1968 in México, and 50 years later

“If the United States prosecutes the barbaric war in Vietnam and the USSR brazenly invades Czechoslovakia without the slightest concern for world public opinion’s condemnation and outrage, why wouldn’t [Mexican President Gustavo] Díaz Ordaz’s government order the horrific slaughter at Tlatelolco, without caring at all about México’s honor abroad?”

—José Revueltas, “Open Letter to Imprisoned Students” written in October 1968, shortly before the Mexican government arrested and imprisoned the activist-writer in Lecumberri prison with the students addressed in the letter.

Commemorations, especially when they take place on a centennial or at a fifty-year mark like the events of 1968, are complex rituals. They may be irrelevant, even empty, but they can also play a role as important moments of reflection. In this case, we’re taking stock of one of the highlights of the twentieth century. It was a year in which the global revolution—gathering force since the dawn of global capitalism proclaimed in the most influential revolutionary text in history, Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto—erupted.

In contrast to other countries where the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the events of 1968 may

not seem relevant, it’s very likely that in México on October 2, large gatherings and mass demonstrations around the country will mark the day. In fact, in the fifty years that has passed since then, generations of youth have chanted “October 2 is not forgotten!” at the annual demonstrations that fill the Plaza of the Three Cultures in Tlatelolco to honor the martyrs of the massacre fifty years ago.

Just fifty years ago, on July 26, 1968, the political conflict that shattered the country and aligned it with the international movement erupted in the heart of México City’s historic center. México’s ’68, especially its bloody final tragedy in Tlatelolco, was actually the last great milestone in the series of events that rocked the world in that key year of the turbulent 1960s.

The internationalist dimension

The year had begun in January and February with an event that produced a political earthquake of global dimensions. The battle then raging in Vietnam, with half a million US service members deployed, came to a turning point that seemed to set the world on fire. Despite its huge arsenal and its savagery (one million Vietnamese were killed in the conflict and the number of bombs dropped on Vietnam was equivalent to the number of bombs dropped in the Second World War), Washington was unable to snuff out the Vietnamese people’s war of national liberation. In late January, the United States faced the Tet offensive, a military offensive of such dimensions that, despite huge losses of Vietnamese fighters—who even occupied the US embassy in Saigon for several hours— constituted a resounding political victory for insurgent forces. That message was heard, and it kicked off a series of events that marked 1968 as the year in which the world fundamentally changed.

In the United States, people watched the horrific scenes of the war in Southeast Asia on their television screens. US antiwar sentiment escalated to unprecedented levels, with massive protests in major cities. These forced Lyndon Johnson to shuffle his generals, and then to give up re-election as president. The Black struggle intensified following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the country faced its worst political crisis since the Civil War.

The Vietnamese volcano erupted around the world. A very broad and powerful anti-imperialist sentiment against the US caught on, especially among young people. From Japan to Germany, from England to Brazil, hundreds of thousands of young people, especially students, took to the streets and stood in solidarity with the epic struggle of Vietnamese peasants and workers. This was the first source of the internationalization of the struggles of 1968, its anti-imperialist origin. From then on, struggles built on each other and in May produced the most spectacular example that no one had foreseen: the French May’s general strike.

At the beginning of May, several university strikes in and around Paris turned into pitched battles between students and riot police. After several days of clashes, one night the students pulled up cobblestones from the streets in the university quarter and built barricades to prevent the police from entering their schools and colleges. The “night of the barricades” set Paris on fire and the biggest strike in the history of capitalism immediately broke out on May 14. Ten million workers brought Charles de Gaulle’s government to the edge of the abyss. With the French May, a genuine renewal of revolutionary perspectives in Western Europe, continuing well into the 1970s, began. Italy, Portugal, and Spain witnessed the emergence of new vanguards and the recomposition of the workers’ movement.

History was written not only in the “capitalist bloc.” Troubled waters also roiled in what was then known as the “socialist bloc” divided between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Only weeks earlier in 1967, the world’s most populous country had experienced the so-called “Chinese Cultural Revolution,” a revolutionary upheaval with international repercussions. Democratizing movements of workers shook European countries ruled by Stalinist bureaucracies. The most important of these was awakening of the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Last but not least, in October 1967, Ernesto Che Guevara—possibly the most influential revolutionary leader in those days whose call to “create one, two, three, many Vietnams” had repercussions in the remotest corners—was assassinated on the orders of the CIA in Bolivia. East and west, south and north, the world was on fire.

