Students Shake Up Mexico City:
"It's Right to Rebel!"

Revolutionary Worker #1036, December 26, 1999

For close to eight months now, rebel students have been out on strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), in order to defend the right to free public education for all. UNAM is the largest university in Latin America. The strike has now entered a new phase as the government has agreed to sit down with the student strike committee (Consejo General de Huelga--CGH) to begin negotiations over their demands.

The student strike is a huge political problem for the government of Mexico. The authorities have spent the past seven months slandering and attacking the student strikers and their just demands. They have been working to divide the movement and undermine its unity--thinking they could turn public opinion against the strike and isolate the students.

But in November the students' steadfast struggle forced the resignation of the university's Chancellor Barnes, who for seven months referred to the student strikers as "the group who has kidnapped the university" and bragged that he could wait out a long strike. To replace him, a member of President Zedillo's own cabinet, Ramon de la Fuente, Secretary of Health, was sent in to apply what appears to be a case of "stepping back in order to maneuver" on the part of the government.

The strike began on April 20, when 270,000 students voted to go out on an indefinite strike in response to a huge tuition increase--from 20 cents to $65 per semester. Free public education for all is a gain won in the 1910 revolution and is written into the Constitution of Mexico. Even though most people are too poor to take advantage of higher education, the existence of this right is seen as the difference between a chance for a better life and poverty. The state has repeatedly tried to institute tuition at UNAM and repeatedly had to back down.

Barnes came into office with the mission of putting into operation a plan to transform the university--a plan consistent with Mexico's subordinate position to imperialism. To this end a series of educational reforms were instituted in order to change the public free character of the university to one accessible only to an elite group of "gifted" students who have the money to fund their education.

As the striking students point out: "...We know that all of these policies are part of the mandates of the World Bank and the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development--in other words, international institutions that in exchange for the loans that they grant, control the social policies, including the educational policies." [From "Why are the University Students on Strike" document of the General Strike Council, or CGH--Consejo General de Huelga.]

The vast majority of people in Mexico have no hope of higher education. Even if there are primary schools in many pueblos, most people in the countryside earn less than the $4/day minimum wage and cannot afford paper, pencils or books. In fact children of poor peasants often must go to work by the age of 5 or 6. So if a student of a working family makes it to UNAM, it represents a huge struggle and sacrifice for a family. To charge $65/semester on top of that, makes that education impossible for many. And to demand that a working student must finish their degree in a set amount of time is also to make education impossible.

Just Demands

The students have raised six reasonable, just demands:

1) Free, public higher education for all as stated in the nation's constitution. 2) A democratic Congress of the university community where faculty and students make key decisions concerning the university. 3) End the "filters" and examinations that have been instituted in order to limit access to education to an elite group. Restoration of the automatic entrance to the university, of graduates of UNAM-affiliated "Prepas" or pre-university schools. 4) Cut links with non-University research organizations that designed the entrance exams based on market research criteria. End time limits set on the amount of time allowed to receive a degree--time limits that would eliminate 40 percent of the poorer students who must work and study. 5) Dismantle the government spy apparatus and throw out all charges against students. No penalties for support of the strike on faculty. (When Chancellor Barnes took office he installed cameras with telescopic lenses on buildings and in security vehicles. He revamped government-financed goon squads called "porros" and created a special anti-riot university police. He reopened the "University Tribunal" to bring charges against strikers and expel them.) 6) Adjust the academic calendar to account for time lost in the strike.

This strike challenges the imperialist agenda for Mexico to transform it into a huge maquiladora (foreign-controlled sweatshop). A Declaration of CGH (Sept. 13, 1999) said:

"We continue fighting because we are convinced that what is at stake in the University is much more than the future of UNAM. What is at stake is the future of all public Universities and education itself in the whole country. Even more, at stake is the direction of the nation as it will develop in the coming years. Because if today the government is successful in seizing back from the people the right to free higher education, next they will take away many more rights and services, because the government has a list of what it considers to be unnecessary and superfluous. Everything the people need, to be able live a life with more dignity, it is those things that they want to take away."

The struggle has polarized Mexican society to such a degree that all classes and all political parties have had to take a stand around it. The PRD, the Democratic Revolutionary Party, likes to pose as "friends of the people" and the alternative to the PRI. The PRI is the ruling bourgeois party. But the PRD runs Mexico City--and has had to reveal its true face and repress the student strikers.

On October 15, front page news was a photograph of two strikers on the ground, a brother and sister, with their arms wrapped around each other, being clubbed and kicked by Mexico City police. The Mexico City police had attacked a student march as it ended a blockade of a principal thoroughfare. People in the area opened their doors to shelter the fleeing students. The Mexico City government stated that force would be used whenever necessary to defend public order. Due to public outcry, the police who beat the students were put on trial for their "excesses."

