Patrick Cuninghame on Mexico’s Yo Soy 132 Student Movement

Class War University
June 11, 2012
YoSoy132: Student-led Uprising in Mexico – An interview with Patrick Cuninghame (Professor, Mexico City)

CW: What is the deal with YoSoy132?

Patrick: It’s kind of a weird movement, because it started in the private universities, in a very upper class Catholic private university called Iberoamericana. It’s probably one of the more progressive private universities, because it has a quite independent and active faculty trade union. It arose in response to Enrique Peña Nieto who is the PRI candidate for president. The PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) was in power continuously from 1929 to 2000, one of the world’s longest running dictatorships, guilty of incredible abuses of human rights. The most infamous one was the massacre of Tlatelolco on October 2nd, 1968, just before the Olympics, when the Mexican army and paramilitaries killed around 500 people in a square near the center of Mexico City. It’s never been properly investigated. The ex-Mexican president, Luis Echevarria who was the minister of Internal Affairs when that happened, was briefly arrested and charged with genocide in 2006, but was almost immediately released. In spite of all their crimes, they’re on the point of being re-elected after just 12 years out of power. It’s like fascism coming back. The problem is that the party that’s been in power, the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional), has been as bad if not worse than the PRI. So, it’s just gone from the frying pan to the fire and back to the frying pan again. 60,000 have died in these last 6 years of President Calderon from the ‘war against drugs,’ which in reality has been a war against the whole population, at the same time a new form of governance and a new theatre in the “global war against terrorism.” It’s been government through military dictatorship that we’ve had in Mexico since 2006, and the electoral fraud in 2006, too, that started it. Of course there’s a real danger of another electoral fraud. Until May 11th it seemed like Enrique Peña Nieto was going to win the elections easily. There had already been one or two setbacks for him. First, at the Guadalajara International Book Fair in December last year, he was asked what were the three most important books in his life, and he couldn’t name one. He is just such a complete airhead, an ignoramus. This is the guy who’s going to be the next president of Mexico!

So, that was a setback for him in terms of public relations, but nothing like what happened at the Iberoamericana on May 11th, when he went to visit it. He probably expected to get just a really easy ride, because nothing much has happened at the university in years. When he arrived, there were hundreds of students with banners that said things like “Remember Atenco”—which is this town near Mexico City, where when he was governor of the State of Mexico (the state surrounding Mexico City), there was a really vicious repression of the People’s Front for the Defense of the Land (FPDT in Spanish), on the 3rd of May 2006, during the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign. He and then president Fox sent the army and police in and they just massacred the population. They wanted revenge for the defeat of their plans by the FPDT to build a new international airport near Atenco in 2002. I’d never seen such vicious repression—groups of 20-30 police attacking anybody, innocent bystanders. They killed two youths: a UNAM student and a local youth. Houses were raided without search warrants and about two hundred people were just dragged off the streets and taken to prison, and during the bus journey to prison about 30 women were raped or sexually abused by the police in the buses or while getting on or off the buses.[i]  It was the rape of Atenco by this butcher. And Enrique Peña Nieto is going to be the next president. Fortunately, these guys (the students at the Iberoamericana) woke up and gave him a really, really hard time. In fact, at one point he was about to abandon his visit, because he was being harassed so much by the students. There’s this beautiful video of him and his bodyguards and the authorities of the university just not knowing what the hell to do—there’s this expression of panic on his face, just completely taken by surprise. Even when he had the meeting, most of the questions were really hostile against him. Under his governorship, the state of Mexico went completely backwards: the number of poor people increased, human rights abuses increased, femicides increased, and so on. He had no answer. Well, for a man who literally depends on the teleprompter for what to say, he had just nothing to say. He just didn’t answer the questions.  It was just a complete public relations disaster for him.

