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xa1 La Huelga Va!
An interview with UNAM striker, Rocxedo Garcxeda
Rocío García is one of the participants of the nine-month student strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The strike was called on April 20, 1999, as a response to a dramatic tuition increase by the university administration. Rocío García is a recent high school graduate and one of those occupying the installation of one of the college preparatory schools affiliated with UNAM. This interview took place in Boston, November 19, 1999, on the occasion of her visit to Harvard University, where she gave a talk scheduled as part of an informational speaking tour.
CARLOS SUÁREZ-BOULANGGER: Lets start with a little background regarding the strike, whats the genesis of the current struggle?
ROCÍO GARCÍA: The movement started in 1997 as a response to a series of educational reforms instituted by the government. The reforms eliminated open admissions, and the traditional and automatic admission into the university upon graduation from preparatory schools. Automatic admission was replaced by an admission exam designed to eliminate students accepted to the university. There are now several admission exams. There is an admission test to determine entrance to the preparatory schools. That exam was established in 1996, and it is administered by CENEVAL [Center for the Evaluation of Higher Education]. CENEVAL also administers college admission tests. There is a contradiction here, because CENEVAL is a private institution determining admissions to a state, supposedly autonomous university. The exam is quite elitist, closer to an IQ test, which gives higher consideration to economic determinants.
The educational system in Mexico consists of preparatory schools, Science and Humanities Schools (CCHs), vocational instruction, as part of the Polytechnic Institute, high schools and high school equivalents, and technical preparatory schools, which do not necessarily lead to college. Depending on your score, students are assigned to particular forms of schooling, and in fact many students are prevented from attending college. Students with low scores are assigned to technical programs, and not allowed to get a college degree. Students with low scores are kept from choosing a career in Biology, Medicine, or Administration, and pushed into programs such as carpentry.
Is that creating a two-tier education?
Yes, it is. We are against that kind of testing. UNAM economists made some calculations, which indicate that in the last three years, admissions were dramatically reduced.
Between 1996-1997 UNAM reports a series of demonstrations held by an organization of applicants who failed to gain admission to the university. Is there any relationship between those early demonstrations and the current strike?
Yes, the movement leading to the present strike had its beginnings in 1997. In those days we were very few. At the most we were 1,000 active participants, organizing against the admission exam. The decision to impose an admission exam was sudden and bypassed consultation with the University Council [in theory, the maximum university authority]. The academic year ended and the new reform, involving the admission exam, was announced, but nobody seemed to know much about it. These so called reforms continued. In 1999, new reforms were enacted establishing general fee schedules. As you probably know, by a mandate of the constitution, public universities in Mexico are free [Article III of the Mexican Constitution].
The Mexican daily La Jornada, quoted Muñoz Ledo [PRD deputy] saying Public education is not free; Mexican people pay the cost with their taxes.
Of course. Thats one of the arguments we make. We already paid our taxes, but they still want to charge us more. Ultimately, the argument is not whether the fees are high or low, but rather that once established, the fees will only go up. There were some studies made, which suggest that as a result of the fee increases almost half the student population will be pushed out of the university. We suspect that this is just another step toward privatization of public education.
In essence, then, it is turning the university into another business.
The university is already a business, but we are fighting it, and students are very engaged. The university administration established the fee schedules on March 15, 1999. We called for a dialogue with the university president, but received no response. After the fee schedules were established we called for a meeting with the president on two occasions, but were ignored, and so we decided to go on strike on April 20.
You mentioned that during the first two months there was a lot of support for the strike. Were you referring to student support, popular support from parents, or from the trade unions? Is that support now changing?
It has been changing over time. At the beginning of the strike we were two months away from the end of the semester, and all the students supported the strike. We came to the decision to go on strike through a plebiscite called by the University Assembly. Through this consultation, involving the whole student body, we asked students if, given the circumstances, they would support a strike. Overwhelmingly, 80 percent of the students supported going on strike. Only then did we go on strike. The problem is that there are only 10,000 student activists working to keep the strike going, while a larger group remain involved only as supporters. As of now, there are probably 110,000 students supporting the strike [The UNAM system has approximately 270,000 students]. At the end of the semester, the beginning of the school recess, the strike lost energy. During that period we remained stuck, we didnt retreat but couldnt move forward either. School vacations start in June. From June to August the strike stagnated. But in August the process of registration started; then we became active again. In August we had 107 students arrested, people were beaten. From the beginning of the strike, the authorities have been trying to turn students and the communities against us, without success.
