The echo effect of 1968

Paco Ignacio Taibo II—leader in the 1968 Mexican student strike, journalist, social activist, union organizer—is widely known for his crime novels, and is considered the founder of the neo-crime genre in Latin America. One of the most prolific writers in Mexico today, more than 500 editions of his 51 books have been published in over a dozen languages. His latest book, Pancho Villa (Planeta, 2006), will soon be available in English.

Taibo has won many awards, including the Grijalbo, the Planeta/Joaquin Mortiz in 1992, and the Dashiell Hammett three times, for his crime novels. His biography, Guevara: Also Known as Che (St. Martin’s Press, 1996), has sold more than half a million copies around the world and won the 1998 Bancarella Book of the Year award in Italy. Taibo organizes the Semana Negra (Noir Week), a crime fiction festival held every year in Gijón, Spain. More infor¬mation about his life and works is available at Todd Chretien interviewed Taibo in September 2008 in Los Angeles on the fortieth anniversary of the 1968 Mexican student movement.

The major student rebellions of the year 1968 are well known—the French May, the student strike at Columbia University, the police rampage at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. However, one of the most significant campus mobilizations of that year is often only given a footnote in the history books. The student movement that took place in the months before the Mexico City Olympics is only known widely for the brutal massacre of students on October 2 of that year. The murder of hundreds of students in the Plaza de Tres Culturas aroused the horror of the entire world, but it is only a part of the story of a movement that brought hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens into the streets against an authoritarian government.

A broad student movement against police repression and violence against high school students began spontaneously after the repression of a schoolyard gang fight. An initial protest, which coincided with a demonstration against the war in Vietnam, brought more repression, and the cycle of protest in response quickly ballooned into a university strike and mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of students demanding civil rights and student autonomy. The students organized four demonstrations over the course of August, each with more than a hundred thousand participants in support of their six-point program that included freedom for political prisoners, the firing of the police chief, and end to the criminalization of political protest. A march at the end of August brought half a million to the Zócalo, the massive public square at the heart of Mexico City.

Unlike many of the student movements of the period around the world, the Mexican student movement grasped almost immediately and intuitively that its most pressing task was to spread its struggle for democratic rights to other sections of the urban Mexican population. As Paco Ignacio Taibo II points out in this interview, this notion was expressed in the spontaneous creation of brigadas, or propaganda teams, that spread out to marketplaces and passenger buses of the city to distribute leaflets, give speeches, and perform street theater to educate the population about the students’ demands and goals. These brigadas, along with the fluid representative structures created by the movement, were what gave the movement its democratic character in stark contrast to the single-party state that they challenged. The students also began to have successes reaching out to organized popular sectors beyond their mass marches, for example, to workers that inspired a hospital strike. They also developed connections with a nearby peasant community, Topilejo, which was battling the state over safety issues in the aftermath of a bus accident that killed ten residents.

The state began an escalating campaign of repression during the month of September, as the Olympics drew nearer and it became clear that the students were gaining popular support and momentum and refused to be co-opted. By the middle of the month, President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz had sent tanks onto the main university campus, and a series of street battles were fought over other schools during the subsequent weeks. This repression peaked with the cold-blooded massacre at a rally in the Plaza of Three Cultures on October 2. The plaza was in the midst of the Tlatelolco housing projects, which were an important and supportive social base for the students, who had by then been forcibly removed from the campus. The number of students murdered will probably never be known, but was far more—at least 300—than the twenty-six reported in the official media. The massacre forced the retreat of the student movement, which first had to declare a “truce” with the government, and eventually ended the strike at the beginning of December. The Olympics would continue, marked by the Black Power protests of medalists but also significant solidarity protests by athletes in support of the students. However, the long-term impact on Mexican society of the student earthquake would be profound. The movement exposed the first cracks in the massive state apparatus that had seemed unshakeable for decades, and the veterans of student activism, like Taibo himself, would go on to organize social movements across the country over the next twenty years.

PARIS, PRAGUE, Vietnam, New York, Mexico. What were the social, economic, cultural, and political factors that linked the international youth rebellions of 1968?

I HAVE the feeling that this appearance of synchronization isn’t real. If one looks at each situation, you find very, very peculiar elements in the political development of history. The events in Prague were absolutely related to a process that was taking place in other Eastern European countries, for instance, Hungary and Poland, but maybe no more than that. The connection between the United States and Mexico was practically nonexistent. While in the United States the development was very obviously related to two factors: the struggle against the war in Vietnam and the movement for civil rights. The Mexican events had to do, very particularly, with the saturation of a system of absolute control by the PRI [Party of Institutional Revolution] that had reached its limit. Society had no other escape valve, and it exploded in the only section of society where the PRI exercised a little less control, the university. The history of Argentina in 1969 is intimately linked to the emergence of a combative Peronism and its impact on the working class. The history of Brazil had to do with the crisis of the Brazilian model.