The CGH pointed out, "This is not the first time that the `democratic' government of the capital has used repression against UNAM students and at other times it has repressed other groups of demonstrators in other parts of the country, like teachers..." (CGH press release, 10-15-99)

Nothing, not kidnapping, torture, arrests, rapes, beatings, armed attempts to seize back the occupied buildings or slander and expulsions from school--all of which has been brought down on the students-- have been able to make them back down from their demands.

The unstoppable spirit of the students to go up against all odds to defend the right of education for future generations taps into a huge reservoir of support among the people. Street orphans have taken up collections to help pay expenses for the striking students, market vendors have contributed food for the students' communal kitchen, primary and high school students join in their marches, groups of parents regularly participate in their assemblies and marches and maintain a bilingual internet web site in support of the strike.

As the students have said: "The officials of UNAM bet on the individualism of the students and that was their first mistake. Ours is a movement of solidarity with future generations."

International Solidarity

The students have drawn up resolutions of support for U.S. revolutionary political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. They have marched against the repression of students in Iran and Santo Domingo. They have sent brigades to Chiapas, to the flood-damaged regions and all over the nation, to spread the contagion of their rebellion. The Mexican daily La Jornada recently reported on a student assembly where one of the banners decorating the hall read: "Our strike consists of many truths, but they can all be boiled down to one: It is right to rebel!"

The UNAM strike also reverberates worldwide. The Mexican students have links with student struggles in Germany, Australia, and Canada, as well as other countries. Four banners filled with hundreds of support messages were sent from Los Angeles with messages such as: "Don't back down. A lot is depending on you" and "Keep Going! Please! Don't give up. Although it doesn't seem like it, there are a lot of people on this side of the border who support you. Long Live the Zapatistas and the cause of the students!" "With all my heart from East L.A."

The band Rage Against the Machine recently did a concert in Mexico City, named "The Battle of Mexico City" in honor of the strike. RATM member Zack de la Rocha did an information piece on the strike on MTV and the Mexico City concert was broadcast in full. It was reported in La Jornada newspaper that the student strikers "drink down the lyrics of the group, Rage Against the Machine, especially the battle hymns like `Zapata's Blood' and `Bullet in Your Head."'

Government Maneuvers

The government is scrambling to regain the initiative because it is dangerous to them that, far from becoming isolated, the "ultras," the "intransigent minority" who are "furiously against the PRI and the PRD" have gained leadership of the movement and have become one of the strongest voices in defense of the rights of the people--while those who have pushed for compromise are the ones looking isolated.

The new chancellor has tried to create a "climate of conciliation" and is holding meetings with many different groups in the university to try to form a "consensus" proposal to end the strike. A recent communication from the General Strike Council addresses the new government tactic:

"The new chancellor who has been imposed upon us is no more and no less than the direct emissary of the president, and his mission is to end the student strike as fast as possible and by any means possible--in other words, to defeat the CGH." (Speech of the CGH, Nov. 26)

The CGH warned that the new chancellor puts up "a front of being the `conciliatory' chancellor who looks for `consensus' between the university community...This front is really part of a strategy of the government and of Mr. De la Fuente to try to construct as broad as possible a base of support to launch everything against the CGH.... We want to put the university community and the whole population on alert: the only thing that they really want to do with this `gathering of opinions' of the university community is to isolate the CGH, to try to convince the whole Nation that the opinion of the CGH is a minority in the University. And based on this, they want to rip away, with great social consequences, the fundamental rights of the students, that we have counted on for years. And if the strikers resist this attempt, then they will try to use their "auscultation" ("listening to the community") to sic the police on us. This is the only objective of this maneuver... (Speech of the CGH on Nov. 26)

Whatever happens in the strike, the rebel students of UNAM have really shaken up the political climate in Mexico by showing that determined resistance can open new perspectives, draw forward new allies and accelerate the pulse of the entire nation.

One member of CGH said: "We can fight the authorities and force back measures that have already been put in operation. Here we are, they haven't been able to break us, and this is proof that you can resist the government..."

By refusing to back down, and by continually linking their struggle with the fight of all the oppressed, the student strike is shining a spotlight on and exposing the imperialist plan to transform Mexico into a giant maquiladora subordinate to the dictates of huge financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The struggle has exposed the rulers of Mexico as the servile lackeys of these imperialist interests, dutifully carrying out the agenda of privatization and cuts in social services--which has resulted in the intense impoverishment of the people. $900,000,000 will be paid out to rescue the banks in Mexico, while two out of three Mexican people are poor. This is occurring in the context of the preparations for presidential elections in the year 2000, when the government desperately needs to convince foreign investors that the system can continue to push through their cruel agenda and that the "democratic opening" with clean elections between several political parties will legitimize their system and control social unrest.

In light of recent demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle Washington, the struggle of the striking students at UNAM is part of the wave of opposition of people all over the world to imperialist domination--and must be supported!

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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