signed with that institution
commits Mexico to modify its offer of a free university education to
all its citizens in exchange for $180 million in educational credits
from the bank. The agreement is scheduled to kick in this year.
Rector Barnes, a bushy-bearded chem ist selected by Zedillo three
years ago, has become a lightning rod for critics of the government.
Activists have long argued that the rector, a former director of the
National Petroleum Institute, was chosen to transform the
270,000-student UNAM into an elite institution in accordance with
the president’s privatization blueprints.
So when Barnes announced dramatic student-tuition hikes last
April, UNAM students voted overwhelmingly to reject them. And when
the rector refused to back down, student activists hung
black-and-red strike flags outside the university’s nearly 40
schools and research centers, closed down all classes, and occupied
the buildings to prevent nonstriking students from seizing them
back. By May, the protesters had staged marches of more than 200,000
in the Zócalo, the great square at the center of Mexico City.
The strike is the first in 12 years at the UNAM. In 1987, a
different rector, Jorge Carpizo, sought to "elevate educational
excellence," as he termed it, by eliminating automatic matriculation
from the university’s high school system and drastically upping
tuition fees. Carpizo, who later served as both ex-President Carlos
Salinas’ attorney general and his interior secretary, was forced to
backtrack 22 days later — a span the 1999 strike has long since
Carpizo’s successor finally eliminated the automatic admissions
in 1996 when a debilitated campus movement was unable to muster much
resistance. But Barnes has run into stiff protest from students and
parents in his bid to "actualize" tuitions. A key strategy in the
Barnes plan would raise enrollment costs from a symbolic
less-than-a-peso per semester to between 600 and 700 pesos,
depending on the degree sought. Added to 2,000 pesos paid out in
student fees for laboratory and library use, tuition would cost the
equivalent of $280 per term — a great bargain compared to the price
of higher education north of the border, but, contends the General
Strike Council, enough to force economically struggling families out
of the national university.
Although the Barnes plan stipulates exemptions for students from
families that earn four minimum salaries or less — a standard
measure of economic well-being in Mexico — moderates on the strike
council insist that times are so tight for the lower-middle class
that the bottom line should be upped to six minimums. In early June,
the rector retreated on the new fee schedules, agreeing to make
tuition payments "voluntary," but the strike council only dug in
deeper, demanding a relaxation of entrance requirements and Barnes’
As the conflict soldiers on with no resolution in sight, students
have radicalized. The strike council divides its sympathies among
five "currents" (including one "countercurrent"), with the factions
about evenly stacked between moderates and "ultras," but meetings
often stretch into the dawn, with the ultras carrying the day by
Thus the ultras, gathered in the "Left University Block," have
gained ascendancy inside the General Strike Council. These radicals
argue that the Mexican Constitution guarantees a free public
education to every citizen and that any tuition raise — voluntary or
not — is unacceptable. Barnes responds that because the university
is an autonomous institution, it is beyond the constitutional
Led by a "mega-ultra" dreadlocked student firebrand dubbed "El
Mosh," the radicals are ceaseless activists who often march
seminude, their chests and posteriors daubed with black-and-red
huelga (strike) insignias. Determined to outrage middle-class
sensibilities, El Mosh has not precisely stirred sympathies for the
strikers by ordering his ultra brigades to set up rush-hour traffic
The antics of the ultras and their intransigence at the
bargaining table have seriously splintered some supporters and
neutralized others. Nonstriking students, alumni, UNAM
administrators and tenured faculty members, organized into indignant
citizens groups like the Women in White, hold weekly public vigils
to demand that authorities take back "their" university.
Spurts of violence have marked the strike since April. In May, a
19-year-old woman was crushed by a bus during a mass march on the
center of the city, giving the 1999 movement its first martyr. And
last week, fistfights broke out between students seeking to take
entrance exams and ultras who view the occupied buildings on campus
as "rebel territory."
The widening gulf between the two sides has both seeking
reinforcements. In late June, Barnes himself was able to rally
several thousand supporters, many of them parents of prospective
students, to challenge the strike. As one banner put it simply, "My
daughter wants a diploma."
