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Students Mobilize Across America

The U.S. mainstream press has virtually ignored the massive student strikes and demonstrations that have been taking place throughout Latin America since last April. University students in Mexico, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina and Ecuador have been engaged in mobilizations that in some cases are broader than those of 1968. While some limited coverage can be found buried in the pages of the New York Times and a few other dailies, no attempt has been made to link these incidents to greater unrest in Latin America, nor of providing background information; let alone any sort of analysis.

In Mexico City, students of the National University (UNAM), the largest public university in Latin America with over 267,000 students, began a strike on April 20 to protest a proposed tuition increase. The students' General Strike Council (Consejo General de Huelga- CGH) maintains that Mexicans must be guaranteed the right to a free higher education, as has been the case in the UNAM. They also claim that Rector Francisco Barnés de Castro has a hidden privatization agenda. Students argue that these privatization efforts coincide with the government's plan to privatize electric power and health care. On May 12, 100,000 people marched in support of the strike. Teachers from surrounding states have taken the cue and organized strikes demanding wage increases. While widespread violence has not occurred, student leaders have been harassed, assaulted and kidnapped by anonymous assailants.

On May 27, students from the CGH held an unofficial referendum that asked all Mexicans interested in voting several key questions regarding their demands. About 89% of the 350,000 ballots counted the following day said that the federal government should guarantee free public education. On June 1, the CGH presented a petition list to the Rector's office, which was rejected on grounds of amounting to an "ultimatum." On June 2, Rector Barnés offered to make payment of tuition "voluntary." However, the CGH still holds that Barnés is not addressing the petition's six demands (see the Spanish text published by La Jornada), nor is he willing to engage in a public debate. On June 3, the students rejected the Rector as a qualified authority to hold a dialogue with, but have yet to designate another interlocutor. The strike is going into its seventh week, but Barnés' offer shows that the students have succeded in pressuring university authorities to consider their demands.

In early April, Nicaraguan students began demonstrations demanding that 6% of the national budget be allocated to the universities. On April 20, police killed one student, 21 others were wounded and 77 were arrested during protests.

In Chile, some 40,000 students from several state-funded universities across the country began strikes to demand increased funding and scholarships. In early May, demonstrations turned violent when police intervened, and on the 19th of that month one student was shot to death by anti-riot police in the northern city of Arica.

Elsewhere, in Argentina and Ecuador, students have been engaged in similar struggles. On May 19, Ecuadorean students protested urban bus fare increases, and Argentine students and teachers held massive demonstrations to protest President Carlos Menem's planned $280 million cut in the 1999 education budget. Teachers and students have also joined larger protests and strikes in Bolivia, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Uruguay.

The new resistance movements in Latin American are a direct response to "free-market" reforms that hack away at social services and advocate privatization of national industries. Coalitions of workers, students, campesinos and indigenous peoples are demanding that their rights not be taken away by the forces of neoliberalism.

While in each of these countries demonstrators met with violent repression and even death at the hands of police, some of these strikes have yielded positive results. On May 12 Argentina's Congress restored the $280 million cut in the education budget. After the student in Chile was killed, president Eduardo Frei pledged greater resources for the universities in the coming year. The other struggles continue.

As was documented by the ISLA volume # 54, Issue 4, U.S. mainstream press coverage of strike demonstrations in Mexico during April was limited to a one-paragraph brief by the New York Times (April 29). The Financial Times of London ran a short article (all of five paragraphs) on April 21. Coverage hardly improved in May, although the two dailies quoted above did run a few pieces on the situation in Argentina. The killing in Chile, and the on-going strike in Mexico, were basically ingnored by the nine major dailies monitored by ISLA.

We acknowledge the Nigaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York for its coverage of these events, drawn mostly from Latin American news sources, and published in their Weekly Update on the Americas numbers 481 to 487. See their web site at

Antonio Prieto
June 1999








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