You could say, for example, that the Italian movement, which was much later, was culturally more advanced—they made inroads into cultural forms, with political cinema, etc. There was also the struggle against Stalinism that came in waves. Of course there was an important interchange between the events... and in many places you could say that there were common political influences, for instance, the Cuban Revolution profoundly impacted all of Latin America. The movement in the United States influenced the Mexican movement in terms of information and cultural and political knowledge. But the question is, why 1968, not 1965 or 1963? Things had been cooking on a slow fire.

In general, what linked all these events, despite their very different origins, were the echoes that came from all points. There was a crisis of the traditional political project of the communist parties, which were absolutely exhausted in those times from the point of view of the Cuban and Chinese revolutions, and the situation in Latin America’s communist parties, etc. It seemed that nothing new would come from them, so the question was where would it come from? The Left mounted a general cultural offensive that reached its highest point in the 1960s, a political culture that was rapidly transmitted, producing an echo effect from one movement to the next.

The French movement in 1968, which was one of the first, produced an enormous echo effect that was heard in other parts of the world, and it this sense, acted like a contagion. But I wouldn’t say more than this. History is capricious. It’s hard to say how it works. Trying to force an analysis in search of a common denominator that explains the wave of youth rebellions is—well frankly, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to do that, and every time I think I found it... well, just because it seems so obvious, doesn’t mean it’s true.

HOW WOULD you explain the impact of the Mexican Revolution of 1910–17 on the student movement in 1968?

PRACTICALLY NONE. On the contrary, completely the opposite. This was the first generation for which the revolution did not exist. For other Mexicans yes, but for the students of 1968 it was a nonexistent heritage. Purely rhetoric from a conservative government. It proclaimed itself the inheritor of the Mexican Revolution but didn’t contain a single revolutionary component, not even the essential agrarian component of the Mexican Revolution. And that was one of the weaknesses of the movement, the absence of a historical national connection. The movement grew up in a vacuum and developed a politics based on immediate reaction against the authoritarianism of the government. On the other hand, mixed into the cocktail were the multiple cultural influences of the social movements of the entire planet. And this was a problem because the students had to construct their own version of what had happened before in their own country.

SO, FOR example, Adolfo Gilly wrote The Revolution Interrupted while he was in prison between 1966 and 1972 in Lecumberri, right? But these types of ideas were not yet widespread in 1968?

RIGHT, NO influence at all. The recuperation of the history of the Mexican Revolution by the Left really only began at the end of the 1980s, maybe a little bit in the 1970s, when the revision of the official history began with the study of Flores Magón [late nineteenth and early twentieth century Mexican anarchist leader], Zapata, Villismo, that is of the Left of the revolution, the defeated revolution, not just triumphant. This was a phenomenon that took place much later. For example, in all the student brigades in 1968, not a single one was named Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata.

IN YOUR book 1968, you say that one of the student brigades was named after Marilyn Monroe, but none for Pancho Villa…

THAT’S RIGHT! If you see the photos of the banners that we painted and carried in our marches, there is Che everywhere, obviously, there is Ho Chi Minh, but, for example, not one of Rubén Jaramillo [a radical peasant leader assassinated by the PRI in 1962] that would have shown an awareness of the social struggle. There wasn’t even (despite the fact that freedom for political prisoners was one of our demands) a strong presence of the workers’ leaders on our banners. For example, of Demetrio Vallejo [jailed for leading railroad strikes in 1958 and 1959], who was in prison at that time, because there was very little knowledge of the history of struggle. And this didn’t change until 1971 or 1972.… The first interesting studies of the Mexican Revolution came much later.

HOW WAS the PRI transformed in just twenty-five years from the party of radical land reform and the nationali­za­tion of the oil industry under President Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930s into the authoritarian dictatorship of the 1960s?

