1968: An End and a Beginning for Mexico

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1968… my watchtower, my bloody subway carriage… my gigantic rainy day… the timeship from which I can observe [my] entire life and times… such as they are.[1]

In Mexico the year 1968 is etched indelibly in the nation’s historical memory but it is October – specifically October 2nd – and not May, that comes first to mind. As in Prague, Paris and a host of other cities, the year saw manifestations of domestic political discontent – most obviously the student movement - linked to a groundswell of international radicalism. For Mexico, though, this began in earnest in the summer, culminating in the horrifying massacre of dozens – perhaps hundreds - of students and workers in the Plaza of Three Cultures (known widely as Tlatelolco). Here I will ask what the Tlatelolco massacre signified for Mexico, but also what 1968 represented more broadly for the Mexican left. In both cases, I think, the answer is: ‘an end and a beginning’.

Mexico in 1968: Dictablanda and Olympics

Between 1929 and 2000 Mexico was ruled by a unique regime, that of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.* In the 1960s Mexico was subject to a hybrid form of rule known as dictablanda, or ‘soft authoritarism’ – it was, in Paul Gillingham’s words, “a place beyond dichotomies of democracy or dictatorship”. The system worked through deployment of a complex and uneven web of incentives and disincentives: bribery and violence, inclusion and coercion, elections and beatings, subsidies and censorship.

Unlike many contemporary Latin American nations, Mexico was not ruled by military dictatorship (see Aldo Marchesi’s blog on the broader Latin American 1968). Its rhetoric was progressive and anti-imperialist, and the PRI sought to project its singular engagement with both revolution and modernity outward. The Olympics of 1968 provided a golden opportunity to do precisely this; with the eyes and cameras of the world on Mexico City, the state would put on a dazzling show mixing folkloric dance, costume and cuisine with radical modernist art and architecture. But looking closely, outside observers might begin to detect the less consensual, more violent aspects of PRI rule. As such, the Olympic year was to be stage-managed extremely closely.

Protest and Massacre

The Mexican student movement did not emerge fully-formed, Athene-like in 1968. While there was a radical reformulation of student organisations and their goals that summer, Jaime Pensado (in Rebel Mexico) argues for a longer history of radicalisation rooted in the early Cold War. In particular, he points to 1956 and the protest at the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN), a largely working-class institution where a new organisation - the National Technical Students’ Front (FNET) – directly took on Mexico’s authoritarian state. The ruling party dealt with this challenge the way they had dispatched radical labour threats in the mid-1940s, by a combination of proxy violence, the corrupt or coerced replacement of combative union leaders - a process known as charrismo, or ‘cowboyism’ – and, eventually, direct state repression (which culminated in the military occupation of the Polytechnic, a process which would be dramatically repeated in September 1968 at UNAM).

The students were not cowed. In 1958, they rallied in support of striking railway workers led by Demetrio Vallejo, and the following year the Cuban Revolution gave new impetus to the Mexican left. As Aguilar Mora recalled, “we were all vallejistas and fidelistas”. Many joined the National Liberation Movement in a quixotic attempt to drag the ruling party back to the left, and while the government lent rhetorical support to Cuban Revolution its domestic policy was avowedly conservative and authoritarian. Nevertheless, by the mid-1960s, the PRI seemed firmly back in control, relying as ever on the vague and sinister charge of ‘social dissolution’ to imprison its critics.

In summer 1968, in a confluence of global youth rebellion, ongoing discontent with PRI rule, and specific grievances with university administration, the Mexican student movement exploded. In August, the National Strike Council was convened, bringing together student representatives from several large universities with a range of demands. Huge, peaceful marches followed, calling for the disbandment of riot police, the freeing of prisoners, and the repeal of the ‘social dissolution’ laws. When the CNH refused to back down, the army occupied the Ciudad Universitaria for almost two weeks from 18th September. Roberto Bolaño’s novella Amulet is centred on the character of Auxilio Lacouture, an exiled Uruguayan trapped in a bathroom on campus throughout the occupation (based on the real-life experience of Alcira Soust). In the public sphere, reactions to this escalation varied. Daniel Cosío Villegas called it “an absurd action bordering on stupidity” while Salvador Novo claimed it was “the best news received in a long time”; and while the occupation of the UNAM had proceeded fairly smoothly, there was far greater resistance at the Polytechnic sites.

