The UNAM Stalemate: Mexico's Student Strike

September 25, 2007

On Friday, October 29, just a few days before Halloween and the Day of the Dead, Mexico's then-Minister of the Interior, Francisco Labastida —now his party's presidential candidate—disguised himself as Mary W. Shelley and rewrote the story of Baron von Frankenstein and his out-of-control monster. The literary pretentions of this loyal stalwart of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were not without political motivation. The left-opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), said Labastida, had created a monster which had slipped from its control, and had now come home to haunt it. Labastida's monster was the student strike which, for the past six months—now going on nine—had paralyzed Latin America's largest university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). It was specifically the strikers' leadership committee, the General Strike Council (CGH), which, Labastida claimed, had "escaped from PRD hands" and into the hands of the "ultras" who had taken control of the movement.

The Interior Minister stepped into the debate in an attempt to absolve his own ministry of responsibility for the public-order crisis in Mexico City, and to stave off the imminent sacrifice of his ally, UNAM rector Francisco Barnés. While he may have created enough smoke to accomplish the former, he was unable to save his friend's job, and the guillotine came down on the rector in late November. The new rector is Juan Ramón de la Fuente, a member of President Ernesto Zedillo's close inner circle.

Labastida's comment that the strike leadership had become a "Frankenstein monster"—while intended simply to discredit the PRD and malign the student movement—had some unintended deeper meaning. Those who have read Mary Shelley's book will remember that the monster is looking for human comprehension. Being naïve, he hopes to find people who will judge him, not for what he looks like, but for who he is. Eventually, his attempt to be good disappears into the past and his noble desires turn into bitter desperation. Frankenstein's monster becomes the victim of a system which cannot comprehend him, and of the prejudices of those who only see his external self.

The metaphor is highly suggestive. The student movement that launched the strike this past April came together for reasons as noble as those of Baron Frankenstein: free public higher education for all Mexicans, the preservation of educational rights and the rejection of federal "crumbs" in place of real social policies. But during the strike, the university administration and the media constructed and disseminated the image of a grotesque and deformed monster, exploiting the students' real faults and inventing new ones when it was more convenient. The image of the student strikers was so distorted that the original movement became unrecognizable even to itself.

In the popular imagination, a caricature of the movement has taken hold. Public fears and suspicions have been reinforced by a media representation of the strikers which exploits the circus-like elements of the movement: dreadlocked student leaders, gaudily painted faces and chests, assemblies which are more free-for-alls than meetings, torn and tattered clothes and foul language. Obviously, all of this exists, as it exists in any popular Mexico City neighborhood—and for free-for-alls and foul language, one need look no further than the political culture of the ruling PRI—but these particular elements are exploited in the press for mainly political effect. The strikers are the children of a political skepticism, and they are judged harshly for daring to question the status quo. Like Frankenstein's monster, they have been condemned for their image and not for their intentions.

The strike has its roots in the battle over tuition increases. On March 15, 1999, in a hurried session, the University Council, the governing body of UNAM, approved the modification of the "general payment regulations" governing university tuition and fees. This allowed for an across-the-board increase in tuition. A week later, on March 24, a group of students held a brief stoppage of all university activities to protest the action. Three weeks later, a full-scale strike was announced in 27 of the 36 UNAM schools and departments. The CGH was formed immediately thereafter. As this article goes to press in late December, there are still no classes at UNAM and the conflict has become a national political event.

The original proposal to change the tuition scale at UNAM was presented by then-Rector Barnés on February 10. His explicit objective was to raise university tuition for classes and services, and to accompany the rate hike with a program of loans and scholarships for "needy" students. In fact, the reform represented much more than a simple tuition hike. It became a symbol for the process to eliminate free public higher education—the crowning act of the neoliberal, World Bank-inspired transformation of the national education system in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. Its most immediate consequence would be the segmentation of students into two tiers: those who can afford to pay tuition, and those who cannot. Students began the strike to stop what they saw as a conversion of constitutionally guaranteed citizen's rights into a class privilege combined with public assistance and charity.

This concern with free access to higher education is not new. Of the many historical antecedents to this movement, the most important was the student struggle of 1986-87 against a previous tuition increase. In that strike, thousands of students blocked reforms implemented by the university administration and won the right to implement changes in the university through a new university-wide congress. That victory, however, was only partial. When the congress was finally created in 1990 it had lost momentum and accomplished very little.

UNAM is the largest public institution of higher education in Mexico. Approximately 200,000 students attend courses there at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional level, and it hosts a great deal of the country's technological and scientific research. The majority of its resources come from the federal government and are approved by Congress. Another part of its funding—approximately $1.5 million in 1998—comes from voluntary tuition and fees.

As the current movement grew, the UNAM administration confronted the student protests by arguing that protesters were defending the interests of rich and well-off students. When this strategy proved to be ineffective—public opinion had clearly turned against the increase—the university administration launched a more aggressive campaign against the student strikers. The administration and press accused the students of being kidnappers, vandals, provocateurs, manipulated dupes, rabble-rousers and radical "ultras." This official presentation of the strike leaders as a minority, as privileged, or as "fossils" who did not want to leave the comfort of university life was precisely the opposite of the way the strikers were attempting to present themselves: as students defending their university and public education for future generations.

