Adolfo Gilly
"The Long Strike at UNAM: Higher Education and the Restructuring of the Mexican State"

March 22, 2000

In an insightful lecture on the student strike at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), Professor Adolfo Gilly, a member of UNAM's political science department, discussed the strike's roots in structural change in Mexico, as well as its political effects. In pointing out that close to 100 students are still in jail in the aftermath of the strike -- which ended February 9 -- he said that the current situation on the campus is tense, ambiguous, and divided. "As long as we have 100 students in jail, we can't have peace," Gilly said.

Adolfo Gilly

The strike lasted for 292 days, translating to a loss of almost a year in education and research. When the federal police raided the campus on February 9, close to 1000 students were initially jailed. Evoking memories of the repression of student/worker uprisings in 1968, the citizens of Mexico City responded: 100,000 demonstrated in the city's center. While they didn't necessarily agree with the politics of the strikers, Gilly said, they objected to the police entering the university and jailing students.

For more details on the strike, see the resources below.

Students called the strike after UNAM's president and council proposed to raise fees from just pennies to $140 a year. Many assumed that this increase would be the start of many more to come -- shutting out poor students whose families were struggling as it was to send them to the university. According to Gilly, there was much more at stake than the amount of this rate hike: "In the Mexican mind," he said, "education is a right." The proposal marked a threat to free education and a step toward its privatization.

Gilly described the privatization of social security, health care, housing, and education as part of the Mexican government's second wave of institutional reforms -- reforms that affect people's lives much more directly than the first wave (in industries like telecommunications). As market-driven education systems are called for, according to Gilly, the market will decide which careers are important and which research should be done. This is problematic on many levels: it contradicts Mexico's tradition of free education; it limits access to education; and it emphasizes practical training over degrees in subjects as varied as astronomy and philosophy.

The students at the core of the movement by the strikes end were the most radical -- and some of the poorest, Gilly said. He drew a connection between them and the majority of Mexicans who are less and less protected by the government as market liberalization continues. On the surface the UNAM strike doesn't seem worth the effort for university officials -- after all, the proposed fee would be a fraction of the university's $8 billion budget. What they wanted to do, according to Gilly, was break the backbone of the movement resisting reform. In light of ongoing changes in the role of the state in Mexico, Gilly said, it was not surprising that resistance came from a body of people physically together. In contrast, it is increasingly difficult for workers in Mexico to organize as they become more displaced and their jobs more flexible.

The manner in which the strike ended left many issues unresolved, Gilly said: Will the UNAM president call in the police again? Is the university really "autonomous" from the government? What precedents were set in resolving conflicts at the university? In January, university officials held a referendum in which UNAM community members voted to end the strike. This was used to sanction the police raid, according to Gilly, and similar measures cuold be used to address university problems in the future. Noting that ambiguity in a university setting can't be tolerated, Gilly said, "The situation has to be solved."

One acute political effect of the strike is the damage it did to the presidential campaign of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and his democratic left party, the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD), Gilly said. Conservative voters saw the PRD as condoning the strike and "not being able to keep order in the city," as the PRD is the governing party in Mexico City. Conversely, the party lost the overwhelming support it had from the UNAM community because it did not overtly support the strikers -- in fact, it is viewed as having impeded their cause. With the presidential election this July, Cárdenas is currently trailing the candidates of both the PRI, Mexico's long-standing governing party, and the PAN in polls.

In the wake of the UNAM strike and on the eve of the elections, many questions remain unanswered about the nature of democracy in Mexico and in its national university. What is clear, according to Gilly, are the "epical changes" taking place in Mexico, as Mexicans move from "citizen to consumer, from public to private."

-- Marny Requa

  Professor Adolfo Gilly is a renowned scholar of Mexican politics. His recent publications include Chiapas: La Razón Ardiente, Ensayo sobre la Rebelión del Mundo Encantado (1997) and México, el Poder, el Dinero, y la Sangre (1996). From 1997 to 1999 he served as adviser to Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas.


New York Times articles:

"New York Times and Washington Post Fail to Do Homework on UNAM Crisis," Feb. 9, 2000. (Global Exchange analysis of strike coverage.)




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