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Mexican students defend public education at UNAM, 1999
The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) is the largest university in Latin America, with over 270,000 enrolled students. It is credited with educating a number of Mexican presidents as well as prominent Latin American academics. In 1999, students attending UNAM paid approximately $0.02 for semester tuition.
On February 11, 1999, the Rector, Francisco Barnes de Castro, announced plans to raise university tuition to approximately $75 per semester. While groups have dissenting views on the motives behind this increase in tuition, his stated goal was to increase the university’s selectivity, as well as provide for increased educational quality for the increasingly competitive job market. The increases would provide an additional $48 million to support the annual $1 billion budget and also offered remissions and deferments for low-income students.
However, many university students felt that tuition hikes undermined the principle of free education for all Mexicans, a standard of equal educational access for all that allowed for a level of social mobility. With pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to make Mexico’s educational system private, many students saw the tuition increase as the first step in the privatizing of UNAM. Many argued that with the large number of low-income and working-class students at UNAM, many would be unable to pay. Students immediately began protesting against the tuition hikes, organized at the university level by the University Student Assembly (AEU).
On March 11, student protestors barricaded the entrances to academic buildings and held rallies, causing class to be cancelled for over 90,000 UNAM students. The AEU threatened to have a general student strike if Rector Barnes de Castro did not have an open discussion with the student body before March 23, but in spite of this, Barnes de Castro met in secret with the University Council and passed his proposal, the new General Regulation of Fees, on March 15. This meeting was greatly criticized by the student body due to its hasty nature and secret location, as well as the fact that a number of members who opposed the proposal were not informed in time to attend.
On March 24, another strike was held in which almost all UNAM classrooms were shut down. Students held rallies in academic buildings and began organizing the distribution of food and leaflets. They began working with other social movements, marching with the Mexican Electricians’ Union and working with the Workers’ Union (STUNAM) on UNAM’s campus. Parents also became involved in the protest by supporting students financially, helping with food distribution, or protesting.
On April 7, the AUE voted to begin a general student strike in two weeks. Eight days later, students formed the General Strike Council (CGH). The CGH was composed of 120 student representatives from different departments within the University and surrounding campuses. On April 19, the CGH issued a six-point statement of demands called the “Manifesto to the Nation” to thousands of students. These demands were as follows: 1) Eliminate tuition and other university charges, 2) Revoke measures in 1997 that limited the time a student could attend UNAM and ended automatic enrollment from UNAM high schools, 3) Create transparent dialogue within the university community, 4) Prevent reprisals against striking students or their supporters, 5) Make-up academic days lost due to strike, and 6) End associations with CENEVAL, a national testing service.
The following morning, the university administration held an on-campus march, in which approximately 20,000 persons attended, to counter the general student protests. However, roughly a fourth of the marchers were school officials and there are claims that some students there were coerced. The march was widely publicized by mainstream media.
On April 21, student strikes shut down classes across the university and by the next day, the entire campus was occupied. Roads were blocked and students held events across campus. On April 23, approximately 30,000 students, parents, and union workers marched to the central square of campus to a historical space where a 1987 student movement had stopped a similar tuition increase. The march was entirely peaceful; however, a student named Martha Alejandara Trigueros Cruz was accidently struck and killed by a bus during the march.
On April 24, the UNAM student body held an event called the National Student Encounter in which 15 representatives from Mexican universities gathered to call for national action “in defense of public education.” The strike continued.
On June 3, administrators revoked their proposal for a tuition increase and made the tuition increase a voluntary measure which students would determine in consideration with their own morals. However, students were not satisfied with this concession and continued to push for their other demands. There were a few reports of strikers having altercations with students who were still seeking to attend class off-campus, and UNAM issued seven warrants for the theft of computers, vehicles, and university equipment.
On November 12, Francisco Barnes de Castro resigned. Juan Ramon de la Fuente was appointed as the new rector, coming directly from his post as the Mexican Secretary of Health. He immediately entered into negotiations with the General Strike Committee.
On December 2, students continued with their meetings with the university administration and government officials. They again demanded transparent negotiations that were open to the public. The students wanted these negotiations to take place on the UNAM campus in the Ernesto Che Guevara auditorium. The government and university negotiators refused, citing safety concerns, through the students noted that their own safety was compromised during the course of the strike.
On February 1, police raided an occupied high school, causing violent clashes as students resisted leaving the building. More than 30 people were injured in the fighting and approximately 250 students were arrested
On the next Saturday, negotiations between striking students and university administrators came to a stalemate. Though students wanted to renew negotiations on Monday, the administration refused. In January, the administration had held a referendum, in which the majority of the UNAM campus community had voted to end the strike. As a result, the university administrators were able to gain a judge’s order to end the strike and 1,000-2,500 members of the Federal Preventative Police stormed the UNAM campus on February 6, 2000. The police forces were unarmed. 632-745 people were arrested with no reported injuries. Two days later, 579 student strikers were released “bajo reserve de ley,” in a process which means the government reserved the right to rearrest and had not dropped the charges against them.
There were a number of protests by parents and other non-student civilians following the arrests. These protesters were not all in support of the strike, but opposed the arrests of students. Nonetheless, the strike was determined to be officially over on February 6. Due to the government’s generally reserved and patient response to the strike, the strike leaders were portrayed as the problematic party once the strike had ended.
Following the strike, a number of questions regarding educational spending still remained contested. The Zedillo administration struggled in the election year, torn between citizens upset with the government catering to the demands of rebellious students and others who thought the government response should have been more supportive. While the quality of education at UNAM struggled to rebound from the physical damage done by the protests and the time lost during 292-day-long strike, the two-cent tuition remained unchanged for a number of years after the strike.