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Mexican students' epic struggle in danger (1999)

By Phil Hearse

MEXICO CITY -- Commandeered buses flying red and black flags and Che
Guevara portraits sped through the city on October 2, ferrying students
to a demonstration commemorating the 1968 student massacre at the Plaza of
the Three Cultures. Led by veterans of the 1968 movement, 60,000
students and their supporters slogged the 15 kilometres from the university
campus up Insurgentes and Reforma, the world's longest urban avenues, to a
torchlight ceremony in the plaza. Just five weeks before, on August 28,
30,000 students had marched in support of the electricity workers'
struggle against privatisation.

From these mobilisations -- and several smaller ones in between -- the
impression could have been gained that the six-month strike of the UNAM
(National Autonomous University of Mexico) students against education
fees was in good shape. But the opposite is true; this historic strike, one
of the most important student struggles worldwide in the 1990s, now faces
major difficulties and risks defeat.

At the beginning of the year university rector Francisco Barnes de
Castro announced that student fees ranging from US$60 to US$80 would be imposed
on all students. This corresponded to a long-held demand of the IMF that
the government cut subsidies to public universities.

UNAM, with 250,000 students and an ambitious research program, is the
jewel in the crown of public education in Mexico. It costs about US$100
million a year to run, but the students are charged a token one peso, to
ensure that those from the poorest backgrounds can attend. The new fees
would almost certainly exclude students from poor families.

Moreover, both the students and EZLN leader Subcomandante Marcos argued
from the beginning that fees were the preparation for an eventual
privatisation of Latin America's largest educational institution.

When the first anti-fees demonstration of about 15,000 was organised on
February 26, few could have realised the scale of the struggle to come.
But the depth of feeling was evident in the students' chant of "Zapata
fought so we could study" -- a reference to the fact that free education
is seen as a fundamental gain of the 1910-20 Mexican revolution.

In March and early April, weekly demonstrations of up to 80,000 students
were held, as well as almost permanent meetings of the student
coordinating committee, symbolically in the Che Guevara auditorium of
the
philosophy faculty. The students set April 19 as the starting date for a
strike if the fees were not withdrawn.

On the very first day of the strike most faculties carried out amazing
feats, organising commissions on everything from catering to propaganda
--
as well as the interminable assemblies. And there was something very new
for the Mexican students -- the central role of women, who were the
majority of the leaders in most faculties.

Unity of struggles

The student leadership, now renamed the General Strike Council (CGH),
had the wind in its sails. Public support was huge, especially from popular
organisations and militant unionists. The university non-academic
workers' union, STUNAM, was vocal in its support. And Subcomandante Marcos,
leader of the Zapatistas, was issuing almost daily polemics against Barnes and
in support of the students.

Four days after the start of the strike, more than 100,00 students
rallied in Mexico's most famous meeting point, the huge Zocalo plaza, in the
heart of the city's historic centre.

In late April, dozens of masked Zapatistas came to Mexico City, as part
of the EZLN's national campaign to promote its nationwide referendum on
indigenous rights. They were given a rousing welcome on the UNAM campus.
The unity of struggles against neo-liberalism was vividly displayed in
the
huge May Day march, which brought together contingents of students,
electricity workers and symbolic delegations from Chiapas.

The PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) government now realised that
it was in a defensive position and in May ordered Barnes to make
concessions. First he persuaded the university council to lower the fee
level by about 30%. This did not persuade the students to end their
struggle, when the fees could be readjusted upwards with the next
academic
year, and anyway they wanted to defend the principle of free education.

Second, Barnes made one of the most decisive moves of the strike. In
late May the university council declared that the fees would be voluntary,
and if the strike were ended, there would be no disciplinary measures and no
victimisations.

This posed a serious tactical problem for the CGH. One possible option
would have been to accept the deal and then run a massive "don't pay the
fees" campaign, which in a poor country would have found a very
sympathetic audience.

Alternatively, the CGH could have legitimately concluded that since it
was clearly on the offensive, one final shove on the basis of "withdraw all
fees" could have quickly won.

But the CGH did neither. Instead it rejected the offer, and added six
new demands as the basis for ending the strike, including the creation of a
permanent "space" for discussing the problems of the university, between
students, workers and academic staff. This demand amounted to a
restructuring of the university administration.

The CGH then declared that the strike would inevitably be a very long
one.

This moving of the goal posts shook many of the less radical students.
By taking this option, the CGH risked opening a divide between itself and
the mass of students it was supposed to be leading.

After the rejection of Barnes' offer, the media offensive against the
students, especially by pro-government TV stations Televisa and TV
Azteca, reached lynch-mob proportions. For the first time, they were able to
portray the student leaders as the intransigent and unreasonable side.

