Revolutionary Worker #1012, June 27, 1999
The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) is not only the largest university in Mexico--with 270,000 students, it is the largest institution of higher learning in all of Latin America. Since April 20, a student strike has shut down UNAM. The students moved into action after the university president, Francisco Barnes de Castro, tried to push through a plan to raise tuition.
There is a proud history of student activism at UNAM. In 1968, UNAM was one of the main centers of a rebel student movement which grew into a nationwide struggle against the government. The current strike is the longest in the 89-year history of UNAM.
Tuition at UNAM has been basically free for many years. Under the plan put forward by Barnes, tuition would be set at 680 pesos (about $65 U.S.) a semester. This is a huge amount for most people in Mexico, where the minimum wage is less than $4 a day. One in two Mexicans live below the official poverty line--a quarter of the population live in "extreme" poverty. Even with virtually free tuition, many young Mexicans are denied access to UNAM because they can't pay for the cost of books, transportation and other expenses. A tuition raise would shut the door to many more.
The UNAM administration also wants to "raise academic standards" through tougher examinations, time limits for graduation and other means. Already in 1997, the university eliminated the "automatic pass" system, which gave students in the high schools associated with UNAM virtually automatic entry into the undergraduate program.
Barnes claimed that the tuition raise would not discriminate against students from poor families. He said that only students who could afford the new tuition would be required to pay, and that the fee would be waived for those who could not pay it. But the students argued that education at this public university should be free, and that any raise in fees threatened more increases in the future. Barnes' tuition plan was scheduled to affect new students beginning in August 1999. So the tuition raise does not affect the striking students directly. One UNAM student said, "We're not fighting for ourselves, but for those who will follow us."
UNAM students built the movement against the tuition raise for several months before the strike began. The students connected their fight at UNAM with moves by the government to "privatize" government-run services such as the electrical utility and health care. And they went beyond the campus to link up with other forces in society. On March 18, the UNAM students were among 100,000 people who marched to the National Palace in protest of privatization. Student contingents chanted, "After education, the hospitals and the lights." Workers from the Mexican Electricians' Union (SME) answered with the UNAM rallying song.
As Barnes and the UNAM administration refused to back down from their plan for a tuition raise, the students got ready for a strike. They formed a General Strike Council (CHG), and the strike was launched on April 20. By the next day, the strikers had shut down all 36 of UNAM's various colleges and departments as well as the UNAM high schools. Students occupied buildings on the campus, built barricades, and hung red and black banners symbolizing the strike.
Three previous presidents before Barnes had tried to ram through tuition hikes--and were forced to back down. Barnes began by taking a hard line. He was backed up by the federal government and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Barnes claimed that the strikers were only a small minority of the student body. The administration organized an on-campus march against the strike, and pro-government media gave it a lot of coverage. But many of the participants in the march were administrators or students who had been coerced into attending. One student said that her thesis committee threatened there might be "problems" with her graduation if she took part in the movement against the tuition increase.
There are reports of more direct and violent attacks against the striking students. In a May 17 statement, the Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez Human Rights Center charged that UNAM administrators, police agencies and pro-administration student groups have carried out a series of abuses against the leaders of the strike. The abuses include telephone threats, kidnappings and beatings.
The administration's attacks only served to fan the flames of the strike. Many students who originally opposed the strike, especially from traditionally more conservative schools such as Medicine and Business, were won over to a pro-strike position after seeing the underhanded tactics of the administration and the lies in the pro-government media.
The UNAM strike began to gather wide support, in Mexico City and around the country. On April 24, the first National Student Encounter was held at UNAM. Representatives from 15 universities gathered at the barricaded Chemistry school building. They expressed support for the UNAM strikers and made plans to take action in defense of public education. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) issued statements in support of the strike. The Union of UNAM Workers (STUNAM) voted to support the strike, including with money, food and advice for students occupying buildings. Members of the faculty and parents of students have made support statements and attended demonstrations.
The UNAM strikers have organized several large protests and marches in Mexico City. The largest was a May 12 march of 100,000 to the Zocalo, the central plaza in the capital. According to the Weekly News Update on the Americas, "The UNAM students were joined by parents' groups; students from the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM) and a number of other local schools; and thousands of unionists from the UNAM Workers Union (STUNAM) and the National Education Workers Coordinating Committee (CNTE), a dissident group within the National Education Workers Union (SNTE).... The CNTE organized a one-day strike by at least 70,000 teachers in the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, Mexico, Michoacan and Tlaxcala for May 12, and many of the teachers came to Mexico City for the student march."
Some students came to the march with a Volkswagen Beetle (which is manufactured in Mexico) made into a replica of a Mexican pyramid with a "For Sale" sign in English. One of the slogans was a familiar standby in Mexico: "Pueblo, escucha, tu hijo está en la lucha" (People, listen, your child is in the struggle). A reporter from the Mexican newspaper La Jornada noticed a woman dressed in a subway ticket agent's uniform with a sign that put a new twist to the slogan: "Hijo, escucha, tu madre está en la lucha" (Child, listen, your mother is in the struggle).
On May 27, the CGH held an unofficial referendum on the strike in Mexico City and the nearby state of Mexico. They set up tables in schools, parks, subway stations, plazas and other public places. The CGH reported that 700,000 ballots were filled out, and 89 percent answered "yes" to the demand that the federal government should guarantee free public education.
The determined stand of the students and the broad support they gathered forced the UNAM administration to retreat. On June 3, Barnes presented a compromise offer: the tuition raise would stand, but it would be "voluntary." Those who said they could not afford the fee would not have to pay it, and there would be no check of income.
As we go to press, the CGH has rejected Barnes' proposal as a half-measure aimed at breaking the strike before all the student demands are met. The CGH is demanding a complete rejection of the tuition fee, an end to repression and reprisals against striking students, an extension of the school year to account for the strike, and more funds for school materials. CGH leaders said that their goal was to "stop the whole Barnes plan against the public and free character of the university."
In an opinion article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Antonio Prieto of Information Services Latin America noted that large student strikes and protests have been taking place in several other Latin American countries at the same time as the struggle at UNAM. In Nicaragua, students have been demonstrating since April to demand that 6 percent of the national budget be spent on universities. In Chile, where the government has cut funding for universities in half since the 1960s, 40,000 students from several universities began striking in May to demand increased funding and more scholarships. Other student struggles have broken out in Argentina and Ecuador. Prieto wrote that these student mobilizations should be looked at in the context of greater unrest in Latin America: "...these new resistance movements are a direct response to `free-market' reforms that hack away at social services and advocate privatization of national industries."
Mauricio Cruz, a striking student at one of the preparatory high schools in the UNAM system, made the point another way: "We don't want a university that just serves private companies. We want it to be at the service of society."
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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