IT HAD already been transformed. Cárdenismo was the last point of resistance of what you could call the center-left within the PRI. The process of decomposition began immediately after the revolution, when the government began to confront the more radical workers’ movement that grew up in the 1920s. They built a totalitarian model basically rooted in society’s exhaustion, with the support of a section of the peasants who had been socially incorporated through the land reform. But the process of the Right coming to power in the PRI began in the 1920s. It was temporarily detained in 1934, when Cardenismo put the brakes on the Right. Within the governmental apparatus, they were building their monopolistic structures, with a multitude of alliances and negotiations, constructing their hegemonic vision of the country’s future. Cardenismo represented an incoherent push to the left by society on this structure. But Cárdenas, when he had to decide who would succeed him, and in the Mexican system of that time the president designated his successor, the same men from the apparatus obliged him to choose from the Right, and not from the Left. The continuity of Cárdenas would have been guaranteed by choosing one of his ministers, but instead, it was the miserable Manuel Ávila Camacho [who became president in1940], who was extraordinarily conservative and reactionary. And then the counterrevolution was confirmed in power [in 1946] with Miguel Alemán, an archconservative and sellout to the interests of the United States, who was hostile to all national and social projects.

YOUR GRANDPARENTS were members of the Spanish Socialist Party during the Civil War against Franco’s fascists. How did your family’s views shape your understanding of politics?

MY PATERNAL grandfathers were anarcho-syndicalists. I come from the two traditions of the Spanish workers’ movement, socialism and anarcho-syndicalism. They had a decisive influence on me. At dinnertime, at the table, there was tremendous and continual political discussion and analysis, a reflection on social reality and what was our place in the world. It wasn’t only about politics, but about culture, daily life, the meaning of things.

BUT YOUR political upbringing wasn’t common to other students, and if the Mexican Revolution didn’t provide a political orientation for radical students, where did students get their ideas?

WHAT YOU find is that there was a generation of militants, made up of three or four or five thousand students in Mexico City. They were formed in the first years of the 1960s in the conflict with the authoritarian state. And they were very heavily nourished by the international cultural stew already mentioned. They were very internationalist in this sense. There was a subgeneration within this group of the children of left-wing Republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War who lived in Mexico; children of anarchists, of socialists, of communists. There was the influence of critical thinking, produced by the exiles of the 1930s. For instance, Victor Serge’s biography of Leon Trotsky circulated widely thanks to progressive publishers. And there was a huge amount of material about Latin America, an especially great quantity of writings about the Cuban Revolution.

THE 1968 strike was based, in one way, on the massive expansion of public education in Mexico after the Second World War. Given the fact that the economy was expanding substantially during these years, and that the students were not the most oppressed or exploited section of society, why did the rebellion begin in the universities?

I THINK you can have an excessively economistic vision of what happened, of how the student vanguard was formed. It might have been caused by economic factors, but it wasn’t. In reality, there were other things at work. I have read analyses that say that the student movement was linked to the crisis of this generation of students’ economic futures. This generation, that was growing up with the idea of being engineers or that they’d have material success based on the expansion of education and growth of job opportunities, and then finding out that those prospects were being limited. But I don’t have the slightest perception of this idea. In those years, if you wanted to be an engineer, you could get a job almost immediately. And reading biographies of various colleagues, [for instance] the biographical notes of a comrade who studied biological chemistry in the Polytechnic Institute and he says it very clearly that we all knew that we all had guaranteed jobs after graduation. And these were good jobs in terms of salary. So, I think this perception after the fact [about the lack of jobs] is false, it wasn’t there at the time. It wasn’t one of the detonating factors. The detonating factors were political.

And you have to understand another factor that was very obvious. In a society where there is absolutely no room to breath and only one area has a concentration of oxygen, when society explodes, everyone will rush toward that one place to breath in the oxygen. The university was the only place where you could see banned films, the only place where you could get information in a country where the press was 99 percent under the control of the government—ferocious, terrible censorship. It was the only place where there was freedom of debate and discussion. The university channeled all this in many ways. The conditions were being created.

At what moment did the generation of militants interact with the generation of hundreds of thousands of students who were simply there, those that were not political? It happened when repression affected them directly. It wasn’t repression against a march of campesinos, it was repression aimed precisely at the students themselves. That’s what caused the virulent reaction on the part of hundreds of thousands of students.

Now there are many biographies of the militants of 1968 that are being published and lots of records from the movement. One of them is by a student from the chemistry department, a department that had never before had a student assembly. He describes the disconcerting feeling when the army was deployed. “All this military force is directed at us? This whole deployment of police power is for us?” That’s what provoked the first student assembly in the chemistry department in twenty-five years! That’s why they decided to go on strike. And the strike was extremely contagious. And it was more than a strike; it was an occupation of all the schools. We didn’t say, close the schools, we’re going home. We occupied all the schools.

