When Mexican Physicians Take to the Streets and to Villages

Today’s guest post is written by Dr. Gabriela Soto Laveaga, Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. Her book Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects and the Making of the Pill (Duke University Press, 2009) won the 2010 Robert K. Merton Best Book prize in Science, Knowledge, and Technology Studies from the American Sociological Association. On Thursday, November 17th at 6pm, Soto Laveaga will give The Iago Galdston Lecture: “When Mexican Physicians Take to the Streets and to Villages.” There is no charge, but please register in advance here.

In late November of 1964 more than two hundred residents and interns from one of Mexico City’s leading public hospitals threatened to strike because they were denied a Christmas bonus. Their unexpected response revealed the financially precarious situation of junior doctors and the worrisome state of many of the nation’s public hospitals. The subsequent walk-out launched ten months of unprecedented actions in hospitals, clinics, and, surprisingly, Mexico City streets.

demonstration

Physician demonstration demanding “a solution to the medical problem in the country.”

As the movement gained momentum, physicians’ demands for living wages and better working conditions shifted to incorporate a call for social justice for peasants and blue-collar workers. The shift away from hospital-based labor demands alarmed an increasingly repressive regime that set out to discredit physicians through media manipulation, intimidation, and incarceration. By March 1965 many young physicians, once heralded as the future of the nation, were portrayed in the government-controlled media as traitors of the state.

codedmessage

Coded message requesting state governors send information about tension in hospitals. Source: National Archives, Mexico City.

Declassified material offers an extraordinary opportunity to learn —via decoded messages, transcribed wire-tapped conversations, and memos to the president— how the government sought to deal with unruly doctors. It is especially interesting to learn how the government used media – television and newspapers – to distort claims and dismiss doctors’ demands as the actions of a “greedy” profession. Especially revealing is, for example, how secret service agents infiltrated hospitals to gain first-hand knowledge of a movement that quickly became national in scope.

Throughout the multiple walk-outs, hospital emergency rooms remained opened but newspapers created a sense of growing dread among the population. In news stories doctors were often labeled “lazy,” “traitorous,” “murderous,” and, most often, as elites disconnected from the rest of society.

secretservicepicture

Secret Service picture of physicians protesting in May 1965. Source: National Archives, Mexico City.

Days before the 1965 State of the Union address, President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz sent military personnel to oust doctors from key hospitals. In his address the president spent more than thirty minutes speaking about the irresponsible “homicidal actions” of striking physicians. In the aftermath of the movement, more than five hundred physicians lost their license to practice medicine (most were able to practice again in the next presidential administration) and for the following fifty years, until summer 2015, there were no national, doctor-led movements in Mexico.

silentprotest

Doctors taking over downtown streets in silent protest, May 1965. Source: Página 24.

Of note is that after the social movement was unceremoniously truncated a handful of striking doctors joined an urban guerrilla Movimiento Revolucionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolutionary Movement) intent on destroying the government through violence. These doctors were, in turn, captured and together with other members of the guerrilla spent nearly a decade in Lecumberri prison for acts of treason.

The “medical” movement, as it came to be known, was really about two (often at odds) issues: the role of physicians in a rapidly changing society and the country’s need to provide proper healthcare to all working Mexicans, a right established in the 1917 Constitution. In fact young doctors’ reactions may be rooted not in 1960s urban discontent but, curiously, in experiences of city doctors in rural Mexico.

nurses

Nurses forming a  human barrier to protect striking physicians, 1965.

Starting in 1936, all Mexican medical students were required to spend time in remote, poor, and/or indigenous areas provided much-needed primary care. This mandatory social service was later written into the Mexican Constitution. For many city physicians their social service time was a transformative experience. For example, treating patients in extreme poverty while living with them as neighbors and facing similar hardships (such as lack of electricity or running water) sensitized many physicians to the complexity of providing care in Mexico. In addition, these doctors experienced, often for the first time, the deep socio-economic divisions in the country. It was young doctors most moved by their social service year who, oral histories reveal, were more likely to join a social movement.

Currently Mexico’s public healthcare system is going through dramatic shifts, and the 1965 movement is a reminder of the powerful and evolving role that physicians have played in transforming care in the country.

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