Poll backs Mexican fee strikers

June 4, 1999

Public support for free state education from pre-school to university level is almost universal, according to an unofficial poll carried out by students at Mexico's National Autonomous University (UNAM) last week.

Organisers claimed 700,000 members of the public took part in the poll in Mexico City and that 89 per cent were in favour of continuing to subsidise university fees, which are currently set at two pesos (Pounds 0.12) a year - a sum which has not changed since 1948.

An overwhelming majority was also in favour of "a public dialogue" to find a solution to the strike which has paralysed the UNAM for the past six weeks. The university community is divided over plans to raise fees to 1,000 pesos (Pounds 63.00). The strike has escalated into a political hot potato in the lead-up to the presidential elections next year.

UNAM is the largest university in the Americas with about 3,000 students. No lectures have been held on the main site in the south of Mexico City since April 20. In a bid to save the semester - due to end last Friday - university authorities set up a number of satellite classrooms around the city, which have been heavily picketed by strikers.

In recent days the conflict has turned violent, and a student was killed during a demonstration. Students have accused university authorities of employing private security forces to intercept telephone calls and infiltrate the strikers' headquarters in the Che Guevara auditorium on the main campus. There are also several reports of beatings, kidnappings and death threats to student activists and their families.

Rodrigo Figeroa, 20, accused the security forces of making up to five calls a day to his home warning of "dire consequences" if he continued his role as a member of the Student Strike Committee (CGH).

Rafael Alvarez of the independent Miguel AgustinPro human rights organisation in Mexico City says he is dealing with 18 violations. "Students are being criminalised for expressing themselves. The police are finding any excuse to arrest them on false charges." Several students were arrested while taking part in marches last week for allegedly carrying firearms.

"It is far worse than the situation in 1968," said one university professor who did not wish to be named.

Relations between striking students and the rector's office have all but collapsed. Earlier this week strikers voted to meet a university-appointed negotiating body, but said that unless the extra-mural classes were disbanded and rector Jose Barnes de Castro agreed to begin talks by today, they would demand his resignation.

So far the rector has shown no sign of backing down over the issue of extra classes. He said that more than half the registered student body was attending, although the CGH disputes the figures.

Dr Barnes de Castro warned that if no solution was found by mid-June, the semester could be lost.

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