Ten Months That Shook My World

A few thoughts on the Right to Free College Education and Student Activism on the Tenth Anniversary of the UNAM1 Student Strike

By J. Alberto Fernández

In March, 1999, in the middle of my penultimate semester as an undergraduate, the UNAM Senate (Consejo Universitario) approved a plan submitted by the Rector (President) of the UNAM, Francisco Barnés de Castro, to raise the university’s annual tuition. In Mr. Barnés’ words the measure was only intended to update the existing tuition fee that had remained unchanged since 1948 -and been reduced to almost zero real value after decades of inflation. But, as it had happened in 1986 and 1992 with similar proposals, students –with support from faculty and administrative staff- reacted immediately and massively against the measure, which we considered to be a direct attack against the right to free college education. Since no dialogue between the contending parties ever took place, we recurred to the last resort and shut down all campuses (except for research centers) and schools at midnight, April 20th, 1999, and formed the General Strike Council (Consejo General del Huelga, CGH), our top decision-making body. Almost 10 months later, on February 6, 2000, the strike was ended by a police occupation of all UNAM facilities.

Our first and most important victory was to reaffirm the conviction that free higher education is a right in the Mexican public sphere, and that the state has the obligation to allocate sufficient funds to public universities while respecting their autonomy of academic decision-making. We convinced key policy-makers that it was unfair to transfer to students the burden of compensating for the reduced funding from Congress.2 So significant was our victory that in 9 years of fiscally conservative governments in Mexico no one has dared propose tuition increases at the UNAM and the federal funding for public universities has had a modest increase in real terms since 2000.3

However, that initial success also represented the limits of our action. I believed then and still believe now that the defense of the right to free higher education is perfectly compatible with the fundamental principles of the Welfare State. The protection of the opportunity for underprivileged youth to receive professional training and the resulting possibility for social mobility does not question the exploitative nature of capitalist relations of production, but rather implies a demand for state intervention in order to mitigate one of the natural trends of capitalism: the generational transmission of socioeconomic inequalities. In Salvador Allende’s words, “the revolution will not come from universities.”

For this reason, when –beginning the very first night of the occupation- some fellow activists started to campaign not only against initiating any dialogue with the UNAM authorities, but also for continuing the strike until our example encouraged workers to declare the general strike and/or take over factories, I felt that such a move would represent a huge and self-defeating leap from the right-to-education discourse onto the shaky grounds of anti-capitalist rhetoric (not to mention the awkward image of some college kids lecturing workers about “their revolutionary role in the conjuncture”). This was a minority position in the CGH during the first two months of the strike, but boosted by the authorities’ interested indifference toward our movement and by an unrequested third-party intervention,4 by July, the anti-dialogue posture had became dominant.

I remember vividly my uneasiness at the tension between our public message and our internal discussions concerning the dialogue with the authorities because, having learned from the Zapatista example, some of us were hyperconscious of public opinion. While the most visible demonstrations of our movement’s strength were the many marches and rallies with tens of thousands of participants, the most intimate memories of many of us hold are from our work as brigadistas. We reached out to people in unprecedented ways and numbers; soon-to-be lawyers, engineers, physicians, etc. flooded poor neighborhoods offering their services for free while spreading our message; many others formed mobile information and fund-raising brigades covering the entire city. My brigade targeted the bus routes crisscrossing the working class and industrial neighborhoods of Mexico City’s North side, collecting some coins, leftover lunches, and countless smiles and words of support. I’m convinced that this intense personalized outreach (in the pre-wireless-Internet days) succeeded in countering the negative portrayal of our movement in the mainstream media and built enough social support to discourage the government from undertaking more repressive measures against us.

At the same time, the initial controversy over whether or not to dialogue with the authorities quickly escalated into an open confrontation among factions involving every issue on our agenda, and soon two broad antagonistic blocs were recognizable from outside and within the movement: ultras vs. moderados. The CGH petition paper was loaded with other demands in addition to our first no-tuition and public-dialogue points; two of which — (1) reestablishment of the unrestricted passage from high school to college within the UNAM system; and (2) the UNAM’s withdrawal from the newly established national agency of standardized academic evaluation) — were understood by most protesting students to be bargaining chips. However, in the ultra discourse “negotiation” had become a synonym of “sellout”, and those of us on the pro dialogue/negotiation side were nicknamed vendehuelgas (strike sellouts). A common denunciation in the school assemblies and CGH plenary sessions went like this: “you say you just want to ‘dialogue’ with the authorities, but what you really want is to negotiate with them.” Thus, at some point, our movement simply lacked a shared vocabulary to engage the authorities in terms other than demanding their unconditional surrender.

