All nations exhibit some degree of chauvinism, and embattled Mexico—“so far from God and so close to the United States” in the words of a distinguished ex-president—has certainly indulged in its share of nationalistic rhetoric and chest-pounding. But since the revolution in the early 1920s, Mexico has also opened out onto the world. It welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Spanish Civil War, and in general has pursued a cultural policy emphasizing the unity of Spanish-speaking peoples by means of prizes, symposia, invitations, and publishing houses that are open to all Spaniards and Spanish Americans. Just in the past year, for instance, the cultural arms of both the federal government and of Mexico City itself have been celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Argentinian poet Jorge Luis Borges with numerous symposia. As the editor of a recent bilingual edition of Borges’s Selected Poems (Viking), I was invited to take part in a roundtable on the poetry of Borges. The symposium— which included such distinguished figures as the Argentinian poet Juan Gelman and the Colombian poet and novelist Alvaro Mutis—went off without a hitch, and one could only be impressed by this example of Mexican cultural catholicity. It is not at all clear that Buenos Aires would do as much for a comparable Mexican figure like the late Octavio Paz.

That’s the good news about Mexico. My recent visit reminded me that there is plenty of bad news as well. Although I was there for only four days, it was long enough to recognize that Mexico is a country in crisis. If I say this with surprise, it is because nothing in the American press prepared me for the reality of present-day Mexico. The political and financial imperatives flowing from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) seem to have tranquillized reporting about Mexico. For example, an upbeat story on the front page of The Wall Street Journal recently told readers that “What Southeast was to U.S. Companies, Mexico is Becoming.” “In the five years since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement,” the Journal reported, “U.S. manufacturers have moved in flocks south of the border, turning once-sleepy towns into rush-hour cities.” But that pleasant prospect is belied by the fact that Mexico is undergoing its most extreme crisis since the revolution seventy-odd years ago.

The truth is that Mexico is struggling with a series of calamities, most of them man-made but a few of meteorological provenance. Each separately is serious; together they threaten to plunge the country into anarchy. It is a measure of the stalwartness of the present president, Ernesto Zedillo, now in his last year of his six-year term, that he is still viewed by most Mexicans with some degree of affection and sympathy.

Let’s start with the economy. During Zedillo’s term, the buying power of the Mexican worker has declined by 47 percent. Since 1976, the buying power of that same worker has lost 93 percent of its value. Put another way, the same salary in 1999 buys you 7 percent of what you could have bought in 1976. Most Mexican families, except the garish plutocrats, are working at least two jobs. Hunger is evident in both city and country. The hijacking of full grocery carts in supermarket parking lots is not uncommon. In the busy downtown streets on a bright Saturday morning, each block had at least six uniformed policemen strung along the sidewalks.

Violent crime is rampant. Safety from open assault on the streets of Mexico City is clearly a major concern of editorial writers and commentators. At my hotel, when I inquired how I should get to a downtown museum for what turned out to be a superb exhibition of Mayan artifacts, the concierge told me that

For reasons of safety (seguridad), you must rent a limousine arranged by us for approximately three hours. The driver will take you to the entrance to the museum or else accompany you there. Make an appointment with him to be at that same spot after your visit of an hour and a half or so. Do not walk about the streets by yourself.

The budgetary crisis that began in the mid-1980s is ongoing, ameliorated from time to time by bailouts from the U.S. treasury. Barebones national budgets are scheduled for at least the next few years. The International Monetary Fund hovers over all questions of domestic spending. In March 1998, the government finally admitted that it had taken over in 1995 some $62 billion in non-performing loans from about-to-fail banks. This represented 16 percent of the Mexican GNP for that year.

The influence of drug money and culture is also evident everywhere. It has invaded the lowest and highest echelons of the government and has been the subject of extensive coverage in U.S. journals. To take the most notorious of examples from a few years back, President Zedillo had by 1996 despaired of using the infamously corrupt police force to make any headway with the war on drugs. He turned to the Mexican Army, created a National Institute for Combat Against Drugs, and named a ferocious-looking general, Jesús Gutiérrez Rebollo, as its first czar. The White House point man on drugs, General Barry McCaffrey, described General Rebollo as a “soldier of absolute, unquestioned integrity.” After a mere two months, Rebollo was found to be living in a luxurious apartment owned by a feared drug dealer and taking bribes. He was cashiered and put on trial. The terrifying formula of the narcotraffickers may explain much: “¨O plomo o plata?,” i.e., either accept our lead (in the form of bullets) or our silver (that is, our cash bribes).

