The long and winding May of 1968 (2): The student rebellion in Mexico

Our May 68 takes us to Mexico …

The 1968 student rebellion in Mexico

Tim Bowron (Redline 16/10/2018)

The situation in most of Latin America in 1968 was vastly different to that in Europe, the United States and South East Asia. Throughout most of the continent the revolutionary dynamic seemed to be running in reverse – since the 1959 Cuban Revolution the left seemed to be everywhere on the retreat, with right-wing military dictators ruthlessly crushing any opposition.

It was not as though the left suffered from any shortage of militancy – in Venezuela and Colombia communist cadre inspired by the example of Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara fought heroically to overthrow capitalism by setting up guerrilla foco in the countryside. However unlike their Cuban comrades they failed in the vital task of building a parallel mass underground movement among the urban working class, and consequently were left isolated.

An attempt by Guevara himself to lead a guerrilla insurgency in Bolivia in similar conditions led to his capture and execution at the hands of local military and US intelligence officers in 1967.

In Peru the peasant leader Hugo Blanco had led a relatively successful guerrilla campaign in the early 1960s which had mass support among the indigenous population of the Cuzco region, but by the mid 60s Blanco was in jail and the insurgency crushed.

In 1968 a left-wing army officer named General Juan Velasco Alvarado took power in Peru in a coup d´état, however despite implementing land reform and some other progressive measures the workers and peasants continued to be marginalised under his regime.

In Argentina too a military regime was in power throughout the period and the left driven largely underground for most of the decade. Only in 1969 would the class struggle briefly reassert itself with the urban uprising known as the Cordobazo.

However, in the continent of Latin America there was one key flashpoint in 1968 – Mexico.

Mexico was almost unique in Latin America it had since the 1930s been under uninterrupted civilian rule. In the aftermath of the 1910 Mexican Revolution the country was stabilised through a mixture of agrarian reforms and economic protectionism – although periodic peasant uprisings were still ruthlessly suppressed.

In the 1930s under President Lázaro Cárdenas the government took on a more radical nationalist bent, nationalising the oil industry which until then was largely controlled by US and British interests. Cárdenas also set up a corporatist political party, the Party of the Mexican Revolution, subsequently re-branded as the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, which acted to integrate peasant and labour unions as well as army officers into the state and maintain political control.

Cárdenas’ successors were however much more conservative and pursued an aggressive policy of state capitalism which meant zero tolerance for strikes and land occupations. By the 1950s workers were increasingly coming into conflict with the government with several splits from the main PRI-controlled labour federation. However despite this no opposition movement was able to challenge the PRI’s electoral stranglehold.

In 1958 and 1959 what began as a wildcat strike by railway workers in Oaxaca spread to become a nationwide movement in which rank-and-file militants sought to wrest control of the railway workers union from the corrupt PRI officials. It was only defeated finally by the military occupation of the railways and the jailing of the main agitators.

The failure of the revolutionary left to break PRI control of the unions was in large part due to the perfidious role of the official pro-Moscow Communist Party (PCM), which continued throughout the period a strange love-hate relationship with the government – at times strongly criticising it but always careful not to do anything that might endanger its legal status (such as calling for an indefinite general strike or armed insurrection).

For the PCM the only legitimate path to power was through the ballot box, hence their denunciation of the railway workers’ strike as an “adventurist” action inviting state repression for which the workers supposedly had only themselves to blame.

This failure was to have important repercussions in 1968 when the PRI-loyalist bureaucrats who remained in control of the main union federation actively worked to prevent the radical student movement in Mexico City from linking up with rank-and-file workers, even going so far as to support the government’s use of lethal force against the students.

The 68 Student Rebellion

Not only were students in Mexico isolated from the working class by the hostility of the union bureaucrats, but they were also isolated in terms of their class origin. The overwhelming majority (77%) of students attending the National Autonomous University of Mexico or UNAM, which was the epicentre of the 68 rebellion were the sons and daughters of the military, professional and managerial elite. Only 18% were from working class or peasant families.

These students were certainly not (unlike the revolutionary heroes of Mariano Azuela’s novel about the 1910 Mexican Revolution) “los de abajo” – the underdogs, the downtrodden and dispossessed. Yet in 1968 they rose up in their hundreds of thousands to challenge the capitalist system.