Tactics

The tactics of a prolonged strike started to have unfortunate
consequences. In June strikers disrupted the university entrance
examinations, leading to clashes with high school students and their
parents. This was doubly unfortunate. Since the pre-university high
schools are controlled by UNAM, many of them had joined in the strike.
The logic of strikers preventing their admission to university was lost on
many high school students.

The attempts in July and August to disrupt university registration for
the next academic year failed, but not before ugly clashes between students
had taken place. It became known that many of those registering had paid
the fees.

On July 28 the students celebrated 100 days of the strike, and once
again tens of thousands turned out to march through the Reforma rush hour
crowds to the Zocalo. But differences were starting to emerge about the conduct
of the strike in the faculty assemblies and in the CGH. This was
reflected in a growing division inside the militant left organisations.

On the same day as the July 28 demonstration, eight retired professors
emeritus came forward with their own peace plan. This included a
withdrawal of the fees, and the holding of an assembly of the whole
university -- teachers, students and workers -- to discuss future
management.

This plan immediately received the support of a big section of the
200-member university council, and Barnes was thrown onto the defensive.
The eight were invited to a meeting of the CGH, but only got a verbal
ear bashing about their failure to support every single student demand.

The CGH's rejection of the emeritus professors' proposal let Barnes off
the hook; another opportunity for the students to seize victory was
thrown away.

Ultra-leftism

>From early on in the strike, the media had claimed that the main strike
leaders were "ultras", and unfortunately the left liberal daily La
Jornada
and the similarly inclined weekly Proceso had chimed in with this
reactionary offensive. Every section of the strikers denounced these
claims, aimed at discrediting the students as a body. But unfortunately,
there is ultra-leftism at work in the leadership of the strike.

The political lead in the CGH is given by an informal coalition of
"Marxist-Leninists", based on the science faculties and the politics
faculty. They include sympathisers and supporters of ultra-left currents
like the Uni¢n Revolucionario Emiliano Zapata, the Frente Popular
Francisco Villa and the Movimiento Proletario Independiente.

In early August another coalition of far left groups began to distribute
leaflets calling for a negotiated end to the strike, and for the continuation of the struggle by other means. This coalition involved
both Trotskyist and "Marxist-Leninist" groups, including the Revolutionary
Workers Union (URT), the Socialist Unity League (LUS) and the PRT
(Revolutionary Workers Party).

This latter coalition, although representative of the division in the
far left as a whole, had few members on campus. However, they were soon
joined by the Trotskyist Juventud Socialista (Socialist Youth), who have about
40 campus members, including one of the best known strike leaders.

Also in August-September the supporters of the Corriente en Lucha por el
Socialismo, a pro-Cuban Marxist-Leninist group, finally broke with the
ultra-lefts. Together with radicals from the PRD (Party of the
Democratic Revolution), these groups formed the "democratic sector" of the CGH.

This set the scene for some huge battles inside the CGH in August and
September, some of which -- unfortunately -- were shown on TV. The
dominant groups favouring an indefinite continuation of the strike
resorted to punches, rhythmic shouting down of opponents and prolonging
the meetings indefinitely.

The most systematic critique of the behaviour of the CGH leadership has
been made by Juventud Socialista, perhaps because they stayed loyal to
the ultra-lefts longer than most dissidents. Juventud Socialista says the
methods of the ultra-left are Stalinist and have broken with the
elementary norms of democratic functioning in the workers' and socialist
movement.

Further, they claim, the ultra-lefts are deepening the rift between the
activist "vanguard" of the strike and the mass of the students, who are
passive and desperate for a resumption of their university studies.

But an uncomfortable truth has to be recognised by the dissidents like
Juventud Socialista. With or without undemocratic methods, the
ultra-left leadership of the CGH has the support of some thousands of students.

This is explicable only by the harshness of the class struggle in
Mexico, the vast gap between the more than 90% of the population who are poor
and the tiny percentage of super-rich, and the depth of the class hatred
among the poor and oppressed which this produces. In Mexico, "class against
class" ultra-leftism has a significant social base.

Repression

Despite the official positions of the university council, Barnes wants
nothing less than total victory. For that, he and the PRI government
need to prevent negotiations which could lead to a solution acceptable to the
council.

A series of repressive acts against the students have heightened
tensions and prevented negotiations. In the last month, two strike leaders,
Ricardo Mart¡nez and Alejandro Echevarria, have been kidnapped for two days,
beaten and eventually released -- after massive student protests
demanding their return. Everybody believes the kidnappers were state agents, and
many that this could be the start of a "dirty war" against the students.

But the ultra-left leaders themselves have carried out needless
provocations. On October 13 they occupied Mexico City's main ring road,
leading to an unnecessary clash with riot police, in which some students
were badly beaten.

