Revolutionary Worker #975, September 27, 1998
Thirty years ago, Mexico was shaken to its foundations by a fierce upsurge of the people–with rebel youth at the forefront.
On the evening of October 2, 1968, the Plaza of the Three Cultures in the Tlatelolco apartment complex in Mexico City filled up with thousands of students and Tlatelolco residents. The students and residents boldly defied army troops and escalating government brutality. This was happening as hundreds of international journalists gathered in Mexico City for the 1968 Olympic Games, which were just about to get underway.
As darkness fell, soldiers, tanks, and police secretly surrounded the crowd. At a preset signal, helicopters, undercover agents in the crowd, two columns of soldiers advancing in a pincer movement, and tanks opened fire. Over 300 people were murdered and thousands wounded and jailed on that October 2 evening–known as the Massacre of Tlatelolco.
With this savage act, the U.S.-controlled regime of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) hoped to isolate and terrorize the student upsurge. Instead, the massacre exposed the real nature of the government–and compelled many people in Mexico to grapple with the question of what it will take to bring about real change.
The events of October 2, 1968 continue to be a very important question in Mexico. New books, newspaper articles and photos are bringing more facts to light about the massacre. Meanwhile, the “official story” still claims that the troops had been “provoked” into firing their guns. And the government refuses to release key evidence, including hours of film footage shot by their own film crews.
This continuing controversy shows that the questions raised by the Tlatelolco Massacre– including the need for revolution –are as urgent as ever in Mexico. The U.S. imperialists, in league with Mexico’s bureaucrat bourgeosie and landowning classes, have tightened their domination over the country–as millions suffer from deepening poverty. From Chiapas to Mexico City, people are in struggle–as the government steps up bloody repression.
On the 30th anniversary of the Tlatelolco Massacre, the legacy of the rebel youth of 1968 remains alive. October 2 is not forgotten!
“We Don’t Want Olympic Games,
We Want a Revolution!”
The International Olympic Committee–headed by Avery Brundage from the U.S.–had chosen Mexico as the first Third World country ever to host the Olympic Games. This was aimed both to draw oppressed countries into imperialist-dominated world sport and to showcase Mexico as a model of U.S.-sponsored growth and relative stability. Mexico was supposed to provide a contrast to the national liberation struggles which were shaking most of Latin America, Asia, and Africa and sparking rebellions in the imperialist citadels from Detroit to Paris as well.
Then, two months before the start of the Games, Mexico added itself to the list of world trouble spots. A student rebellion erupted with a speed that shocked the government and various political organizations and ignited broader masses.
The Mexican government and their Western backers had hoped to send impressive images of the new $175 million sports arena, new hotels, and scrubbed streets to viewers around the world. Instead, buses burned on downtown corners and the U.S. embassy suffered attacks of anti-Yankee and anti-PRI graffiti. One of the popular slogans was, “We don’t want Olympic Games, We want revolution!” The student strike council sent a “Manifesto to Students of the World,” proclaiming that the myth “that our country is a model for other underdeveloped countries to follow, has been destroyed by the government forces themselves.”
This movement of rebellious students was touched off on July 24 when a fight between gangs at two high schools connected with the longtime rivals, the Mexican National Autonomous University (UNAM) and National Politechnical Institute (IPN, or “Poli”), was viciously put down by antiriot police called granaderos. When outraged vocational students protested, granaderos attacked again, killing many.
In response, students seized buses and put up barricades to defend their schools. Student strikes and takeovers hit high schools all over the capital. The high school students were supported by UNAM and Poli students. They formed a grassroots National Strike Council (CNH) and put forward six strike demands: disband the granaderos; fire police chiefs; investigate and punish higher officials responsible for the repression; pay compensation for students killed and injured; repeal laws making “social dissolution”–breaking down of society–a crime (under these laws many independent unionists and communists had been jailed); and free political prisoners, including students arrested in the recent disturbances as well as those seized earlier for social dissolution.
Within three days the government had to call in the army to take back several Mexico City prepas ( preparatorias–high schools connected to universities). There were clashes which led to many hundreds of arrests and injuries. Thirty-two students had been killed since the first confrontation, but this only fired up the youths’ resistance. The student strike spread to the UNAM, Poli, and universities throughout the country, supported by a majority of professors. By late August and September the students were calling marches of 300,000 to 600,000 people; important contingents of workers and peasants participated regularly.
