Mexican students strike for uncertain change

Protesters shut university and grope for coherent revolutionary agenda

July 28, 1999|By HOUSTON CHRONICLE

MEXICO CITY -- While members of Mexico's latest generation of student revolutionaries are known to quote Karl Marx, they also sport dreadlocks and are more likely than not to have some parts of their bodies pierced.

If this were a Hollywood script, it might be tagged "Emilio Zapata meets Generation X."

Indeed, among the thousands of students involved in one of the biggest university protests here since the late 1960s, many now believe that what started out as a fight over an increase in tuition can be transformed into a left-wing movement that will reach far beyond the confines of campus politics.

Whether the rest of Mexico will go along is another question.

"For me, this is a social movement," said Ana Paula Lira, 19, a dentistry student, as she stood guard at the gate of one of the now-barricaded entrances to the vast Mexico City campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, UNAM.

Inside, striking students have turned classrooms into dormitories and kitchens.

Late into the night, they play chess and talk politics. During the days, they hold protests, teach children's theater and modern dance in their own open university, and try to convince commuters on buses and subways that something is fundamentally wrong with the direction Mexico is going.

"We just don't want to change the university -- what we want is a social movement that will help the people," Lira said.

The protest has shut down Latin America's largest university for more than 3 months and forced most of its 276,000 students and 30,000 professors to go off campus for classes. Frustrated university officials finally canceled the spring semester earlier this month.

But as a social movement, the strike has a particular problem: Nobody, including the strikers, seems to know exactly what they want.

Unlike the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, which initially drew wide sympathy from the left and the country's urban poor, Mexican society has an ambivalent relationship with its new revolutionaries.

Polls suggest that the majority of Mexicans don't approve of the strike. Talks between university officials and the students have broken down repeatedly. Officials now say they will no longer even sit down with the strike leaders until the students promise to end their occupancy of the campus.

"They're only hurting themselves," said Maria Isabel Castro, 76, a grandmother, as she tended a market stand in the city's center. "I say the ones who want to study should study and the rest, throw them out in the street."

Nearly everyone has been surprised by the determination of the students and a capacity to organize that repeatedly has brought supportive crowds of thousands into the capital's streets and the university's main square.

A frustrated generation

The strike appears to have tapped the frustration of a generation that has grown up as Mexico has stumbled from one economic crisis to another. Real wages have dropped dramatically since the early 1980s, analysts say, and the inequality between rich from poor has grown.

"This is a moment when some sectors of society feel alienated, and the youth are reacting to that," said Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst. "Forty to 50 percent of this country lives in poverty."

That may explain why the strikers didn't stop June 7, when the university's president gave in to their primary demand and withdrew his proposal for a mandatory increase in fees from the current equivalent of about 2 cents per semester to about $150.

The students had won, but they also had captured the public pulpit and seemed unwilling to give it up.

They have added several more demands, including a restructuring of how the university is governed.

But it is clear from interviews with students and their faculty supporters that many hope the strike can spark a nationwide political movement that can connect with workers, primary and secondary school teachers, and other universities -- invigorating the country's left in a grand, grass-roots coalition.

"One of the engines of democratization in the country over the last 30 years has been the public university. That's what you're seeing now -- the university moving to recapture this national role," said Carola Garcia Calderon, a professor of communication in the faculty of political and social sciences, which has served as the movement's nerve center.

Yet not much agreement has emerged on what this larger movement ought to be about. Recent protests have lashed out against targets as varied as the World Bank, Mexico's stock market, the country's news media, the United States and university entrance exams.

Radical nostalgia

"They don't have a clear message, and the image that they are projecting of themselves is quite radical," Aguayo said. "In a way, this is a nostalgic moment. They are trying to appeal to a Mexico that no longer exists."

Most analysts say confused goals and apparent intransigence will limit the students' capacity to expand their following. Internal splits are forming.

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