There was a stunning lack of imagination in the intellectual inventory of the official analysts as they tried to explain the origins of the strike at UNAM. Officials tirelessly repeated that the conflict was a result of a conspiracy masterminded by the Mexican left. This repetition was the result of the official inability to comprehend the dynamics of the situation, as well as a convenient throwback to Cold War ideology. The Cold War may be over but fervent anti-Communist discourse, in all of its variants, continues to enjoy good health at the official table. The political machinery and ideological inertia that have permitted a variety of "anti-Communist" campaigns to combat or coopt social movements are still alive in Mexican society.

Unable to analyze the roots of the conflict and to recognize their own errors, those who initiated the tuition reform—the UNAM administration and the PRI government—have not found a better way to explain away the crisis than to say it is a conspiracy by groups on the left. At the same time, they are only too happy to lay the political costs of the conflict at the feet of Mexico City's left-opposition government.

Conspiracy theories, it must be said, are part of the national political culture. They are part of the public perception that social conflicts and popular protests are simply fights among competing elites. In this case, conspiracy theory has grown in the fertile ground of the upcoming presidential elections. Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the Governor of Mexico City until he stepped down in October to make a third run for the Mexican presidency, has been the ruling party's long-time nemesis. By accusing the PRD of being behind the strike, the federal government is trying to mobilize anti-strike sentiment against the principal progressive prospect in the July 2000 national elections.

In truth, Cárdenas has longstanding ties to the student left. The University Student Council played an important role in supporting his 1988 and 1994 presidential campaigns, and many of the student leaders of these earlier movements participated actively in the formation of the PRD. When Cárdenas was elected governor of Mexico City in 1997, a good number of these student leaders went on to become public functionaries in the new administration.

These national political connections, however, had very little impact on the movement inside the UNAM, and despite the presence of a mobilized student population, the university administration has been able to advance its projects of tuition reform with relative ease. Student mobilization around certain emotional issues, like the automatic entry to UNAM from preparatory schools within the UNAM system, has been militant, but by and large ineffective over the past decade. Other student mobilizations, mainly around issues of admission to the university, have shown that the student movement was alive, but could achieve only very limited results.

By contrast, the current movement has enjoyed a measured level of success. The student movement organized itself through school and departmental assemblies and through the federation of delegates in the newly formed CGH. It was during this early organization that the agreements necessary to direct the student struggle were born, and the movement's central demands were articulated: the repeal of the new general payment regulations, the dissolution of the Rector's university police apparatus and the formation of "democratic space" to discuss the university's transformation and resolve the strike. (See "The Central Demands," at the end of this document)

The day to day life of the movement, however, is in the details: in the student guards who protect installations, in the commissions which collect funds for the strike or which communicate to the press, in the brigades which cover Mexico City—or even the country in some cases—and in the establishment of a pro-strike "pirate" radio station in Mexico City.

Heritage, horizon and frustration are three words which help explain the nature of this conflict. Many of the student participants in the strike have parents who took part in the student movement of 1968, the movement that culminated in the government's massacre of over 300 students in Mexico City's Tlatelolco Plaza. Their political and emotional heritage is marked by that date, and for many, their political commitments represent a kind of keeping of the faith.

The contraction of the social horizons of these students also has nurtured their radicalism. Three-quarters of UNAM students come from families earning less than $600 a month. Their expectations for upward social mobility through education, and even their hopes of finding a decent job, have been reduced substantially. Their access to books and newspapers is limited. They are the living representation of the effects of stabilization and adjustment policies.

A deep skepticism, built upon mounting political frustrations, is also a motivating factor in this strike. Students who were 23 years old when the strike began—who are just about to finish their undergraduate studies—were born in 1976, the year of the first big devaluation of the peso. Seventeen-year-olds who, at the strike's onset, were just about to begin their undergraduate careers, were born in 1982, a year in which, despite presidential promises to "defend the peso like a dog," the currency sank like a stone. Strikers belong to a generation that has seen recurring economic crises, the effects of adjustment and stabilization policies and the so-called "rescues" of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. This has all been accompanied by calls to make sacrifices today for a tomorrow which may never come.

During the last few years student strikers have witnessed the week-by-week revelations of almost-limitless greed and impunity in Mexico's ongoing banking scandal. They have been frustrated in the face of a judicial system which allows those with resources to buy justice. And closer to home, they have been able to observe how the image of public higher education has deteriorated, at a time when private universities are gaining prestige. There is an obvious link between these frustrating events and the privatizing reforms proposed today by the university authorities. The strikers see this link rationally. It motivates their protest.

As for the university administration, it views the radicalization of the striking students as a serious threat. The authorities do not recognize the CGH as a valid representative of student demands, or as a body that has any ability to resolve the conflict. The representation of the students by the media as deformed and grotesque, the outright rejection of negotiations after the unveiling of the strikers' six-point plan, and the attempt to "resolve" the conflict through a war of attrition and the use of force are all examples of the official refusal to acknowledge their adversaries fairly.