On October 2nd, ten days before the Olympics were to begin, around ten thousand students gathered in the Plaza of Three Cultures. They were surrounded by thousands of soldiers and armoured vehicles; only in 2001 was it confirmed that dozens of agents provocateurs and snipers were positioned among and around the crowd too. Just after six in the evening, flares were lit and shooting began. Elena Poniatowska collated eyewitness accounts giving a harrowing impression of chaos and confusion. The crowd of students, as well as local workers and families, were fired upon, and many were killed. The number of dead remains controversial; early, absurdly-low government claims repeated by domestic (and some international) media were replaced over time by suggestions of many dozens – and perhaps hundreds - murdered.

The End of Something

The CIA reports on the Tlatelolco massacre reflected similar concerns to those of the Mexican government – primarily “doubt about the Mexican Government’s capability to keep the Olympic events and the many foreign visitors insulated from its domestic crisis”. A further worry was that “the ‘martyrs’ created during the past week will probably provide a new rallying point for university students”. As it turned out, this was not limited to students. Though the Mexican public, as far as we can tell, backed the government’s brutal crackdown (though their degree of knowledge of its scale is unclear), the intelligentsia moved en masse into a critical position; Octavio Paz, for instance, resigned his position as Ambassador in New Delhi. Only Martin Luís Guzmán took a strongly critical line regarding the student movement, supporting the government’s violent action and calling for press censorship; whereas in France, Raymond Aron’s handwringing had been tragic, Guzmán’s fulminations were farcical.

Beyond the intelligentsia, there is a strong sense that the massacre marked the end of youthful trust in the PRI, such as it was. In a recent essay for Carabina 30-30, Manuel Aguilar Mora described 2nd October 1968 as the endpoint of a decade representing ‘the country of my youth’; for Aguilar – as for most of that youth - something fundamentally changed. There is a tendency to impose on all radical manifestations during 1968 a common thread, and while we might alight on some confection of anti-authoritarianism, anti-imperialism and social-sexual liberation, the differences – between authoritarianisms in Prague and Mexico City, between the imperialisms of the United States and the Soviet Union, between the liberations of a multiplicity of oppressed groups – are too great to ignore.

In the Mexican case, what ended did not become apparent for some time. It was not that people suddenly discovered the PRI-run state was violent, or corrupt, or dishonest. But the costs of colluding in that fiction were now starting to outweigh the benefits. While Luís Echeverría – the minister most directly responsible for the massacre – was able to rebuild some support for the PRI during his profligate 1970-6 presidency, a long-term rot had set in.[2] Between the ongoing ‘Dirty War’ against various guerrilla, dissident and indigenous groups, the twin calamities of the 1982 debt crisis and 1985 earthquake, and the flagrant meddling in the 1988 election, the ‘Pax PRIista’ was doomed.

Beginnings: Class, Civil Society, and Resistance

José Revueltas could hardly be described as a young radical in 1968. In his mid-fifties, he had spent his political life shunting (and sometimes being shunted) between groups on the socialist left; at this point, he was the leading light of the Leninist-Sparticist League. As a direct response to events elsewhere, in July Revueltas wrote a manifesto for “our May Revolution in Mexico”:

Where do the older generation - who handle politics, the country, society and culture – want to take us? Alienating ‘technification’ of higher education, or free, rational and democratic human education? We cannot count any longer on the old and ineffective traditional student organisations, nor on the small doctrinaire groups, the dogmatists, the daydreamers, or sectarians.[3]

After the summer of ongoing repression of student protest, then the massacre itself, Revueltas continued to see 1968 as a bookend; but instead of an endpoint, Revueltas framed the radicalisation of the student movement and its allies as “highly positive”, something which “will bring enormous benefits”.[4] What had changed? According to Paco Ignacio Taibo II:

It had been nothing but a student movement lasting one hundred and twenty–three days. No more and no less. And yet it had given us - given a whole generation of students - a past and a country, a ground beneath our feet… The most unhinged joined an urban guerrilla struggle that over the next five years bled out into a merciless dirty war. A very large group of us went into the neighborhoods and founded community organizations… others went into factories… others ended up in the countryside - an even stranger land.

