It was 4 am and some friends and I were sitting around talking, doing the late night watch at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. It was November 1999, and the entire university was on strike. All campuses, including UNAM’s 10 or so public high schools had been occupied for over 7 months. I was just visiting, and I hadn’t quite gotten used to the new schedule. I’d been eyeing the pile of blankets and thinking about finding a good spot on the auditorium floor, hoping I wouldn’t trip over any sleeping bodies on my way in.
All of a sudden, Beto and Conejo came bursting in, laughing uproariously and slapping their thighs. “We really got her this time!” They were truly crying with glee. What’s so funny, everyone wanted to know. The two pranksters had gone to Jani’s private sleeping quarters, previously a small storage space on the roof, banged loudly on the door and pretended to be cops, gone in to “arrest” her. “She almost peed her pants she was so scared.” “What the fuck!” I was pissed. “Why do you have to go mess with her like that. Everyone is already stressed out enough to begin with. If you guys like that kind of abuse then do it to each other but don’t go around giving innocent people heart attacks.” The two young men quieted down for a minute, but to my surprise, no one else in the room agreed with me. Even the older and mellower students nodded in support of the trick. Mariana explained, “We can’t let anyone get too comfortable here. It’s important that people be ready to react at any moment, and that means when you hear them coming, get up and get ready to deal. Jani should have been up and out the back door by the time they went in there. In the beginning we had a lot more of this kind of exercise, but after 7 months we’re getting soft. We don’t know when the police are going to invade, but they probably will.”
In fact, UNAM campuses were taken by force by federal police on February 6th, 2000, approximately 9 months after the strike began. Nearly 1,000 students were jailed, and given a long list of charges, some including terrorism, which carries a forty year minimum sentence.
The strike began April 20th, 1999 as a reaction to the University head, Rector Barnes’ announcement that he was going to significantly raise tuition costs. Education has always been supported by taxes in Mexico, taking a mere 2.6% of the country’s gross national product. But due to pressure from the World Bank and the IMF, the Mexican government agreed to begin the process of privatizing education in 1999. The educational system should pay for itself, they wrote, ad as for the poor who can’t afford it, we’d rather have them working in a factory anyway.
Mexico has a long history of powerful student movements, so Barnes, hoping to soften the blow, announced the fee hikes would not affect any students currently attending the University. Only entering students would be subjected to the new pay-to-play system. But the bribe fell flat on the face. Not only did UNAM’s 26,000 students stand up and say “Hell No!” to the fees, but once they got organized, they started noticing other things that were wrong with their education system, and added the following 5 additional demands.
2. Democratize the University Council. UNAM is currently governed by the University Council, a body made up of the principals of each of the schools, who are appointed by the Rector. These principals, in turn, hand pick two students at each school to run against each other in elections to produce student representatives for the council. The strikers demanded real qualitative representation, as well as the inclusion of both workers and faculty in a Congress to resolve other issues affecting the University.
3. Dissolve all links to the CENEVAL. The National Center for Evaluation, otherwise known at the CENEVAL, is a private organization that has been responsible for “evaluating” student performance using standardized exams since 1994. A private, for-profit company, CENEVAL gives everybody who wants to continue their education beyond junior high school a single test, and based on your scores on that test they decide where you go and what you study, which may be something very different from what you had originally envisioned. They actually have ads on TV of people who got into a major diverging completely from what they wanted. For example, they asked for engineering but got social work, who unconvincingly explain how it’s not really that bad.
4. Allow the school year interrupted by the conflict to be completed. Many students who participated in the strike have not had their 1999 classes recognized.
5. Repeal the imposed 1997 amendments, which eliminated the “automatic pass” from public high schools to universities, and imposed limits on the amount of time students can study at the University. For students who work full time in addition to going to school, it is next to impossible to complete their studies within the current time restrictions (6 years for a 4 year major).
6. Remove the police apparatus on the University and eliminate all types of threats and sanctions against students, professors, and university workers for their participation in the strike. During the strike’s occupation of University land, the administration maintained a professional “security force” complete with on-campus cameras and paid provocateurs. Professors and workers were threatened and fired. Students were followed, kidnapped for days at a tie and beaten, raped and sometimes killed.
While the repression against the strike was at times very intense, the students also received support from a large segment of the population. Unions, community organizations, students and professors from other universities and lots of young people participated continuously over the past year. Many students’ parents and families have also been very active, taking part in building occupations, fundraising and sitting through 32 hour meetings. And they got a good turn out for their marches: a couple were clocked at more than half a million people.
But the most inspiring thing for me about the strike was how people organized themselves. Each school (there were 36 altogether) had weekly assemblies and sent 5 delegates to the CGH, the Strike’s General Council. Proposals were made and discussed at the individual assemblies, and then discussed and voted on at the CGH sessions (often lasting more than 24 hours). A facilitating body chosen randomly at the end of each session presided over the following meeting and the delegates rotated every time. This structure was adopted because the CGH consciously wanted to avoid creating “leaders”. Even when the CGH was in dialogue with the administration and the administration demanded fixed representatives in order to continue negotiations, the CGH refused, and prevailed. A decentralized structure without a figurehead to co-opt or assassinate is much harder to crush effectively. It’s also more democratic (in the best sense of the word).
The CGH managed to survive and continued to function despite being ousted from the UNAM campuses, and having to deal with the arrest of nearly a thousand members. The University Administration is trying to pretend that everything has returned to normalcy even while they are involved in formal negotiations with the CGH. Administration buildings are still not safe from spontaneous takeover. There are permanent encampments on campus and in front of the jail, calling for the release of their comrades and the fulfillment of the six demands. And in April 2000, the CGH held an International Student Conference to celebrate the year anniversary of the strike, which drew participants from all over Latin America, and Europe. There they discussed strategies for combating privatization and neoliberalism, education as a means of ideological repression, and the uses and abuses of science, technology, culture and the media.
When I was in Mexico City last November, some people told me this is the strongest student movement in Mexico’s history. Whether or not this is true, the strike continues to be heard, lending itself to the river of organized dissent/ As I write, on June 5th, the remaining 6 student prisoners have been approved for release on bail, after demanding to be let go as a group. (There are currently 200 students who have charges pending). Public school teachers are currently conducting their own strike on a national scale. The EZLN is having an official gathering in Mexico City on June 9th, in the midst of threats to “resolve the problem” before the new president is elected in July. Even AeroMexico workers have joined the picket line.
And so the struggle continues in the spirit of El Mexe, a Normal School in the state of Hidalgo, where on February 19, 2000, 68 police officers were taken hostage, stripped naked, and hog tied by townspeople, in retaliation for the brutal repression of another student strike. (The officers were later traded for 376 prisoners of the State). As one officer commented afterward, “We always win, but by God, this time we lost.” Amen brother.