The state strikes back

Published : Feb 19, 2000 00:00 IST

The Mexican Government cracks down on students, forcing them to end a nine-month protest against its neo-liberal economic policies that have put an end to free public education.


ON February 6, the Mexican police entered the vast campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and arrested over 700 students to end the historic nine-month strike by students (Frontline, July 30, 1999). On April 20, 1999, the 27 0,000 students of UNAM launched a protest against the Government's attempt to charge fees at this state-owned but self-governing educational institution. The university was closed down. In Latin America, the UNAM struggle represented a fight for the peop le's right to education and reflected an extreme disenchantment with the neo-liberal policies of the Mexican government.

The arrests began on February 2, when striking students clashed with the strike-breakers. Interior Minister Diodoro Carrasco sent in the Federal Preventive Police, an elite force which executed youth in death-squad style in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Mexico City in 1997. For the past several months, the students received assistance and protection from the defence guards they had formed in alliance with the university workers' union, the Mexican electrical workers' union and the National Organisin g Committee of Mexican educational workers.

By early February, the Government's forces proved no match for the worker-student guards.

Alliances with the trade unions and with the Amerindian struggles led by the Zapatistas (EZLN) and Subcommand-ante of the EZLN Marcos illustrated the political nature of the UNAM strike. The struggle was not merely over the issue of fees, but also agains t the dynamic of privatisation and the dominance of neo-liberal thought in public policy and private enterprise.

Marcos, for instance, dashed off an early communique to warn the students that the introduction of fees was a harbinger of the eventual privatisation of UNAM. The students, organised into a Strike General Council (CGH), took pains to emphasise this centr al aspect of their struggle. The end of the strike, in this armed manner, augurs ill for the democratic struggle in Mexico.

When the students took control of the campus with a massive demonstration in which about 100,000 participated, the state began a covert operation to undermine the struggle. Many feared a repeat of October 2, 1968 when the military assaulted a student dem onstration killing over 60 people and injuring hundreds. Novelist Josi Revueltas wrote, after the 1968 assault, that "the gentlemen of the government are dead. For that, they kill us." This time the government was far more circumspect. On July 7, 1999, t he conservative paper Excelsior not only denounced the "student violence," but also the state for its "reluctance to use police force" against them. The state was less eager to act that it was in 1968, but it did beef up the Federal Preventative P olice with a military police brigade numbering 5,000 troops.

Thugs in civilian clothing ('porros') attempted to instigate violence and, given the opportunity, roughed up numerous students including student leaders Juan Carlos Zarate, Rodrigo Figueroa, Ricardo Martmnez and Alejandro Echevarria.

Meanwhile, over the nine-month period the students let their creative energy run riot. They ran collective kitchens with tonnes of food donated by parents, unions and well-wishers. During the heat of the struggle, journalist Jeremy Simer reported that "p ress conferences are held almost daily and committees constantly discuss new developments, produce banners, leaflets and other propaganda material, and hold workshops on eclectic subjects, from foreign languages to pedagogical theory." The students held several marches. On October 2, 60,000 people took out a 15-km hike down the two longest, and aptly named, urban avenues, Insurgentes and Reforma, from UNAM to the Plaza of the Three Cultures, site of the 1968 massacre. About a month earlier, 30,000 stude nts joined electrical workers in their fight against the state's attempt to privatise power utilities. To demonstrate their commitment to democracy, the CGH held several National Student Encounters, assemblies of students from across Mexico, to defend pu blic education. The tactics of the students enthralled and impressed many people.

But the Government's obduracy and a few tactical errors from the CGH drew popular support away from the students. In early May, the Government asked UNAM's Rector Francisco Barnis de Castro to lower the fee by 30 per cent. Barnis had planned to raise the fees from virtually nothing to $80 in line with the International Monetary Fund's prescription that the Government cut subsidies to public universities. The students rejected this as a ploy, since they surmised that the fees would be raised the followin g year (after the momentum of the strike was over). Also, the CGH was committed to the principle of free public education, so this was not to be a negotiation point. Barnis decisively announced that the payment of fees would be voluntary. The CGH rejecte d this offer too. Critics of the CGH argued that the students could have accepted the offer and then begun a nation-wide campaign urging students to "volunteer not to pay the fees". With this, they said, the students would have captured the hearts of the masses at the same time as they would have appeared reasonable.