But, what happened was, that he has been supported by the two main TV channels, Televisa and TV Azteca, which dominate open TV in Mexico (the free TV), with their telenovelas, these ridiculous soap operas, which dominate coverage—12 hours a day of soaps—a complete manipulation and infantilization of the public. He is their candidate and they’re determined that he’s going to be elected. It also appears the PRI paid huge amounts of money since 2005 to guarantee positive coverage and promote Peña Nieto as a future presidential candidate. So, when that visit to Iberoamericana was televised on the news, they completely edited out all of the demonstrations. It was just incredible. If you compare what happened with what was presented on TV, it’s just two different worlds. And then the various media spokespersons—the president of the PRI, the intellectuals close to the PRI and Televisa—they all attacked the students, saying that they were just members of the PRD, the opposing party of the PRI, the party of the center left, very moderate (López Obredor, who might win the elections). They were saying, ‘these weren’t really students. These were people belonging to the PRD who were sent to the Iberoamericana that day. They’re thugs’—the most ridiculous accusations. If these intellectuals, the spokespersons of the PRI, hadn’t made these really crass accusations, the thing would have died there. But, fortunately, the students had the bullocks to respond. And about 131 of them went online, on YouTube, with their student cards, and said, ‘I am a student of this university, this is my student credential, and how dare the PRI accuse us of not being students.’ Our demonstration was completely genuine. That’s what’s called the ‘Somos Mas de 131′ movement that came out of Iberamericana, on Monday the 14th of May, after this demonstration on the 11th of May.  And then, it’s just grown from there.

Student Demonstration, May 31st [pic via VertigoPolitico]

Of course Televisa was saying it wasn’t an ‘authentic demonstration.’ So, they had a human chain from their university to the head office of Televisa in that part of Mexico City. Just a few hundred turned up from various private universities. The next step was to connect with the public universities. The first really big event was on Wednesday, 23rd May: there was a big demonstration in the center of Mexico City, under this monument that was supposed to be opened in 2010, on the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. But because of corruption and various delays it didn’t actually open until earlier this year. It’s called the Estela de Luz (The Pillar of Light). It’s a big tower that is completely ugly and useless and cost far too much. So, they chose this monument as a meeting place, as an example of the kind of corruption, impunity and ineptitude that they are opposing. They called a general meeting of students from private and public universities to go to that place. Far more people went than they expected—I think about 20,000 students, young people, and ordinary citizens turned up. And that’s really how the Yo Soy 132 movement took off.

Since then, just about every day there’s been some kind of public meeting somewhere. All the meetings are completely open to anybody to attend, and in open places outside. Since Wednesday, the 20th of May, just about every single university in the country, certainly all in Mexico City, has set up its own branch of this movement. It’s all being coordinated on the website of #yosoy132. It’s a kind of social network.  In my university, the UAM Xochimilco (the Metropolitan Autonomous University), which is historically a left-wing public university (Subcomandante Marcos was an Arts & Design Lecturer there until he went underground in 1983), last Friday, May 25th, about 100 students turned up—about half student activists and half students who were just curious. Most of my students in the University come from working class, lower-middle class backgrounds—very different from Iberoamericana, which is upper class. It’s amazing that this thing started there; even upper class kids are pissed off at the situation in Mexico, even though the economy is run entirely for their benefit. Still, they’re sick of the corruption and media manipulation. So, this is what kick-started it all off. The students there thought, ‘this movement has to become much bigger than us, much bigger than the private universities.’ The majority of students are in public universities, and of course the social composition of the public universities is completely different.

Student Demo – May 28th [pic via Vertigo Politico]

CW: Could you say a little more about the composition of this movement? Have any faculty gotten involved in it or is it totally student-led?

Patrick: At the moment it is student-led, and I hope it remains that way, because the worst thing that could happen is for the usual intellectuals to take it over. When they had this big meeting in the center of town—at the monument to celebrate the 100th anniversary of independence but which everybody sees as a monument to corruption—there were a lot of university professors and intellectuals and ex-activist, ‘leaders’ from the 1968 movement (they’re all obsessed with being ‘leaders’ of that movement, which is completely different from this movement—and student movements around the world—they’re leaderless). Everybody’s realizing that it’s a special movement. 2006 was a bit like now, a really euphoric moment.