Taking the Stage
on a School Bus Roof
The ferment and questioning of the youth, together with the visible weakness of the government in the face of the swelling upsurge, opened up a long-jammed door to political life for hundreds of thousands of workers, urban poor, and the poorer middle strata who in one way or another participated in the struggle.
Student brigades strained their creativity and skills to foil police and get the word out. Engineering students designed balloons which would burst when they got to a certain height and rain leaflets on the heads of pedestrians. Acting students put on realistic street theater in which a student and a conservative woman in pearls and heels carried out loud debates in crowded markets. Hundreds of observers would be drawn in, the majority on the side of the youth, and the advanced would be quietly contacted by “undercover” students in the crowd.
Some students found that they and the barrio or slum dwellers spoke what seemed to be two different languages. They had to throw out “bookish” talk and learn from the vivid “caló” slang of the streets. After a full day of brigade work, they would spend the night in classrooms they had taken over, discussing the conditions and outrages the masses had exposed them to and figuring out how to use this new knowledge in their leaflets and agitation.
The red and white buses of the IPN, always with some daring students and a loudspeaker perched on the roof, became famous for a kind of roving speak-in. Workers, market vendors, and even mariachi singers would climb up on the bus roof one after another to voice their support or disagreement with the students’ demands or tactics and to air their grievances. In some neighborhoods, just the appearance of a Poli bus was enough to immediately attract crowds of hundreds of people who would gather around.
Peasants and Oil Workers
A particularly rich relationship developed between students and peasants from Topilejo, a small village in the mountains outside the capital. When a number of townspeople were killed in a bus accident in August, Topilejo residents seized buses and went to UNAM students to get support for their demand for safe roads, new buses, and fair compensation for the victims. Students sent university buses to take over the route. Nursing, agriculture, social work, and medical students set up a camp in Topilejo, “the Soviet,” to provide information and assistance. Hundreds of brigades traveled into all the villages in the area to help expose many peasants to political ideas and in turn learn from the conditions and the rich history of rebellion of the peasants. After this, peasants from Topilejo participated at every student meeting in the capital.
Significant contingents of electrical, railroad, and petroleum workers defied threats from their government-run unions to join the movement. In many factories a few workers regularly took leaflets to distribute to others.
In one example, young oil workers in the Atzcapotzalco refinery district of northern Mexico City formed a “struggle committee” and contacted students in the nearby Casco de Santo Tomás vocational high school. Students and sympathetic workers conducted daily rallies at the gates and in the surrounding barrios where many oil workers’ families lived.
The state took very seriously the potential for the student upsurge to infect wider sections of the working class, including relatively better-off workers in the strategic state-owned oil industry. According to a complaint published by a group of oil workers on August 30, undercover police infiltrated the plant and then the army was sent in. Outside, a cordon of soldiers would cock their machine guns and jab bayonets at workers as they left work to prevent them from gathering; inside, the troops supervised production to prevent strikes or sabotage.
The regime’s overseers in the U.S. were also very worried. The New York Times warned on September 21: “The implications of [the brigades], if carried out on a large enough scale, are enormous. It is in effect an attack on the political and social structure as it now exists, and in this sense, quite apart from the presence of Communist groups in the student movement, the activity is subversive.”
In the course of and alongside all this activity, the movement wrangled over many crucial questions–from day-to-day tactics to what kind of revolution Mexico needed, what was its principal target, the role of the working class and peasants, and women’s oppression. The pro-Soviet Communist Party, Guevarists, Trotskyists, and Maoists contended for leadership.
Women were particularly supportive of the movement. This was notable among middle-class women although not confined to them. The book Massacre in Mexico ( La Noche de Tlatelolco) by Elena Poniatowska quotes several middle-class women who felt drawn to the youth because they were challenging society’s rules, in contrast to how the women had been stifled and boxed in all their lives.
