Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 214 | Mayo 1999



The Student Struggle Bursts onto the Stage

The university students’ fight began with the rejection of quotas and soon included almost everything else: no to the privatization of education, yes to fiscal reform, no to PRI authoritarianism and no to neoliberal exclusion... “”We’re closing the university today so that it will belong to everyone tomorrow,” proclaimed the rebellious, irreverent and ingenious young protesters.

Jorge Alonso

The vigorous student movement of Spring 1999 is one example among many of the new social movements that are developing in a country trying to adapt to the information age. It is not just another student protest, but is highly cultural and symbolic. It meets the three characteristics proposed by Alain Touraine for analyzing social movements: it is based on a principle of identity, is located in the opposition and, most important, proposes substantial social change. Mexico's new student movement thus takes its place alongside the indigenous movement as another sign of resistance to an exclusive economic model, one more cry of protest against neoliberalism and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) regime.

Like the recent Zapatista consultation of society, the student movement is occurring amid the maneuverings around the presidential succession, which are off to an early start. But Mexico's political parties are out of touch with the population. Surveys show that a majority of people would support a candidate who unifies the opposition in order to dismantle the state party's aging, destructive regime. The very existence of such an alliance would give another boost to the possibility of change, but party interests so far seem to be outweighing citizens' interests.

Students against tuition

In mid-March, the university authorities, calculating that student activists were busy with preparations for the Zapatista consultation, approved new student tuition. Some university faculty have charged that the fees were approved illegally, since the University Council meeting was held off campus, in secret, without the knowledge of council members critical of the proposal.

The approved regulation is to enter into effect on July 10, 1999. For decades now, students have paid only 20 centavos a semester for their studies. The new fees of around 100 pesos (US$10) a month, which only entering students will pay, were presented as a necessary adjustment. Authorities emphasized that students whose family income is four times the minimum wage or less will not be required to pay.

Student groups, seeing the change as the result of imposition rather than dialogue, called for a consultation; the result was some 100,000 votes against the fees. The demonstrations began inside the university, with some in favor of the administration's proposal and others against. The students opposing it went on strike and took over the campus. The government and university administration launched an intense and very costly campaign to vilify the student protest, accusing the strikers of being slackers manipulated by the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). They drew up a blacklist of students.

After a sector of the faculty and students spoke out in favor of the new tuition regulations, the rector of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) said that the authorities had not expected such a negative response from students, but would not cave in to a minority. He said he did not understand how a movement could have arisen against students who were able to pay the tuition and wanted to in order to improve the university's services. The administration claimed the support of a third of the students, while another third were against the change and the rest were indifferent.

From the university to the streets

As the conflict moved from the campus to the streets, it began to show a new face. There were three main tendencies: one willing to talk, one that took an intransigent all-or-nothing position, and a third that wavered between these two. It became clear that the students were not being manipulated by anyone, but were thinking for themselves. They refused to be represented by either individual leaders or groups. A more horizontal organization began to grow, through which anyone in the movement could express his or her opinions. Individual and group leadership gave way to diffuse, collective leadership. The old leaders were left in the dust by defiant, irreverent, courageous young rebels who were also fresh, ingenious and imaginative. Some of their slogans: "Let no one confiscate your voice," "We're closing the university today so that it will belong to everyone tomorrow," "Zapata said that the land belongs to those who work it, the university to those who study," "They can cut the flowers but never stop the spring."

Six demands

The striking students held meetings in which they learned to find consensus, then went out to explain their movement to other students and collect money by passing the hat. Their initial five demands increased to six on May 4: repeal of the new tuition regulation, repeal of the 1997 reform to the regulations on passing the semester and the time allowed for completing studies, an end to the repression of participants in the movement, the rescheduling of classes and administrative procedures affected by the strike, the creation of a forum to discuss the comprehensive UNAM reform, and an end to the university's relation with the evaluating body.

