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UNAM Student Strikes, 1929-1968

UNAM Student Strikes, 1929-1968

© 2001 Donald J. Mabry

The numerous student strikes in the National Autonomous University of Mexico have involved matters of university governance, fees, curriculum and have usually been confined to university precincts; the government rarely has had to intervene. Three strikes (those of 1929, 1933, and 1968) illustrate how and why the national government got involved in university issues. In 1929 and 1968, governmental misuse of violence infuriated the university community and caused a confrontation with the national government. The key to understanding these three strikes is the role of the government in causing and ending a general strike. Although the national government played the essential role, it used different means because of the circumstances.

The incidents leading to the general university strike in 1929 were very parochial and limited to the National Preparatory School and the Law School. In February, 1929, before the beginning of the term, the prep school director, Antonio Caso, announced that the degree program would henceforth take three instead of two years. Angry, the students tried to get the university administration to rescind the change, but it refused. The Secretary of Public Education supported the director. They then declared a strike and took over the prep school building, but Caso sent mounted police into the school patios to drive them out. All they could do was seethe at what they perceived to be the injustice with which they had been treated. A few months later, the Law School decided to use periodic written instead of oral exams. This testing policy had been adopted for the university in 1925, but the law students had blocked its implementation in their school. The use of the written exam system not only meant that they would face much tougher exams but also that they would have to attend class regularly, for one had to have attended 60% of the classes to take the first exam and 75% to take the other two. The students protested, of course, but Antonio Castro Leal refused to budge.

The students resorted to violence to try to get their way. On May 4th, a group of students named a strike committee authorized it to physically attack any student who tried to take exams under the new system. That same day, they invaded the national public education building. Then on May 7, they took the law school building only to be driven out by firemen. President Emilio Portes Gil and Education Secretary Ezequiel Padilla said that, if they had to close the law school because students refused to take the examinations, the monies would go to polytechnic or rural schools. People got the message. Most law students were willing to accept the new exam system and students from the other schools refused to join, for they had been using that exam system for years. Prep students were sympathetic since they had their own grievances against the university administration but they, too, were stymied. Popular sentiment ran against the idea that students should determine what they should study and for how long and how they would be tested on the material.

Students and public authorities continued to skirmish on occasion over the next few weeks, but a fierce battle on May 23rd brought the entire university into the strike and forced a showdown with the national government. Police fired shots into the air and they and firemen fought their way into the law school and drove the students out. The students immediately spread false rumors that six students had died in the assault and asserted that the police were unjustifiably attacking students. Converting the incident into a student versus government issue was necessary to attract students from the medical and other conservative schools students into the strike, for the exam policy issue was irrelevant to them. With their entry into the fray, all 8,154 UNAM students were involved. Students in other institutions expressed sympathy, creating the possibility that the movement might spread to other parts of the nation.

The Mexican government could not afford to ignore these student actions. The government had squashed an armed rebellion led by General José Escobar in March and April. An end to the three-year-old Church-State conflict, part of which involved armed rebellion in part of the nation, was being negotiated. The special presidential election between Abelardo Rodríguez, the government's candidate, and José Vasconcelos, who had strong support in the university and among intellectuals, was underway. It had been called because the president-elect had been assassinated the year before by a Catholic fanatic. Since a number of students, including some of the most prominent strike leaders, were active partisans of José Vasconcelos, granting partial autonomy to the university would undercut some of Vasconcelos support from the university community. Battles between students and municipal authorities therefore exacerbated the national political situation.

President Emilio Portes Gil removed the university as a problem by granting it partial autonomy, converting it into the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Portes Gil had attended the national university and been a student strike leader himself. He also understood that the faculty and administration as well as most students were not angry because of curricular issues but would welcome making the university an autonomous state agency. So he gave them autonomy, but with so many strings attached that the national government still controlled who became rector and the purse strings. Students were allowed to elect their representatives to school and university councils and to participate in the election of administrators. Both sides could claim victory and Portes Gil could address more important issues.

The 1929 movement set both a precedent and a pattern for subsequent student strikes. Numerous young men became prominent political actors in national politics, encouraging later students to try to use university politics to launch political careers. The myth of a national student movement was given credence. Students saw themselves as paladins against an oppressive state. Even conservative students of the 1930s advocated social reform, social justice, and anti-imperialism. Student political activists commonly argued that the state was corrupt, but that "pure" Mexican youth would fight to save the Mexican Revolution. The 1929 strike assumed a legendary place in Mexican history.