Then there is also the matter of the single-party system and the dominance of the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The previous president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, nominated the popular Donaldo Colosio as his successor, but Colosio was assassinated under circumstances that remain murky. Sr. Zedillo, who had no ambitions to be president, was the substitute candidate. The corruption in the previous administration led to the conviction of the former president’s brother, Raúl Salinas de Gortari—for conspiracy to murder his ex-brother-in-law Francisco Ruiz Massieu, a rising star in the PRI—and to the discovery of $115 million spread around his 289 bank accounts in the U.S. and Europe. The ex-president himself, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, is in voluntary exile in Dublin, somehow reluctant to return to Mexico. Even President Zedillo is under a cloud; a Mexican banker now in an Australian jail fighting extradition alleges that he gave $4 million in illegal contributions to the 1994 Zedillo campaign. The reporter Tim Golden’s conclusions in The New York Times (July 11, 1997) about the ubiquity of the bribe in Mexico (known as “la mordida,” or “the bite”) are more germane than ever:

After insisting for years that Mexican corruption was an old affliction being cured by a new generation of political leaders, senior American officials have begun to acknowledge that the growing power and influence of drug traffickers have led to a law-enforcement crisis so deep that it threatens the stability of a country that shares almost 2000 miles of border with the United States.

And then there is the weather. During the Fall, the coastal and southern parts of Mexico were devastated by torrential rains. The tourist areas of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Acapulco—tourism is Mexico’s second largest industry—were severely affected and the damage to crops has been immense and irreparable. Thousands upon thousands of livelihoods have been ruined, as have the structures, however humble, that many Mexican peasants have been able to call home. In beleaguered communities, still isolated by washed-out roads and bridges, even the bare necessities—potable water, basic nutrition—are lacking. Imprudently, Zedillo has refused all outside help.

I have saved the worst element in this bleak picture for last. There is a strike on in Mexico, one that has paralyzed the country from Zedillo on down. It is a strike of students at UNAM, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. This strike has no parallel in American higher education. The events at Berkeley, Wisconsin, or Columbia in 1968 pale beside the damage already done to Mexico’s major institution of higher learning, and there is no amelioration or compromise on the horizon. The facts of the matter are daunting.

The gargantuan university called UNAM is the alma mater of the nation. Located at the southern fringe of Mexico City and occupying a campus which is a city in itself, it is the largest university in Latin America, perhaps in the world. Publicly funded by the federal government with a budget now approaching the peso equivalent of $1 billion a year, it has an enrollment of 270,000 students supported by a staff and faculty of around 30,000. It is governed by a single rector, who in turn is voted in by the fifteen members of a supervisory junta; this group in turn names the directors of programs and research institutes and the chairmen of departments from a list supplied by the rector. But the rector is at the top of this academic pyramid, and it is he who gives intellectual direction and establishes priorities for the future. A special feature of UNAM is its close relation to a chain of public secondary schools; graduates from these schools are eligible for admission to the university without entrance examinations.

In late April, Rector Francisco Barnés proposed drastic reforms. With the aim of raising faculty salaries, upgrading the infrastructure, expanding the library and computer facilities, and boosting scholarship funds, he announced a raise in annual tuition from the present ludicrous equivalent of two American cents to a fee equal to $120. This was to be the first adjustment of fees in some fifty years. He also proposed expelling students who did not finish promptly and terminating the automatic entrance from high school. The poorest students would be exempt from the higher fees, while others slightly better off could postpone payment until they were wage-earners themselves. False data on any scholarship application would result in denial of admission or expulsion. A special feature of Rector Barnés’s proposal was that all students currently enrolled were exempt from any future payments. The new tuition fee schedule was to apply to students enrolling in 1999 and thereafter.

The students organized quickly, reacting to what they viewed as the first step toward the “privatization” of a wholly populist educational enterprise. A strike was called, a good number of students joined in, with more than a smattering of disaffected faculty. The university city, with all its satellite buildings, has been occupied and the campus closed since late April. A minority of students was able to struggle on in off-campus buildings and finish with final examinations. At the end of October, the students celebrated the sixth month of the occupation with a festive grand ball accompanied by the inevitable rock band.

It should be said that on June 7 the rector backed down and rescinded the projected fee plan. But by then the movement had taken on a life of its own and a whole series of demands was formulated, having to do with free university education for all, open admission from any high school, and elimination of time-to-degree limitations. One demand even stipulated that governance of the entire university was to be transferred to a board which would judge all educational programs and research in terms of their relevance to “the interests of the Mexican people.”

On June 8 a dispatch from Mexico City published in The New York Times announced that “the administration [of the university] backed down before the students’ protests, opening the way for a settlement.” But as of this writing there is still no settlement, nor is there likely to be one any time soon. Meanwhile, there have been meetings with student leaders; committees of concerned emeriti professors trying to intervene; attempts at “dialogue;” “non-negotiable” positions announced urbi et orbi; mobilizations; verbal and at times severely physical confrontations; takeovers of buildings; failed attempts at dislodging the squatters; and even a few short-term kidnappings of strike leaders who have been swept off their feet into unmarked cars only to be released a few hours later unharmed.

