Mexico University Reopens Amid Tensions After Strike


Like a city reawakening from a nine-month slumber, the largest university in Latin America sputtered back to life Monday as thousands of students resumed classes eight days after a police raid ended a bitter student strike.

But even as the vast majority of the 230,000 registered students and 24,000 faculty members at the National Autonomous University of Mexico took up heavy course loads to try to make up lost semesters, several hundred protesters marched to the campus to demand the release of 284 arrested strikers. They scuffled at times with strike foes, and march leader Genaro Vera declared: “The strike continues.”

Those lingering tensions underscore the challenges ahead for university staff and students, who are seeking to heal lacerations left by a conflict that erupted last April over plans--later rescinded--to raise annual fees from a few cents to about $145. The strike at the university, known as UNAM, ended with an unarmed police takeover Feb. 6 after negotiations broke down and clashes erupted between rival student factions.


For Mexicans, the university has an importance far beyond its academic role. The strike shut down libraries and research centers, dental and veterinary clinics, and cultural programs that serve hundreds of thousands of nonstudents as well as the university campus.

Founded in 1553, UNAM also has mirrored Mexico’s political and cultural life. It now serves as a battleground for a generation that has lurched from one economic crisis to the next and seen real incomes fall even as market reforms make a small elite rich. With a July presidential election approaching, the strike made UNAM a center of debate on how Mexico should address democracy and free expression, economic competitiveness and academic excellence.

Students and faculty took stock of the far-reaching costs of the strike as cleaning crews finished scrubbing buildings that had stood empty or served as impromptu camps for strikers. In a gesture of disdain for the strike, some returning students last week brought their own brooms and paint to campus and joined university crews in sweeping up the classrooms and painting over pro-strike graffiti.

Student Body Shrank Mysteriously by 41,000

One cost of the strike was the mysterious shrinking of the student body. UNAM had said 271,000 students were registered last April. On Sunday, the university said the number of registered students was down to 230,000. It was unclear if the 41,000 missing students had registered at other universities or simply quit and gone to work.

“It is as if we are waking up from a long sleep,” said Gustavo Medina, a third-year chemistry student who said he had sympathized with strikers’ aims but not their methods.

Most departments began classes Monday, but several just re-registered students while class schedules were revised. In the faded 1950s-era hallways of the engineering school, it appeared as if time had stopped on the day the strike began. Glass cases still bore exam schedules and lecture announcements from April 1999.


Yazmin Ibanez, a computer engineering student, said the strike stoked fears about the tattered reputation of UNAM, once among the most prestigious universities in Latin America. “Mexican companies mustn’t close their doors to us. I’m afraid that they’ll say that just because we’re from UNAM, they won’t take us,” Ibanez said. “I tried to get work during the strike, but some companies wouldn’t take UNAM students.”

Enrique Echevarria, academic secretary at UNAM’s well-regarded School of Dentistry, said only a small proportion of the nearly 1 million patients, most of them poor, who use the school’s 10 low-cost clinics each year were able to get treatment during the strike. Just two satellite clinics have been open, and those only since October. The dental school has 2,500 undergraduates and 500 graduate students as well as a faculty of 645.

“The damage to the patient population has been enormous,” Echevarria said. “And the lack of continuity and rhythm in the education of the dental students is serious.”

He added: “We all believe the university needs reform, but it needs to take into account all the currents of thinking, not just the strikers’ views. It needs to be a reasoned approach to reform.”

The strikers and university administration had agreed in December to hold a congress to discuss a range of demands and broader university reforms. Although the strike was broken before a deal could be struck on the terms, university officials say the congress will go forward.

Medina, the chemistry student, said the use of police to end the strike had badly damaged the university’s autonomy, an important symbol for Latin American universities. “The fear is now planted that the security forces can enter the campus,” he said.

The critical role of UNAM in Mexican life--six of the last nine presidents were educated there--is reflected in the number of nonacademic national institutions housed on the campus.

The National Library was closed throughout the strike, as was the Cultural Center, a complex of theaters and concert halls.

At the Cultural Center, automatic sprinklers watered dusty brown lawns for the first time in nine months Monday. The billboard for the 1999 season stood outside the concert hall, and the marquee announced the last previous concert, held by a Portuguese ensemble April 18.

“The interruption of the creative process of the artists was a huge cost,” said Jesus Molina, head of cultural relations. “But the public also lost out. We calculate that we lost audiences that would have totaled nearly 500,000 people over the last 10 months.”

Cultural Activities Canceled During Strike

The UNAM philharmonic orchestra was silenced throughout the strike as well. Dozens of concerts were canceled, including appearances by artists such as Claude Bolling and Ravi Shankar.

It will be months before Nezahualcoyotl Hall, the premier 2,300-seat concert auditorium, can get back to normal, said coordinator Marta Villafuerte. A free symphony concert will be held March 18 as a symbolic reopening.

“There is no loss greater than having a university community divided within itself,” said Paulina Samano, who works as a performance organizer for the Cultural Center. “The halls can be cleaned and repaired. But it will be very difficult to have a student who was on strike sitting next to somebody who was totally against the strike.”

The university administration initially took a hard line, which galvanized support for the strike. The administration later softened its stance, but the strikers’ demands escalated and moderates in the General Strike Committee were pushed aside by the increasingly radical strike leadership.

Itzelt Lugo, a 19-year-old senior at one of the UNAM-affiliated high schools, said apathetic students had allowed hard-liners to foment the strike and then to manipulate it. She said one lesson would be that moderate students would never again allow an extreme minority to control the university’s fate. “The strikers are a minority, and the anti-strikers are not going to let ourselves be dictated to as easily as in the past,” she said.

Ibanez, the engineering student, said the strike has made students more committed to reclaiming UNAM’s academic quality. She noted that most UNAM students are from working-class families that cannot afford private universities. “It costs us great effort to get through here, so those who do have worked very hard to achieve their degrees. There is a great determination among us to improve ourselves.”