More importantly, the initial enthusiastic participation of non-affiliated students gave way to the predominance of seasoned leftist activists as our decision-making processes got entangled in what is commonly known as asambleísmo, the result of a basic belief in the superior legitimacy of direct democracy as supposedly practiced in open assemblies and distrust of representation as a power-concentrating process, combined with the incapacity to develop any functioning decision-making structures. We made the most radical interpretation of the Zapatista “Mandar Obedeciendo” (To rule by obeying) motto, and had developed a visceral rejection of all forms of leadership.

In our decision-making structure there were forty school assemblies that could each send five voting delegates to the CGH plenary; the plenary, however, was open to everyone and the result was that each time the CGH met it was a chaotic session with hundreds of speakers. Also, the school assemblies only empowered their delegates to vote yes or no on very specific issues with no room for consensus-building. This way, decisions at the CGH plenary sessions were made by a narrow vote count on mutually excluding proposals after hours of arguments and verbal -and sometimes physical- fights.5 If a new proposal emerged at a CGH plenary, it had to be sent down to school assemblies, processed there (under similar “direct democracy” conditions) and re-discussed at the following plenary. As a result, our movement was painfully slow and too rigid to respond to any signals from the authorities and events surrounding the conflict, including the mediation efforts by the UNAM’s progressive faculty.

In November, almost seven months into the strike, Mr. Barnés resigned from office and was replaced by Dr. Juan Ramón de la Fuente. Unlike his predecessor, Dr. de la Fuente immediately took the initiative to start a dialogue. Preliminary talks to set up the dialogue between the authorities and the CGH took place, but the CGH’s inoperative structure left our delegates completely disempowered to agree on concrete steps to move forward. The talks collapsed in December around trivial issues. In January, the Rector submitted a proposal for the conflict’s solution to a plebiscite of the entire UNAM community –reinstating the 1948 tuition regulations and suggesting that a university-wide Congress discuss this and all the other points in our petition paper- and received overwhelming support.

Isolated and almost paralyzed, the CGH began to fracture. In this context, the police occupied the UNAM on February 6, 2000. More than 700 people were detained; the majority of them were released in small groups within a month, and the last three were released from prison in early June the same year. After the police left the UNAM campus in mid February, university life gradually went back to normal.

In March 21, 2001, a delegation of the EZLN (insert footnote) visited Ciudad Universitaria (the UNAM’s central campus) as a part of their national tour promoting the indigenous rights bill that was then on the Congress’ floor. Of Sub-comandante Marcos’ speech that day, I especially remember this part:

“We want to ask students to study and fight, [we suggest to them] that, without giving up the fight, they finish their studies; that they leave the University; that they don’t stay in it; because despite being universal the University is limited. Out there there’s another universe where they are also needed to fight. Out there, there are us and other people like us… [We ask students] not to make of their young age a pretext to try to become hegemonic and homogenize other students, other faculty, other workers, others who are different.”

A few days later, I found myself chatting with the Dean of my school, a notorious hard-liner on the authorities’ camp, after a session of the UNAM Senate, of which I was a member by then. At some point he said something like this: “I don’t know why in Mexico we like to complicate things. In other countries college education is free and no one questions that. It’s a right. Period.”

It was time for me to move on.

Works Cited

1 The National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), a public university, is Latin America’s largest with 270,000 (high school, undergraduate, and graduate) students. It is based in Mexico City and its facilities include an enormous central campus (Ciudad Universitaria), where most schools and research centers are located; five satellite multidisciplinary campuses (including mine: Acatlán); a few off-campus schools (Music, Arts, Cinema, and Infirmary); and the 14 high schools.

2 For example, at CUNY the continued reduction of funding from the City and the State of New York is a direct cause of tuition hikes, see http://www.psc-cuny.org/

3 Hernández, Pérez, Víctor, “El Financiamiento de la Educación Superior en México” (Funding for Higher Education in Mexico)

4 On June 7, Mr. Barnés had the UNAM Senate amend the original proposal, making the new tuition fees “voluntary”. A widely believed and never denied version was that this shift was negotiated between the Rector and the Mexico City leadership of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD, some of them former UNAM student activists). The CGH reacted immediately against the measure… and against PRD members and sympathizers in its own ranks.
5 The longest session lasted some 36 hours. It was interrupted three or four times by all-out fights among the participants and had to change location once.


J. Alberto Fernández is a Ph.D. student in the Department. of Politics. After graduating from the UNAM and completing his term as Student Senator, he found shelter in a small anarcho-syndicalist union federation, the Frente Auténtico del Trabajo. His job was helping Mexico City gas station workers reach the proletarian “class-for-itself” nirvana before he succumbed to the grad-school calling.