Among the students, young women upset the old reformist wisdom of women “supporting their men” and battled to participate–often against the tide–in all aspects of the struggle, whether debates or the physical defense of schools. In Massacre in Mexico, a male leader ruefully remembers how he had declared in a speech urging students not to give up territory to police and right-wing thugs: “Let us not have to weep like women for what we could not defend like men.” When he returned to his apartment, he found two brigades of women students waiting for him. For the next few hours he got a well-deserved earful for his use of a degrading stereotype.
One wing of the movement became known as the acelerados, literally the sped-up ones, because they insisted on always going toe-to-toe with the forces of the state. The bulk of the acelerados came from the IPN and its vocational high schools as well as the prepas. Most were in their teens, and a larger percentage were from working-class families than in the university as a whole. The term ” acelerado” was used as a put-down by the “soft-liners” who always tried to limit the scope and fury of the movement. But these rebel “sped-up” youth took the name as a badge of honor, and it was their defiance which characterized the movement and set the pace for much of the upsurge.
The student rebellion even spread into very respectable sections of middle-class people in Mexico City. On August 28, after a huge and unruly demonstration in the central Zócalo Plaza–up till then considered sacred turf reserved for PRI mobilizations–the government said that national symbols had been “insulted.” Thousands of bureaucrats and government office employees were herded onto buses and taken to the Zócalo for a ceremony to “right the wrong.” The government expected these government employees to be their most loyal followers. But hundreds began to bleat loudly: “Baa…we don’t want to go, we’re sheep…Baa!”
Students who had infiltrated the crowd began to call impromptu meetings then and there. Political discussion broke out in every small group of bureaucrats. The government had to call in tanks and soldiers to disperse its own rally, as running battles erupted through the center of town and a hail of bottles fell from the rooftops.
Then, on September 18, 10,000 troops invaded UNAM in an attempt to break it as a base for student actions and to nab CNH members meeting there. But the CNH had received hundreds of warning calls, and the members were long gone when the troops arrived. What the invasion did was to shatter the sham of the university’s autonomy from the state and to outrage intellectuals and students all over the country and the world. Mexican embassies were stoned in the Caribbean; many university administrators in Latin America denounced the invasion; students in Latin America and the U.S. protested. UNAM’s president announced his resignation. A group of 150 reporters and editors in the capital published a protest against the UNAM invasion and against the government’s propaganda attack on the university and its president.
Wide sections of the middle classes, including professionals, were drawn into motion. For example, in late September doctors and nurses in the capital’s two main hospitals were arrested for treating students wounded by police. Resident doctors went on strike in support of the CNH. Contingents of the Revolutionary Teachers Movement, dissidents from the government-run teachers’ union, were regular participants as well.
Overlords and Agents
The Yankee overlords to the North viewed the gathering force of the movement in Mexico with great alarm. Here was a student upsurge centered in the two main universities of the capital, the UNAM and the Poli, which was gaining much support and drawing in broader and broader sections of society. The threat to U.S. imperialism’s plan to showcase Mexico as a model of Third World stability was all too real (not to mention the larger dangers the movement posed).
The main stadium for the Olympics was located on the UNAM campus, in the middle of the ferment. CIA agent Philip Agee, who had been sent to Mexico as a spy in 1968 under the cover of organizing cultural exchanges during the Olympics, was forced to dismantle a Jupiter missile exhibition at UNAM before students tore it down. The opening of an Atomic energy exhibit at the Poli was postponed while another site was found. Right on the eve of the Olympics, the students were shattering the false picture of imperialist-sponsored development, economic prosperity and social peace. They were determined that the eyes of the world see the real Mexico.
Clearly things were getting out of hand, and the U.S. was certainly in a position to dictate policy behind the scenes. Mexico is the only foreign country where the FBI openly operates, and the CIA’s Mexico City station is the largest in the hemisphere. Winston Scott, the CIA station chief there, was so thick with the Mexican elite that a Mexican president was the official witness at Scott’s wedding. A CIA-prepared summary of leftist plans and activities was placed on President Diaz Ordaz’s desk every morning. According to Agee (now a well-known critic of the CIA), the station was “of great assistance in planning for raids, arrests, and other repressive action.”
On September 27-28, CIA big-wigs Allen Dulles and Richard Helms flew into Mexico City to consult with station chief Scott. The Tlatelolco Massacre, which will be the subject of Part 2 of the series, followed on October 2.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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