The perfect dictatorship

On July 26, 1968, as it had for ten years, the Mexican student left organized demonstrations commemorating the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. In the afternoon, about 2,000 people marched to the Alameda in the historic center of the city. There, another 3,000 students joined the rally after the riot police had driven them away from the Zócalo [the city’s historic main square] where they had tried to protest in front of President Díaz Ordaz’s National Palace. These were students from the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) whom the capital’s police had attacked days before during a minor scuffle between youth gangs. The repression had escalated to such an extent that squads of police had invaded school premises and even attacked teachers. Of course, these actions provoked the students, whose reaction was not long in coming. This demonstration in the Zócalo on Friday, July 26 was the culmination of protests over the previous days. The government’s response to the protests against repression was more repression. The clashes engulfed the entire downtown area, including the high schools of the National Autonomous University of México (UNAM), which were still located in the old university district, just one block from the Zócalo.

Over the weekend, the historic center became a battleground. The police proved incapable of defeating students barricaded in school buildings, not only in the historic center but also in other parts of the city. The repression spread, and by the end of the week, a majority of the members of the central committee of the Mexican Communist Party had been arrested and imprisoned. The knee-jerk anticommunism of the day blamed the Communist Party—without a shred of evidence—for the unrest. Late Monday night and into the early hours of Tuesday unfolded the event that turned the México City struggle into a national mass mobilization. On orders of federal authorities, the army blasted bazooka rounds into the old gate to the historic administration building that then housed UNAM’s high schools 1 and 3. That attack drove masses into the streets. On August 2, university authorities, led by the rector Javier Barros Sierra, headed the first mass student and community member mobilization. It attempted to march from the University City at San Ángel to the historic district. But a wall of armed troops prevented them from reaching their destination.

The paths of history were woven together on the afternoon of July 26 and in the following days. The coming together of these two student marches, with different goals, unleashed a massive movement that became the Mexican student-popular movement. But history comes with strings attached. The word “repression” has been written several times above. And to understand the events that followed, a brief historical detour is needed.

Each national movement that was part of the global explosion in 1968 was forged from a specific combination of global determinants and national specificities and peculiarities. And Mexican peculiarities stood out. The fundamental determinant of Mexican politics was the “perfect dictatorship,” the empire of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). It sat at the apex of a de facto, almost totalitarian, single-party system that nevertheless disguised itself as the heir to the 1910-1919 revolution that had defeated one of the most powerful and ferocious of Latin American oligarchic dictatorships, that of Porfirio Díaz. But the PRI, whose predecessor was founded as the National Revolutionary Party in 1929, had kept itself in power, resorting every six years to the farce of an election.  It was impossible to ignore the fact that each new president had only one grand elector: the incumbent president who designated his successor.

In 1968, the PRI found itself in one of its golden moments. From the economic point of view, Mexican capitalism enjoyed a substantial boom that has not been repeated since: high growth rates in industry and agriculture, financial stability, and a low national debt. In short, it was in the midst of what the regime’s apologists proudly called “the Mexican miracle.” The PRI government had the enormous asset of political stability as well. It controlled, without major challenges, the labor movement and manipulated peasants with the legacy of an agrarian reform that, despite being increasingly insufficient, provided the government with considerable room for maneuver.

During the six-year term of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964–1970), PRI arrogance reached new heights. As secretary of the interior [i.e. homeland security] in the government of President Adolfo López Mateos (1958–1964) and later as president himself, Díaz Ordaz was the mastermind of one of the fiercest reactionary offensives in Latin America in the middle of the anticommunist Cold War era. It reached its highest point under the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Under the cover of the struggle against communism, repression of popular struggles had claimed numerous victims (for example, the 1962 murder of the peasant leader Rubén Jaramillo, along with his pregnant wife and family members). Or the smashing of the 1959 railroad workers’ strike that resulted in thousands of firings and left dozens of leaders imprisoned for years. The infamous Lecumberri prison in México City was the dark symbol of that time. It held dozens of workers, students, doctors, journalists, professors, intellectuals, and other political prisoners. Political prisoners were also locked up in the women’s prison. Demetrio Vallejo, the railroad union leader who had been locked up for almost ten years, would become the symbol of the political prisoners whose freedom became the student-popular movement’s main demand.

