February 18, 2000
By David Bacon
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE
MEXICO CITY With social chaos a key issue in Mexico's presidential campaign, the university strike that ended spectacularly with mass arrests last week is likely to resound for months.
A hundred thousand people marched Feb. 9, clamoring for the release of imprisoned strikers who had shut down the National Autonomous University (UNAM) for nine months. The massive protest in the world's largest city highlighted the reality that the huge fissures which divide Mexico's rich and poor are deeper than ever, after 70 years of uninterrupted rule by the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Until the Federal government arrested 745 students and teachers Feb. 6, accepted wisdom held that the strike, one of the longest and most bitter in Latin American history, had lost popular support. Authorities counted on their moves to boost an election strategy of appearing to safeguard social order. But they may have created more support for the strikers and their issues, including a continued tuition-free public university.
In 1994, the PRI campaigned to elect Mexico's current president, Ernesto Zedillo, by identifying its left-wing opposition, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, with the armed Zapatista rising in Chiapas. A vote for the PRI was portrayed as a vote for social stability, against armed conflict and social unrest.
Today, Cardenas is again the PRD presidential candidate, running against the PRI's Francisco Labastida in a race to August elections. Labastida has already portrayed the student arrests as a response to growing social chaos, much as Zedillo used the government's attempted suppression of the Zapatista uprising. If the public does not agree, the dramatic PRI move against the strikers could work against it.
For the last four years, the PRD has governed Mexico City, a period the PRI attacked as an era of social disintegration. Cardenas, the city's first elected mayor, resigned to campaign for president a year ago, and turned the office over to Rosario Robles, now Mexico's most powerful woman office holder.
When the Federal government ordered Robles to use city police to occupy the campus and arrest students, she refused the move would not only have violated the Mexican constitution, but been viewed by PRD members as political betrayal. So the PRI used a new Federal strike force intended to combat drugs, as well as army troops in police uniforms.
But that move cut short an ongoing dialogue which sought to end the strike without confrontation. Like most Latin American countries, Mexico has a tradition of university autonomy, prohibiting the presence of government armed forces on campus. The military and police occupation of the UNAM shocked the public, bringing back memories of the infamous Tlaltelolco student massacre in 1968.
Eighty-five student leaders have been charged with terrorism, denied bail, and arrest warrants have been issued for another 400. During the massive urban protest, large labor union contingents marched among the students, an effort to dissuade arrests of those the government still seeks.
All of these are sharp issues to city residents. But the underlying reason for the outpouring of support for the students' issues is economic.
The strikers' core demand was repeal of a newly-instituted tuition at an institution where education has always been free. They claimed the new fee was part of a larger plan to begin privatizing education, an economic reform tied to loan conditions from the International Monetary Fund.
The government argued the proposed charge of about $85 per semester was so small as to be symbolic. But a recent government survey of family income gives a different picture.
The average 5-person family in Mexico, the study found, earns a total of $575 per month with three members working full time. "This really means families aren't making enough to live on," explains Alejandro Alvarez Bejar, an economist at UNAM. "It's normal now that young people, when they get married, still live with their parents since they can't earn enough to live independently. This was the key argument during the UNAM strike, the reason it had so much support."
The PRI's moves to end the strike may kill its chances of winning the huge city for its candidate, Labastida, or toppling the PRD city administration. Protest marchers chanted, "Not one vote for the PRI!"
Outside Mexico City, however, where rural incomes are much lower, the PRI's tough hand with the university may work in its favor. The government's own estimates indicate some 40 million Mexicans live in poverty, 25 million of them in extreme poverty almost all in the countryside. In rural towns and villages, the message of maintaining social stability is key to winning the continued loyalty of a small, wealthy elite and the votes they control.
Since 1994, the wealth of the top 10 percent of the population has grown while that of the remaining 90 percent has decreased. The UNAM, still one of the most respected universities in Latin America, was once the place where the elite educated its children, the one place in Mexican society where they mixed with children of the working and middle classes. Free tuition and open access was guaranteed in the Mexican constitution in the wake of the revolution at the beginning of the century.
Over the last decade, however, the wealthy have increasingly sent their children to private universities and to postgraduate work in the United States.
David Bacon writes widely on immigrant and labor issues.