Five days later, the research institutes -- which have no students --
were occupied, despite the fact that most academic researchers sympathise
with the students and that the institutes house, for example, the national
centre for tracking earthquakes and volcano eruptions.

This led to a meeting of the CGH "democratic sector" on October 18,
which made a public denunciation of the antics of the ultra-left. There is a
real danger now that the CGH will split into two groups.

Meanwhile, participation in strike activities continues to decline. This
could make it much easier for the government, or reactionary students
aided by university authorities, to retake some of the occupied
faculties.

On October 4, an outlying UNAM school, 20 kilometres from the main
campus, was retaken for several hours by reactionary students and university
security staff -- who were driven out several hours later by CGH
supporters summoned from the main campus. This attempt was a warning and
a straw in the wind.

The government has repeatedly said it will not use force, and its hand
has been stayed by the memory of the 1968 massacre. Any government would pay
a high price for repeating it.

But if the climate of violence continues to grow, and with the mass of
students, parents, university workers and teachers in a state of
exasperation, an intervention by the army is not excluded. On October 25
President Ernesto Zedillo, touring flood-stricken areas, said that if
necessary the army would be used to restore the schools and "clean"
them. Of course, he was talking about flood-damaged schools, but every
newspaper took his words as a hint that the army was ready to intervene at UNAM.

The CGH could still lead a victory, but only if it abandons its
ultra-left intransigence and stops giving Barnes and the government excuses not to
negotiate. A defeat for the students would be a bad blow to all those
fighting neo-liberal attacks, not least the electricity workers fighting
privatisation and the Zapatistas in Chiapas; both groups have supported
the students throughout.

For the militant socialist forces in Mexico, these events must sound an
alarm bell. The forces of revolutionary socialism are substantial, but
divided into numerous contending groups -- and many of these are in the
grip of ultra-left, semi-Stalinist, ideologies. Only a major ideological
and organisational renovation of the forces of Marxism can create a
political leadership capable of leading effectively the mass struggle
for an alternative road to neo-liberalism.

Mexican resistance strengthening
By Phil Hearse

MEXICO CITY - A demonstration against electricity privatisation and
student fees by up to 250,000 workers, students and masked
Zapatistas on March 18 was the high point of a week of struggle
which marked a new stage in the fight against the neo-liberal
policies of President Ernest Zedillo's Institutional Revolutionary
Party (PRI).

While the drama of the Zapatista uprising continues in the jungles
and mountains of Chiapas, Mexican workers have confronted an
economic offensive. Last December, the government announced a 50%
increase in the price of tortilla bread, the staple food of the
poor.

To protect state finances in the face of falling oil prices (Mexico
relies on the state-owned PEMEX oil company for 30% of its revenue), the government announced big tax hikes, including a 10% increase in
the price of petrol. This meant an increase in the price of
everything, since most goods in Mexico are carried by truck.

Inflation, at least 20% a year, means that the real incomes of
workers and the poor fall daily. The standard of living of most
Mexicans has fallen at least 50% in the last 20 years, in a country
which has the sixth most unequal income distribution in the world.
The weekly wage of a Mexico City factory worker is around 400 pesos
(US$35) a week.

But workers and the poor face an all-round offensive. The state agency for fighting poverty, Conasup, has been wound down. The two
main social security agencies, IMSS and ISSSTE, have had their
subsidies reduced, and prices of medicines are rocketing out of the
reach of ordinary people.

The government has also intensified its privatisation drive. After
the government in January announced a proposal to privatise the
state electricity company, PEMEX is now in it sights.

Worker-student alliance

The focus for the struggle against the neo-liberal offensive has
become the battles against electricity privatisation and the
imposition of student fees at the National Autonomous University of
Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City.

Electricity in Mexico is cheap, and workers in the industry enjoy,
by Mexican standards, relatively high wages and job security. It is
widely understood that privatisation will mean higher prices and
massive job losses.

The imposition of fees at UNAM, under whose umbrella come degree and
senior high school level education, will gradually exclude students
from poor families. The level of fees - 800 pesos (US$80) for degree
courses and 600 pesos (US$60) for senior high schools - is just affordable for all but the poorest families. But the university
expects to raise fees annually, progressively making higher
education the prerogative of the rich and middle classes.

The March 18 demonstration in Mexico City coincided with five
demonstrations in other parts of the country which together
mobilised more than 100,000 people in addition to those marching in
the capital. The Mexico City march brought together, in addition to
electricity workers, Zapatistas and students, contingents from car,
telephone, social security and many other unions, as well as
delegations from neighbourhood committees and numerous left-wing
organisations.

