David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Poor Fight For Their University, The Rich Go Elsewhere
by David Bacon

MEXICO CITY (2/19/99) - In early February, when Mexico's Federal government moved to end the strike at the National Autonomous University (UNAM), its action was motivated less by concern over the fate of the institution and its students, and much more by the way the strike could be used in its current electoral campaign.

Mexican voters go to the polls in July to elect a new president for a deeply divided country. Once again, the government and its ruling Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI) portrays itself as the guardian of social order. Its opposition, meanwhile, particularly the leftwing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) calls for democracy and social change. In this national debate, the university strike has become the newest battleground.

Following the Federal government's move, over a hundred thousand people marched through Mexico City to protest the arrest of the strikers, who had shut down UNAM for nine months. The strike and the march are dramatic evidence that the huge fissures which divide Mexico - into rich and poor, urban and rural, those who benefit from economic reforms and those who are its victims - are deeper than ever.

In 1994, the ruling PRI campaigned successfully to elect Mexico's current president, Ernesto Zedillo, by identifying the PRD and its candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, with the armed Zapatista rising in Chiapas. A vote for the PRI was portrayed as a vote for social stability, against armed conflict and social unrest.

Today, Cardenas is once again the PRD candidate for president, running against the PRI's Francisco Labastida. Labastida calls the student arrests a response to growing social chaos, much as Zedillo characterized the attempted suppression of the Zapatista uprising in 1994.

In addition, while the PRI governs the country, for the last two years the PRD has governed Mexico City, the world's largest urban center. The PRI, which lost to Cardenas in the city's first mayoral election in history, has attacked the city government ever since for what it calls social disintegration. A year ago, Cardenas gave up the mayor's office to campaign for president, and turned the position over to Rosario Robles, now Mexico's most powerful woman in office.

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, saying it would violate the Mexican constitution, Cooperation in the arrests would also have been viewed by PRD members as a political betrayal of the students. Instead, the PRI was forced to use a new Federal strike force intended to combat drugs, as well as army troops in police uniforms.

After the arrests, Labastida criticized the mayor, saying "someone who's the head of the government shouldn't shrink from their responsibilities." The strike seemed to give the PRI the opportunity to show a firm hand in a situation it claimed the PRD was unable to resolve.

But in Mexico City, the massive arrests backfired. People were shocked by the military and police occupation of the campus, which held reminders of the violent and bloody massacre of students in 1968. Mexico, like most Latin American countries, has a tradition of university autonomy, which prohibits presence of government armed forces on the grounds of UNAM.

The charges against the students were extreme as well. While the government admits there was only minor damage to classrooms in the course of the strike, 85 student leaders were charged with terrorism and denied bail. Arrest warrents were issued for another 400. During the march, large labor union contingents were interspersed among the students, in an effort to make difficult the arrest of those the government still seeks.

But most important, the move cut short a process of dialogue which sought to end the strike without confrontation.

Despite media allegations, the PRD didn't direct the strike. In fact, relations with student leaders were often very difficult, despite the fact that many strike participants were sons and daughters of PRD members. Last year, student leaders were criticized when the university rector was replaced, for not using the opportunity to reach an agreement to end it. Strikers, on the other hand, were deeply suspicious of any attempt to compromise the original demands, and resented media insinuations that their movement was directed from outside.

When the arrests took place, however, some PRD leaders took immediate action. Jesus Martin del Campo, vice-chair of the PRD delegation in the Chamber of Deputies and Rosalbina Garabito, PRD senator, went to the jail where the students were held, and won permission from the authorities for their parents to enter the prison.

The arrests united what had become a very divided opposition. "While there were many disagreements on strike strategy, the government's action brought everyone together," Martin del Campo said. "No matter how we felt about other questions, we all agreed that arresting the students and occupying the campus was wrong." The PRD had a large presence in the march which followed, although it was careful to keep its contingent in the rear, where it wouldn't be accused of trying to outshine the students.

But while the arrests and the campus occupation were the immediate issues which brought together city residents, the underlying reason for the outpouring of support was economic.

The key demand of the strikers was the repeal of a newly-instituted tuition in an institution in which education has always been free. They claimed that the move to charge for admission was part of a larger project to begin privatizing education. In Mexico, economic reforms demanded by the International Monetary Fund have focussed on ending government subsidies for public services, especially those benefitting the poor. Under that mandate, Federal administrations have proposed ending free education at the university level for many years.

When Robles was criticized by the PRI for her refusal to use city police to arrest students, PRD leader Marti Batres Guadarrama reminded reporters that "we should remember who has tried to impose these economic reforms on the university for the last 18 years."

In its most recent proposal, the government said it intended to charge only a symbolic amount - 800 pesos a semester ($85). Students and university unions, who feared that the government would go on to layoffs and other cost-cutting measures, called the proposal an opening wedge. But even 800 pesos was hardly a symbolic amount for many Mexicans, and a recent government survey of family income gave a very different picture. The average 5-member family in Mexico, it found, has an income equivalent to four times the minimum wage, or about 5-6000 pesos a month. That income is based on three of the five family members working full time. Millions of families earn less.

"This really means that families aren't making enough to live on," explains Alejandro Alvarez Bejar, and economist at UNAM. "It's normal now that young people, when they get married, still live with their parents since 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."

According to PRD Senator Garabito, an economist, the tuition proposal at UNAM is part of a larger picture. "Since 1982 the Mexican government has been enforcing an economic policy using high unemployment and falling wages to attract foreign investment," she says. "Mexican workers have lost 70% of their buying power in these years. For every 10 new jobs created, 6.7 have salaries below the level workers actually need to survive."

The move by the PRI to end the strike may kill its chances of winning Mexico City for Labastida, or of toppling the PRD city administration in coming municipal elections. The most popular chant in the huge march was "Not one vote for the PRI!" But the Mexican countryside outside of Mexico City is much more conservative, and the government's message may not have been intended for chilangos (Mexico City residents) anyway.

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

Since 1994, the wealth of the top 10 percent of the population has grown, according to Alvarez, while that of the remaining 90 percent has decreased. UNAM used to be the place where that elite educated its children - 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 the century. "We need to restore the rule of law. and establish a regime which will enforce it," Garabito says. "We need to democratize the country, not just change political parties."

Over the last decade, however, the wealthy have increasingly sent their children to private universities, which have grown rapidly. They often go on to postgraduate work in the U.S., a choice unavailable to those without the money to pay for it. Mexico's elite is in the process of abandoning its premier public university, with 270,000 students still one of the largest and most respected in Latin America.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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