The radicals of ’99 have drawn enthusiastic support from the
rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation, whose char ismatic
spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, is probably a UNAM graduate. In
addition, student activists have forged ties with labor militants.
Strikers marched with independent unionists on International Workers
Day, May 1, in a display of mutual solidarity against privatization
of both the university and the electricity industry, another Zedillo
pet project. The UNAM campus workers union (STUNAM) has stood
stolidly with the strikers, offering cash donations and joining
forces on the barricades. Unions at other universities and
public-education teachers have also staged solidarity walkouts with
The protracted strike has rekindled political unrest on
long-dormant UNAM campuses just as the countdown for the year-2000
presidential election has begun to tick. With students living 24
hours a day in the schools in which they are enrolled, the huelga
has created a sense of community on the barricaded campus that
is eerily reminiscent of the glory days of 1968. Indeed, strikers
have nostalgically rededicated to Che Guevara a campus auditorium
that was the nerve center for that watershed student movement.
Hundreds of surviving "’68ers" were on hand to salute their 1999
counterparts. "This is a rebellion of a generation whose future is
being canceled," observes Roberto Escudero, one of the leaders of
the 1968 strike council.
Much as in 1968, when authorities redbaited the student movement,
Barnes and his backers in the PRI and the government it has run for
the past seven decades have sought to pin the blame for the strike
on the left — namely the left-center Party of the Democratic
Revolution (PRD) and its founder, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, currently
Mexico City’s mayor. Carlos Imaz, a leader of the 1987 strike, is
now the PRD’s metropolitan chairman, and several prominent former
student radicals hold positions in Cardenas’ administration.
Cardenas himself has refused to allow the UNAM use of city buildings
to conduct off-campus classes — students consider that such classes
are equivalent to strikebreaking.
Another PRD leader, interim national party president Pablo Gomez,
was a communist youth leader at the UNAM during the 1968 movement.
"We’re still universitarios," declares Gomez, who spent
several years behind bars for his role in ’68. His colleague Imaz
adds: "We’re not in back of the strike. We’re marching alongside the
Despite such declarations, and despite government efforts to
smear Cardenas and his party, the PRD has little influence with the
ultras, who distrust the mayor and denounce him as "reformist."
Party loyalists charge that the ultras are trying to embarrass
Cardenas by forcing Mexico City police to take repressive action
against their traffic blockades.
Nonetheless, the pro-PRI media ceaselessly seek to pin the strike
on the PRD — the electronic media have been particularly virulent in
their coverage of the student movement. The media played a similar
role during the months leading up to the 1968 massacre at
Recent revelations that President Diaz Ordaz’s elite military
guard triggered the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968 have reinforced the
sense of imminent danger that increasingly pervades the 1999 strike.
Disclosed by Proceso magazine founder Julio Scherer and based
on letters written by the then–defense minister, the new evidence is
a severe embarrassment for military officials and a series of
presidents, all of whom have long denied culpability in the
massacre. In an atmosphere of heated political tensions at the UNAM,
Scherer’s exposé is bound to ignite fresh recriminations.
Yet the privatization of university education in Mexico remains
at the nub of the UNAM conflict. UNAM activists brought the issue of
privatization to all students and parents in the Mexico City
metropolitan area at the end of May when they conducted a public
referendum, or consulta, that drew over 600,000 participants.
The first question asked voters if they believed that Mexicans have
a constitutional right to a free public education. The huge turnout
for the consulta — which was open to all Mexicans 11 years or
older — was a signal to the UNAM administration that interest in the
strike had grown far beyond the university’s borders.
The tuition-hike issue, which sparked the strike, could be easily
resolved if the UNAM’s annual budget were fattened by $60 million in
federal appropriations, a solution rejected by the Zedillo
administration, which pleads budget shortfalls as the result of low
petroleum prices earlier this year. Nonetheless, Zedillo and the PRI
just pushed a bank bailout through the Mexican Congress that would
allocate about $65 billion in budget and tax moneys to cover bad
bank loans from which both bankers and the PRI profited. According
to UNAM economics professor David Lozano, the bailout is equivalent
to 97 times the UNAM’s budget for the next 16 years — the time it
will take to pay off the banks’ bad loans.
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