With little tactical space to manoeuvre, the CGH escalated its demands. The main point it added was that the university administration should be restructured with the students, workers, teachers and administrators on a par to govern UNAM together.

The administration would have none of it, and the CGH announced that the students would have to dig in for a protracted strike. Students continued to give massive support to the CGH and to the strike, as was illustrated by a march by tens of thousands of students on July 28 to mark the first 100 days of the shutdown of the university. In the aftermath of that march, eight senior members of the faculty proposed a plan to end the strike. They rejected the proposal on fee and called for a congregation of t he students, teachers, workers and administrators. The CGH rejected the plan, since it did not include demands such as reform of the admissions process.

Even at this stage, the CGH retained the support of the students. The reasons for their continued support can be traced to the state of Mexico's economy. In 1994, the Mexican economy required a $50-billion bailout package from the IMF and the U.S. Treasu ry. By 2000, the economy seems to be far from a crisis. The annual growth rate is 3.4 per cent, exports have doubled and the gross domestic product has grown by 20 per cent since 1994. Under President Carlos Salinas (1988-94), foreign direct investment w as $5 billion, and under President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) it reached $10 billion. About 60 per cent of this capital comes from the U.S., mainly owing to the integration of the two economies since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was f ormed. Notwithstanding all these figures, the wages of Mexican workers remain almost 40 per cent lower than what they were in 1994. Despite a low official unemployment rate of 2.5 per cent, half the working population of 38 million work in the unregulate d economy without any benefits. One political observer, Ignatio Rodriguez Reyna, notes that the students "know that even if they have some superior education they wouldn't have any future. It creates social frustration." If Rodriguez is too pessimistic, one might see in the students' frustration the roots of their lingering support for CGH regardless of its tactical blunders.

Down the southern cone of South America, student launched strikes against the IMF-dictated policies on education. On May 20, students in Chile's four main cities - Santiago, Valparaiso, Concepcion and Arica - fought against cutbacks in educational expend iture. In Bolivia, in November, students and teachers of Gabriel Rene Moreno University in Santa Cruz protested against budget cuts and laws that threatened their autonomy. Steeled by this continent-wide struggle, the UNAM students lunged forth in Novemb er with a rally that blocked traffic in Mexico City. "We've knocked on doors, we have looked for dialogue with our government. Our government says that it respects the university, but in reality it is cruel and corrupt," said one marcher. The statement i s a sign of the frustration and disillusionment of the students. A week later, Barnis resigned as Rector, saying that he hoped his resignation would "open new avenues for resolving this conflict".

The Government ceded the peaceful route and began to plan for the February assault on the barricaded campus. On February 1, the Federal Preventative Police violently took hold of a few buildings on the campus. Political scientist Jorge Castaneda noted th at "the Government has failed to solve problems politically. This is a failure on the Government's part." The Government increased its attacks until the campus was taken over a few days later. The Interior Minister and new Rector called upon the students to look forward to the opening of the campus, but, as Rodolfo Hernandez said for his fellow students, "we cannot have a dialogue with the police in our classrooms, with hundreds of our comrades under arrest." It seems that classes will start and many st udents will indeed return to their studies.

Joel Estudillo of the Mexican Institute of Political Studies noted that the Government's violence has "braked the strategy of seeking dialogue". The problems that led to the strike remain. At the start of the strike, President Zedillo called it a "brutal aggression". However, Mexico spends less than 4 per cent of its GDP on education, putting it behind Costa Rica, Panama, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina in budget outlay for education. Since these countries do not spend much either, the record is di smal. At the same time, the Mexican Army reaps about half the GDP. In its first statement, the CGH noted that the IMF "expects from Mexico a cheap source of labour, not educated people with the capacity to reason." The "brutal aggression" of the Mexican state against its people was the issue raised by the UNAM strike. Its collapse augurs poorly for the democratic movement in that country. Nevertheless, the Zapatistas called for a "continuous campaign of peaceful protests" against the police action. The police withdrew from UNAM on February 9.

Vijay Prashad is an Assistant Professor, International Studies, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.

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