Mexico, New Outbreak of the Student Rebellion

September 25, 2007

MEXICO CITY. France and Germany in Europe, Brazil and Uruguay in Latin America; now the last outbreak of this synchronized student rebellion that is spreading throughout the Western Hemisphere has broken out in Mexico, the only Latin American country that has allowed itself to "institutionalize" the revolution and maintain continuity in its government on the basis of a rigid, one-party system - whose strength even today seems unbreakable to its enemies on the left as much as to those on the right.

In effect, Mexican students have been in a "state of war" since last July. University functioning is paralyzed, student demonstrations occur with varying frequency, and while the press daily offers different interpretations of the nature and causes of the conflict, the Government has apparently opted for acting with the greatest discretion (synonym in this case for ineffectiveness) in view of the potential international repercussions of the situation, which could well cripple Mexico's economic future. This risk, which might appear to be a mere journalistic simplification, is, nonetheless, a real one. Since the first incidents that occasioned the student uprising, the situation has been in one way or another related to the event that is at this time capturing the attention and influencing the activity of all Mexico: the imminent opening of the Olympic Games. They are the first to be held on Latin American soil and the Mexican Government has invested several million dollars in the preparations, so the return on this important investment depends on the international success of the games.

A Theme for Ionesco

Apart from this general but vague connection with the October Olympics, Mexican public opinion has not managed to explain the nature of the conflict with even a minimum of coherence or clarity. An editorial writer of "Excelsior" asked a few weeks ago: "Violence in Mexico: Why?" He first analyzes the cases of Brazil and Uruguay, finding abundant reasons to explain the student uprisings in both countries. "What has caused extraordinary surprise," he continues, "are the photographs of troops, armored cars, and bazookas in action in the heart o Mexico City and the subsequent and already orderly reaction of the students against the action of the authorities expressed in three gigantic demonstrations. With a stable and legally constituted government, with the internal peace that has been Mexico's international calling card and which apparently earned it the Olympic Games, the struggle of the army with the students not only occasions surprise, but also stupification and shock." Even more symptomatic of the reigning confusion is this paragraph taken from the same editorial page of "Excelsior" (August 13): "A fever of tragi-comic murmurings has broken out: everything has been a political coup of the left to get a reaction from the Government; no, it's a rightist maneuver to strengthen its position; enough - the Government itself provoked the outbreaks so that any leftist leaders who might cause problems during the Olympics could be singled out; it's none of that - the movement was plotted from above to discredit Ecnevarria and Corona del Rosal as potential candidates; no, no - the CIA and the FBI are behind it all; that's absurd - Fidel Castro ... is behind it all; no, be quiet, the disorders were planned in advance and occurred before those who planned them anticipated in order to attack Mexico and endanger its tranquility, its order, its stability, and what is worse, the future of all the poor young people of Mexico."

This quotation summarizes with plausible objectivity the wide gamut of positions and interpretations into which Mexican public opinion has been divided since the conflict began. It must be recognized that even various student organizations have contributed to fostering this confusion with their frequent communications in the daily press of the capital. Without intentions to be contradictory, responsibility was laid to the CIA, the infiltration of "elements outside the student milieu," and semi-identified agents of various security agencies and the Government itself, in many of these communications. In a surprising article in "Siempre" by Alfredo Kagawe Ramia, an audacious but forseeable comparison was made: "Just as in one of those plays of the so-called theater of the absurd in which the most valid concerts are taken out of their logical context and are given a grotesque connotation, forcing them to stand by themselves and of themselves for the purpose of ridiculing good judgment, the events of the last three weeks, which began on July 22 when the students of Vocational School #2 (IPN) got involved in a rock fight with the students of the Isaac Ochoterena Preparatory School and with that unleashed a chain of events that, although the context seemed to be found there, for anyone who read the newspapers or who walked through the streets (the theater of these well-articulated outbreaks), suddenly as if drunk or drugged, that which appeared coherent at the beginning and obeyed the laws of logic, was transformed as if by magic into a comedy of equivocations, about-faces and absurdities." Except for the deliberate simplification of the conflict, the obvious necessity to minimize the causes of the student uprising and to justify the sectors representing "order" and the state, the allusion of the "Siempre" writer to magic and the theater of the absurd is admissible. With the exception of a few, solitary voices that managed to reach the press, and the somewhat muffled and ignored voice of the National Council of the Struggle [sic] that the students managed to establish, no one came up with or even showed that they wanted to come up with a rational explanation of the events. No one seemed disposed to counteract the festive atmosphere created by the October Olympics. No one seemed to consider it opportune or even patriotic to judge the action of the Government or the armed forces at its command. No one - or at least very few people - showed themselves willing to take advantage of the situation or the acknowledged mystification of the last thirty or forty years of Mexican revolution.

