Incident at US Embassy in Mexico City Reveals Deep Tensions Within Student Strike Strategy

MEXICO CITY-In the afternoon of Dec. 11, some 200 people rallied outside the U.S. Embassy here. Some of the protesters threw tomatoes and stones at the facade of building.

The rally had been convened to protest Mumia Abu-Jamal’s condemnation to death. It had been called by the General Strike Council (Consejo General de Huelga, CGH), which was the organization that the students of Mexico’s National University (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, UNAM) had formed at the beginning of 1999 in order to oppose a rise in tuition.

As the demonstrators were leaving the rally area, they were attacked by the city police and 98 were arrested. Twenty-two young people were soon freed, but as many as 73 were released on bail to await trial.

This incident reveals the tip of an iceberg of a national cultural crisis in Mexico. What follows is an attempt to explain what UNAM is, how the conflict developed, and the present perspectives of the student movement.

UNAM was founded in 1910 as the national Mexican university par excellence. It was then supposed to educate youths as professionals not only in law and medicine but also in engineering, architecture and other disciplines-particularly in the sciences and humanities, which were then taught for the first time with a non-religious orientation.

As the country grew, this university grew accordingly and by 1990 it had developed into an educational system with 13 high schools, five university campuses, some 20 research institutes, approximately 300,000 students, and a faculty of 20,000 people. Since then, however, its size has declined and a tendency to close or, at least separate, the high schools has become noticeable.

A government that has in practice renounced important portions of its independence, through NAFTA, seems in consequence to consider a national university and a local development of science as a useless luxury. Moreover, since 1982, neo-liberalism has invaded the country, as it has most of the rest of the world, and a trend has developed to consider education as worthy of existence only insofar as it can be turned into a commodity.

In light of these factors, government subsidies to UNAM began to decline, and at the beginning of this year, the chancellor (“rector” in Spanish) took this as a pretext to raise the token student tuition of two U.S. cents per year.

The tuition was then raised to $100 (U.S.) a year. The lack of funds was only a pretext, because the spectacular rise was not enough to cover the deficit caused by the lack of government support, though it would have been very efficient in excluding large numbers of students. It must be pointed out that most UNAM students are part time, since they have to earn their own living and, in many cases, help to support their families.

Strikes have always been a tradition in the UNAM. In 1929 striking students gained autonomy from the government; in the early 1950s they obtained cheap and efficient public transport to connect the new campus to the rest of the city; in 1966 they preserved the right of high school students of the UNAM to be admitted to BA studies without another exam.

In 1968, though defeated after a massacre of students and working-class supporters in Tlateloco, they gained important civil rights such as the right to a free press (which existed only on paper, but not in practice). In 1987 they got democratic internal reforms.

This year’s strike was provoked by the chancellor’s arrogance. On March 15 he used his majority in the University Council to approve-suddenly, unexpectedly, and almost in secret-the tuition increase. The uproar that this provoked was met by indifference and silence by the chancellor, which by itself prompted the students to form the CGH and begin the strike on April 15.

Today, after eight months, this strike has already become the longest in the almost 80 years of UNAM’s history.

Another complication arises from the fact that the original chancellor (Barnes de Castro) presented his resignation by mid-November and was succeeded by the then Minister of Health, de la Fuente. Briefly, it can be said that Barnes’s policy was to ignore the strike and the students who supported it-which served to strengthen the extreme left tendencies within the CGH.

This was compounded by a process of endless discussions. For example, it took the CGH almost two months to decide how the talks with the chancellor’s representatives should be carried out, but it must be added that the university officials’ intransigence on this issue was also responsible for the delay.

Some time later, the extreme leftists began to expel their opponents, but by then the great majority of students were absent from the movement.

These ultraleft tendencies have no clear ideology, but they do share a clear penchant toward Stalinism. Their force grew to such an extent that when the new chancellor changed the policy to favor negotiations, his move was disregarded. There now appears to be no clear solution to the conflict.

It is in this context that the incident at the U.S. embassy took place. This episode was facilitated by the meager numbers of demonstrators and by the undoubted presence of provocateurs.

The CGH rapidly repudiated violence and declared that their members threw only tomatoes, not stones. But it raised the upcoming trials of the 73 students as an obstacle in pursuing talks with the commission that the chancellor appointed to negotiate with the striking students. This further isolated the CGH-including from most people who initially supported the movement.

A week later, city officials dropped most of the charges against the 73 students, but then the chancellor’s representatives were the ones who abandoned the talks-charging that two of the students’ representatives were not really UNAM students.

The isolation of the CGH before public opinion has become all the more easy because, since June 7, the payment of tuition has been declared optional, and the new chancellor has said that all university problems will be discussed and decided upon by a university congress elected democratically.

And so, the strike is swiftly losing a sense of purpose and there is a danger it will become merely the modus vivendi of a shrinking group of ultra-lefts. Although the movement has already gained significant concessions, if this stalemate is not resolved, it can open the way for a serious defeat that will have wide repercussions in the Mexican political arena.

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