"The Long Strike at UNAM: Higher Education and the Restructuring of the Mexican
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
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
-- Marny Requa
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:
"A Peaceful Raid Ends Students' Long Siege in Mexico"
"15 Are Injured in Mexico City as Students Clash Over Strike"
"Move to Ease Student Strike in Mexico Fails"
"Big Majority Votes to End Strike at Mexican University"
"University, Mexico's Pride, Is Ravaged by Strike"
"Mexico Students to Continue Strike at Empty Campus"
" Mexico Students Strike in Capital Jarring Entire Country"
"University Officials Yield to Student Strike in Mexico"
Times and Washington Post Fail to Do Homework on UNAM Crisis," Feb.
9, 2000. (Global Exchange analysis of strike coverage.)