The Incidents of July and August

Nonetheless, everyone is in accord that the events of July 22 were the starting point and - in agreement with official circles - the only cause of the conflict. Of course the hypothesis of a possible "demonstration effect" related to the well-publicized revolution of the Latin Quarter last May, was not absent. A series of articles written by Carlos Fuentes, luxuriously printed and distributed with a series of photographs by Editorial Era ... seem to support this thesis. But the leaders of the National Strike Council made a point of denying any connection between the two outbreaks, thus keeping public opinion from being distracted to peripheral aspects of the problem and avoiding the "internationalization" of a situation and an attitude having roots that were profoundly national in character.

On the afternoon of July 22, two groups of students from the Isaac Ochoterena Preparatory School and from Vocational School #5 (both secondary schools) became involved in a "domestic" dispute attributed by different sources variously to an old rivalry, problems over girls, pure excitability, or surpluses of student energy. The conflict might have gone no further than the publicized rock-throwing and attacks by the two antagonistic groups. However, to the surprise of everyone, the authorities decided to intervene with the granadero corps. As a consequence, repression of the students became widespread, the granaderos invaded the educational establishments involved, and the flames of disorder were kindled.

Four days later, on July 26, two separately organized student demonstrations converged in the center of the city. One of them was basically a product of the university - it was of international, anti-imperialist nature; its themes were the Cuban revolution, Vietnam and the denunciation of North American imperialism. The other demonstration was planned by the National Federation of Technical Students (FNET), with close ties to the vocational schools and to the National Polytechnical Institute (IPN), institutions that do not have the university's autonomy and are responsible to the Secretariat of Education of the Federal Government. The slogan of this second demonstration was: "Halt repression." Both groups found themselves downtown and they determined a common route: they headed for the Zocalo, that is, the central plaza of the capital where the Cathedral, the National Palace and the physical plant of the state are located. From this moment on, the demonstration ceased to be a simple, abstract, anti-imperialist demonstration. It became a concrete confrontation with the established power. The consequence: the second appearance of the granaderos and even more violent repression than before; student leaders began to make accusations of the existence of a strategy of persecution and not just simple breaking up of demonstrations. The students responded with violence: more rock-throwing, broken windows, damaged or semi-destroyed vehicles; in other words, the well-known responses.

The Government appealed to the Army, the third time that the PRI [Institutionalized Revolutionary Party] has availed itself of the Army to suppress popular demonstrations in the capital. The first time was in 1956 to control the Polytechnical Institute students; the second, in 1959, because of the teachers' and railroad workers' strikes. This time, in 1968, the soldiers arrived at the University City with bayonets; the doors of places occupied by students were forced open with bazooka shots. A number of students were hurt. There was great popular turmoil; diverse groups of intellectuals, professionals, artists, writers,and university administrators and teachers manifested unanimous support for the students.

The university strike was decreed. The traditionally divided student associations of the technical courses (the IPN and the vocational schools) and o the university, formed a common front and strategy for the struggle. From his opportune "exile" in Guadalajara, President Diaz Ordaz published a call for harmony.