I am in the Other Campaign of the EZLN. We oppose the campaign of López Obredor, because we know that he is really a politician of the center right, a neoliberal “progressive” like Lula in Brazil or the Kirchners in Argentina, but he is able to present himself as being of the center left because the other two parties are of the hard neoliberal, neocon right (the PRI and the PAN). He likes to make a lot of promises about how he’s going to change Mexico, but when he was mayor of Mexico City he adopted ‘zero tolerance’ to repress street vendors and he gentrified the historical center of Mexico City in alliance with the richest man in Mexico, Carlos Slim, so we know that not much is going to change under him, at least not for the better. But still, in 2006 we thought, ‘he’s bound to win,’ because he seemed by far the most popular candidate. We never thought that there was going to be an electoral fraud. But there was, and Calderon became president.  The first thing he did was to start this war against the ‘narcos,’ which was in reality a war against working class Mexicans. It’s been downhill since then: it’s been massacre after massacre. The left has just been kind of paralyzed in front of this war, this massacre that’s been going on continuously. So it’s been a really depressing time, these last six years. And also, the electoral campaign has been completely boring, virtually without content, and then, suddenly, this student movement came out of nowhere. We didn’t expect it.

Certainly, we are in front of a completely new situation. There was a meeting on May 25th in the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas (exactly where the massacre took place in 1968), of delegates from all the universities and they have made a declaration of what their aims are now as a movement. Of course it’s quite moderate, if you compare it to the Montreal or Chilean students movements. Their main demand continues to be the democratization of the media. But if we really had a democratized media in Mexico, that would be incredible. If you democratized the media anywhere, that would be incredible! There is of course a certain amount of naivety to think that the Mexican media—which is completely under the control of the worst kind of neoliberalism and of the mafia and the drug cartels—is suddenly going to become democratic; it’s just not going to happen. Nor did it happen in the US or Britain or any other so called democracy. The media is not free or neutral in any country in the world, especially not during elections. It’s a naive demand, but in some ways it has opened up the whole election by exposing the dependence of the political class, particularly their candidate Peña Nieto, on mass media manipulation. I would say that as things stand at the moment, Peña Nieto is in trouble. Everywhere he goes now there are thousands of people opposing him, chanting slogans at him, with placards, etc. A week ago, the PRI responded as they always do: with violence.  They just send their thugs to attack students who are opposing any meeting of Peña Nieto.  Now, that rebounded against them, because it’s bad publicity—using violence, intolerance against any form of opposition. It looks like the bad old “dinosaur” PRI is definitely back, never mind the talk of a “democratized” PRI.

CW: Is the media covering that violence?

Patrick: Yeah, in a way they have to. They can’t ignore it. The students are at the center of public attention. They’re denouncing the violence, so the TV and press have to report it. Normally they would not report it. It was a trending topic on Twitter last week—one of the top ten topics in the whole world. I read in the newspaper today that Peña Nieto had an election meeting in some provincial city, and when the opposition turned up to attack him, to denounce him, to chant slogans at him, at a public meeting of the PRI, he told his followers not to do anything, which is unusual, because normally the PRI respond by physically attacking any opposition or criticism of them. He just feels so on the defensive that he has to tell his thugs not to do anything. At the moment, suddenly, the election is thrown open. Of course, Peña Nieto is still the favorite. Even if it becomes a close election, the PRI are experts in electoral fraud, and they won’t hesitate in doing it again. The PAN got away with it in 2006 and the PRI will get away with it this year. But, if it’s a very obvious electoral fraud, there could be a massive backlash. Of course the other two parties are trying to manipulate the situation.  The PAN called an anti-EPN march. Quite a lot of people went to it, but it was an obvious attempt by the PAN to jump on the bandwagon. López Obrador had a meeting with the students in this symbolic place where the massacre happened in 1968, about a week before the Yo Soy 132 meeting, but again this was another attempt to manipulate the movement.

