Mexico: the poor fight for their university



Mexico: the poor fight for their university

By David Bacon

MEXICO CITY — Around 100,000 people marched through Mexico's capital on February 9, clamouring for the release from prison of the strikers who had shut down the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) for nine months.

The huge demonstration was a rejection of the mano dura, the traditional use of government force instead of dialogue to solve social problems. The strike and march were also dramatic evidence that the huge fissures which divide Mexico — between rich and poor, urban and rural, those who benefit from economic reforms and those who are its victims — are deeper than ever.

Until the federal government arrested 745 students and teachers over the weekend of February 5-6, accepted wisdom held that the UNAM strike, one of the longest and most bitter in Latin America's history, had lost popular support. The authorities counted on the mass arrests to boost their election hopes by appearing as the guardians of social order. But they may have created more support for the strikers than ever.

'Social stability'

In 1994, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) campaigned successfully to elect Ernesto Zedillo as president by identifying its left-wing opposition, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, with the armed Zapatista uprising in the state of Chiapas. A vote for the PRI was portrayed as a vote for social stability and against armed conflict and social unrest.

Cardenas is again the PRD candidate for president, running against the PRI's Francisco Labastida, in the national election in August. Labastida has painted the arrests of the UNAM strikers as a response to growing social chaos, just as Zedillo used the PRI's attempted suppression of the Zapatista uprising.

The PRD has governed Mexico City for the last four years, a period the PRI has attacked as one of social disintegration. Cardenas, the city's first elected mayor, gave up the post to campaign for president a year ago and handed the mayorship to Rosario Robles.

When the federal government moved to suppress the strike, Robles was ordered to use the city police to occupy the campus and arrest students. She refused, not only because it would have violated the Mexican constitution, but because PRD members would have seen it as a political betrayal. Instead, the PRI government was forced to use a new federal anti-drugs strike force and army troops in police uniforms.

After the arrests, Labastida criticised the mayor for shrinking from her responsibilities. The PRI saw the breaking of the strike as an opportunity to show a firm hand in a situation the PRD was unable to resolve.

In Mexico City, the military and police occupation of the campus backfired. It was reminiscent of the violent and bloody massacre of students in 1968. The move cut short a process of dialogue which sought to end the strike without confrontation. Mexico, like most Latin American countries, has a tradition of university autonomy, which prohibits the presence of government armed forces on campus.

While the government admits there was only minor damage to classrooms during the strike, 85 student leaders have been charged with "terrorism" and denied bail. Arrest warrants have been issued for another 400 activists.

During the February 9 march, large labour union contingents interspersed themselves among the students to make the arrest of those the government still seeks more difficult.


The underlying reason for the outpouring of support from Mexico City's residents is economic. The strikers' key demand was against the introduction of tuition fees at an institution where education has always been free. The strikers saw the move to charge for admission as part of a larger project to privatise education, a measure tied to others imposed by the loan conditions of the International Monetary Fund.

The government claimed that the fee, 800 pesos a semester (US$85), was so small as to be symbolic. However, a recent government survey of family income found that the average five-member family (with three full-time workers) in Mexico has an income equivalent to four times the minimum wage, or about 5-6000 pesos a month.

"This means that families are not making enough to live on", explained Alejandro Alvarez Bejar, an economist at UNAM. "It's normal now that young people, when they get married, still live with their parents. They can't earn enough to live independently. This was the key argument during the UNAM strike and the reason why it had so much support."

The PRI's attack on the strike may kill its chances of winning the city for Labastida, or of toppling the PRD city administration in the coming municipal elections. The most popular chant in the huge march was "Not one vote for the PRI!".

Yet, the Mexican countryside is much more conservative and the government's message may not have been intended for chilangos (Mexico City residents) at all.

Rural incomes in Mexico are much lower than those in the cities. The government estimates that 40 million people live in poverty, 25 million of them in extreme poverty, and almost all live in the countryside. In those small towns and villages, the PRI's promise of social stability is the key to winning the continued loyalty of the small, wealthy elite and the votes they control.


Since 1994, the wealth of the top 10% of Mexico's population has grown, according to Alvarez. At the same time, the poorest 90% are poorer.

UNAM used to be the place where the elite educated their children, and the one place in Mexican society where they mixed with the children of the working and middle classes. Free tuition and open access were guaranteed in the Mexican constitution in the wake of the revolution at the beginning of last century.

Over the last decade, however, the wealthy have increasingly sent their children to private universities, which have grown rapidly. They often go on to do postgraduate courses in the United States. As the elite abandon the public UNAM, still one of the largest and most respected universities in Latin America, Mexico's elite are abandoning their commitment to maintaining its prestige and accessibility as well.