Some faculty members called on the administration to repeal the fee regulation and form a mediating commission to establish a dialogue within the university community to end the strike. The rector offered to negotiate only on the tuition issue. The students responded by insisting on an open dialogue, in public and without mediation, that would have the power to resolve the problems.

Students vs. neoliberalism

As the protest developed, the striking students rejected not only the new tuition fees but also the PRI and neoliberalism. The movement quickly changed from one focused on student demands to one opposing neoliberal policies. The central demand became free education at all levels and all over the country. The students demanded that the federal government devote 8% of the GDP to education, as established by UNESCO.

When the debate became public, the Zapatistas voiced their support for the student movement, as did the UNAM union and some twenty other university unions around the country.

In public discussions of the strike, the students made the point that they had not taken over the campus, since the UNAM belonged not only to the authorities but also to them. They criticized the state's drastic social spending cuts as well as the attempt to turn the right to free education into an act of charity and only for the poor. The students pointed out that demanding public education was not synonymous with defending a privilege. The detonating issue of the tuition fees opened up many other problems, including the university government's authoritarian practices.

No to privatization

In response to questions in the public discussion about why those not directly affected by the new regulations had gone on strike, the students responded that they spoke out against the government policy to cut the education budget because they are motivated not only by direct economic interests but also by ideals and solidarity. The new fees represent only 3% of the UNAM budget, but they open the way to increased charges in the future, and are thus a first step in privatizing education at all levels throughout the country. The students proposed that those with more resources could help pay for education not by paying tuition fees, but by paying taxes. They recalled that the privatization process in Mexico has enriched government officials and allies and questioned why there is no money for education but there is money for the costly bailout of inefficient bankers. They were referring to the case of FOBAPROA, the Bank Fund to Protect Savings, which was used last year to compensate big investors for the losses on their speculative investments. The student movement firmly opposes subordinating their rights to the market and questions the excluding logic of neoliberalism.

Paths to a solution?

Pablo González Casanova, former rector of the UNAM, said that the state has the obligation to guarantee free education and that higher education should be a universal right for all those who have the necessary preparation to succeed in their studies. Explicit recognition and ratification of this right would facilitate an agreement between the authorities and striking students. He also proposed that students with family incomes above 20 times the minimum wage could make a contribution to the UNAM, if this did not affect the student's freedom within the family and if the student agreed.

González Casanova insisted that, in any case, any measure that directly or indirectly suggests that education is an act of charity or transforms education into a commodity would have to be eliminated. He said that the goal of greater equity should not be limited to asking for contributions from students with high incomes, but that greater federal subsidizing of the UNAM and Mexican education in general would also be necessary. To achieve this, a fiscal reform guaranteeing state support to education at all levels is indispensable.

González Casanova recommended that the students recognize various duties and avoid populist or self-interested demands or concessions that confuse the right to higher education with an obligation to provide it to people not prepared for it. Thus, automatic admissions without the necessary knowledge is unacceptable, though González Casanova also opposed the current admissions evaluation system, which serves only to adjust the demand for education to the supply and leaves out a high percentage of students. The former rector proposed that the tuition regulations be suspended and the strike ended, and called for a true dialogue.

It remains to be seen how the two sides respond to these proposals. The students propose consulting society.

An economy in crisis

The student movement is occurring in the context of an economy deteriorated by neoliberal policies. The recent book by Jorge Castañeda on the presidential succession shows how groups in the government have constantly manipulated official statistics on the national economy either to win the internal war for succession or to deceive the population, especially with elections coming up. The Zedillo government has insistently proclaimed that its economic policy is right on track, but figures from its own allies tell another story. In 1998, US$4.1 billion left the country as capital flight and was deposited in banks in the United States. By the end of that year, Mexican citizens had $38.1 billion in US banks, while the available capital in the Mexican banking system came to only 26.8% of this amount. The total deposited in the United States is greater than the foreign exchange reserves in the Bank of Mexico, which at the end of the same year was $30.1 billion. Bank deposits fell 1.5% from 1997 to 1998.