Because of the origins of this movement, most of the left, me included, was very dubious about it. You know, a movement by rich private students against Peña Nieto: this doesn’t make sense.  So, there has been a lot of diffidence towards the movement by the historic left: the institutional left and the extra-parliamentary left. A lot of people, students and faculty, in my university seemed wary of this movement.

CW: Are they trying to influence the movement? Is anybody from the Other Campaign trying?

Patrick: Yes, of course they are trying to jump in on the bandwagon. But, they just said it in a manifesto that they put out (which I translated and put up on facebook) that it is a non-party movement. They are against Peña Nieto; they are against the PRI.Peña Nieto is a fascist and he has shown that again and again—the way he repressed the movement in Atenco was completely fascist. If he becomes president, that’s going to be his political style, just really hard-line, vicious repression: use of rape against arrested women, things like that. Of course he’s tried to moderate his image, recently. Above all we know who’s behind him. He himself is completely stupid—someone who can’t come up with the names of three authors or books that are important in his life. So, in reality, when he is president he won’t be president—there will be people behind him telling him what to do. The most important of those will be Carlos Salinas, the president between 1988 and 1994 and the architect of NAFTA, which has devastated the Mexican economy and has caused so much poverty, and which kicked off the Zapatista rebellion in 1994, on the 1st of January, which was when it came into operation. So, we know who’s going to be the real president of Mexico: Salinas (not to mention Obama). Salinas is a drug traffiker as well, a real mafioso.  His brother Raul went to prison for several years for his drug traffiking and for the assassination of Luis Colosio, the PRI’s maverick presidential candidate in 1994. Salinas is a neoliberal drug lord and one of the lynchpins of global neoliberalism, he would have become president of the WTO in 1994 but the Zapatistas rained on his parade. He will just devastate an already devastated country. So, the movement is non-party, but it is not apolitical, as it has been accused of by some people on the intellectual left. It is against the PRI and it is against Peña Nieto above all.  That does not mean it is pro-López Obrador or pro-Vasquez Mota (the candidate of the PAN who is on the right of an extreme right-wing, clerical, neoliberal party). In my first reaction to this movement, I thought that this looks like a movement of the PAN, because it is strong in private universities. But it seems it is not. It is rather a movement that wants to radically reform things in a non-violent way. It is, I repeat, a moderate students movement, not a radical movement like the Onda Anomola in Italy or the Red Square movement in Canada. Maybe it is more like the English students movement in 2010. Of course the English students movement had some pretty radical elements in it, they attacked and set fire to the HQ of the Tory Party!  Maybe now that the public universities are involved it will become more radical. It’s obviously not as radical as the 1999-2000 UNAM CGH (Consejo General de Huelga/General Strike Council) student occupation movement when they had a strike for one year and they shut down Mexico’s most important public university to stop even minimal fee hikes, which has had a lasting effect in slowing down the neoliberalization of the Mexican public university compared to most other countries.

CW: What is the relationship between this student movement and the universities themselves? You’ve been talking a lot about their relation with electoral politics, but do they have any focus on changing universities?

Patrick: I think this movement was born in the middle of a really dull election campaign that seemed dominated by a corrupt, fascist candidate, and they have hit the nail on the head that this candidate depends on the support of the media, and therefore, the media have to be reformed. Of course the reform of the media is crying out, but the political class are unable to do it because they are completely corrupt and at the behest of the media. So if there is a reform of the media in Mexico, it will have to come from below. This movement will go on after the July 1st presidential campaign. That’s evident. There’s this huge upswell of support for it. It will hopefully last like the Occupy Wall Street movement, going on for months if not years. So, therefore, after the presidential campaign is over, the movement has to focus on what is going on in the universities, which are being privatized and neoliberalized on the sly. They already put in their manifesto, in their demands, which will now go to a general assembly on Wednesday May 30th in the UNAM—which is the biggest university in the Americas, 500,000 students—this document that they produce will have to be ratified by that meeting. I think it’s going to be huge, tens of thousands of people. It’s really exciting… I haven’t felt like this for years, about any movement. Out of despair has come hope. One of the demands is that all higher education must be free, secular and of high quality—like the Chilean student movement. In fact, in their demands, they are calling to build links with the Chilean student movement and Occupy Wall Street. Unfortunately, they didn’t mention the Montreal student movement. The press coverage of that movement has been non-existent.  So, it is exciting that they want to build those links and by doing so this will help to radicalize further the movement and reduce the influence of left nationalism and lopez obradorism.

