American conservatives hysterical over Mexican student movement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Dec 28 09:30:25 MST 1999

[This is an excerpt from the article "¿O plomo o plata?" by Alexander
Coleman, which appeared in the American rightwing publication New Criterion
( It is another
sign that the Old Mole is at work burrowing away toward the new millennium.]

I have saved the worst element in this bleak picture for last. There is a
strike on in Mexico, one that has paralyzed the country from Zedillo on
down. It is a strike of students at UNAM, the National Autonomous
University of Mexico. This strike has no parallel in American higher
education. The events at Berkeley, Wisconsin, or Columbia in 1968 pale
beside the damage already done to Mexico's major institution of higher
learning, and there is no amelioration or compromise on the horizon. The
facts of the matter are daunting.

The gargantuan university called UNAM is the alma mater of the nation.
Located at the southern fringe of Mexico City and occupying a campus which
is a city in itself, it is the largest university in Latin America, perhaps
in the world. Publicly funded by the federal government with a budget now
approaching the peso equivalent of $1 billion a year, it has an enrollment
of 270,000 students supported by a staff and faculty of around 30,000. It
is governed by a single rector, who in turn is voted in by the fifteen
members of a supervisory junta; this group in turn names the directors of
programs and research institutes and the chairmen of departments from a
list supplied by the rector. But the rector is at the top of this academic
pyramid, and it is he who gives intellectual direction and establishes
priorities for the future. A special feature of UNAM is its close relation
to a chain of public secondary schools; graduates from these schools are
eligible for admission to the university without entrance examinations.

In late April, Rector Francisco Barnés proposed drastic reforms. With the
aim of raising faculty salaries, upgrading the infrastructure, expanding
the library and computer facilities, and boosting scholarship funds, he
announced a raise in annual tuition from the present ludicrous equivalent
of two American cents to a fee equal to $120. This was to be the first
adjustment of fees in some fifty years. He also proposed expelling students
who did not finish promptly and terminating the automatic entrance from
high school. The poorest students would be exempt from the higher fees,
while others slightly better off could postpone payment until they were
wage-earners themselves. False data on any scholarship application would
result in denial of admission or expulsion. A special feature of Rector
Barnés's proposal was that all students currently enrolled were exempt from
any future payments. The new tuition fee schedule was to apply to students
enrolling in 1999 and thereafter.

The students organized quickly, reacting to what they viewed as the first
step toward the "privatization" of a wholly populist educational
enterprise. A strike was called, a good number of students joined in, with
more than a smattering of disaffected faculty. The university city, with
all its satellite buildings, has been occupied and the campus closed since
late April. A minority of students was able to struggle on in off-campus
buildings and finish with final examinations. At the end of October, the
students celebrated the sixth month of the occupation with a festive grand
ball accompanied by the inevitable rock band.

It should be said that on June 7 the rector backed down and rescinded the
projected fee plan. But by then the movement had taken on a life of its own
and a whole series of demands was formulated, having to do with free
university education for all, open admission from any high school, and
elimination of time-to-degree limitations. One demand even stipulated that
governance of the entire university was to be transferred to a board which
would judge all educational programs and research in terms of their
relevance to "the interests of the Mexican people."

On June 8 a dispatch from Mexico City published in The New York Times
announced that "the administration [of the university] backed down before
the students' protests, opening the way for a settlement." But as of this
writing there is still no settlement, nor is there likely to be one any
time soon. Meanwhile, there have been meetings with student leaders;
committees of concerned emeriti professors trying to intervene; attempts at
"dialogue;" "non-negotiable" positions announced urbi et orbi;
mobilizations; verbal and at times severely physical confrontations;
takeovers of buildings; failed attempts at dislodging the squatters; and
even a few short-term kidnappings of strike leaders who have been swept off
their feet into unmarked cars only to be released a few hours later unharmed.

Comandante Marcos, leader of the Chiapas revolt in southern Mexico, now
celebrating "the 507th anniversary of the indigenous resistance to the
colonizer," says that he approves of the student strike "because they are
right." Masked rebels have visited the occupied campus, and students have
gone south to Chiapas as a gesture of solidarity.

Although it seems that a moderate majority of students want to see an end
to the strike, the ultras on the left are in control of the situation. They
envisage the demise of the present system as a direct path to a wholly
reorganized system of higher education that is devoid of corrupting
alliances with capitalism in general, above all of the North American
variety with its reliance on things like computing, economics, accounting,
and other sciences. In early November, the students are upping the ante,
violently blocking traffic in the already-clogged city. When the Papal
Nuncio, Monsignor Justo Mullor García, found himself in a five-hour traffic
jam engineered by the strikers, he commented: "This is not the way to have
a dialogue." Amen.

Louis Proyect

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