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Tlatelolco All Over Again?

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.

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.

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’ resignation.

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 sheer endurance.

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 mandate.

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 blockades.

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 students.

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 students."

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 Tlatelolco.

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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