The Mexico City newspaper El Universal reported on April 25 that 150 students, accompanied by their fathers, took over a UNAM rectory building. Are parents still supporting the strike so actively?
They are, but what happened was that at the beginning of the strike we didnt know how to keep the strike going and we needed more support. Now, we have been in strike for almost eight months, so we have learned, as we say, on the job. In the early days of the strike, parents used to stay with us in the occupied buildings. Since we are occupying the buildings, we live there, we eat there, we sleep there, we guard the grounds, we take showers there, we do everything in the occupied buildings, and we are better organized. During the last few months peoples participation in the strike has increased, we are again mobilizing large numbers of students. Last November 5 we called for a demonstration, expecting a turnout of 10,000 people, but 50,000 people participated. Last October we had called for a referendum, asking several questions, including a call for the university presidents resignation.
Can you tell me more about the Strike General Council (Consejo General de Huelga, or CGH), the body that represents the students during the strike?
Before the strike, the Strike General Council was already in existence, but it was called the University Assembly. Students participated in the Assembly through their school. Each college or school had five votes. The University Assembly was elected by the students, but it didnt have as many mechanisms to ensure participation. The Strike General Council is a broader entity, it includes the participation of 36 centers, 9 preparatory schools, 4 or 5 institutions, each school or college has 5 votes. Each school meets weekly, for instance, my school meets and we discuss either a statement by the school president, or the firing of a dean. We decide how to respond, either we propose a demonstration or a press release commenting on events affecting us. Each school follows a similar process. Then, in the General Council, at least 1,000 students participate in each weekly meeting, but only 5 members from each school have the right to vote.
Meetings start with a summary of what was decided in each school. The General Council discusses a new position only if there are 19 schools proposing the same issue. These days the main issue is the resignation of the UNAM president. [UNAM president Francisco Barnes de Castro resigned on November 12, 1999, and Juan Ramon de la Fuente, former Secretariat of Health, was selected as the new president on November 18]. Most schools discussed the significance of his resignation. Now, if 19 schools proposed a demonstration, then thats what the General Council discusses. The issues that dont have the support or interest of 19 schools is sent back to the school level to be discussed in Internal Assemblies.
Are those two levels the only instances of participation for students, or are there other forms of involvement within each college?
There are also what we call tendencies (corrientes), there are many, and there are many political groups, in Mexico there are at least 1,000 political organizations. There is a very active group called En Lucha (In Struggle), and a group that sponsors cultural events supporting the strike called CLETA. But, in the debates, the winning position is determined by vote, regardless of the group supporting it. Obviously, the criteria we use to defend a position is determined by what benefits the strike and the interest of the majority of students.
Can you discuss the relationship between the student strikers and the Zapatistas? At the beginning of the strike there were reports of a communiqué by Comandante Marcos supporting the strike. Has there been ongoing support from the Zapatistas?
The Zapatistas have offered their support to the strike, and we have offered our support to their cause. When there was some highway construction in Chiapas a small group of students went to support the Zapatistas. Conversely, the Zapatistas participated in a demonstration we organized in Mexico City. We have reciprocal support but they have never stayed in our occupied university buildings.
Would you say that the Zapatistas and the UNAM strike are parallel movements, with their own concerns and dynamics?
No, I think that we are responding to a crisis at the international level. We can tell that the crisis transcends the national borders, because in Argentina and Brazil students went on strike for similar reasons. Those strikes are over, but now Chile is having similar problems, so I couldnt say then that this is only a Mexican crisis.
Do you find it interesting that it is in Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, the countries with the largest and most rapidly developing economies in Latin America, the countries receiving large foreign investments, where the crisis seems to be erupting more violently?
It seems coincidental, but these countries, Mexico included, are responding to pressure from the World Bank, the IMF, and U.S. capitalists, who want to curtail investment in higher education, because what they need is cheap labor. There is already high unemployment, so these institutions do not see why Mexico should spend so much to train students in professional careers if they are not needed.
Can you discuss the relationship of UNAM strikers with the trade unions? It seems that early on the university union, and the electrical workers union supported the strike. Have those unions continued supporting the strike, and have other unions offered their support?
Those unions have supported us from the beginning, but the problem we are confronting is that the leadership of both unions have been discouraging their members from supporting us. At the grassroots workers are still supporting us. There is also the International Trade Union, which has been extremely supportive. They are active in all Latin America, U.S., Canada, France, Spain, and a few other countries. They organize protests in front of the Mexican embassies in those countries, and we organize protests in front of the embassies of those countries in Mexico. For example, recently we had a demonstration in front of the Iranian embassy to protest the torturing of jailed student leaders. We also receive support from a trade union that organizes garment workers in the U.S.