Occupy Wall Street has introduced this term of “The Mexican Spring,” but I think it’s too early to talk about a Mexican Spring. Obviously the movement here is not yet as radical or as important as the Arab Spring, especially the one in Tunisia and Egypt. We can’t talk about regime change yet. But, if the impossible happens, and we do defeat the PRI and their attempt to have an electoral fraud… The movement is already mobilizing massively to prevent electoral fraud. There are always people present in voting stations during elections, but I think this time, it’s going to be literally dozens of people in every voting station to stop electoral fraud (ballot stuffing, stealing of electoral urns, all the usual shenanigans that the PRI get up to on election day). I think it’ll be much harder for the PRI to have an electoral fraud. Until this, what would have been an unimaginable situation, if Lopez Obredor does get elected, there will be massive demonstrations demanding immediate constitutional, political reform, to get rid of this all-powerful presidential figure that dominates Mexican politics. I think regime change is not completely out of the question. We have to see how things go in the next few weeks. The forces of reaction are gathering. They’ve been hit, humiliated, kicked where it hurts—but you can’t rule them out. They’ve been in power for 82 years, and they’re not going to give up power easily. They control the media, the universities, and the political parties (including those of the center left). At the moment, they really don’t know how to deal with this movement, because I think they realize that if they simply repress it, it’ll grow—like in Egypt or in the US with Occupy Wall Street. Then again, it’s a movement that’s hard to co-opt, because it’s non-party, it’s not for sale to the other candidates. Of course, it does have this huge cleavage between rich, privately educated students who are tendentially politically conservative, more likely to favor the PRI or PAN, and the politically more radical, working class, lower middle class, and middle class students in public universities. So there are major social and political divides within the movement that the forces of reaction are going to work hard on to divide the movement in these upcoming weeks. The same happened in Egypt—there were obvious divisions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the left—but the movement held together. So, let’s hope that the movement holds together from the attacks of the forces of reaction from both the right and the institutional left.

This is Part 1 of 2 of an interview with Patrick Cuninghame (Professor at UAM Xochimilco (the Metropolitan Autonomous University); participant in the EZLN’s Other Campaign), conducted on May 28th, 2012. We’ll post Part 2 of the interview soon.

2 Comments

Filed under activism, film and video, political repression, protests, student movements

2 responses to “Patrick Cuninghame on Mexico’s Yo Soy 132 Student Movement

  1. Maro

    PC is a leftist with closeminded ideas that precisely generate animosity and problems within citizens. His hard line approach to the PAN and the PRI shows that he is just frustrated… Saying that the UNAM CGH was a good thing is plainly put: STUPID. The fees that students pay in that unicversity for tuition are less than $1.00 usd per month… so saying that trying to get a raise in tuiton costos (to lets say $10.00 usd a month which is still ridiculous) doesn´´t look that bad.
    PC is manipulating the information the same way the big media moguls are. The difference is that what HE says is heard by a very few.
    I do not agree with the PRI policies and don´t think the PAN has delivered what was needed. But ask how many of the 60,000 deaths are of narcos (drug lords) and really how many are of regular citizens… Ask not about not generating enough jobs, but compare it to countries like Spain , Italy, Ireland or Greece… we could be much more worse. I do not defend the PAN or am against the PRD. But PC clearly is and that is just a plain oldstyle manipulation of the facts.

  2. Pingback: Anonymong | The Guardian serenade

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