Tlatelolco All Over Again? 

Dangerous déjà vu as Mexican university strike turns ugly

Wednesday, Jul 14 1999
Photo by Marco Ugarte, AP/Wide World

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 dead."

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.

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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 lapped.

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.

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