Without fresh money or fresh loans, the banks are not playing an effective intermediation role in the economy. Instead, they have dedicated themselves to speculation. More than four months after FOBAPROA was changed to IPAB, the Institute to Protect Bank Savings, the government, the World Bank, the OEDC and even bankers themselves all recognize the fragility of Mexican banks, which have become a real risk for the economy despite the burdensome bailout designed to "save" them.

At the end of April, the World Bank published its World Development Indicators, revealing that Mexico is among the countries with the most unequal distributions of wealth and income. The wealthiest 10% of the population consume almost 43% of the nation's total income, and the wealthiest 20% consume nearly 60%. Inequality in Mexico is greater than in El Salvador, Peru, China or India. The country has the sixteenth largest economy in the world, but its per capita GNP places it at number 81 on the list. People's economic situation has deteriorated. The disposable income in each Mexican household has been reduced and the real value of the minimum wage has decreased. Jeffrey Sachs, director of International Studies at Harvard University, is right when he says that the IMF has given Latin American countries bad advice.

The PRI: Nothing is like before

The student movement is also blossoming in a political situation excessively shaped by the parties. In the past, presidential succession depended on the decision of the outgoing President, who anointed his successor. With the political changes that have taken place in the country, Zedillo can choose the PRI's candidate—though not without some difficulty—but can no longer be sure that his candidate will be elected President.

The practice in the past has been for the President to choose possible successors from among his allies in the Cabinet, thus opening up the political game and putting himself in a better position to decide. These rules have now been broken within the state party. Both Roberto Madrazo, current governor of Tabasco, and Manuel Bartlett, outgoing governor of Puebla and the man largely responsible for the 1988 fraud against Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, have launched costly primary campaigns to win the party's nomination. They have demanded that the party's grass roots have their say.

The President's first choices were Secretary of Government Francisco Labastida and Secretary of Social Development Esteban Moctezuma. When he was governor of Sinaloa, Labastida was politically obstinate, responsible for electoral fraud, repressive and accused of links with drug trafficking. Zedillo, aware of the weakness of people in his Cabinet and afraid of splits within the party that would ensure an opposition victory, chose to bring the current governor of Veracruz, Miguel Alemán, into the game. He is a favorite of the business sector and could help create unity. Among all these pre- candidates, however, Madrazo is in the lead, having already spent millions promoting his image. In his campaign for governor, he spent more than Clinton did on reelection. Obviously, the source of the money used in that campaign was questioned. In the best of cases, the money being used today comes from the public purse. The suspicion of drug-ring involvement in these campaigns is growing, as corruption and impunity reach new heights.

PRI leaders have responded to calls for internal elections within the party by offering simulations: the public coffers are opened to promote one pre- candidate, while the majority of the groups in the party remain under top-down control, well aware that the division within the party plays against them.

The PRD's crisis

The situation in the PRD is also getting more complicated. While the internal elections had to be annulled because of serious irregularities, the annulment was a good sign, proving that democratic forces prevail even though some forces in the PRD share the PRI's political culture. This internal process damaged its image, but the fact that the problem was resolved by creating an interim leadership to organize new, clean elections rather than inside deals is a sign of progress.

The PRD has two pre- candidates: party leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, currently governor of the Federal District, and Porfírio Muñoz Ledo. In an attempt to gain ground, Muñoz Ledo has waged a campaign to disparage Cárdenas, which has led to falling support for the PRD in general and his rival in particular, but has not benefited Muñoz in any way. The PRI has taken advantage of this, magnifying the opposition dispute even more.

The opposition's electoral reforms

After the fraud against Cárdenas in 1988, the PRI changed the electoral legislation to make it as tough and undesirable as possible to create coalitions and launch common candidates. The parties opting for this route would see their prerogatives reduced and their representation in the electoral bodies would be limited to just one for the alliance as a whole. On this point, Mexican legislation is among the most backward in the world.

