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UNAM Student Strike

     David Crow reports from the University of Mexico (UNAM):
     "Marco Gomez's memo on the student strike oversimplifies a highly complex dispute. The issue is not just tuition, which was raised from four --not a misprint-- to 1,200 pesos a year. The deeper problems are the manner in which the hike has been imposed and defended and, more broadly, the role of public universities in a society characterized by abysmal, persistent inequality.
     I have always maintained that, from the standpoint of public finances, charging so little is ridiculous. The amount approved seems reasonable to me, and I suspect to a great many other students as well. But in a country where the minimum wage is 35 pesos ($3.50 U.S.) per day, and nearly half the population earns twice minimum wage or less, there are many who believe that free public education is a right that extends even to the university level. There is a very real fear that public universities are becoming less accessible to students from poorer families, leading to increased elitism in higher education and accentuating already grave social inequality.
     Furthermore, Dean Barnés and the University Council have approved and defended the tuition increase in completely anti-democratic fashion. The raise was approved in a closed session held off-campus, with no prior attempts at making a case for higher tuition or reaching true consensus among those affected. University officials have also pressured many faculty members into signing public declarations in support of the policy and instigated a smear campaign in the media against "pseudo-students" and "agitators".
     I think it would be a mistake to dismiss the movement as the work of obscure political interests (the PRD, for example) or a handful of radicals. Although it is hard to gauge the extent of support for the student movement, one indicator might be that more than 70,000 students rejected the tuition hike in a referendum, while around 15,000 responded to university officials' call for a silent march in support of its policy. There have also been massive protests attended not only by students but also their parents, teachers, trade unionists and others. So, the student movement reflects sentiments deeply held by significant segments of the population.
     It is hard for us in the U.S. to understand the virulent opposition to such an apparently innocuous fee raise. Widespread rejection of neoliberal economic policies, resentment over government bailouts of bankers and highway concessionaires and a highly polarized political atmosphere are some of the factors that explain this truly Mexican standoff. In the meantime, both sides are firmly entrenched in their positions and breaking the deadlock is probably weeks or even months off."
     My comment: Being on the spot, David Crow has a ring-side seat. There is no doubt that university disturbances in Mexico and elsewhere are manipulated by student politicians. However, no one can dispute the serious social unrest in Mexico. The problem is the solution. Students led the Castro revolution, and another Cuba would not help the Mexicans. I was in Havana just after Castro seized power. The university was in the hands of the revolutionary students, and I sat with the professor I was visiting, a public-spirited and kind person, in his dark office. He was frightened to turn the light on for fear the students would view it as a provocation.
     Many Americans do not realize how explosive the situation in much of Latin America is. Venezuela, next to troubled Colombia, is led by Hugo Chávez, who is a potential Castro, with, however, the support of the army, just the opposite of Castro´s situation. Admittedly, his financial policies have as yet been prudent.
     The problems of Latin America are deep; it is unfortunate that the campuses are used as battlegrounds. As for the poor students, at universities like Stanford, such students beat the odds against them thanks to scholarships and loans. Latin American universities should try both remedies. This might help clear them of the pseudo-students (some of whom I have met in Mexico) who can reduce the universities to chaos. It might also reduce the number of mediocre students who wish to crowd the ranks of lawyers. Churches have the right, indeed the duty, to denounce social injustice, but churches should not be a battle-ground. That goes for universities also.

Ronald Hilton - 04/26/99

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     Bruno López, who is spending the year at Stanford as a Knight Fellow, is a graduate of the University of Mexico (UNAM). He writes:
     "I am profoundly sad to see what has happened to my university. David Crow is right when he explains how expensive the new 120 dollar tuition would be for many in Mexico. On the other hand, the university system, comprised of dozens of high schools (I went to one called CCH-Sur which had 24,000 thousand students in four shifts) plus several campuses (there are four or five plus the main one), is a real shambles. I do not know if to charge more helps, but something has to be done before they kill this institution. In the old days UNAM was one of the very few avenues for social mobility available. It was a highly respected university and you could come from a poor background and at the end of your studies you would be ready to start moving up on the social ladder.
     This road has been closing since the early seventies because the private sector complains that the quality of those coming out of the UNAM system is so low that they need to recruit from private universities. It has got to the point where companies will put in their recruitment ads that they will only consider graduates from private institutions.
     It is a tragedy that thousands of people are coming out of there and cannot find any jobs. I was thinking about your commentary that the student movement against the tuition increase could develop into a much bigger and broader movement against the government; I cannot imagine this taking place because this type of student mobilization in Mexico have rarely been able to expand their base of support to the rest of society (it has to do with a lack of vision to develop a broader agenda) .
     In 1968, then president Gustavo Daz Ordaz was able to order the massacre of 300 to 500 students in Tlatelolco because he knew the movement was isolated and that a savage act of repression such as the one he ordered would not have any consequences. And, he was basically right.
     By the way, I want to tell David Crow that I love the reports he files from Mexico. Reading them has given me a pretty decent idea of what has been going on in my country while I ve been away."
     My comment: Mexico must be an exception if student riots cannot develop into anything worse. José Sarukhan, former president (rector) of UNAM, is a member of WAIS and receives these memos. I wonder if he has any comments? In the United States, major corporations have founded their own "universities" and thus control the training of the students. I have not heard of anything similar in Mexico.

More on the UNAM Student Strike
     Ana María León, National Relations Director of the conservative opposition party PAN, adds this note, which shows that the strike is not simply a matter of left versus right:
     "I would like to add something to the memos on UNAM Student Strike: The higher tuition would only have to be paid by those students who could afford it, and those who could not would be able to continue studying and paying the former tuition."
     My comment: This point has been made strongly by the university administration, and it should be added to our memos on the strike.

Ronald Hilton - 04/27/99