By Paul Jenkins
MEXICO CITY — More than 80,000 striking students marched on July 26 through central Mexico City to celebrate 100 days of their strike against the imposition of student fees. The students were joined by contingents of electricity workers fighting privatisation of their industry, telephone workers, social security workers, university workers and supporters of left-wing organisations.
The strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Latin America's largest educational establishment, has closed down all faculties. Since UNAM is also responsible for the pre-university high schools, up to 400,000 students have been affected by the strike.
Free education is one of the most symbolic gains of the 1910-20 Mexican revolution. The students point out that the imposition of fees is likely to be the first step towards full privatisation.
The strike has been an amazing feat of self-organisation. Hundreds of thousands have participated in demonstrations and, while the strike is directed by a general strike committee (CGH) which has hundreds of delegates, faculties and schools regularly hold their own assemblies to debate the next steps.
The students have held out for 100 days against a ferocious barrage of anti-student propaganda put out by the press and pro-government TV stations. But now students are contemplating if victory is possible.
Since the onset of the strike, the ruling class, the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the university rector, Francisco Barnes, have realised that the stakes in this dispute are very high. Student protests against the fees started seven months ago, long before the strike, and coincided with mass mobilisations of electricity workers against privatisation and a renewed political offensive by the Zapatistas. The prospect was opened up of a broad national alliance against neo-liberalism.
To combat the strike, the authorities have used both the carrot and the stick. After a few weeks of the strike, the university council voted to lower the proposed fees. After six weeks, Barnes suddenly announced that the fees would be renamed "registration charges" and would be voluntary. While the mass media announced that the authorities had met the students' demands, the students unanimously rejected this offer.
The CGH pointed out that once the principle of student fees (by any name) had been introduced, free education would be lost. Equally, if the fees were not made compulsory, it could lead to a two-tier system where those who paid the "voluntary" registration charge would get preferential treatment. Finally, the students pointed out that the new proposal also included increased charges for examinations and other services, thereby clawing back some of the money lost by making the fees voluntary.
After students rejected Barnes' offer, a lynch-mob style media campaign was launched against student "extremism". When striking students blockaded the UNAM entrance examinations, the media redoubled their campaign, focusing on student "violence".
In fact, the striking students have been the victims of violence. Several strike leaders have been kidnapped by "unknown persons" and savagely beaten. One woman student has been kidnapped and raped, and two students have died in traffic accidents during the demonstrations.
Threats against the students have now reached fever pitch. The Mexican lawyers' federation has produced a long charge sheet against the students and insisted they be prosecuted, and two retired UNAM law professors have laid formal charges with the national prosecution service. Several PRI senators have demanded the intervention of the security forces to recapture the faculties and reopen the university.
A direct intervention by the police and army is unlikely at this stage because of the nearness of the presidential elections; even a small-scale repeat of the 1968 student massacre would be politically disastrous. But even discounting this as an immediate threat, the obstacles to a student victory are now formidable.
While thousands of activists remain intransigent, they are leading masses of people who are bound to consider the personal stakes involved in continuing the strike. Many students are feeling the inevitable pressure of having lost a whole semester and are wondering what will happen to their university education and degree prospects if they lose another.
In addition, some of the tactical decisions of the CGH are open to question. In rejecting Barnes' offer of voluntary fees, the CGH laid down a series of demands, including the creation of a "permanent space" involving student representatives for discussing the running of the university. This demand, amounting to a restructuring of the government of the campus, has tended to distract from the central question of fees. The additional demands are probably not seen as central by the student majority, and their inclusion by the CGH in the "minimum" conditions for ending the strike could undermine student unity.
These tactical decisions may create problems, but they are not the heart of the strike's strategic difficulties, and have not caused a wavering of support among the university workers' unions or the majority of popular organisations.
Much more important is that the wave of mass struggle against electricity privatisation in the first half of the year has died down, and the Zapatistas are coming under renewed military pressure in Chiapas. For the moment, the students are carrying the brunt of the anti-neo-liberal struggle. A student strike does not have the power to inflict economic damage on the bourgeoisie in the same way as a workers' strike.
The eventual outcome cannot be predicted, but however the strike ends, the struggle has resulted in permanent gains for the popular movements. Tens of thousands of young people, with incredible energy and determination, have defied everything that Mexico's corrupt state apparatus and rabid mass media have thrown against them. As one journalist put it: "Thank you Francisco Barnes ... thank you for creating the next generation of leaders of the Mexican radical social movements."