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Mexican Students Return to Class

February 15, 2000

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ A young engineering student stood by the notice board, waiting to find out exactly when he has to attend class again after a strike at Latin America’s largest university forced him to take a 10-month break.

Luis Arturo Gomez, who spent the break studying English, had just one semester left before graduation when the strike began. On Monday, his enthusiasm tinged with bitterness, he entered the campus for the first time since then.

``It was ridiculous to spend 10 months on strike doing nothing. It was outrageous,″ said Gomez, 22.

Tens of thousands of other students also returned to the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM, on Monday, eight days after a police raid ousted 2,500 strikers who had taken control of the campus. Some 600 were arrested.

A clash threatened to break out Monday as 2,500 sympathizers of the strike demanded the suspension of classes until the authorities renewed negotiations with the strikers and freed those still in detention.

A small group of strikers retook parts of the science school after a student assembly narrowly voted in favor of blocking the return to school, university spokesman Alberto Perez Blas said on TV Azteca evening news. He said he hoped the strikers would leave the building on their own.

Although the university’s 270,000 students were divided by the strike, things were generally calm as academic activity resumed.

``The future of the university depends on the students, and we must strive to regain the prestige lost,″ Gomez said. ``Some people may feel resentment toward certain people. I feel that resentment.″

The strike began in April and was triggered by a plan to raise annual tuition from a token few cents to the equivalent of $140.

University authorities quickly backed down on the tuition increase. But the students made other demands, ranging from guarantees protecting the existing practice of automatic entrance into the university for students of affiliated high schools, to the end of global free-market economic policies they claimed would exclude the poor from education.

Negotiations broke down repeatedly, but the government feared that ordering a raid on the occupied campus would rekindle memories of a massacre of students in 1968.

The police finally went in _ unarmed _ on Feb. 6, a few days after violent clashes between students and university workers.

For accounting professor Hector Ortiz Reyes, 24 years teaching at the university has taught him one lesson. ``The university is crying out for serious structural reform,″ he said.

``I entered as a high school student in 1965, studying a curriculum from 1963 that is still taught today, 40 years later!″ Ortiz Reyes said.

He earns the equivalent of $2 for an hour’s class, and depends primarily on a job in an accounting firm and at a private university.

Meanwhile, piles of garbage, bottles, pamphlets with anti-government slogans and shreds of the red and black cloth that symbolized the protest litter the huge campus _ reminders of the strike.

Most of the buildings, however, survived without serious damage.

And around the campus, students chat or start up ball games. The majority were ready for the university to reopen.

Patricia Gutierrez spent much of the last 10 months in a bus, traveling around the city to attend temporary classes.

``I am very happy to be back,″ she said.