A question of priorities

Print edition : July 17, 1999

Mexican students strike against neo-classical economics.

IN a recent interview, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano commented on the need to shelter hope (abrigar esperanzas) since "hope needs to be protected" and a "lot of movements are telling us hope is possible". The 280,000 students of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (known by its Spanish initials UNAM, the largest institution of higher education in Latin America), are in the midst of a strike that confirms Galeano's paean to hope. On April 20, thousands of students attended general assemblies of UNAM's various schools to approve the strike call. Their principal issue was the decline in state support for education concomitant with the state's demand that students now pay the equivalent of $145 a year instead of the token fee of 2 cents. Almost all the activities in the school came to a standstill as the strikers participated in demonstrations and information sessions on the crisis in Mexico and at UNAM. The largest such demonstration took place three days later at the Plaza of the Constitution, at which 100,000 students and their allies gathered. One student died in a bus accident during the protest.

On April 25, a group of student leaders along with their parents occupied UNAM's administrative building. They hung a red and black banner (a symbol of "strike and dignity") from the tower, sang the national anthem, and shouted slogans against the hike in tuition fees. Representatives of 11 other national universities pledged their solidarity with the strike and called upon the nation to commemorate April 29 as a national day for the defence of free education. The administration invited the students for negotiations, but the discussions did not yield any results. By early July both sides stood poised for a prolonged conflict. The students are on strike in quest of both a better education and a reassessment of the Mexican state's priorities.

By late April, the strike committee at UNAM released a manifesto ('The Road to Victory'). "The move to privatise UNAM," the manifesto pointed out, "is not an isolated attack by the government on the standards of living of Mexican workers and youth." It put forward two proposals: the "defence of public education" and the withdrawal of "the proposal to privatise the electrical industry". It called upon the electrical workers to join the strike since President Ernesto Zedillo has threatened to privatise the electricity industry.

In September 1995, several hundred students occupied the administrative building to demand a more accountable admissions process. Now they are concerned both about their own welfare and the need for democratic reform within their society. When Veronica Velasquez, a UNAM student, said that "education is for everyone. It's a right. It isn't a service," she clarified that the conflict at UNAM is not only about fees and admissions but principally about the way the state and society view social development. The links with the electricity industry workers illustrates the students' concern over not merely their sectional problems but the wider problems confronting Mexican society. For, their sectional problems are closely related to those of the totality of Mexican society.

In the 1980s, the country's economy went into a tailspin. From 1980 to 1990, per capita national income decreased by over 12 per cent and real wages went down by 40 per cent. "When in 1992 the Mexican Government published the first statistical accounts of income distribution in 15 years, the data were terrifying," said Jorge Castaneda, UNAM's leading political scientist. Most of the 90 million Mexicans took no relief when the peso collapsed in December 1994, only to await a mild recovery with assistance from the United States.

In 1995, the Mexican Government launched the Bank Saving Protection Fund (Fobaproa) and expended $65 billion, 16 per cent of Mexico's annual gross domestic product, to shore up the banks. El Barzon, the debtor's movement, was quick to point out that Fobaproa benefited the rich investors - only 304 people from Mexico's financial elite drew $11 billion from the corpus of Fobaproa. The Zapatistas (EZLN) in the southern province of Chiapas also strongly criticised the bias within Fobaproa, which has since become the most recent symbol of the state's capture by a tiny elite.

"The government dare give away 700 billion pesos to the bankers," the UNAM strike manifesto argued, as the elite attempts to "convert the right to education into a privilege only for those who can pay. The money from Fobaproa should go to education!" Since 1994, Mexican state spending on the social side of the ledger (principally health, education, and social security) decreased by 40 per cent. The students in the UNAM strike now join other sections of Mexican society (Amerindians, trade unionists) who have already been in the forefront of the struggle to protect what neo-classical economists consider as faulty state intervention.

SUBCOMANDANTE Marcos of the EZLN argues that "civil society" must make a concerted claim on the state, that is, the working class and the peasantry must have more control of the state. Each act within civil society that challenges the state in Mexico is met with fierce repression. In the south, in the province of Chiapas, the paramilitary and the U.S.-trained Mexican Army continue their repression of the Amerindians, organised under the banner of the EZLN. Near the U.S.-Mexico border, the workers at the Han Young factory inside the maquiladora (free trade, unregulated) zone face routine police violence as a consequence of their recent attempts to form a union. "Violations of the rule of law by the actions of the authorities themselves betray an inadmissible contempt that we cannot tolerate," said Senator Rosa Albina Garabito in June during a tour of the Tijuana-based factory. "We demand an immediate and definitive end to the repression the strikers have suffered since the beginning of the struggle." The Mexican elite willingly joined the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, which curtailed the rights of labour, especially in the free trade or maquiladora factories whose managers habitually harass workers, mainly women. The ongoing struggles of these workers (sometimes against recalcitrant government-backed unions) and of the EZLN provide the inspiration for the UNAM students.

ALTHOUGH UNAM dates from the 16th century, the participants in the Mexican Revolution of 1911 transformed the college into a modern, democratic institution whose students feel the burdens of nation-building. With a virtually free education, UNAM's graduates have provided Mexico with the expertise for whatever development it has been able to muster. The students have a firm commitment to their country and its future, something that differentiates them from the political and economic elite who took their education in the private colleges of Mexico, Europe, and the U.S. For UNAM's students, the trench warfare of civil society is an integral part of their democratic nationalism.

A rally in Mexico City on May 21 over the issue of state support for education to students of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.-JOSE LUIS MAGANA/ AP

Indeed, UNAM can be proud of its history of such warfare. In 1968, students from UNAM rallied against state repression and institutionalised poverty, especially since Mexico City was to be the site for the high-profile, and very expensive, Olympic Games. On October 2, a large crowd of students gathered in La Plaza de Las Tres Culturas at Tlatelolco, Mexico City, as part of a series of actions. For three decades, the truth of Tlatelolco remained hidden.

In June this year, Reforma and La Jornada reported that the Presidential General Staff, an elite army unit, conducted a deliberate massacre of a few hundred students. The verdict of the newspapers has been reaffirmed by a newly released book, Parte de Guerra, Tlatelolco, 1968, the 'war report', by Julio Scherer Garcia and Carlos Monsivais, both well-regarded intellectuals. Two days after the massacre, a now declassified Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) document notes, "all military zone commanders now have the authority to move against disorderly students in the provinces." The state's only response to the tussle in civil society was with guns. For the students, "Tlatelolco, 1968" is an emblem of their capacity, and its commemoration last year provided a forum for the struggles of 1999.

On January 17, 1969, the CIA station chief in his assessment of the student protests, said that they had an "authentic context". The 1968 student riots posed "a series of warning signals that Mexico's vaunted progress and genius for stability have seen better times." Educational reform, the CIA agent wrote, "is under study and the head of the PRI (Party of the Institutional Revolution), Mexico's principal political party, has admitted publicly that the party has for a long time forgotten university youth." Nothing was done for the university students and the U.S. was party to the abandonment of the hopes of the Mexican youth. NAFTA sealed the possibility of widespread mobility within the country; since it came into force, there has been a steady rise in unemployment rates among the youth.

"Estamos muy mal hechos," said Galeano, "pero no estamos terminados." (We are badly made, but we are not finished.) The ongoing actions of students of UNAM are a hopeful development, since they show that the students have joined the endeavour for a better future for all Mexico's citizens.

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

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