Mexican stand-off

February 4, 2000

The student strike that has shut Mexico's top university for nine months turned violent this week. One person was killed as a group tried to reclaim the campus. Tim Cornwell reports

A university that was once the pride of Mexico this week entered the realms of tragedy. On Tuesday pitched battles erupted at the National Autonomous University (UNAM) between striking students and classmates intent on ending their nine-month occupation of the university campus.

By the end of the day one person lay dead, stabbed in the chest, and tens of others were injured. With strike supporters screaming "Stop hitting them, don't take them away", federal police took control of one of the university schools and bussed more than 100 strikers to jail.

The university authorities called for police intervention despite statutes that bar the police from university grounds to preserve academic freedom. The rest of the campus remains in the hands of protestors.

UNAM, Latin America's largest university, has educated four of Mexico's past five presidents. It is home to Mexico's national observatory, its seismic monitoring system, its leading law and medical schools and nearly half the country's academic research. But now it is surrounded by a makeshift wire fence, its entrances blocked by rubble. The Philharmonic de la UNAM has been silenced; the animals from the university's veterinary department slaughtered or transferred. Latin America's best-known cinema archive remains behind locked doors, its condition uncertain.

Before this week the strike had already cost one rector his job, and a few days ago a yelling melee barred his successor from entering the campus. "UNAM, for so many years you've given Mexico life," says a hand-made poster on the university wall, the words inside a bleeding heart. "Sorry."

The strike has cost about Pounds 140 million in salaries for 30,000 teachers unable to teach and 60,000 other workers. Some professors initially held classes in parks, homes and even cars. Students have now taken jobs, a few have moved to private colleges. The new rector, Juan Ramon de la Fuente, works from temporary offices in a museum building owned by the university in the Mexico City centre.

Perhaps 1,000 student strikers live on campus, sleeping on blankets in classrooms or in tents. Until this week they were protected by the ghosts of Mexico's past, even as their political support has shrunk. The massacre of hundreds of student demonstrators by a rightist government in 1968, just before Mexico hosted the Olympic games, left scars on the national psyche that have yet to heal.

Until Tuesday, officials from President Ernesto Zedillo down had rejected the use of force to eject the strikers, particularly with the approach of a July election. On Tuesday, Ramon de la Fuente said:"This is a day of profound sadness for the university. Violence is the antithesis of the university."

Last month, university officials conducted a plebiscite of 230,000 students. It showed that nine out of ten supported an end to the strike with a plan that includes a college-wide congress. The strikers insist that the result was rigged.

When de la Fuente came to the university at the end of January and called for a "definitive reconciliation", he was met at the gates by a crowd of several hundred. "Open the university, and I will be very glad to resume negotiations," he said.

Shoved and shouted at by a dense scrum of students, parents and supporters chanting "we shall not be moved", the university officials retreated to their cars.

The strike began on April 22 1999 after Francisco Barnes, who was then rector, announced a plan to raise fees for students from 20 centavos, less than two pence, to about Pounds 100 a year. Fees at UNAM have been frozen since 1948, their real value ground down by successive devaluations. Even the new sum was a fraction of the fees at a private college.

UNAM's annual budget is about Pounds 600 million, 93 per cent of that from the federal government. "This was not important to the university's budget," said UNAM secretary-general Xavier Cortes Rocha, Barnes's deputy and a prime supporter of the reforms. "The issue was co-responsibility. A student costs about $2,000 a year. The fee was one-tenth of that."

The fee plan triggered an uproar, and strike leaders drove students and staff out of classrooms and locked the doors. By June, Barnes had withdrawn his proposal; by November, he had resigned. "I hope my resignation will provide new avenues for resolving this conflict, which has affected hundreds of thousands of students, the work of tens of thousands of academics, and the image and presence, in Mexico and abroad, of the national university," he said.

Mexico's constitution promises a free school education, but leftists insist this should apply to university, too. For decades, this has caused battles at UNAM. This time the students' General Strike Council (CGH) upped the ante with a list of six demands, including an end to fees once and for all. It also called for a roll-back of recent reforms that put a time limit on the years to graduation, which aimed to flush out the "fossils" - students who have allegedly lingered for decades at the university. The CGH argued that these measures will force out the poorest students.

It seems abundantly clear that a majority of students and faculty oppose the strike and are downright weary of it. Students tell of waiting, frustrated, to finish their degrees or research their theses in libraries that are locked. "We are angry for all the repression of real students," said Veronica Martinez, a high-school student hoping to join UNAM. "Enough is enough," said Angelina Vidal, 20, a law student. "A lot of time has been lost."

The university workers union, along with Mexico's leading left-wing opposition party and some liberal newspapers, all of which initially supported the strikers, have backed away.

Jorge Mendoza is a strike leader in the psychology department. He sleeps on blankets in a classroom, surrounded by stacks of chairs, books, a CD player, and he eats out of tins. By day, he and other students go out with collection boxes in the city. A student activist for seven years, now finishing a graduate thesis on armed movements in Mexico, he gave up a scholarship to Venezuela to stay with the strike.

Mendoza describes his two nephews, aged ten and 13, telling him they could not go to university if they had to pay. "That really got to me," he says. But he is concerned by the direction in which the strike is moving. "A kind of revenge attitude has developed," he says. "There is an idea that the authorities must be punished. They want them to ask for forgiveness, to be humiliated." Jorge Calzada, a law student who has organised against the strike, says: "UNAM is like a mosaic of Mexican politics. A lot of the people we see in this conflict are going to be running for office in ten years."

One poster child for the strikers is "El Mosh", Alejandro Echevarria. A sociology student who claims an "A" average, he sports dreadlocks and a laid-back style, with a nickname borrowed from the "mosh pit" of a rock concert. El Mosh says: "It's a little bit hard these days, but the movement's going pretty well. We are not going to surrender, we are going to keep on struggling." He has been singled out as a leader by the right, he says, and last year was briefly abducted and nearly suffocated.

The fees issue was simply the "detonator" for a confrontation with the forces of capitalism, he says. "Our struggle is for public education. They want an elite education where only those who can afford it can receive it."

Other leaders include El Rocco, a 50-year-old derided as one of the fossils, a student for 35 years. He was jailed for defacing a famous university mural, and his release is one of the strikers' demands.

Another leader is Mario Benitez, an economics professor. He is one of the most aggressive hard-liners. He angrily calls on people to "defend the right to a free education". With 70 million poor in a country of 96 million, he says, "there is one way to throw all the poor from the university, and that is by saying we are going to charge you."

The strike, says Gilberto Guevara Niebla, a historian of UNAM, must be seen in the context of 1968. "The repression of 1968 produced resentment and anger. Student politics in Mexico became very emotional, losing its rational basis." Police infiltration of student groups made them suspicious, says Niebla, who was himself jailed for three years. But while the protesters of the 1960s were seeking basic democratic rights, today's leaders seem bereft of ideas. They rely on slogans, "childish and narcissisticI It seems to be a game for them, it does not seem to be serious."

Speaking before this week's fatal clash Niebla said: "The government is weak politically, and it is not willing to send the police in because there is no idea what will happen with the image of a dead student. We do not know what would happen, and we do not want to find out."

In the next few days, as the repercussions of Tuesday's battle unfold, Mexico may well find out.

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