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I Was Part of the Student Movement of ’68. We Paid for Freedom with Our Lives

“The government will plunge into a degree of disrepute that nothing and no one will ever wash away” wrote the great liberal historian Daniel Cosío Villegas after the massacre of Oct. 2, 1968, which crushed a student protest movement.

As an engineering student at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, or UNAM, I participated in the demonstrations and meetings, and, 50 years after those events, I can testify to the truth of Mr. Cosío’s prediction. The events of ’68 were a political earthquake that changed the political life of Mexico for the better. And its effects extend to the present moment.

The immediate goals of the movement were modest, among them the removal of a repressive police chiefs and the abolition of a law that punished political dissidence with prison. We students didn’t want to overthrow the government or initiate a new Cuban Revolution. Nor did we envision democracy.

We never thought of creating a political party, demanding autonomous electoral institutions or arguing that freedom of the vote be respected. What we really wanted was freedom: freedom to demonstrate, to express ourselves, to criticize power.

We gained it, eventually, at a very high cost and, with the passage of time, we contributed indirectly to the arrival of democracy in Mexico. The recent triumph of President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador reaffirms that legacy. For the first time in the history of our country, the left has come to power within a context of electoral freedom and by means of democracy.

In the 1960s, the young people of Mexico felt themselves “contemporary with all men” as Octavio Paz had foreseen in his “Labyrinth of Solitude.” We adopted the cultural changes of the era, from music, clothes and long hair to sexual freedom and experimentation with drugs. We were deeply moved by the student uprisings in Paris and Berlin. We, too, wanted to “prohibit the prohibited” and deliver proclamations on revolution and love. We, too, were reading Franz Fanon, Herbert Marcuse and other theorists of liberation.

The principal sources of our rebellion were internal. We were the children of the highly successful economic modernization of the three preceding decades but we were repulsed by the oppressive political system of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, with its faded, empty and self-satisfied rhetoric. We dared to request a public dialogue with the government. In the streets, we shouted “Mexico, freedom!” We were festive, irreverent and enthusiastic. There were some 400,000 of us.

Unfortunately, we were destined to collide with Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, the most authoritarian and intolerant of our presidents. With the Summer Olympics set to begin in Mexico City on Oct. 12, Mr. Díaz Ordaz was convinced that Mexico had been part of a plot hatched by the Soviet bloc. “The nation is in danger” he said. “Mexico has to be saved!”

Everything happened within three dizzying months. On July 22, a street fight between students triggered the violent intervention of the police. On the 30th, an army tank attacked the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria, the oldest middle school in the country, where a mass of students had gathered together. Many were wounded and 100 arrested.

On Aug. 1, Javier Barros Sierra, dean of the UNAM, led the first of a number of protest marches, which continued until the middle of September. We knew that Russian tanks had crushed the Prague Spring, but the threats by our president did not deter us. Surely it would not happen here.

Yet it did. On Oct. 2 came the denouement. There was a protest meeting that afternoon in the Plaza of Tlatelolco. The army had been given orders to dissolve the meeting, but their assault ended in a cross-fire between soldiers and the mysterious “Olympic Battalion,” a paramilitary group created by the government posted in nearby buildings.

It was the unarmed students who paid with their lives. The hellish violence went on for hours. No one knows the exact number of dead. There was talk of hundreds. Perhaps there were even less than 100 slain, but the scenes of horror, the arrests and imprisonments, the revelations of torture, would linger in our collective memory down to the present day.

Over the years, various theories about the massacre have been proposed. The C.I.A. seemed to believe in a conspiracy forged in Cuba, a theory that was brandished by Mr. Díaz Ordaz. However, for better or for worse, such an idea was highly unlikely, since Mexico was the only Latin-American country that had refused to break off relations with Castro. In his unpublished memoirs, Mr. Díaz Ordaz asserts that Mexico was “at war.” The students were “the opponents.” After the killings, he would write, in a tone of satisfaction, “They finally obtained their insignificant deaths (sus muertitos).”

The real war unleashed in 1968 Mexico was the struggle for the presidential succession in 1970. As had been the custom since 1929, a Mexican president would designate his successor. Various government secretaries would wage a no-holds-barred struggle to gain presidential favor. Luis Echeverría, secretary of the interior, would finally be the winner because in the eyes of Mr. Díaz Ordaz he showed “more pants” and was “the boldest.” And he also effectively nourished the president’s paranoia.

Perhaps the greatest contribution of ’68 was in behalf of freedom of expression. Although as president, Mr. Echeverría, Mr. Díaz Ordaz’s successor, tried to ingratiate himself with university students through a rhetorical veering to the left, the criticism he kept receiving from the newspaper Excélsior (very much in the spirit of ’68) exasperated him enough that he maneuvered a coup (in July of ’76) against its editor, Julio Scherer.

But it did Mr. Echeverría no good. Mr. Scherer immediately founded the independent magazine Proceso and Octavio Paz founded Vuelta, a cultural magazine that was also independent. New combative newspapers appeared a bit later, like La Jornada and later Reforma. After the electoral defeat of the PRI in 2000, freedom of expression became firmly established in the mass media. At present, its most serious enemy has been the connection between organized crime and corrupt local governments.

The practice of electoral democracy was delayed longer. Intense guerrilla activity promoted by a sector of the repressed student movement ended by persuading the government in 1978 toward the need to legalize the Communist Party and open an electoral option for the revolutionary left. In the 1980s, still under the hegemony of the PRI, there arose a competition of parties of left and right, and in the 1990s the government created the Federal Electoral Institute, an autonomous body designed to oversee the elections. The advent of democracy gave two presidential victories (2000 and 2006) to the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), returned power to the PRI in 2012 and finally (in July of 2018) witnessed the triumph of the Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (Morena).

Fifty years after that political earthquake of ’68, the prophecy of Cosío Villegas reached its natural conclusion. Although the PRI still survives, it is no longer a system, but just one more party, unable to dispel the shadows of its past. Its defeat in the recent presidential election is the greatest proof that we Mexicans have now been living, for 20 years, under a democratic regime that guarantees basic freedoms and the alternation of governing parties at all levels.

With the rules and institutions of this very democracy and making full use of the liberties it affords, Andrés Manuel López Obrador achieved a degree of voter support that gave him and his party control of Congress. The route is open for him to modify the Constitution and dominate the judiciary. He will have absolute power, like the previous PRI presidents, including Mr. Díaz Ordaz and Mr. Echeverría.

Let us hope that he will use that power with moderation, tolerance, a respect for plurality and the will toward dialogue, qualities those previous presidents did not display. And that he fully respects freedom of expression, the most important legacy of the 1968 student movement.

Publicado en The New York Times, 1 de octubre de 2018.

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