PERHAPS NOW would be a good time to explain how the students organized themselves during the strike.

IT WAS a multifaceted form of organization, it was involuntary. It was a deeply democratic structure, and the movement did it, not for democratic reasons or because of a democratic culture, but in order to impede the corruption of the leadership. There is a long tradition in the social struggles of Mexico of the leadership being corrupted or co-opted. So, how to neutralize this fear that the leadership would sell out—the movement decided itself, spontaneously at every stage. The assembly became the axis of the political life of the school or department where delegates were elected, first on the university level and then to the National Strike Council, three from each school or department. These delegates were instantly recallable in the local assemblies. If you didn’t like what the delegate did in the national council, you could replace them. In this way, we created a very wide pyramid structure and prevented a minority leadership from taking over. It was a structure that was very strong above and below and maintained a very potent midsection. This midsection was filled in by the committees and assemblies from every department, where twenty or thirty or forty students in every department formed the center of activisms.

And then there were the brigades. They were affinity groups formed by friends or classmates who knew one another. They formed permanent action groups, whose functions were propaganda and agitation in order to counteract the immense force of government propaganda against the movement.

YOU HAVE described “Radio Rumor” as an informal mechanism whereby the students and the general population were able to break the PRI’s monopoly of information. Could you tell us how that worked?

THE MOVEMENT was forced to express its opinions via nontraditional means. Traditional means were closed to us. It was useless to go to a radio station and knock on the door because the door was locked. A reporter who came to see what was happening would look the other way to be able to say that he had not seen an immense student protest. The news kept on reporting in an absurd way, telling ferocious lies in the most shameless way. So, to neutralize this, we sent hundreds of thousands of students into the streets to agitate, to build a rumor, a rumor of the movement to counteract the official version. This was expressed in many ways—from painting on walls, handing out propaganda, and an immense amount of work giving soapbox speeches to the three hundred people that could hear your shouting on a street corner. This last method had tremendous success because of the strong oral traditions of Mexican society. We’d do the same thing on the buses—we called them lightning meetings. We held hundreds, thousands of these.

CAN YOU explain what a lightning meeting is?

IT’S A meeting on a bus. You get on board and you say, “Esteemed passengers, we are here to tell you the truth about what is happening in our strike.” And then you’d pass around a can for donations to pay for the propaganda, for food for the students, etc. We did this all day long. Hundreds of brigades did this every day, all over Mexico City.

AND DID you get a lot of support from the population?

IT INCREASED unbelievably quickly because there was an immediate identification with the students by many people, especially the middle class, and the lower-middle class, whose sons and daughters made up the mass of the students. We received organized support from families and the medical staff from public clinics. We also got help from the electrical workers, who were one of the few unions that still had a democratic internal life, and the primary schoolteachers. This had a big impact. Remember, many of the primary and secondary schools were linked, and the secondary schoolteachers were out on strike with us from the first moment. I think the movement was a majority movement in Mexico City. There were strikes in other parts of the country, but unfortunately, the strike never took on a national dimension, because the school calendars did not coincide.

STARTING ON July 26 after the police attacked student marchers, the government tried to use the promise of negotiations and escalating threats of violence to stop the movement. Can you explain the government’s strategy? Why didn’t it work?

THEY DIDN’T succeed because they didn’t offer anything at all in negotiations. You can’t negotiate if you don’t offer anything! There is something in the essence of PRIismo in Mexico; it is constructed on the principle of authority. “I am the state. I am the future and the past. I am eternity.” In this sense, they could not negotiate because negotiations imply a perception of weakness. “What we must demonstrate is strength.” Therefore, they never had the capacity to negotiate. If the government had gone to the negotiating table the first month of the strike—right after the first big wave of repression, at the end of August, or the beginning of September—and discussed the six student demands, and perhaps given in on four of them, the movement would have been put out. We would have consolidated a certain strength in the universities, but the movement would have gone out.

BY THE end of September, there was the feeling that the government was preparing a blow to crush the movement, which, of course, turned out to be the massacre of October 2.

YES. October 2 was one of the attacks. But by that time, the government had already militarily seized the main university campus, there had been repression in the Casco de Santo Tomás school, the polytechnic school, and in Zacatenco neighborhood, the strongest bulwark of the student movement in the north of the city. It had been taken at gunpoint after a shootout. October 2 was the final stage of a growing scale of violence.

TROTSKY ONCE said that German fascism was so brutal because the socialist and trade union movement was so strong, that only terrible repression and fear could break it. Do you see a parallel between the strength of the student movement in 1968 and the ferocity of the PRI’s attack?

