Students who major in rebellions

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TO REACH Unam (the National Autonomous University of Mexico), which is the biggest and most radical university in the New World, you must take Revolution Boulevard south from the centre of Mexico City and approach Insurgents Avenue. But it's been almost impossible to get to Che Guevara Auditorium lately. Thousands of striking students hunker down behind barricades of blackboards and desks covered in barbed wire and they menace anyone who comes too near the picket lines.

The rattlesnake sound of sloganeers shaking their spray paint cans is quite threatening. "All poetry is revolution. All revolution, poetry!" is slashed in scarlet on stucco. "The walls belong to those who paint them. On Strike" is scrawled opposite. Fistfights broke out on Saturday between students who want to take their entrance exams and the hardliners who live in tents on campus and now view the political science building and the economics faculty as their own "Rebel Territory". Simiar encounters are planned for finals week. To raise money for the strike fund, the radicals hawk Zapatista T-shirts or pass the sombrero. Every passer-by is expected to give. It is all in the egalitarian spirit of the Mexican Revolution - rather an obstacle to pragmatists who want to dismantle the welfare state.

The 76-day stand-off between students and administrators ostensibly is over tuition. Despite a proviso in the Mexican constitution that guarantees a free public education, authorities want to hike fees for the first time in 50 years. The cost of attending Mexico's premier state intellectual institution, which still boasts world-class researchers and a top medical school, will leap from 40 centavos (under 2 pence) to almost pounds 100 per year for those who can afford to pay. Many professors support the new scheme, which will contribute to Unam's pounds 680m annual budget, as long as indigenous students get full scholarships. Meanwhile more than 270,000 students and 25,000 faculty have become vagrant scholars for most of this term, improvising classrooms off-campus in parks, cantinas or cramped flats. Those who live in dormitories on campus must cross picket lines twice if they want to attend these unofficial classes outside and then return home to sleep.

As the weeks pass with no solution in sight, counter-revolutionaries crop up. First several thousand parents of underclassmen took to the Zocalo, the grandest square of the capital, with a poignant protest. "My daughter wants a diploma" read one banner. "Let them learn so they can earn" said a placard carried by a uniformed housemaid, some student's footsore mother.

To many observers, accusations that the present student leaders are outside agitators bring echoes of the past. Mexico's student movement was traumatised in 1968 with a massacre of hundreds of unarmed student demonstrators in Tlatelolco Plaza. The Unam radicals are keen to play on public sympathy. With a solemn nod to the student martyrs, a march from Tlatelolco Plaza to the main Zocalo will be held in mid-week. To the chagrin of many citizens, student power is still going strong in Mexico City.