The spark which set the 1968 Mexican student rebellion off was the violent conduct of a squad of riot police in the aftermath of a college football match on July 22. The use of the federal riot police against students was particularly resented due to the fact that it happened within the “University City”, a district of the capital comprising the main UNAM campus as well as several other educational institutions which historically had its own council, regulations and law-enforcement.

The July 22 incident was followed by a strike by university, polytechnic and high school students and mass protests. On July 30 there was a pitched battle in the centre of the city between students and riot police, as well as the army which had now been called in along with its tanks and armoured vehicles. Shortly afterwards army troops used a bazooka to destroy the entrance doors to a high school which had been barricaded against them.

In the face of the intense military and police repression many of the teachers and lecturers sided with the students, and the rector of the university publicly condemned the army intervention.

The Polish-Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska in her book Fuerte es el Silencio describes how the authorities spent vast sums of money in trying to paint out all the political graffiti which began to appear all over the capital city, which was preparing to host the Summer Olympics that year. Among these graffiti slogans were the six points of the grand petition drawn up by the leaders of the student protest movement:

“…‘Freedom for the political prisoners’, ‘Freedom for the imprisoned students’, ‘Delimitation of responsibilities’, ‘Dissolution of the Riot Police’, ‘Repeal the anti-subversion law’, ‘Indemnify the families of the dead and injured’… Many teachers criticised these six points and branded them parochial, too narrow. Why couldn’t the students ask for more essential things? Wage rises, union democracy, a better standard of living in the countryside, the end of monopolies, the end of Fidel Velázquez, one of the most powerful men in México… the transformation of the PRI, lower food prices? Why in these six points did they not include educational demands? These six points were ridiculous; their movement a veritable improvisation, who knew how it was going to all end up…”

Yet the movement still had the government seriously worried. By August, hotel reservations by international tourists attending the Summer Olympics were being cancelled, and overseas journalists arriving in advance of the Games were broadcasting to the world the ugly scenes of violent repression on the streets of Mexico City.

Moreover, there were signs that the movement was beginning to get more serious and organised. Members of the university faculty staff such as the renowned writer and Trotskyist José Revueltas and the radical socialist professor of civil engineering Heberto Castillo joined the new National Strike Council bringing with them decades of experience in the class struggle.

On August 26, students began an occupation of the Plaza de la Constitution opposite the Presidential Palace after some 300 000 people marched in support of the students’ demands through the streets of the capital. For the first time in Mexican history the office of the president was publicly denigrated with chants such as “muera el chango Díaz Ordaz (death to the monkey Díaz Ordaz)” and “chango carbon, al paredón (to the wall with the monkey he-goat)”.

Elena Poniatowska describes how “The paranoia of Díaz Ordaz reached unimaginable heights. There were fifty people locked up for every poster put up denouncing him. He was apparently dealing with a vast international conspiracy originating in Moscow; from there came the orders to call him a monkey, braggart and murderer…”

The siege of the Presidential Palace was only broken after two days when the army used tanks to clear the Plaza de la Constitution.

Meanwhile a reporter from the New York Times described how the atmosphere on the campuses had now reached revolutionary fever-pitch:

“…[The students] have plastered walls and bulletin boards with revolutionary mottoes. In the School of Economics, quotations from Mao Tse-tung are seen…the auditorium of the School of Philosophy and Letters has been renamed ‘Auditorium Ernesto Che Guevara’, and classroom doors have been painted with such names as ‘Lenin Room’ or Ho Chi Minh Room.’ Schools all over the city have taken on a revolutionary look, with students manning them 24 hours a day against possible intrusion by Government forces…The strike committee has no fixed meeting place, and its members are reluctant to have their pictures for taken for fear of reprisals. Every political student organization is involved – Moscow Communists, Mao Communists and Trotsky Communists… From almost all the students come expressions denoting the greatest lack of respect for governing officials, the Institutional Revolutionary Party which has ruled for almost 40 years, and all other political groups…”

Meanwhile the students bitterly denounced the official media outlets for censoring any mention of the government repression, holding a silent protest march in which all the marchers had handkerchiefs tied around their mouths.