THE STATISTICS of repression always measure the ascendancy of a revolution or counterrevolution. This is always true, in thousands of cases. You measure it in the way forces are concentrated and fight on the one side and in the strength of the conservative forces that defend the old order. In this way, both sides become more virulent. They were trapped in their mentality of refusing to negotiate anything, and according to this logic, with the path to negotiations closed, their only option was absolute repression. Yet, the great paradox is that with all the repression of October 2, they did not succeed in breaking the strike.

DESPITE THE bloodbath in Tlatelolco, or because of it, the Olympic Games went on as scheduled. But there were signs of resistance inside the games themselves when African-American medal winners John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in the Black Power salute. Was there any relation between the student movement and the athletes?

WELL, THERE was a strong internationalism, and that explains the athletes’ protests. I think the greatest moment of those games was when Mexican President Gustavo Diáz Ordaz was booed relentlessly for fifteen minutes by the whole crowd. It was so loud that the television cameras and radio stations had to use fake crowd noise to cover it up. They had to falsify the sound. But we didn’t see the pictures of John Carlos and Tommie Smith until we read about it in your magazine, Life, because the Mexican press didn’t report it! But everyone in Mexico City knew about it, everyone. Five minutes after it happened, I heard about it from three different people because Radio Rumor was still going strong.

THE STRIKE continued until December 4, when the last student assemblies voted to return to classes. So, although it was a defeat, it was an organized retreat. After the strike ended, there was a period of demoralization and disorganization, but can you explain what happened to the thousands of students who had become politicized during the strike?

WELL, “ORGANIZED” has to be in quotation marks because the government took four thousand prisoners, including an incredible number of the movement’s cadre. Some of these cadres died and some were corrupted. There was a couple years of an ebbing and desperate resistance in the universities immediately after the strike, but the most important phenomena of 1968 was that, starting in 1970 or 1971, there was a kind of deployment of the student cadres to various social sectors in order to continue what they began in 1968 in terms of organizing the people. And this lasted for twenty years—hundreds and thousands of fights, social struggles, partial strikes, etc., between 1970 and 1988, and the rise of Cardenismo.1 It’s an impressive record, nearly twenty years of continuous struggle. Sector by sector. With terrible timing, it’s true! We’ve never managed to align all our struggles. Practically every sector of Mexican society has come into conflict with the state: teachers, electrical workers, textile workers, metal workers, townspeople, in the North, the South, the Center, in Mexico City, movements of campesinos in Morelos, in the universities, creating university workers’ unions. And many of the leaders of these many struggles were cadre formed in the 1968 strike. Alongside them, there was a generation of worker and campesino and popular leaders who, together, formed the next “revolutionary” wave (once again, in quotation marks) which consisted of Cárdenas’ electoral challenge in 1988,2 which was another rupture.

YOU HAVE said that you don’t have to have lived through a specific time in history to have an opinion about it and that you encourage young people to make up their own minds about 1968. But you’ve also noted that there is a frightening lack of historical knowledge amongst this generation. What did 1968 teach you that you would like to share with young people today?

I THINK there are many elements of 1968 that we have to put on the table. One of them is that in 1968, a generation of students, practically in every part of the world, made a commitment to change their societies. And they changed themselves from individual observers into collective transformers. This was our great moment of glory. And every generation has a right to its own moment of glory. And that glory is social, it’s not individual. American society stimulates a virulently powerful idea in its young people that glory is an individual phenomena, associates it with athletic glory, economic success, all in individual terms. I have had individual success. I’m a writer who’s sold several million books—that’s fine, but it matters very little if you put it next to the glory of social change. The glory of collective struggle. The glory of putting yourself at the service of your society. To put yourself on the side of the victims, of the dispossessed, to take into your hands your right to change the world. That’s what I believe, sincerely. That’s the lesson of 1968.

  1. Taibo is referring to the movement led by the son of Lázaro Cárdenas, Cuauhtémoc, an ex-PRI governor of Michoacan (1980–86) who founded in 1989, along with other former members of the PRI, the Party of Democratic Revolution, which groups ex-PRI members with several left groups to challenge the stranglehold of the PRI on Mexican politics.
  2. He was nominated for president by a grouping in PRI called the “Democratic Current,” and was then expelled from the party. He subsequently ran for president that year under the Democratic National Front, a loose alliance of ex-PRI and left-wing organizations, and lost the election, at least in part, to PRI voter fraud.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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