MEXICO CITY - The "Occupy" movement has spread to Mexico, where thousands of university students have taken to the streets, bringing fresh air to a superficial and flat election campaign and forcing political parties to pay attention to a long-ignored segment of the population.
"Our movement is demanding the democratization of the media, and accurate, unbiased coverage," said Sofía Alessio, one of the protesters, who belongs to the organizing committee at the private Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico (ITAM).
"This is an apolitical, peaceful movement," the political science student told IPS.
There are 2.5 million university students in this country of 112 million people, which means it has one of the lowest higher education enrollment rates in Latin America. There are also seven million young people who neither work nor study.
The biggest student demonstrations in Mexico’s history took place in 1968, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets demanding educational reforms and a more democratic political system, which was dominated by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the political force that governed the country without interruption from 1929 to 2000."It is necessary to democratize the media, to avoid an authoritarian regime. That has become the central demand." --Luís Vázquez
The response by the government of then president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964-1970) was brutal. After weeks of student protests, the repression reached a peak on Oct. 2, 1968, when soldiers and their paramilitary allies surrounded Tlatelolco square in Mexico City, which was packed with thousands of peaceful demonstrators, and opened fire on the crowd.
No one has ever been held accountable for the massacre, and the question of the death toll is still controversial, although most sources put the number between 200 and 300.
This time around, the student protests, which are common during election campaigns, are taking aim at "the heavy concentration of the electronic media, which limits freedom of expression and the right to information," Luís Vázquez, a researcher at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), told IPS.
"It is necessary to democratize the media, to avoid an authoritarian regime. That has become the central demand," the academic said.
The wave of protests was triggered by a May 11 visit by PRI candidate Enrique Peña to the Jesuit-run Ibero-American University (UIA).
During Peña’s visit, student protesters questioned his human rights record as governor of the state of Mexico from 2005 to 2011.
When the media depicted them as intolerant and sectarian, the students began to protest what they called biased coverage, especially targeting Televisa, Mexico’s leading TV station.
"Young people can have a lot of power if they organize and get involved in politics," Rolando Cordera, professor emeritus at the economy faculty of the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM), told IPS. "It’s important for young people to realize the influence they have in society."
On Jul. 1, Mexicans will elect 500 members of the lower house of Congress and 128 senators, who will be sworn in on Sept. 1, as well as the successor to President Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), who will take office for six years on Dec. 1. State and municipal elections will also be held in 15 of the country’s 32 states.
Out of a total of 77 million registered voters, some 10 million are young people who will be going to the polls for the first time. In 2010, there were nearly 19 million Mexicans between the ages of 20 and 29, according to that year’s census. (Voting is compulsory in Mexico.)
The student protests, which have no clear, visible leaders, have been organized largely over social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The movement has also created a web site to provide information.
"We know that some people will want to make use of the movement for political purposes, but we won’t let that happen," said Alessio. "We have gotten university students from across the country involved, because we believe that together, we can do more. And it’s not only young people who are going to benefit from the results."
The Yo Soy 132 (I Am 132) movement, whose name is a symbol of the continuation of the original demonstration by 131 students during Peña’s visit to the UIA, has published a code of ethics declaring that it has no party affiliation, is peaceful, and expresses individual, rather than collective, points of view.
After the demonstration at the UIA hurt the PRI’s image, the party wavered between lashing out at the protesters, saying they were intolerant and maintaining that the left was behind the whole thing, and following a damage control strategy of arguing that all opinions deserved respect.
Karl Marx wrote that "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." The protest against Peña and the subsequent reaction by his party were reminiscent of a visit to UNAM in 1975 by former President Luís Echeverría, who was practically forced to leave by student demonstrators. As he was leaving the medical school, Echeverría shouted "fascists!" at the protesters.
On Wednesday May 23, Yo Soy 132 organized protests in at least 20 large cities around the country.
The phenomenon has already been dubbed "the Mexican Spring" – an allusion to the so-called Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and other countries.
Although the movement has some things in common with Occupy Wall Street and Spain’s "Indignados" protests, such as a horizontal structure and the use of social networking sites, it differs in that it is not seeking in-depth changes to the political and economic systems.
"The movement has to go beyond the electoral question. It could come up with an agenda of political and cultural aims," said Cordera.
From June to November, the resort city of Cancún in southeast Mexico will host a series of conferences on issues of concern to university students, organised by the Foro Mundial de Universitarios (World Federation for University Education).
"The young people’s vote has been reawakened," Alessio said. "The scope of this is incredibly important, and we hope to achieve our goals."