The Great Strike at UNAM

Against the Current, No. 88, September/ October 2000

Christian Castillo

THE GREAT STRIKE of the Mexican National Autonomous University (UNAM), which for more than nine months was occupied by students organized in the Strike General Committee (CGH), started on April 20, 1999 and lasted until February 6, 2000. On that date 2500 federal police, following orders given by President Zedillo, evicted hundreds of students from the campus and arrested them.

Although the focus is now on the implications of Vicente Fox’s victory in the presidential election, it is worth reviewing a conflict from which workers and students in many countries can draw important lessons.

On the morning of February 6, this writer was among the hundreds who were arrested in the Che Guevara auditorium of UNAM’s Faculty of Humanities in Mexico City. I was there to observe an assembly of the CGH at which students were discussing what measures to take to liberate their fellow students who had been arrested only a few days earlier, on February 1.

I had arrived in Mexico on January 18, when relations between the CGH and university authorities were getting tense. During my stay, which included eighteen days spent in the Reclusorio Norte prison until the Mexican government decided to deport me and three other Argentinians, I was able to verify the emergence of a new student movement. This movement, regardless of the immediate results of the UNAM struggle, will have an impact in the years to come.

1. The CGH led the longest strike in the history of the Mexican student movement, and the only one that involved the whole university — thirteen faculties, seven branch campuses and fourteen dependent secondary schools, although not all of them were occupied. The only exception was the Institutes of Research.

The strike broke out when the university authorities announced that they would charge students a fee equivalent to US$60 per semester — a rise from twenty centavos to 680 pesos.

As well as opposing this measure, the students made a number of other demands, which together made up the “six-point petition”: repeal the UNAM General Statute of Payments which establishes the tuition fees; abandon the “reforms” incorporated since 1997 (one of which places conditions on the right of students to enter university automatically on completion of their secondary education); dismantle UNAM’s repressive internal regime and withdraw the sanctions against UNAM students, teachers and workers who are participating in the strike; organize a democratic and binding congress of UNAM; break the links between UNAM and CENEVAL (a private body which sets the entry and evaluation tests); recoup every day lost in the strike.

This set of demands challenged the plan to turn UNAM into an elitist institution, tailoring it more and more to the needs of big enterprises, in line with the recommendations issued by the World Bank for education in Latin America. At the same time, it addressed the issue of democracy in the university.

2. After seven months on strike, the students achieved a victory when Francisco Barnés de Castro — the principal of the university who launched the fees — was forced to resign. His successor was Juan Ramón de la Fuente, who initially presented himself as being interested in dialogue. But this attitude was a masquerade, as was proved by the measures applied by the new principal in order to defeat the strike and continue the implementation of the World Bank plan.

In January this year, de la Fuente organized a fraudulent plebiscite of UNAM students to justify repressing the strikers. More than 900 students were arrested, and 270 of them were confined to the Reclusorio Norte. This event triggered massive demonstrations and an international campaign demanding the release of all UNAM prisoners, although several students are still facing charges.

3. One of the most important lessons of the strike is the importance of building an organization based on direct democracy. All decisions relating to the strike were taken on the basis of discussion by all the strikers.

Each college or faculty had its own strike committee, which decided its position in local rank-and-file assemblies and elected five delegates to be represented in the plenary session of the CGH, which held meetings once a week. There were also extraordinary sessions of the CGH when the situation required. Delegates could be removed and replaced according to the decision of each strike committee.

During the plenary sessions of the CGH, although the decisions were based on the mandates of the local assemblies, any striker could speak from the floor and defend her/his own positions. Mandated voting was a key factor in preventing the success of maneuvers organized by the principal with the aim of reaching an agreement with students sympathetic to the PRD behind the backs of the strikers.

4. Student associations affiliated to the PRD (the Council of University Students, CEU, and the Network of University Students, RED — described as “moderates”) were losing support among students due to their strikebreaking policy, and eventually broke away from the CGH after being reduced to a small minority.

Almost from the start of the conflict, the perredistas (sympathizers of the PRD) insisted that it would not be possible to sustain a long-term conflict and that students should accept what the principal offered since it was impossible to defeat him. Yet not only was Barnés forced to resign, but also the students occupied the colleges for nine months and the CGH called massive demonstrations — one of them on February 4, shortly before the police attack on UNAM, when 30,000 people marched to El Zócalo.

Members of the PRD almost withdrew from the strike committees four months after the conflict began. “Moderates” only controlled five out of thirty occupied colleges and faculties, and the leadership of the conflict was moving into the hands of the most militant sectors, the so-called “ultras.”

The term “ultra” was coined by the press at the beginning of the conflict with the intention of discrediting those students who resisted the principal’s blackmail, but was later resignified by the strikers to mean anyone who fought to the end for the demands of the movement. To the accusations of being “intransigent” and “senseless” the CGH replied in one of its bulletins:

“Are we called ultras because we don’t accept the agreements that the government has made with the international organizations? Are we called ultras because we refused to accept that a whole social sector of the university was expelled? Are we called ultras because every time that they try to impose a farce as a `solution to the conflict’ we didn’t accept it?”

Inside the “ultra” sector many currents coexisted and influenced the students’ activism. They had differences with each other over what orientation to give to the conflict. There were three blocs: the Council of Metropolitan Students (CEM), aligned with the Zapatistas, which had the most conciliatory position towards the moderates; the populist tendency En Lucha and the Maoists of the UJRM in the center; and El Taller (based among students of political sciences) and the Trotskyists of Contracorriente who sustained the more radical positions.

The last two organizations called for the CGH to coordinate its actions with workers and peasants, who were also confronting the PRI regime.