Full autonomy came in 1933 when President Abelardo Rodríguez had Congress withdraw all funding from UNAM except for a small one-time endowment and make it an independent university because UNAM refused to support the goals of the Mexican Revolution. This decision came because of an internecine fight between those who wanted to preserve academic freedom and those who demanded that all teaching be socialist or Marxist. As part of his presidential campaign in 1933-34, Lázaro Cárdenas supported a constitutional amendment to require socialist education below the prep school level and some of his supporters wanted it extended to UNAM. Socialist, in this instance, sometimes meant Marxism but more often meant little more than teaching science, social sciences, and technology, subjects in which traditionalists within UNAM had little interest. Government officials believed that UNAM could not survive the lack of government funding and would beg to suck the public teat once again and, when this happened, the government could dictate the curricula and select the faculty needed. The traditionalists kept the university going, however, until President Cárdenas, deciding that the university was too important in terms of its educational role and that its alumni were powerful, arranged a compromise in 1935. In return for a regular appropriation, UNAM accepted Luis Chico Goerne, a strong Cárdenas supporter as rector. As expected, Chico Goerne gave UNAM a pro-Revolutionary posture, making deals with student leaders and paying student gangs to police student politics when necessary. This rapprochement lasted until 1968. The government also created the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in 1937 to provide the trained personnel the nation so desperately needed. The IPN was totally under government control.

Student political activity changed in the late 1940s because UNAM enrollment increased dramatically in the post-WWII years and the government had built a modern campus ten miles south of the heart of the city. Student demonstrations on the new campus were less likely to be met by police repression, the spark that created general student strikes, since they were isolated from the bulk of the population. Students became more likely to protest service from bus companies than they were curricular issues. Even the increase in student violence in the 1960s had little effect on the city or the nation as a whole.

The origins of the 1968 strike differed from its predecessors because they were external to the university. University and city government had been issuing warnings for months that student violence, especially by gangs, had to stop or strong measures would be taken. On July 22, 1968, two rival gangs of male adolescent students fought each other in the Ciudadela neighbourhood of Mexico City; the next day the city government responded by sending policemen to stop the accompanying vandalism and to arrest the perpetrators. These riot police attacked the students, pursued them into a school building, and indiscriminately hit anyone they saw, including teachers. A howl of protest arose, for the police themselves had become a riotous gang. The Federación Nacional de Estudiantes Técnicos (FNET) staged a protest march on July 26th, which passed by Alameda park in downtown Mexico City, where a pro-Castro group, was also holding a rally. The Castroites praised the Cuban Revolution and called for a similar revolt in Mexico. Instead of proceeding to the IPN campus, the marchers stopped to hear the harangues. No one can prove whether students began to vandalize neighbouring businesses or the police stationed in the area attacked the demonstrators. What is known is that students and police fought each other as the students fled through the narrow streets towards the National Palace and then to the old university quarters a few blocks from the Palace. The students burned a bus and overturned other busses to form barricades. Students and police were injured and some students were taken to jail. Sporadic fighting continued for a few days.

The national government called in the army. Much of the fighting was occurring only a few blocks from the National Palace, too close for comfort for those who ruled. Early on July 30th, an army officer, frustrated by the inability of his troops to enter the precincts of the historic National Preparatory School #1, the school from which generations of national leaders had graduated, ordered the firing of a bazooka to blow down its wooden doors. With that act, the 87,462 students and the thousands of faculty of UNAM who had not been part of the movement shut down the university and joined the anti-government protests. Strikes and protests quickly spread to other universities in the city and across the nation. To many, it appeared that the government had too little regard for human rights, for higher education and the national tradition that UNAM was off-limits to public security forces.

Javier Barros Sierra, rector of UNAM, led a protest march of 100,000 persons through the city on August 1st. That same day, President Díaz Ordaz, speaking from Guadalajara, promised that his government would engage in a dialogue with the students. IPN students and faculty held their own mass march four days later. For the next few weeks, both sides would try to negotiate the agenda and the site of dialogue. To create a united front, students from these institutions and others organized a National Strike Council, an organization so large and unwieldy that it could never effectively represent student interests.

