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The Federal District
The strike at the National University of Mexico (UNAM) followed its sad course. A striker broke up the reasonable address by its president and demanded that the talks return to the downtown Palace of Mining. He should have been thrown out. The meeting ended in confusion, and the university president showed a willingness to compromise by suggesting that the meetings take place in the old School of Medicine.
The university issue was really part of a bigger one: the status of the Federal District, an issue which has implications for many countries, including the United States. A government cannot function efficiently if the district becomes a political football. Hence the status of Washington, D.C. and until the last election of Mexico City. This is denounced as undemocratic, so the status of the Mexican capital was changed, giving it that of say the state of Mexico (capital Toluca) which almost surrounds it. It might have been wise to incorporate the city into the state.
Instead, the capital was made a state, and fell under the control of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), headed by Cuautémoc Cárdenas. The national president and the city governor both have palaces on the main square, the Zócalo, which unwisely was transformed some decades ago from a pleasant garden, as it was when I first visited Mexico, into an ugly parade ground for government rallies. Instead it has become a battle ground. It is impossible to unscramble the indigestable omelette.
The city government is being used to destabilize the national government to pave the way for a PRD government. Cárdenas turned the governorship over to his handmaiden Rosario Robles. When the university president asked why she had refused his request for help from the city police, she called a press conference and said that the university was a problem for the federal government. Since the strikers came from all over the city, this was a shameful evasion since innocent people were being badly injured. She refused to answer questions and left the hall. The PRD was obviously hoping that a bloody confrontation between government forces and students would create a problem like that of 1968. The scruffy Francisco Villa Patriotic Front denied that it was being manipulated by the PRD or that it had helped the student rioters; it said it was simply taking food to them. No one believed them.
This raises the question of having a major university in a national capital. The Paris student mob almost brought down the de Gaulle government. In Les Déracinés Maurice Barrès clearly foresaw the consequences of having student uprooted from the own society. The issue arose in Brazil when the capital was moved to Brasília. There were objections to having a university there since the students might interfere with the efficient functioning of government. The objections were overcome, the university was established, and WAISer David Fleischer teaches there. Perhaps he can tell us about the impact of the university on national politics.
The issue has worldwide implications as more countries move their capitals, e.g. Nigeria, which Larry Diamond knows well, having taught there. Mexico City is a huge, ghastly mess, in fact an urban mistake. One way to decongest it would be to move the capital to the center of the country, without a university.
Incidentally, One message received justifies the student strikers on these grounds: "As long as you support the actions of the U.S. government which protect and fund an undemocratic, de-facto one-party system in Mexico, and the massive official corruption which it entails, students will protest. You would do a lot better with activism on the issue of U.S. protection (and, indeed, institution) of revolting, pervasive, and utterly brutal corruption in Latin America. Wake up and smell the Latin American coffee."
How many WAISers think that the U.S. is to blame for Mexican corruption and that this justifies what is happening at UNAM?
Ronald Hilton - 2/4/00