Roberto Bolaño weaves a thread from the military occupation of the university of 1968 and the protests almost exactly five years later against the coup in Chile – a ‘new’ left had come alive in the face of repression and was now a vanguard for Latin Americans struggling in the face of authoritarian rule.[5] This is, then, the beginning of the modern Mexican left. Neither cardenismo nor Stalinism would do. The more free-thinking old comrades - Vallejo, Revueltas and Valentín Campa – were rebooted as icons of a struggle for freedom. Birth is a theme seized upon by Bolaño in describing this moment; he has Auxilio Lacouture hide by hitching her legs up onto the toilet rim “as if I were about to give birth” and when the soldier departs having failed to discover her whereabouts, she is relieved: “the birth was over”.[6]

Bosteels’ ‘Basic Banalities’

In his book Marx and Freud in Latin America, Bruno Bosteels presents some “facts and working hypotheses” on Mexico’s student movement. One point concerns “the social,” a sphere which “becomes political by subtracting itself from society.” Doing politics where politics was supposed to be forbidden or controlled, in other words. Thus 1968 was an existential threat to the PRI which for almost four decades had extended its tentacles into almost all parts of Mexicans’ lives. Bosteels posits that ‘events’ have become so bound up in our cultural self-reflection that “the question thus becomes: “When, and under what conditions, can an event be said to be political? What is the ‘what happens’ insofar as it happens politically?” This really underlines the totalising nature of Tlatelolco for Mexico’s national culture ever since, with the danger that it becomes something that happened rather than something that was done. He insists that whereas “everything that previously would have been excluded from the domain of politics proper for being frivolous, adventurous, trivial, fictitious, or merely anecdotal, after the fact comes to play a role similar to that of the graffiti, the handouts, or the graphic art during the events of the student-popular movement.”[7] In this way, the massacre took on a dual role. It served both as a warning, a deadly demonstration of the limits of dissent; yet also as a touchstone, a validation and inspiration for the struggles that followed. All the art, writing and music that emerged in subsequent years could not help but be defined in light of the killings.

The Legacies of 1968

Two phenomena soon drew upon the legacy of 1968: a half-decade of labour unrest which began in 1971 (the year of another massacre) which wrested control of many unions back from the PRI for the first time since the late 1940s; and the slow (indeed incomplete) process of political opening or democratization. A newly-united and rejuvenated left – and later, a resurgent centre right (PAN) - took advantage of relaxed electoral restrictions to put pressure on the ruling party, which resorted to blatant fraud to retain power in 1988.  In 1994 the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas emerged as an alternative locus of resistance, but even then, the EZLN made clear the importance of 1968 in their own political lineage – “a window to peer through,” they called it, “and learn from the open confrontation between various forms of making politics, between different forms of being human.”

A beginning, then, as well as an end. But the beginning of something that is still in progress: the development of a political outside the party-state nexus. The great disappointment of the period since the PRI losing power in 2000 was the ongoing, worsening realisation that the party responsible for Tlatelolco was itself only a part of the problem. This summer Mexico will elect a new president, and the Zapatista interpretation of 1968 may - if we screw up our eyes a little - be relevant: “two countries confronted one another: one constructed on the basis of authoritarianism, intolerance, repression, and the most brutal exploitation; and the other that wants to build itself on democracy, inclusion, liberty, and justice.”[8]

*Though called the National Revolutionary Party (PNR) between 1929 and 1938, and the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM) between 1938 and 1946, there is a largely uncontested continuity of personnel and political approach between each incarnation.

William A. Booth is a lecturer at the University of Oxford and Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) in Bologna. He is a historian of the left in Latin America (especially Mexico), as well as the relationships between Marxism, nationalism, writers and the state. His most recent article concerned the subordination of Mexican Marxism to the post-revolutionary nationalism of the PRI.


[1] Roberto Bolaño, Amulet (2009), p.56

[2] See Sergio Aguayo, 1968: Los archivos de la violencia (1998)

[3] José Revueltas, México 68: Juventud y Revolución (1978), pp. 38-9

[4] ibid., p.21

[5] Roberto Bolaño, Amulet (2009), p.75

[6] Ibid., pp. 29-31

[7] Bruno Bosteels, Marx and Freud in Latin America (2012), pp. 166-175

[8] See Subcomandante Marcos, Our Word is Our Weapon (2000), pp 143-6