The dynamics of the movement

Trade union movements had come up against a relentless wall of repression. Railroad workers, electricians, oil workers, teachers, telegraphers, doctors and, before 1968, the students had also been repressed in Michoacán, Puebla, Chihuahua, Sonora, and México City itself. Díaz Ordaz’s despotism seemed invincible.

Repression would reveal itself in all its harshness: the gruesome death toll began on July 26 and culminated in the massacre of October 2. It is not known exactly how many were killed in Tlatelolco. Díaz Ordaz’s government declared on October 3 that “in yesterday’s riots there were about 20 dead, 75 wounded and more than 400 detained,” but “peace is guaranteed during the Olympic Games”. There were other estimates. A journalist from the British newspaper The Guardian, in the country with other international journalists to cover the Olympic Games in México City, wrote that the number of people killed reached 350. Octavio Paz considered this figure reliable and quoted it in his book on Tlatelolco, Posdata. It should be noted that in that year, with the exception of Vietnam, where a war was taking place, only in México were victims of repression counted in the hundreds, and during the two months and days of the movement alone. The strike of ten million workers in France had a single victim who drowned in the Seine. The Soviet military invasion of Czechoslovakia caused few casualties except for the young man who doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire.

In the undemocratic México of the 1960s, higher education, especially university and polytechnic campuses, were rebel islands for ideological debate and controversial ideas. The youth rebellion was expressed in beards and long hair, in rock and roll, and in sexual experimentation, all of it born from the gigantic expansion of the student population. The UNAM, the IPN and the other postsecondary institutions grew rapidly.

This was the breeding ground for the “groupuscules,” or small groups, as the French Communist Party disdainfully described the politicized and radicalized sectors who were challenging capitalism, imperialism and, increasingly, Stalinism. These groups abounded in the University City, in Santo Thomas, in Zacatenco, in Chapingo, and extended to high schools and vocational schools. From these groups, which were steeled from the early 1960s in ongoing polemics and struggles with the “reformists” of the Mexican Communist Party and the authorities, emerged a large number of the leaders of the “committees of struggle” and even of the National Strike Council (CNH).

From the beginning, the student movement was a revolutionary political movement. Of the demands the CNH leadership issued, the two leading ones were the release of political prisoners and the repeal of the crime of “social dissolution,” an all-purpose instrument the state used to repress its opponents.* The strike, which spread to all the middle- and high schools in México City and many other cities, was not against the university or polytechnic authorities, but against México City authorities and, above all, against President Díaz Ordaz himself. Díaz Ordaz picked up the gauntlet and decided that the students would pay dearly for their insolence.

Of course it was a struggle for democracy in México, but it was conducted “from below.” Bourgeois political organizations, especially the political parties, stayed away from the struggle. The impulse was not that of a conciliator and negotiator with the institutions of the dictatorship: there was a demand for public dialogue, the dissolution of the riot police, and compensation for the families of the victims of repression. Direct democracy reigned in the CNH, with representatives of the schools and faculties on strike (first three and then two per workplace) deliberating. And “below,” the true muscle of movement was found in the hundreds of brigades that scattered throughout the city to the squares, parks, markets, shopping malls, cinemas, theaters, and any public place where you could hear soap-boxers and grab flyers explaining to the people the reasons for the rebellion. Of several tumultuous demonstrations that seized the city’s great avenues and forced their way into the Zócalo, two of them—undoubtedly the largest—stood out. At the one held on August 27, two days after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the lead banner read: “We Mexican students condemn the US invasion of Vietnam and the Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia.” The second was the “Silent Demonstration” on September 13, in which the movement eloquently “answered” Díaz Ordaz’s threats of terrible repression announced in his annual state of the union address to the congress on September 1.

And then came October 2, the grim event that immediately grabbed the world’s attention following reports by dozens of international journalists who were in México to cover the Olympics. The government manipulated news about the massacre as much as it could, but the flood of information overwhelmed it.  Not even the Olympics could be insulated from the scandal when ten days after the massacre, two Black American athletes, John Carlos and Tommy Smith, raised the Black Power salute as they stood on the medal stand while the US national anthem played. In their own way, Smith and Carlos paid tribute to all that had happened in México and the world in that year.