In spite of such actions as protest marches, street theatre, public appeals, fights with police and soldiers, and the takeover of buildings, the students had no hope of winning. The government was too powerful, and it, not students or educational institutions, was guiding the spectacular economic growth which was raising living standards. It represented law and order while the student movement meant disorder. Most people gained nothing from the student movement. Further, the longer the student protest movement lasted, the more it threatened the success of the Olympics to open in Mexico in early October. Hosting the Olympiad was a source of great national pride and would generate jobs and income. The public was unlikely to be sympathetic to anyone who threatened to sabotage it, especially to persons who were privileged compared to the bulk of the population. So Díaz Ordaz brought the movement to an end. When it became clear that the student movement would not stop, the army was ordered to fire on a protest demonstration being staged in the Tlatelolco apartment complex. Although no one knows for sure how many were killed that night of October 2nd, the military action ended the movement and the Olympics were successfully staged.

The underlying causes of the strike are hard to identify. Alienation from the mass society which both the nation and the university had become, the popularity of New Left ideology among many students, the fact that comités de lucha inside UNAM were anxious to exert influence , the conservative and iron-fisted policies of President Díaz Ordaz, and anxiety about the job market by students from the humanities and social sciences in a society which demanded scientifically- and technically-trained employees all served as causes.

The 1968 strike was unprecedented in Mexican history. Never before had hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of the capital denouncing the government nor had UNAM and IPN cooperated so closely nor had the government so blatantly used violence against its elite youth. Squabbles within the university had rarely reached the presidential level. The Mexican president is supposed to be the ultimate mediator of conflict within society. This traditional role was one reason why the president was never attacked in person (until the students did it in 1968). As long as he was above the fray, he could be an honest broker or at least appear to be.

A comparison between the 1929 and 1968 strikes illustrates this point well. In 1929 the decision to use force was made by local officials; Portes Gil, who was out of town when the repression started, was able to mediate the dispute because he had no personal responsibility for what Federal District or National University students had done. In 1968, however, Díaz Ordaz could not be the mediator since he was the one who had ordered the army to attack the demonstrators and the university. Recognizing this, the 1968 students demanded public negotiations, which could not be done without the government negating its authority. What the students were demanding was subversive and would invite rebellion. So the government gave a definitive answer: continuance meant death. Portes Gil would not have used such a tactic, for he was an interim president during an unstable political situation. Díaz Ordaz, however, controlled an authoritarian state which was enjoying a booming economy. Moreover, the sheer magnitude of the 1968 movement with its hundreds of thousands of participants from virtually every secondary and university-level school in the Federal District meant that the local governmental authorities might not have been able to control events, thus prompting Díaz Ordaz and his government minister, Luis Echeverría, to use the army.

Echeverría tried to gain university support but when that failed also took steps to reduce the power of UNAM. The age requirement to be a member of Congress was lowered, increased educational opportunity became a national goal, and Mexico became more leftist in its foreign policy statements. The government funded new college preparatory schools for UNAM in 1973, partly because of enrollment demand and partly to appease the university. In 1974, the national government created the Autonomous Metropolitan University. It also began subsidizing the private El Colegio de México and built a new campus for it. Both were steps to reduce the power of UNAM.

Mexican students rarely engage in revolt against the government. Much of what casual observers interpret as student revolt is student violence. Violent acts of students against each other or against police who are trying to stop student vandalism and fighting are rarely efforts to revolt against the government. Mexican university students rebel against police repression, tuition increases, class attendance requirements, tougher admission or graduation requirements, and tougher exams. This has been the history of UNAM student activism. When the local government uses too much force in dealing with student demonstrations is it likely that they will call a general strike at the university. If the general strike spills into the streets, then it becomes an issue which the president has to resolve.

This absence of a revolutionary student movement in Mexico has meant that governments do not have to increase budgets substantially to pacify university people. Ambitious student politicians who hope to enter national politics and government officials who teach part-time in the university can warn the government of any serious threat from within UNAM. Modest budget increases will be given and university administrators will continue to control admissions policy, academic requirements, and expenditures (all subject to student acquiescence) as long as UNAM or any other institution does not become a staging ground for efforts to overthrow the government. The universities receive enough funds to operate at a modest level, but those programs which address national priorities receive extra funding. In the meantime, the two agreed to leave each other alone. The universities understand that it is the national government which has the power.