Comandante Marcos, leader of the Chiapas revolt in southern Mexico, now celebrating “the 507th anniversary of the indigenous resistance to the colonizer,” says that he approves of the student strike “because they are right.” Masked rebels have visited the occupied campus, and students have gone south to Chiapas as a gesture of solidarity.

Although it seems that a moderate majority of students want to see an end to the strike, the ultras on the left are in control of the situation. They envisage the demise of the present system as a direct path to a wholly reorganized system of higher education that is devoid of corrupting alliances with capitalism in general, above all of the North American variety with its reliance on things like computing, economics, accounting, and other sciences. In early November, the students are upping the ante, violently blocking traffic in the already-clogged city. When the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor Justo Mullor García, found himself in a five-hour traffic jam engineered by the strikers, he commented: “This is not the way to have a dialogue.” Amen.

The more conservative newspapers in the city have been clamoring for police and/or army intervention for months. Even the liberal newspapers, although initially sympathetic to the students, have been discreetly suggesting some kind of action to dislodge the strikers and bring the campus back to normality. President Zedillo has denounced the “brutal aggression” of the students, and noted that “legitimate means can be used by the state to recover the occupied buildings.” He appealed to the “silent majority” of students and alumni to take back the university from the miscreants. The rector and 150 professors spoke to the president at the end of August and asked him to intervene, but nothing has happened. One disenchanted professor said that asking the president to intervene was as efficacious as writing a letter to Santa Claus. So the question remains—is there no way to intervene in this educational and social catastrophe?

One problem is that there is no such thing as short-term memory in Mexico. Everyone remembers the army interventions just prior to the opening of the Olympics in Mexico City in 1968. President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz was increasingly irritated by student protests against the extravagant expenses incurred during the months prior to the opening, and he finally warned the students that new protests would be stopped “to avoid any further loss of prestige.” According to Alan Riding in his excellent Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans (1984), there was yet another meeting which took place in Tlatelolco Square in early October 1968, a meeting which ended with the army raking the whole square with machine-gun fire. The estimates of the dead range from two to three hundred, though friends tell me that a thousand is not out of the question. In any case, the blood was washed away by firetrucks that same evening, and the Olympics started on time. President Zedillo, of the same, now-weakened, party as Díaz Ordaz, is reluctant to have his government make another move against student protesters. Inevitably, students and soldiers or police will die in such a confrontation. The students know that the government has been defanged by the events of 1968. When the army has been sent out to clear students from the highways in recent days, the young soldiers from the provinces are without pistols, rifles, or even the equivalent of nightsticks. They are issued only plastic shields to protect themselves against the torrent of rocks sent their way. The soldiers then throw the rocks back in the direction of the squatters.

With an election scheduled for July 2000, Zedillo does not want to be seen to jeopardize his party’s chances by intervening vigorously in the strike. In a poll of four hundred citizens taken by the newspaper El Universal, 55 percent said that the government should intervene, 45 percent said that it should not. In all, 31 percent said that the fault lay with the intransigence of the rector, 25 percent blamed Zedillo, 11 percent said the students were at fault.

Although most of those polled thought that classes at UNAM would begin again sometime this year, time is running out. My friends opined that Zedillo will dump the problem onto the lap of his successor, which means that UNAM will not open till Fall 2000, if then. The push and pull between ultras and moderates is an ongoing thing. Many of the most fervid participants are students in the UNAM-related secondary schools. Speaking to a journalist, one striker noted that “they called us Generation X, but we are showing them that we are a fighting generation not seen since ’68.” On the other hand, the faculty of the Schools of Veterinary Medicine, Social Work, and Political Science announced in late October that the student movement of 1999 “had lost its direction, is without consensus or rationality; they are people who believe that the university is only a trench from which ideological class struggles are launched.”

The renowned liberal commentator Carlos Monsivais reluctantly had to admit that

I do not deny the immense responsibility carried by the university authorities for the shutdown of the university, but I must take note of the enormous degree of irritation the demonstrations have caused, the extremism without political or ideological validation, the deluge of Che Guevara and Mao portraits devoid of historical context, the level of intransigence demonstrated by the strikers.

Nine research institutes have been taken over, one the Geology Institute which warns the public about possible seismic activity. The staff of this institute was thrown out of its quarters forcibly. Their supervisor had a few things to say to the “students.” “I am leaving behind eighty projects and delicate equipment worth two-and-a-half-million dollars. I hope you know what to do with it.”

Student sentinels are now posted at all entrances to the campus, searching all visitors. If anyone protests at these procedures, the response is, “The people demand it! The university is paid for by the people! That’s why it is yours! Defend it!” A sinister breach between polarized groups in confrontation grows wider every day. The situation gives ominous new relevance to the American phrase “Mexican standoff.”