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University Crisis in Mexico Drags On

August 16, 1999

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ Students opposed to a months-long strike at Latin America’s largest university demonstrated throughout Mexico City on Monday, demanding that they be allowed back into their classrooms.

But rivals who support the strike showed no signs of backing down, leaving more than 220,000 students shut out on what was supposed to be the first day of the fall semester.

The National Autonomous University _ also known by its Spanish initials, UNAM _ has been closed since April 20, taken over by students protesting a tuition increase and several reform measures instituted by UNAM President Francisco Barnes de Castro.

Barnes wanted to raise tuition for the first time in more than 50 years from a symbolic 2 cents to $160 a year.

A few striking students turned up at an anti-strike demonstration Monday at Mexico City’s Angel of Independence monument, and the two sides started shouting at each other.

``We have a situation that could very easily turn violent,″ said Gabriel Mendoza, a Mexico City official who intervened to defuse the situation.

The anti-strike group also held peaceful demonstrations Monday on pedestrian walkways spanning Mexico City highways, where they displayed banners asking drivers to turn their headlights on to protest the strike. A broadcast by the Televisa network showed most cars on a major Mexican freeway with their headlights turned on.

But Monday’s protests drew fewer people than a march by striking students last Friday.

UNAM officials said 195,000 of its expected 268,000 students had been able to register for the fall semester. They added that only 45,000 students _ mostly those who use off-campus facilities _ would begin the semester on time.

``I am very disappointed in the UNAM,″ said sophomore Laura Janko, an architecture major participating in Monday’s anti-strike demonstration. ``I’m disappointed in the officials that have done nothing to solve the strike, as well as in the striking students.″

Janko said school and government officials have failed to intervene ``because they don’t have any guts, they are afraid because the elections are coming up.″

As the strike dragged on, Barnes agreed to drop the tuition increase. But by then the students were fired up and pressed other demands, such as greater student participation in running the school.

Speaking at a downtown UNAM facility Monday, Barnes said he was still willing to negotiate with the striking students.

``(But) dialogue cannot involve the confrontation of uncompromising positions, nor can it be a sterile debate consisting merely of criticism,″ he was quoted as saying by the government news agency Notimex.

Striking students have barricaded the campus, and it is unlikely they will be forcibly dislodged. In one of Mexico City’s darkest moments, soldiers fired on anti-government student protesters in 1968, killing an estimated 300 people.

The Mexican constitution guarantees free public education to all, but UNAM officials argue that doesn’t include higher education.

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