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World Perspective | MEXICO

Veterans of '68 Protests Rise Again--in Office

Once enemies of the state, some now struggle for change from within. They seek to implement ideals they defended.

October 02, 1998|MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Thirty years have passed, but Salvador Martinez della Rocca recalls Mexico's 1968 student revolt with Kodachrome clarity. The heady anti-government marches. The sit-ins. His imprisonment, weeks before security forces shot to death hundreds of screaming protesters and crushed the movement.

With pride, he declares: "We were enemies of the state."

Today, Martinez della Rocca is the state. As a key official in Mexico City's government, the former protest leader is trying to put into practice the ideals he defended in 1968.

He is not alone. As Mexico engages in a lengthy commemoration of the student revolt, culminating today on the massacre's 30th anniversary, a number of '68 veterans are continuing their struggle--but within the system.

Of the 16 Mexico City delegates--roughly equivalent to borough presidents--Martinez della Rocca is one of three who took part in the 1968 protests against police brutality and government repression of dissidents. Another onetime student leader, Pablo Gomez, is a prominent federal legislator.

And the police, who once beat up left-wing protesters, are now under the command of the capital's first opposition mayor, leftist hero Cuauhtemoc Cardenas. He has declared today a day of mourning for the slain protesters, whose exact number is still unknown.

"This is sort of a vindication of the students," said columnist Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez. "Five years ago, they were leaders of organizations, teachers, members of small parties. They were on the margins."

Martinez della Rocca's case reflects how left-wing activists are entering government, contributing to the democratization of a country that spent nearly seven decades under one-party rule.

On Aug. 28, 1968, the student of physics was arrested following a huge demonstration outside the National Palace. Martinez della Rocca served 2 1/2 years in jail, then became a left-wing university professor.

He still looks the part. At 52, he has unruly gray-brown curls, no tie, and a corduroy jacket with elbow patches. He drags on a cigarette and quotes Lenin and sociologist Max Weber.

But he now runs Tlalpan, a borough with a population of 650,000. Martinez della Rocca was named a delegate after his Democratic Revolution Party won control of Mexico City's government last year. At the same time, the opposition for the first time gained a majority in the federal Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress.

"The country is not the same" as in 1968, he said. "Now they don't repress demonstrations. But there is still a lot to fight for."

Health care, for example. He has set up community health centers and mobile clinics to serve Tlalpan. His inspiration: Communist Cuba's medical system.

This, he thinks, is just the beginning.

"We are going to make a new country--with democratic liberties, a state without corruption. A state that educates," he declared, predicting that his party will win presidential elections in 2000.

A recent morning, however, found him engaged in the prosaic business of governing. He was investigating building problems at local schools, such as a bulging tree root that had toppled a wall. "We should be able to solve this by taking out the tree," he suggested.

The '68 massacre shaped a generation in Mexico, much as the 1970 Kent State killings did in the United States. The Mexican crackdown affected even those who did not join the protests. The Mexico City daily El Universal recently unearthed a photo of a student passerby being beaten by police: The student was Ernesto Zedillo, now president.

Some Mexicans, convinced that there could be no peaceful change after 1968, fought a guerrilla war through the 1970s. For many others, the massacre shattered the legitimacy of the efficient but authoritarian political system.

Still, a central question of conferences being held to mark the 1968 anniversary is how much the student movement contributed to Mexico's democratic opening. Jose Antonio Aguilar, a political scientist at Mexico's Center of Economic Research and Teaching, noted that the movement at the time seemed to herald "the rise of an important generation" that would leave a profound mark on Mexican society and culture.

"Where is this generation and where are its classic books?" he wrote in the magazine Nexos. "Democracy took three more decades to arrive. . . . Did the generation of '68 help liquidate the broken-down political system or prolong its life?"

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