Can you talk about the relationship of the strikers with the PRD? [Partido Revolucionario Democratico, Party of the Democratic Revolution, the main opposition party led by Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, and to most Mexicans, the unquestionable winner of the 1988 elections, stolen by PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari.] It seems that the support from the PRD comes from Cardenass belief that the strikers are yet another segment of the population that can help him in his presidential aspirations.
Before the strike almost 90 percent of the students supported the PRD during the elections. However the PRD, through pressure and through their involvement in government, decided to attack us. The PRD ultimately is a liberal capitalist party, seeking accommodation with the PRI. PRD authorities have called for our arrest, beatings, and overall harassment. The UNAM students who were also PRD members boycotted the strike.
PRD members in the university dont participate in the strike?
They participate in the strike, but they cause all sorts of problems. They harass and threaten students; they have beaten a few people, interfere during General Council meetings, and often we are afraid that they are spies.
The Mayor of Mexico City is a member of the PRD, and as such they govern the police. How is your relationship with the police?
It is terrible. We have been beaten at the hands of the police several times. Once they arrested 107 students. During the last demonstration in which I participated, November 5, we marched along the most important avenue of the city. The city called on 5,000 riot police. There wasnt a confrontation, but only because we changed the route of the demonstration. The PRD claims they want to help us, but then they call the riot police on us.
That brings us to the issue of violence. There is a long tradition of anti-student violence in Mexico, predating even the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. [In 1968, Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz sent the army to suppress a pro-democracy student demonstration at Tlatelolco, organized to coincide with the beginning of the Olympic Games in Mexico City. The army murdered hundreds of unarmed protesters.] How would the students deal with a government crack down? Has there been any ideological work done with the police to prevent wholesale repression?
Not all police support repression, there have been many police who praised our activities, who pretend not to see us when we paint slogans on private walls, lets say at a bank. Still, repression has been harsh, although not as harsh as in 1968. Part of the reason for the restraint exhibited by the government has to do with those memories of repression in 1968. In general people were repulsed by what happened and are putting pressure on the government not to repeat it. There may still be a crack down, even if on a smaller scale. So far we only had arrests and beatings that took place during demonstrations. Six students were kidnapped; they were all drugged, beaten, and psychologically abused; and a young woman was raped. There was also an occupation of two schools by a paramilitary group. About 30 men entered the campuses carrying guns, machetes, and home-made explosives. They beat up students to force them to leave the buildings we had occupied. These people claimed to be members of MURO. I dont know whether they are members of that organization or not, but MURO was an openly fascist organization, responsible for many of the attacks against students in 1968. [MURO stands for Movimiento Universitario de la Renovación Orientadora, or University Movement for Guiding Renewal, but its acronym also means wall in Spanish.]
How long did the paramilitary group maintain their occupation of the schools?
Only two hours, because we organized the students to take back our schools. Mostly, it was part of a campaign of intimidation. They have also attacked a few other places since then.
How is your relationship with the media?
We get attacked by the newspapers almost daily. They call strikers vandals. If parents express support for the strike, they get called so-called parents, or pseudo-parents. They call sympathetic faculty the pseudo-instructors. We have been called the scum of society. I thought that the liberals might support us. I thought that the leaders from the 1968 student movement, who are now in positions of authorities, might support the strike. But thats not the case. Even the church has taken a very antagonistic position. The Catholic Church made a call to young people to grab sticks and beat us out of the occupied university.
What do you think will be the outcome of the strike? Do you think the demands outlined at the onset of the strike still represents the will of the students or do you think that the strike is helping the students reach another level of political consciousness?
The aim of the strike is to bring about a reform, and that is very limited. Whats more significant is that, through the strike, we are learning to work in a cooperative collective manner. We are learning to work in groups, to help each other, to make decisions collectively. We need to keep 26 million people informed, so that requires higher levels of organization. The second significant aspect of the strike is that we needed to develop a practical analysis of the situation, which I believe we have done. We needed to deal with the overall crisis affecting society, and with the nature of our struggle for an educational reform, which, nevertheless I feel is a legitimate concern because the government is taking away our right to an education. Next, they will take away our right to health care. The strike helped many of us understand that the problems are much larger than we imagine, and that once the strike is over we have to remain organized. Currently, we are pushing for a worker-student alliance to have some impact upon the capitalist nature of our society. Ultimately, we need a revolution. Of course, thats a long-term goal.
Could you elaborate on your vision of a revolution?