The significance of the demonstration goes way beyond its size and
militancy. Its great achievement was the bringing together of
different sectors in struggle to create a new sense of unity and
common purpose.

This was the first time masked Zapatistas have participated in a
mass demonstration in Mexico City, and this was a demonstration
dominated by industrial workers. The Zapatistas were greeted with
applause and chants of ``EZLN'' (Zapatista National Liberation Army)
from demonstrators and onlookers alike. The Zapatistas'
participation, formally invited by the Mexican Electrical Workers
Union, will have lasting political repercussions in the workers'
movement and among the Zapatistas themselves.

The creation of a formal alliance between workers and students is
another gain of the present wave of struggle. Tens of thousands of
students took part in the demonstration, many from the
pre-university high schools, marching behind their own banners, some
of which were decorated with pro-EZLN slogans and portraits of Che
Guevara. There was no trace of hostility towards the students from
workers' contingents.

The UNAM students have held repeated marches of 50,000-plus and a
one-day strike which closed down most faculties at the university
campus. This has been despite repeated threats from university
rector Francisco Barnes and a media disinformation campaign aimed at
isolating and dividing the students. Now that the university council
has voted to impose fees, the students, many of them exhausted, face
the difficult decision of whether to begin an all-out strike.

Zapatista political offensive

The EZLN's national referendum on indigenous rights, held on March
21, and in which almost 3 million Mexicans participated, was the
culmination of an eight-month political offensive by the Zapatistas.

It had its roots in the December 1997 Acteal massacre of more than
40 EZLN civilian supporters by right-wing paramilitaries, and the
subsequent army offensive against pro-EZLN villages. For the first
six months of 1998, the army and Chiapas state police carried out
repeated attacks against the Zapatistas' autonomous municipalities,
beating and robbing the people, stealing money and possessions,
arresting dozens and killing 20.

These attacks culminated last June in attacks on the villages in the
municipality of El Bosque, in which eight indigenous villagers were
assassinated. In the same week, the army killed a similar number of
peasants in the Guerrero village of El Charco who were allegedly
attending a meeting organised by the Revolutionary Army of the
Insurgent People.

Until then, the EZLN had been inexplicably silent for six months,
perhaps while its leadership debated the correct political response.
Many observers expected a sustained military offensive against it,
and perhaps a last-ditch stand in the jungle.

But as national and international protests stayed the government's
hand, the EZLN went on the offensive with a stream of documents
attacking neo-liberalism and calling on ``civil society'' to
intervene and speed up the peace process.

The fruit of this offensive was a national meeting last December in
San Cristobal de la Casas, attended by 3000 people from all over
Mexico, together with dozens of EZLN fighters. This meeting was held
in parallel with a meeting with the Mexican parliament's cross-party
mediation commission.

At the San Cristobal meeting, the EZLN announced its March 21
national referendum (consulta). In preparation, brigades were formed
in every state but one, involving 20,000 people.

Despite attempts by the government to de-legitimise the consulta by
calling it absurd, it was a big success. It is clear that the
popularity of the Zapatistas among its worker and peasant companeros
in non-indigenous communities is undiminished. Most importantly,
despite the continued assassination of individual Zapatista
supporters and the more than 100 Zapatista prisoners, the
government-military offensive has for the time being been checked.

Continuing struggle

These developments come at a bad time for the ruling PRI, which has
been in power for 70 years. Although Zedillo has denounced the
present struggles as demagogy and populism, and insisted that
electricity privatisation will go a this cannot conceal the current
crisis of the PRI.

One year from presidential elections, the party is beset by internal
conflicts. The minority Critical Current, which claims 50,000
members, has denounced electricity privatisation as treason, and
seven aspirants are conducting a bare-knuckle fight to become the
PRI's presidential candidate. The party knows that next year it will
face a hard fight to stay in power against the likely opposition
candidates, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas from the Party of the Democratic
Revolution (PRD) and Vincente Fox from the right-wing PAN.

The huge array of movements opposed to neo-liberalism and the war in
Chiapas also face major strategic problems. The first is to try to
transform the current convergence of struggles into a semi-permanent
front against neo-liberalism.

The second is to concretise the alliance in struggle into a coherent
political alternative which represents the workers, peasants and
indigenous people at a national level.

Here there is a major problem. Since its emergence from a split in
the PRI in 1988, Cardenas' PRD has dominated the radical and
democratic forces in Mexico, despite the fact that it is a populist
and nationalist party and explicitly not a workers' anti-capitalist
or socialist party.

However, although the Mexican left is at present too fragmented to
establish a coherent national political alternative to the PRD, the
current surge of struggles, and the consequent radicalisation of
masses of people, create much better conditions for the
organisational strengthening and political clarification of the
militant socialist forces.

Both these articles were published in Green Left Weekly