As Poniatowska notes, during the months of August and September,

“…the movement transformed into a movement of the masses, in which a series of values or myths were placed in doubt…the so-called ‘national unity’ and the social partnership in which the capitalists and workers did not have any conflicting interests; the supposed economic and social stability of the country; the intangibility of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial powers; the honesty of the big national press (in all their protests – except the silent protest of September 13 – the marchers stopped in front of the offices of the newspapers Excélsior and El Universal on Juarez Avenue to shout with their fists and arms in the air, waving their banners ‘Prensa Vendida, prensa vendida’); the validity of stage-managed democracy, the personal and inadequate form of government; the supposed independence of the workers and peasants unions…the authenticity of many associations which in fact represent nobody…”

Meanwhile the Mexican Communist Party could offer no strategic vision to the student movement, blindsided as it was by the conviction that the PRI represented the progressive wing of the bourgeoisie that was supposedly carrying out a revolutionary nationalist, anti-imperialist mission. On these grounds, it had supported the election of President Díaz Ordaz in 1964, and so now was scarcely prepared to lead a revolution against him.

In addition, because of its slavish pro-Moscow and PRI-loyalist line the Communist Party had by 1968 lost many of its best militants in a series of damaging splits. These included José Revueltas’ Spartacist group, some of the leadership of the Partido Popular Socialista, as well the jailed leader of the 1958-59 railway workers strike, Demetrio Vallejo.

1968 provided the impetus for the formation of a number of new parties such as the Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party, the radical left Mexican Workers Party of Heberto Castillo and various armed guerrilla groups such as the 23rd of September Communist League. However in 1968 these forces were still too new, too untried and untested to cohere and lead the mass movement to victory.

Sporadic attempts were made by the more politically advanced students organised in brigades to go out to working class districts, in buses commandeered from the nearby polytechnic, to hold street corner meetings where they would try to explain to the workers what their protest movement was all about as well as collect donations to produce more posters and leaflets. However other sections of the student movement retained traditional middle class prejudices towards the workers and thought them too mired in apathy and ignorance to be worth bothering with.

Thus when the Mexican army began its final assault on the campus of the National University itself on the night of 18 September they met with only localised (albeit determined) resistance. After a week of fighting both the National University and Polytechnic campuses were entirely under army control.

With the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games due to take place on October 12, President Díaz was anxious to crush the student protest movement swiftly and at whatever cost. The final brutal stanza occurred when on the night of October 2 – forever remembered by Mexicans as la Noche Triste – when the army opened fire with machine guns on thousands of unarmed demonstrators (mainly students, but also including some workers and their families) in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco district of the capital. As many as 300 people were thought to have been killed in the massacre, although that figure could not be confirmed as government refused to release any official figures or records.

Some 1500 of the students who survived the massacre were arrested and released only weeks later after the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games. However, some eighty leaders of the student movement including Luís González Alba, José Revueltas and Heberto Castillo remained incarcerated for a further 2 years until a prolonged hunger strike and a change in presidential administration finally brought their release.

But although the 1968 movement may have been defeated, it marked only the beginning – not the end – of a radicalisation in Mexican society and politics, one which continues to this day with the discredited PRI now having very little credibility in the eyes of the masses. The more radicalised students who were involved in the events of 68 subsequently left the universities and polytechnics to help set up independent labour and peasants’ unions, challenging the hold of the corrupt bureaucrats and PRI officials over the working class. Others took to the countryside to try to set up guerrilla foco in a bid to emulate the example of the Cuban Revolution.

While to the outside world the enduring memory of Mexico City in 1968 is of the US athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos giving the black power salute from the medal dais, for Mexico itself the main significance of 1968 was as the year that saw the rebirth of the revolutionary left.


Carr, Barry. “Mexican Communism 1968-1981: Eurocommunism in the Americas?” Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1. (May, 1985).

Crespi, Simon. Jose Revueltas (1914-1976): A Political Biography.

Poniatowska, Elena. Fuerte es el Silencio.

Poniatowska, Elena. La Noche de Tlatelolco: testimonios de historia oral.

The piece above first appeared in 2008 at Tim’s old blog, Socialist Democracy, which no longer exists.

Mexico 1968, in images and sound …

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