5. We must also address the political evolution of the strikers. The students gathered in the CGH not only differentiated themselves from the PRI and the PAN but also, during the development of the strike, from the center-left PRD. The CGH exposed over and over again the PRD’s role as the left face of the “agreed transition” and as the enemy of the workers and peasants.

The PRD was becoming more and more discredited in the eyes of students, both for the role played by the “perredista” student currents as scabs and for the repression against the students carried out by the PRD city government.

Mexican workers and peasants will have to fight against Vicente Fox’s policies as they did against the PRI’s, and it is certain that the numerous activists that emerged during the student movement in the CGH will have a lot to say in these struggles.

Between 2500 and 3000 students were in permanent occupation for more than nine months and an additional 20-25,000 were on strike but returned home in the evening. Among them are those who, due to the experiences of this conflict, can contribute decisively to the development of a class-based, revolutionary and internationalist alternative for the workers and exploited of Mexico — who would fight, as Trotsky said, to continue and complete “the revolutionary work initiated by Emiliano Zapata.”

6. It is also important to stress that the UNAM conflict, which originated in demands confined to the university arena, soon acquired national importance. Not only was it in the headlines of the main Mexican newspapers every day, but it also polarized Mexican society.

The student movement became the voice of the exploited and oppressed people of Mexico — those who haven’t enjoyed the benefits of the economic growth of the last few years. Delegations of workers, peasants and indigenous people were present at CGH plenaries, explaining their demands to the students.

Students participated in demonstrations against the privatization of the electricity company and the repression in Chiapas. The CGH organized a poll in the university, at which almost 500,000 people from Mexico City, most of them workers, expressed their support for the students. It was mainly the action of union leaderships, members of the PRI or PRD, that prevented the expression of large-scale solidarity actions between students and workers.

The uncompromising attitude of the CGH won it the support of workers and peasants and the hatred of “institutional” Mexico. COPARMEX (the employers’ confederation), the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the owners of the mass media (especially Televisa), government and university authorities, along with certain intellectuals who are prepared to justify that nothing can be changed — all were bitter enemies of the students.

Businessmen and bishops called openly for the intervention of repressive forces against the students, and that position was openly encouraged by a media that manipulated the facts. Slanders and accusations aimed at discrediting the CGH were common. The media accused the students gathered in the CGH of being “ultras” because they didn’t accept the blackmail of the principal and they refused to call off the strike in exchange for the crumbs offered by the government.

In the days following the police invasion of the university, prominent members of the wealthiest families were celebrating in the most expensive and elegant restaurants in Mexico City, toasting with champagne the “liberation of the university.” At the same time, the streets were taken over by massive demonstrations demanding the release of students arrested — 150,000 gathered in El Zócalo on February 9.

We must make special mention of the role played by a large part of the “critical” intelligentsia around the PRD in supporting the university principal. A public announcement which appeared in a newspaper the day after the repression and arrest of 300 students in the Preparatoria 3 high school on February 1 is a damning example of their role.

In the statement, Carlos Fuentes, Carlos Monsivás and even Elena Poniatowska (who has travelled a long way since she made her moving denunciation of the Tlatelolco massacre), among other intellectuals, demanded the “immediate handing over of the university buildings” by the CGH.

By that time, the newspapers were full of statements against the repression and demanding the release of all prisoners. The subsequent apologies (including weeping in front of the TV cameras) made by these intellectuals could not cover their pathetic role in aligning themselves with those who defended the “party of order.”

7. Despite the setback suffered by the students after the entry of the police into UNAM and the imprisonment for several months of many of the most important leaders of the CGH, the tension between the student movement and the principal remains.

What happened to the demands made by the CGH at the beginning of the strike? Today, it looks unlikely that the fees will be imposed, and it appears that the charges against the strikers will be lifted, especially after the electoral defeat suffered by the PRI.

Although the principal has declared that the links with the private agency CENEVAL have been formally broken, everything indicates that this is not definite and that the next university congress will reject the idea.

The big question is precisely what is going to happen in the university congress. This problem was already posed by the CGH with its demand for a democratic congress, but the university authorities want to organize a fake congress, rigged according to its interests. Today, it is difficult to predict the result of this contest.

The authorities have been weakened by the PRI’s defeat — in Mexico City, the PRI have hardly any representation in the legislature. Discontent among the masses with the PRI has been reflected nationally in the election of Fox, and in UNAM this feeling of being “fed up” with the PRI could be expressed in a different way — through a rejuvenation of the student movement and their struggle to make the university more democratic. (After all, who voted for the new principal De la Fuente?).

Another possibility is that the weakness of the authorities will accelerate an agreement between the PRI and the PRD to carry out an “agreed transition” inside UNAM — that is, a change from above that satisfies the demands of the World Bank, where PRD academics can win new positions of power, but where the real influence of students, lecturers and workers is absent.

8. The great UNAM strike is also one of the main expressions of a new situation in the student movement, mainly in the universities, who are back on the scene in many countries. Seen in perspective, this struggle has been a foretaste of the resistance of the masses in Latin America to imperialist plans applied by their regional governments.

With demonstrations against the privatization of the electricity company in Costa Rica, a popular uprising in Cochabamba in Bolivia, student and health sector strikes in Brazil, and general strikes in Uruguay and Argentina, workers have been at the center of the Latin American political situation for the first six months of this year.

In different degrees these actions show a new mood among the masses of the continent; they are fighting back not only against their neoliberal governments but also against those in the region who claim to be followers of the “third way,” showing a radicalization in their methods of struggle that we haven’t seen for nearly two decades.

ATC 88, September-October 2000