Im a communist, and therefore I envision a communist revolution. If we win this strike, we still confront serious problems. There is high unemployment, malnutrition, pauperization is on the rise, currently poverty affects 40 million people in Mexico. I conceive of communism as the antithesis of capitalism, something that emerges as we work towards the destruction of capitalism. I think of it as a process. As a student I organize students, and I am beginning to see some results. Maybe because of repression or things weve seen many students are beginning to understand the problems as systemic, and not as the result of capricious university administrators or bad deans. We understand now that as economic conditions get worse so do the university presidents. The current president is the worst we ever had.
In terms of political development, are there other activities designed to help students grow politically?
We have organized study groups. We also get together in larger groups to discuss the current crisis in Mexico and the world. The discussion sessions take the form of conferences, that is, a person elaborates on a topic, and then the group discusses the material. We usually put signs around the schools or university campus. For instance, last August a group of retired faculty proposed a negotiated end of the strike, so we invited them to present their proposal in a discussion session.
Can we talk a little about your own political development? I get the sense that this is not the first time youve been involved in political activities.
I became politically involved in high school, around 1996, at the beginning of the so-called educational reforms. In 1997, a few CCHs (technical schools) went on strike and I was arrested, along with a few other students, for passing out information. As a result I became better known in my school, and started to get harassed by administrators and by local goons. In 1998 I opted to keep a certain distance from political activities. In 1999, a few months before the beginning of the UNAM strike, I decided to get involved again, moved by a moral impulse. You have to remember that in 1987, there was also a struggle around similar issues, and the demands and actions of students then made it possible for me to attend college now, so I feel that I can do no less than those students. [In February 1987, after months of protests, involving, at its highest point, a quarter of a million UNAM students, the CEU (University Student Council) won a series of demands guaranteeing democratic discussion of university reform and the elimination of entrance exams and fees.]
Do you come from a family of political activists?
Yes, my parents are members of the Progressive Labor Party. They are very supportive of my political activities. But I think my participation in the strike helped me develop skills and confidence, as a spokesperson, and I learned the importance of working collectively.
Can you discuss the strike demand calling for a University Congress.
That demand tries to deal with the current situation in the university, where only 120 individuals, the members of the University Council, make all the decisions affecting the university. Neither university students or university workers are represented. The University Congress would be constituted by workers, students, and administrators, and would serve to democratize the process. There are several issues that need to be addressed, we believe there is a need for university reform, but not from above, not to respond to the interest of the elite.
Do you think youll reach an agreement soon?
We will probably reach a resolution soon. Now that the UNAM president has resigned and a new president has been chosen, I am sure the authorities will demand a compromise. It is very likely they will continue the selective repression and try to maneuver towards an agreement. We, of course, would like to take the initiative. We have already proposed to re-open the dialogue between the authorities and the General Strike Council to discuss our six demands. I am an optimist, but we will see.
In the early hours of February 6 over 2,000 federal police occupied the main campus of UNAM, arrested 737 students and supporters, and forcibly took control of the university. Those arrested had been participating in an all night assembly, which, ironically, had decided to continue negotiations. Throughout the day police occupied other campuses.
Mexican President Zedillo justified this action by alleging increased disturbances at the university. In all cases, however, disturbances were orchestrated by the university administration and supported by the newly elected university president, who talked negotiation but consistently acted confrontation. UNAM president De la Fuente promised a negotiated solution to the strike, but in January he suspended negotiations to call for a plebiscite on the strike. The vote favored ending the strike but less than half the students participated. The strikers accused the university administration of maneuvering to justify the use of violence. That assumption proved correct. On February 1 a group of hired thugs attacked students occupying Preparatory School No 3. The forceful action of a group of UNAM students to retake the school was used as a justification to send in the police, take over the building, and arrest 324 students. The Mexico City daily Excélsior falsely accused the students of murdering two people, in an attempt to create an anti-strike hysteria. By that point negotiations had ended. The arrests and the police occupation of the university buildings may not put an end to the strike, however. Parents, students, and members of several political organizations marched in a demonstration5,000 to 7,000 strong, according to different estimatesimmediately after the crack down. Demonstrators demanded freedom for their political prisoners and negotiation of the students demands. Many organizations, including the PRD, which had supported De la Fuentes plebiscite, have called for demonstrations to demand the immediate release of all the students. The police intervention is an ominous sign, barely five months before the presidential elections, indicating the government willingness to use force against any opposition. Z
Carlos Suárez-Boulangger is a political activist and freelance writer and translator living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.