Mexican students stage huge demo
By Paul Jenkins
MEXICO CITY — On May 12, students from the strikebound National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) staged a demonstration in the central city which mobilised more than 150,000. This is the second demonstration of this size since the strike began three months ago. The demonstration, behind dozens of red and black banners, was a stinging rebuff to threats of disciplinary action by the government.
The students are striking against the imposition of fees by university rector Francisco Barnes de Castro and the right-wing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) government. The students argue fees will exclude young people from poor backgrounds from higher education.
'Tell my mother not to expect me'
The May 12 demonstration marked a new stage in the depth, unity and combativity of the movement. Two days before, there had been altercations when mass pickets prevented UNAM entrance examinations taking place.
The sight of bitter recriminations between high school students, their parents and the strikers was gleefully seized on by pro-government stations TV Azteca and Televisa as a symptom of extremism and divisions among the students. In addition, the media have given huge publicity to the tiny minority of university students opposing the strike.
On May 12, the students answered these attacks with the monster demonstration against fees. The strike coordinating committee (CCH), which includes hundreds of delegates from every faculty, has stated that there is no going back and it expects the strike to be very long.
This was reflected at the demonstration with chants of "Si tu pasas por mi casa, y encuentras a mi mama, tu le dices no mi espere, que este movimiento no dará un paso atras" (If you go by my house, and you see my mother, tell her not to expect me, for this movement's not taking a single step backwards).
Thousands of students living at home have gone "missing" in the three and a half months since the protest movement started. Hundreds take turns every night to guard the barricades at the entrance to the giant UNAM campus.
The May 12 march went symbolically from the Plaza of the Three Cultures, scene of the 1968 student massacre, to Mexico City's central square, the Zocalo.
For the first time ever on an anti-government demonstration, there were contingents from the law, dentistry, engineering and chemistry faculties. These faculties were not even mobilised during the 1968 mass student movement. Without doubt, the size and unity of the movement — and support for it from the workers movement and the Zapatistas — has shaken rector Barnes and the government.
After two weeks of the strike, Barnes — up until then totally intransigent — offered the students a dialogue — but behind closed doors. The CCH replied by accepting talks, but only if they were in public, with decision-making ability. Barnes refused.
The constant refrain of the media and government is that the students are being manipulated by outside agitators, especially the Mexico City leadership of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), whose president, Carlos Imaz, was a leader of the 1980s student movement.
Photographs secretly taken of student leaders meeting with PRD officials were splashed across newspaper front pages. While it is true that the PRD, which controls the city government, has been friendly to the strikers, the charge of political manipulation is groundless.
Among the strike leaders there are sympathisers of the PRD but there are also supporters of far left organisations. At this stage, however, the overwhelming majority of strikers, including members of the several hundred-strong CCH, have no political affiliation.
In so far as there are more general political symbols on the students' demonstrations, they are portraits of Che Guevara, and expressions of support for the Zapatista (EZLN) movement in Chiapas.
This support has been mutual. EZLN leader Subcomandante Marcos has gone out of his way to issue declarations supporting the students, cheekily suggesting that there is a support committee of ex-UNAM students operating in the mountains of south-west Mexico — widely taken to be an oblique reference to the fact that the person now known as Marcos was once a UNAM student.
Several dozens students travelled to the Chiapas community of La Realidad on May 8, for a meeting with the Zapatistas. Marcos, making his first public appearance for two years, spoke to the 2000-strong meeting, emphasising the centrality of the student struggle.
On May 4, the 20 masked Zapatistas who had travelled to Mexico City to participate in the far left union contingent in the May Day demonstration were warmly received by several thousand students at a rally staged in the Che Guevara auditorium at UNAM's philosophy faculty. The students chanted, "You are not alone!".
Zapatista speakers stressed that their struggle, the UNAM battle and the fight by electricity workers to stop privatisation of their industry were part of a common fight against the government's neo-liberal reforms.
The students' strike, the electricity workers' struggle and a renewed political offensive by the EZLN are causing concern in government circles. One year from presidential elections, with every major party beset by internal faction fighting, the political landscape is explosive. A wealthy lawyer who moves in government circles told me, "There is a hint of 1968 in the air. This movement will end dramatically."
Subcomandante Marcos sent a message to the May 12 demo, which was read out to thunderous applause: "Your movement represents something new and wonderful. It has given those at the bottom of Mexican society a fresh wind and a certainty: rebellion continues."