On August 13 there was a new demonstration. This time it was a gigantic one of proportions rarely seen in Mexicoeico City. The mass of more than 100,000 students ended up again in the Zocalo. The events were carried out with great order and the granaderos were restrained. The National Strike Council established by the students publicly announced their strategy: the strike and demonstrations would continue until the Government accepted the ... demands of their program:

1) Liberty for political prisoners;

2) Disbandment of the granadero corps;

3) Dismissal of Generals L. Cueto Ramirez and Mendiolea, chief and deputy chief, respectively, of the Police;

4) Abrogation of article 145 and 145 bis of the Penal Code that establishes the crime of "social dissolution;"

5) Compensation to wounded students and to the families of students who were killed.*

The Antecedents of the Student Revolt

For the first time the university-level student population is united. For a long time the Government promoted division if not direct confrontation between the two main branches of this educational level: the university and the Polytechnical Institute. The university has traditionally represented the middle and upper sectors of Mexican society. Its autonomy was an intellectual victory more than a political one. The social role that it might have played by taking advantage of this autonomy was in a certain way neutralized by the socio-economic origins of the students themselves. The IPN, on the other hand, was the natural environment of the sons of workers and peasants .... The organization that represents these students, the FNET, has traditionally supported the populist approach of the Mexican Government, acted in accord with its political line, and more than a few times was in direct opposition to university student organizations.

Thus neither university nor technical students have until today represented a decisive factor for change on the power relationships of the Mexican socio-political-economic system. Student leaders themselves now recognize this fact. The government of Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940) was the last one to permit large, mass movements that fostered democratic demands for redress of grievances in the country. From Avila Camacho (1940-1946) on, the Government has attempted to control popular movements. Alemán (1946-1952) suppressed the right to strike; ... Ruiz Cortines (1952-1958) was responsible for the bloody repression of the peasants of the Agricultural Credit Union; López Mateos (1958- 1964) repressed the teachers' and railroad workers' strike. Between 1948 and 1961 the labor movement lost the militant and democratic character that the Cárdenas era had stamped it with.

The national bourgeoisie, having captured control of the government, has managed to dominate it with populist slogans and vertical organizations that are controlled directly from above. This populist ideology, characteristic of the Mexican revolution, does not dispense with mass participation but limits itself to using it to its own interests. Every time popular demonstrations serve the internal or foreign policy of the country, the Government employs them. Whenever they take on a militant, democratic character, whenever they contradict the interests of the national bourgeoisie and its representatives in ruling circles, whenever they imply a confrontation with established authority, from the top down, they are repressed.

Nor has the student sector escaped this control. Up until 1956, the only organization that indiscriminately grouped young people in general and students together, the Confederation of Mexican Youth (CJM), represented the interests of the governing bourgeoisie. In 1956 the Polytechnical Institute was invaded; the students lost confidence in the regime. Until then the Institute had functioned with relative autonomy. After this armed intervention, it became totally subservient to the Secretariat of Education. This is when what Mexican students call the "dark age of the student sector" began. It is the apogee of charrismo (caudillismo), the compromise and corruption of student leaders, the unconditional servants of the regime.

Until this moment, the university was indifferent, apathetic, or merely reactionary. Only after 1963 (called the year of student democratic resurgence), with the intervening Cuban revolution, could signs of greater international and national political awareness be discerned. In this year, the first Conference of Democratic Students was held in the province of Morelia and the National Association of Democratic Students was constituted, with full participation of the Mexican left. Three years later, in 1966, the movement had grown, but its maturity was a relative one. The Government managed to use the students at this time to depose the rector of the university, Ignacio Chavez, and to install Barros Sierra in the post. The students discovered the maneuver belatedly, but the movement acquired greater consciousness of its struggle as a result. In 1967, the first great student victory was won: the solidarity strike with the National Agricultural School and the Higher School of Agriculture in Chapingo and Ciudad Juárez, respectively. This strike achieved the integration of the latter, which had formerly been administered as a private institution by the Escobar brothers, into the University of Chihuahua, thus ending the concession granted by the Government.

On the basis of this history, 1968 becomes the key year of the student movement. It is also a key period for the Mexican Government. It is the year of the Olympics: large economic investments and a decisive confrontation with international public opinion. By means of the control exercises in three of the basic popular organizations, the Government can guarantee the "social peace," stability and, in a certain way, the success of the event. These organizations are the National Peasant Confederation (CNC), the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM), and the National Confederation of Popular Organizations (CENOP). The only sector that escapes its control is the student movement. This may be the source of a catastrophe. The signs that may be discerned in the world at large lead to expecting the worst: student uprisings in France and Germany, disturbances in Brazil and Uruguay. This summary of the indicators in the international order, the tense expectations resulting from and the seemingly insignificant events that occurred on July 22 led to this gross blunder by the Government. The police chiefs as well as the chief of the granaderos and the generals of the army failed in detecting or interpreting the signs of this domestic incident and unleashed the formidable apparatus for repression prepared for emergencies before it was necessary and without justification, thus detonating - involuntarily and without realizing it - the most potent social and political explosive of the student rebellion.