In an effort to reverse this legislation and facilitate opposition electoral alliances, the PRD, the National Action Party (PAN), the Labor Party (PT) and the Ecological Green Party (PVEM) renewed their alliance within the Mexican House of Representatives in late April. Since the combined opposition makes up a majority, they were able to agree on reforms to the electoral legislation despite the PRI's resistance. Among the changes proposed are eliminating barriers to coalitions, reintroducing the possibility of common candidates, guaranteeing the vote of Mexicans living abroad, eliminating the margins of overrepresentation in the House of Representatives, making progress on the issue of equal access to radio and television, increasing the electoral body's supervision of parties' income and spending in the primaries and general campaigns—including measures to prevent the use of government programs and publicity in favor of the ruling party—and prohibiting forced participation in favor of a political party. Some longstanding demands, like not using the national colors in favor of a political party, were not included.

PRI rejects the reforms

This agreement suggests that it may be possible to go ahead with the search for an opposition alliance for the presidential candidate. However, the PRI deputies immediately announced that changes in the electoral legislation require the approval of the Senate, where the PRI has a majority. Since the House of Representatives approved the changes on the last day of the session, the first obstacle to the reforms is the date on which the Senate will reconvene. The deadline for the Senate to approve the reforms, if they are to go into effect for the next elections, is the end of June. The PRI deputies announced that their senators will prevent the Senate from reconvening before that date.

PAN-PRI agreement

A second obstacle is an agreement reached between the PAN and the PRI after the PAN leadership fell back on old practices and negotiated electoral legislation reforms bilaterally with the PRI without consulting its own bench in either chamber. Of the seven points that had been approved by the four opposition parties in the House of Representatives, the PAN unilaterally decided that it would adopt three and a half: guaranteeing the vote of Mexicans abroad, supervising resources in the primaries and general campaign, penalizing the practice of buying votes, and facilitating the formation of coalitions. The issue of common candidates was left out. Thus, the PAN-PRI alliance broke the agreement of the four opposition parties.

The possibility of an alliance between the PRD and the PAN is not out of the question, but mutual distrust is growing. And, out of naiveté or complicity, the PAN has shown that it prefers to act as the PRI's sidekick rather than as a firm opponent of the state party regime. The PAN is also closer to the PRI than to the PRD, especially on economic issues, where it defends neoliberal policies, though it has shown signs of moving closer to the PRD on some issues to advance democracy.

Will there be an opposition alliance?

The division of the opposition would benefit the PRI, which otherwise runs the risk of losing the presidency. An opposition victory would finally bring down the antidemocratic state-party regime, but the only way to do this would be to form an alliance, and this seems a distant possibility. The proposal has been made to design a common program first and then designate the candidate in primary elections. But the problems in the PRD's internal elections do not reassure the PAN. Furthermore, the PAN's own pre-candidate, the governor of Guanajuato, has declared that he would privatize Pemex, the state petroleum company, which the PRD would not accept.

While these things are being sorted out, the PRI has shown once again, in elections in Guerrero, that it is skilled in the various ways of buying votes. Whatever reforms are finally approved, it will know how to turn them around. Willing to do anything to maintain power, it is also continuing its efforts to undermine the autonomy of the electoral body. There are signs, however, that some PRI factions may be ready for a change. The Galileo group has spoken in favor of getting rid of the corporative vote, and has recognized that its party has made excessive use of public resources in its campaigns.

Surveys show that 48% of the people believe that an opposition alliance could draft a common program of government, while 35% believe that this is not possible and 17% are unsure.