Schizophrenia and massacre

The depth of the 1968 Mexican student-popular movement explains, in the last instance, the terrible reaction it unleashed, culminating criminally and horrifyingly in the night of Tlatelolco. The October 2 massacre brought to the surface all of the underlying tensions that the government had tried to hide. The crude repression the Díaz Ordaz government used to end the movement at all costs still shocks us with its cruelty and violence. We certainly won’t deny a shred of criminal responsibility from Díaz Ordaz, but blaming the massacre on the president’s psychotic personality misses the point. It is more correct to say: state apparatuses that through the dynamics of struggle arrive at the point of fascist or quasi-fascist repression find the leaders they need. Hitler had been a leader of the German far right for years and, by 1933, became the right man for the task that German capitalism assigned to him. Pinochet emerged from the ranks of a Chilean militarism deeply rooted in the secular oligarchic traditions of that country. Likewise, the repression in Tlatelolco was the culmination of a dynamic of repression that preceded it for years: murders, disappearances, imprisonments, military occupations of workplaces and campuses, vile and slanderous anticommunist propaganda, and so on. It was not only Díaz Ordaz’s unbounded hatred of those who dared to challenge him, but, in Tlatelolco, the PRI clique showed its terror in the face of what it considered the mortal danger of the student movement’s growing influence in the popular sectors, especially among the workers. It feared that a similar experience to that of May in France would be repeated in México. And if de Gaulle was able to overcome the challenge, Díaz Ordaz and his clique knew they could not.

It was an impossible signal to ignore. The PRI regime absorbed its first great shock announcing the beginning of its long and dramatic decline. The presidents who succeeded Díaz Ordaz, Luis Echeverría, and José López Portillo, were in charge of guaranteeing the survival of the regime in the new circumstances. Leaning on many reformist officials and intellectuals, Echeverría outlined the so-called “democratic opening,” which consisted in keeping a firm grip on the reins of repression, especially in the face of the numerous guerrilla groups that emerged in the south of the country, while granting certain demands to the university sector, packaged in crude “third worldist” demagoguery. Thus was forged the bizarre image of a government with a “progressive” international face—supposedly opposed to the military dictatorships of the Southern Cone, hospitable to the refugees from those dictatorships—that  waged a relentless “dirty war” against domestic guerrilla groups, as cruel and terrible as that of any dictatorship. López Portillo was responsible for managing the oil boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s. This gave him the necessary room for maneuver to implement a “political reform” that kept democratizing pressure under control for more than a decade as it channeled much of the opposition into parliamentary channels.

Fifty years later

In the fifty years that have passed since 1968, the country has certainly changed greatly. Almost on the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the student-popular movement, another milestone in the struggle of the Mexican people took place. In the general elections of July 1, a tsunami of more than 30 million votes by Mexican men and women delivered the worst-ever defeat to the two-pronged party representative of the masters of México: what the people call PRIAN. This union of the main right-wing parties, the PRI and the PAN, has, for the last thirty years, recycled the presidential regime. Both the PAN and the PRI have collapsed, with the latter falling into a situation of political irrelevance. The PRI empire has finally been buried.

The overwhelming electoral victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) does not yet mean the disappearance of the regime. The regime is in crisis with the two main capitalist parties seriously damaged, perhaps irreparably so. The National Regeneration Movement (Morena) is not yet a structured party and many former PRI and PAN members, as well as heterogeneous groups from other political currents, have taken refuge there. It is a large conglomerate whose only common denominator is the main leader. AMLO, the great arbitrator, faces the colossal task of, at the same time, dealing with what he himself defined as “the mafia of power”—which has surrounded and accepted him as its new guide since July 2—and with the millions of workers and oppressed people who awarded him with victory in the immense hope that the country will experience a decisive turn in favor of the popular welfare.

Fifty years after 1968, a new situation has arisen in the political struggle. Its complex and profound enigmas have been evident since the first month of the electoral turnaround on July 1. A new chapter in México’s history has opened.

It is no exaggeration to say that much of what is happening today is truly rooted in the joyful and heady days when masses of young people marched in the streets of the capital of México and other cities of the country, making the palaces tremble and calling on the people to join their struggle for a democratic and free México. They were the popular heroes who earned themselves a place of honor in the collective memory of the Mexican people forever.

This reflection appeared originally in the online political news site Correspondencia de Prensa (CdP). Reprinted in ISR with permission. Translated into English by Lance Selfa.

* The crime of social dissolution in the Penal Code forbid writing or organizing any political activities that the state said would undermine the integrity of the national territory, or undermine faith in the state’s institutions. In other words, it was a vague “crime” that the state used to repress any genuine political opposition.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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