The Significance of the Struggle

The five points of the National Strike Council demands represent somewhat more than a simple compensation for the excesses of the Government. The leaders of the Council themselves admit that it is not a revolutionary program but believe that this is the way in which the struggle should be conceived in order to obtain the backing and at the same time, the integration of other sectors into the movement, sectors that are not yet prepared for action that implies "revolution in the revolution." That is, they are not prepared to participate in a movement that questions the fundamental institutions of the nation, understood as an abstract entity of the social classes that is above the differences, inequities and struggles between them.

The demands are thus popular in their content, "outward looking," and of reformist nature. As was stated above, the first of these demands solicits the freeing of political prisoners. It is hoped thereby to destroy the democratic myth of the Mexican state in relation to public opinion. A letter from Victor Rico Galen, written from Lecumberri prison, has been the first fruit of this demand. "We political prisoners," says Rico Galen in part of his letter, "accept our fate with dignity and pride because it is the fate of the grand majority of the Mexican people. And we do not feel sorry for ourselves; we ask for nothing. There are men without freedom inside these walls and there are men without freedom outside them, for only those who fight, the combatants, are free."

The second point asks for the disbandment of the granadero corps and the dismissal of their chief, General Frías. This request is based on the fact that the existence of this corps is unconstitutional. The Mexican Constitution admits only the existence of the police under the jurisdiction of the Judicial Department. The granadero corps was created in 1944, during the presidency of Avila Camacho, after he had resorted to using the army to put down a strike in the munitions factory. Thus the purpose of the corps is eminently repressive, which is why it enjoys a special antipathy and discredit among popular groups.

The dismissal of the chief and deputy chief of police, as well as the abrogation of articles 145 and 145 bis of the Penal Code, as contained in the third and fourth points, are aimed at obligating the Government to accept its responsibility in the development of recent events and at the same time, the elimination of the legal instruments that permit it to find a juridical basis for such actions. The articles mentioned establish the so-called crime of "social dissolution," which can be extended to cover any mass demonstration or movement that goes against official interests.

The last point in this program would have the Government make a gesture of compensation whose scope would not be limited only to the student sector, but would include the family nucleus related to a student wounded or killed in these incidents. In this way the identification of the university and polytechnical groups with other popular sectors directly or indirectly affected by the events would be established.

But more important than the enumeration of these objectives is emphasizing the significance and strategy (the latter being intimately related to the former) of the student struggle. The strike has been accompanied by a series of round tables and seminars whose functioning and organization depend as much on professors as on students. Some of the themes selected for these activities are: "Mexico, the student movement, and its place in the class struggle;" "The crisis of the university in the present world;" "The political and economic structure of Mexico;" and "The student movement in the world and the revolution."

Simultaneously, the National Strike Council has created the so-called "Political Brigades," groups of five to ten students who are specially trainee and disciplined and whose function is agitation, propaganda, and organization of the forces in the struggle among the popular sectors. The brigade appears unexpectedly at predetermined times, places and occasions, holds a lightning-fast meeting, puts forth its points of view, hands out flyers, disbands the meeting, and itself disappears ten or fifteen minutes later, before the police or any other repressive force has been able to do anything.

The political and social significance of the struggle, the insertion of the events of last July and August in the context in which the class struggle takes place in Mexico and the rest of Latin America is without doubt what imparts true significance, permanence, and specifically revolutionary character to the rebellion of the Mexican students.

* A sixth demand, not treated in this article, is as follows: Establishment of the responsibilities of the authorities for the acts of repression and vandalism through actions of the police, the granaderos and the army.

Tags: Mexico, student protests, Olympics, repression

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