"Theater" in Chiapas

The government's response to the success of the Zapatista consultation was to put together shows of purported Zapatistas disarming and handing their weapons over to the government. It was later learned that the "deserters" were PRI paramilitary troops. Once again, it was shown that the money going to Chiapas is not to improve the population's situation but to sustain the counterinsurgency campaign. The offensive against the autonomous Zapatista municipalities was also renewed, this time against the municipality of San Andrés. In a symbolic action police and PRI members took over the site of the peace talks, but thousands of indigenous people who support the Zapatistas recovered the municipality.

Commemorating the 80th anniversary of the assassination of Emiliano Zapata, the indigenous people emphasized that Mexico's revolutionary hero is the symbol of those who don't sell out, those who resist, and pointed out that the same forces that betrayed and killed Zapata are the ones governing today. The Zapatistas convoked a second meeting with civil society to evaluate the March consultation.

The voice of indigenous peoples

The National Indigenous Congress's Fifth Assembly was held with 270 delegates from 63 organizations representing indigenous peoples and communities from all over the country. Participants in the meeting agreed that the Zapatista consultation demonstrated widespread consensus in favor of the San Andrés accords. They denounced the government's new attempts to deceive people by inventing false desertions, and charged that the regime's economic policy and the privatizations are bringing the country to the very edge of the precipice. The Assembly repudiated the actions of the government of Chiapas and condemned all forms of extermination and violence against indigenous peoples.

In Geneva, several NGOs requested the urgent designation of a special envoy to Mexico to stop the human rights violations, especially in the indigenous regions. They gave statistics on the military presence in Chiapas, showing that it had doubled since 1998 and proving that the government is waging a dirty war there. Mexican and other artists produced a foldout in which they denounced the Mexican government's constant human rights violations and demanded that the government fulfill the San Andrés accords. When Manuel Camacho, the former commissioner for peace in Chiapas, declared that the situation in Chiapas is worse than in 1994, the government accused him of treason for not having broken the Zapatista movement. The bishops denounced the increase in paramilitary groups in Chiapas, a member of the legislative Harmony and Pacification Commission (COCOPA) gave proof of the training of paramilitary forces in the region, and COCOPA demanded a stop to the police-military incursions there.

Hope in the Workers' Movement

The May 1 celebration of International Workers' Day demonstrated the reach of Mexico's new social movements. The regime tried to put its corporativism back together by bussing in workers, but they showed their resistance to government policies by remaining silent when speakers tried to call up the official slogans. Meanwhile, independent workers demonstrated with new force around the country. They oppose the threat of unemployment and the ever-shrinking salaries.

Like the new student movement, the new workers' movement has been developing without looking for leaders, fearful of what is to come but confidant of its ability to resist. If changes to the labor code are in the works, the dissident workers want to be heard and taken into account.

A lesson learned from the Zapatistas

It is curious how things that are not present can be ritually accepted. This explains the government's cult of Zapata, which coexists with its campaign against the Zapatistas. By the same token, the state and other conservative voices have tried to condemn the student movement, just as they have other social movements. The regime insists that today's student movement is not like the one in 1968, but it also persecuted that movement 30 years ago, and said it was being manipulated.

The university protest was sparked by an attempt to impose tuition fees but fueled by everything else, as students said no to the privatization of education, yes to fiscal reform, no to the ruling party's authoritarianism, no to neoliberalism's exclusion.
The new movement has moved beyond old leadership styles and is creating a new kind of politics, with clear and open forms. The Zapatistas have taught it to seek spaces for political participation outside the parties. The students were first seen as skeptics and conformist, and their capacity to respond quickly and rise above momentary demands was minimized. But they have proven otherwise.

The current movement is not isolated. It has the support of workers, small farmers, the Zapatistas and the poor. It is not limited to momentary demands, but is rather making a coherent critique of the state's economic and social policy and proposing alternatives.

These are times of convergence, and an alliance has been growing between independent workers, striking students, the poor and the Zapatistas against the privatizations and the whole of neoliberal policies. One slogan heard in the independent May 1 celebration summed up this feeling: "Zedillo, the country's not for sale."

Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS Western and the envío correspondent in Mexico.

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