For years, intellectuals and politicians, invested with a kind of moral authority, mediated social conflicts. They played an important role in key moments of Mexican national life. The deep crisis of the political system has undermined the ability of such actors, who today are found primarily in political parties or public administration, to continue to play this role of social shock-absorber. As a result, their ability to rally support and to mediate conflict has been notably diluted.

This is reflected in the failures of both the university congress, organized in the wake of the 1987 strike, and the 1995 San Andrés dialogues between the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and the Mexican government. Both are examples of situations that have ended in stalemates and in the refusal of those in power to honor their commitments, and both have influenced the dynamic of the current strike. The striking students' radicalism can also be understood in this light. A partially resolved arrangement seems to lead inevitably to a new round of conflict.

The students' frustration extends to the political parties. Inside many social movements is an anti-party tradition and a general distrust of institutional politics. While this distrust began to abate in the late 1980s with the rise of the "social left" within the PRD, the social movements' suspicion of the motives of political parties has begun to grow again. So has the fear of being manipulated by political leaders. This skepticism is present in the student movement, and is nothing new in a country where politics is universally understood to be characterized by trickery, deal-making and no small amount of corruption.

Despite the increase in electoral competition and the enormous quantity of economic and public resources that are invested in campaigns, the majority of recent state-level elections have shown high levels of abstention. Recent elections in the State of Mexico and in the southern states of Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas all had levels of abstention near 50%. In part, this is a result of the disdain in which the political class is held by the general public. Radio announcers delight in the low figures and in the quarrelsome spirit of legislative representatives. Denunciations of their links to the drug trade, dirty business dealings and violence are a staple of the airwaves. Opposition parties, which should have morally renewed politics, have been unable to escape many of these allegations themselves.

At the heart of the student movement is the demand for free public higher education. Thousands of young people started the UNAM strike when the Rector and the University Council sought to end this social entitlement. As time goes on, however, the conflict and the student movement is becoming much more complex. Although it has become clear that the UNAM needs deep reform, its administration continues to deny the only logical path towards a solution: sitting at the negotiating table with the students, debating the petition and accepting the creation of a congress with resolutive powers. On the contrary, the administration hopes that public force will settle what bureaucratic stubbornness has been unable to.

Notwithstanding the university administration's obdurate position during this conflict, it must be said that at least a segment of the student movement has been guilty of exclusive and authoritative measures. On one occasion the debate table was cordoned off with barbed wire—not the best image a democratic movement could put forth. The scuffles and insults which seem to mark the relations among CGH delegates and the eagerness to exclude those who think differently are continual. The attacks on the press and the attempts to remove reporters are frequent.

Particularly difficult have been the relations with the Cárdenas government in Mexico City. One part of the student movement is made up of radical anti-party activists who see Cárdenas and his PRD successor, Rosario Robles, with complete skepticism and a lack of trust. The attempts of some PRD activists in Mexico City to negotiate the conflict at the margins of the movement's legitimate representatives (the CGH), the use of riot police against strikers on a few occasions and the ambiguous attitude of some of the party militants towards the strike—which is used by the media to show a party in disarray—have had an enormous cost for the PRD. Cárdenas has most likely lost the support of university students who in the past have supported his campaigns.

The movement has received broad support from the parents of students, public school teachers, electric workers fighting against privatization, indigenous Zapatista rebels and the popular urban movement. On the other hand, the movement has encountered many difficulties with a large part of the middle class. The radicalization of protests and the image of public anger have given the movement publicity, but have not always generated better conditions for negotiation. On the contrary, actions like blocking highways and the closing of other university buildings linked to research have created negative attitudes from citizens and academics who might otherwise sympathize with the movement.

An activist heritage, shrinking horizons and deepening frustration are all elements that have given rise to the university protest—a protest with a very uncertain future. The student struggle may, indeed, be part of a broader phenomenon in this privatizing, neoliberal age. In trying to defend their disappearing rights and entitlements, the students may be offering us a glimpse of the face of the social movements of the near future—a face not designed by its creators.

The Central Demands of the Student Strike Committee

o The repeal of the general payment regulations governing tuition, with the consequent elimination of all excessive fees for transactions, services, computer-laboratory fees, language instruction, degree seminars, etc.

o The repeal of the imposed amendments to the regulations governing tuition and fees, which eliminated the "automatic pass" from high schools to undergraduate institutions and which imposed limits on the amount of time students can study at the university.

o The dissolution of the police apparatus headed by then-rector Francisco Barnés in the University and the elimination of all types of threats and sanctions against students, professors and university workers for their participation in the strike.

o The opening of a democratic space to discuss and to resolve issues of the university's transformation in terms of government, budget management, education research, plans of study, among other issues.

o The dissolution of all links to the private organization currently charged with evaluating student performance within the university.

o The creation of an all-university congress with powers to resolve the strike.

Luis Hernández Navarro is an editor and columnist at the Mexico City daily, La Jornada. His article, "Mexico's Secret War," appeared in the May/June 1999 issue of NACLA. Translated by NACLA.

Tags: education, Mexico, UNAM, student protest, repression

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