A summary of its main points and its history

Why the strike began

The students’ strike against the privatization of the National University in Mexico City (the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México or UNAM) began in the early hours of April 20. In February, Francisco Barnés de Castro, the University Vice Chancellor (or "Rector"), first presented his changes to the General Regulation on Payments (RGP), doing away with the supposed statutory fee of 20 centavos (about 2 US cents) per student per year (although, in fact, voluntary contributions were paid by the students), and presented a system of fee payments —about $60 dollars a term, low by international standards, but very high for the vast majority of Mexican people. Despite all the students’ attempts, he and the University Authorities refused to allow an open and public debate on Barnés’ "new" plan for financing and running the University.

Historical precedents

In fact, the struggle against the privatization of the University goes back to the Administration of Miguel de la Madrid in the mid-1980s, when the first moves to privatize State-owned corporations were also made. UNAM Vice Chancellor Jorge Carpizo proposed limits on the number of new students and increases in service, specialization and postgraduate fees. As a result, the students rose up in their biggest mobilization since 1968. So strong was this movement that it stopped the Carpizo Plan, and won the establishment of a University Congress to discuss reform at the UNAM. A further attempt to raise fees was made in 1992, this time by Vice Chancellor Sarukhán. His project involved monthly payments of 6 days’ minimum wages for high schools, 9 days’ for technical level courses and 15 for degree courses. At the same time, exemptions of 75%, 50% and 25% were called for, depending on the family income of the student. As on the previous occasion, the mobilization of the students obliged that Vice Chancellor to withdraw his project

The students’ demands

In opposition to the Barnés plan to turn the UNAM into a fee-paying university, the students, organized within their schools and faculties, and from the General Strike Committee, they worked out and fought for their own demands. Later, following Barnés’ attempt to disguise his plan by stating on June 9 that fees would be "voluntary", the students presented their "Pliego Petitorio" containing 6 points, four of which called for:

A repeal of the General Regulation on Payments and elimination of all illegal charges;

A repeal of the reforms imposed by the University Council on June 9, 1997 —implying recovery of the automatic pass, elimination of the new limits on the length of time students are allowed to study at the UNAM and respect for their choice of courses, while giving priority to student applicants from the UNAM high school and college system;

The creation of a space for dialogue and a resolution of the problems faced by the university;

The termination of any links between the State schools and the privately-run CENEVAL, which, using secretive criteria, sets and marks the so-called (and much-despised) Unique Exam for entry into all of the public high schools and a Unique Exam at the end of studies.

The petition also called on the authorities to withdraw any type of sanction against the students, teachers or workers who have participated in the movement, to dismantle the repressive apparatus set up by Barnés, and to provide a period of recovery for the days of classes lost by the striking students and an extension of the dates for administrative procedures.

Not simply about fees, but about democracy

The students have made it clear from the start that their strike is not simply about fees, but about the democratic right to be involved in decision-making and against the imposition by a few of reforms to the University. The strike has revealed the two views on education that exist in Mexico: the view of the authorities which favors privatization and elitism and the view of the vast majority of Mexican society which favors a free, open and democratic system of education.

What the students have done

The students have worked very hard to publicize their demands. For example, on May 27th they held a referendum on the future of the UNAM in which 650,000 people took part (far larger than other polls and referenda held by the authorities in Mexico City). The results of this referendum showed that the vast majority of Mexico City residents supported the students and not the authorities.

The students have held numerous marches throughout the City, with hundreds of thousands attending, packing the Zócalo (the central plaza in Mexico City, which is the largest plaza in Latin America) on several occasions. They have held bazaars, raffles, concerts, shows, and taken part in many other events to popularize their cause and raise funds.

What the authorities and the mass media have done

Meanwhile, Barnés has organized a tiny number of public gatherings, which have attracted no more than a few thousand people, hardly any of them students, but which have been publicized by the mass media to show the "massive" opposition that exists towards the strike.

Indeed, the mass media has played an important role in the University authorities’ (and the Government’s) vain attempts to try and stifle the strike. The day before one ultra-conservative group (the so-called "University Women in White") organized a crusade to get people using the western by-pass road around Mexico City (the "Periférico") to drive to work with their headlights on, the two television monopolies, TVAzteca and Televisa, advertised it. The television networks made a huge thing out of the one outdoor meeting in the center of Mexico City organized by Barnés et al, to show how much opposition there was to the strike, but despite a careful use of television cameras to conceal it, anyone could see that the majority of people at this "event" were long past the age of most students.

From PRD members to "Ultras"

At the beginning of the strike, the media said the strikers were led by people from the opposition left-of-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Since June, when the strike moved into a more radical phase, the media has been calling the strikers "Ultras". In other words, they have ditched their former line of trying to make the strike look like an electioneering trick by the PRD to a 1960s "anti-communist" style propaganda campaign, in which they have even accused named students of storing guns in their lockers. The fact is that the students belong to all and every and no party. There are, for example, strike supporters from the ruling PRI party, which is itself in conflict over what to do, although its leading group have made their backing for Barnés clear.

Paramilitary groups and thugs have also been used to intimidate students, picking on individuals and beating them up and torturing them. One student was killed at a demonstration.

What happens next?

As we write this (mid-July), the striking students are engaged in talks with the authorities, while, simultaneously, the authorities are talking publicly about using the police and the courts to re-take the University.



On behalf of the UNAM Parents’ Assembly. 1