Colombia Diary: Higher Ed Under Threat

Students marching on April 7, 2011 against the proposed education reform. Photograph Source: Danieland – CC BY-SA 3.0

Recent events in Chile and Ecuador reverberate throughout South America and indeed the world. Confronted with violent government repression, by insisting on reasoned argument, critical thinking, and mass direct action, non-violent student movements in South America offer hope at a time when authoritarianism threatens democratic citizenship worldwide.

In Colombia, one of Washington’s closest allies in the Western Hemisphere, fighting for public education can get you killed. As recounted for CounterPunch, on August 7, 1999, student leader Gustavo Marulanda was murdered in Medellín, near the Universidad de Antioquia, where he studied philosophy. Several weeks before, Marulanda publicly forecasted his murder at a student assembly. Far rightwing AUC paramilitaries (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), under the command of Éver Veloza García, alias “H.H.”, later claimed responsibility.

A human rights activist who sounded the alarm over the dangers of paramilitarism, Marulanda was organizing to fight the privatization of public education. While the Colombian government of President Andrés Pastrana negotiated peace with the country’s largest guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the AUC labelled students—as well as professors and social movement and trade union activists—as guerrilla supporters, then executed them with impunity. The AUC followed in the Cold War footsteps of the U.S.-trained and -equipped Colombian military and police, which morphed into elephantine bureaucracies of repression from 2000-2015 under the auspices of U.S.-sponsored Plan Colombia.

Twenty years ago, the AUC was closely tied to FEDEGAN, the cattle ranchers’ association, as well as the Colombian military and police, and together they aimed to “cleanse” the city of Medellín, the region of Antioquia, and rest of the country of FARC supporters—both real and imagined—through murder, massacre, and forced displacement. The AUC officially de-mobilized in 2003-2006 under President Álvaro Uribe, and in 2008 its top leadership was extradited to the U.S. to face narcotics charges. Thus in the wake of the peace accords signed between the Colombian government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC in Havana in November 2016, all this seemed to be history.

But the past lives on in the present as nightmare. Alejandro Palacio Restrepo is a spokesperson for ACREES, a leading Colombian student organization (along with OCE, UNEES, and FEU). He is one of the best students I have ever had, and I have had a handful of outstanding students at New York University, Harvard, Northwestern, and especially the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia’s leading private university. Alejandro is currently conducting field research on higher education in rural areas, to which 73% of the population between the ages of 17 and 23 lacks access, according to the agrarian census of 2015. He is also an activist in the Green Party, and about as far to the right as one can be without abandoning Colombia’s political center—in mass assemblies, students complain that his public interventions on the radio and TV do not represent the mainstream of student sentiment, which tends to be considerably to the left of Alejandro. While they may be right, they overlook the fact that in a country as staunchly conservative as Colombia, Alejandro gives the movement credibility with sectors of the population that might otherwise be susceptible to shopworn Cold War tropes of students as vandals, subversives, guerrillas in civilian clothes, threats to public order, etc. Imagine a younger, sharper anti-militarist Mayor Pete as a movement spokesperson, paired with a younger, more radical version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, ACREES spokesperson Jennifer Pedraza. Together, Alejandro and Jennifer are a formidable force of critical thought. Politicians and government officials are afraid to debate them.

Hence the recourse to violent repression and death threats. During a three-month strike to save public universities in 2018, after recording a satirical reggaetón song and meeting on-stage with Residente of the hiphop phenomenon Calle 13, Alejandro and Jennifer became a political celebrities, and therefore received multiple death threats from unidentified sources in Bogotá, where Alejandro was staying and where Jennifer studies. Anti-riot police (ESMAD), meanwhile, attacked unarmed student demonstrators and infiltrated their protests—a total of 13 mass marches between September and December—with vandals. In mid-December, Esteban Mosquera, a music student at the Universidad de Cauca, lost an eye after ESMAD shot him in the face with a rubber bullet in the former colonial capital of Popayán.

In January 2019, the Executive Committee of the Latin American Studies Association, the world’s largest professional organization dedicated to study and research in the region, with more than 12,000 members, issued a statement calling for an end to Colombian government repression. By then, the strike had already been settled, and students had won their major demands, including respect for the right to protest, along with $1.3 billion in additional government funding for public universities. However, the threats continued as they and other student movement representatives negotiated the terms of implementation of the 2018 accords.

The latest threat to Alejandro’s life comes from FEDEGAN, one of Colombia’s most powerful business organizations, which has historic ties to AUC paramilitaries. Referring to Alejandro, on October 18, 2019, José Félix Lafaurie, the president of FEDEGAN, tweeted, “A student leader does not receive instructions from those who are allied with the FARC….The student cause is not the terrorist cause. He seems to be a leader of Colombian vandals.” In the Colombian context, these words put Alejandro’s life at risk. In a number of regions, including Medellín, where I work, he is no longer safe. With luck, he should be safe in Bogotá, which offers more freedom of thought than regions controlled by narco-paramilitary warlords and their allies in business and politics.

Lafurie’s declaration is a response to three separate, unrelated developments: the re-emergence of the FARC as a military force, upcoming regional and local elections, and renewed non-violent student protest. On August 29, 2019, a remnant of the FARC led by Iván Márquez, who was supposed to become a senator as a result of the Havana accords, declared the peace process a failure. Márquez pledged to cement an alliance with the ELN (National Liberation Army), Colombia’s other guerrilla insurgency. Amidst escalating electoral violence and political homicide, voting takes place on October 27, and the far right, to which FEDEGAN is organically tied, is poised for a poor showing.

Since late September, students have been protesting corruption in public university administration as well as violent government repression that violates the right to peaceful protest. Students are also protesting Article 44 of President Iván Duque’s national budget, approved in Congress on October 16, which would force public universities to cover the cost of lawsuits against the government declared in favor of plaintiffs. As in 2018, anti-riot police (ESMAD) have attacked unarmed student demonstrators and infiltrated protests and marches with vandals. In Bogotá, one infiltrator set fire to the government offices of Icetex, which manages loans and credits. At the Universidad del Atlántico in Barranquilla, a student lost an eye after the ESMAD shot him in the face while he was trying to retrieve his bicycle; in another instance, soldiers fired live ammunition in the air at the university entrance to keep students from marching. At the Universidad Nacional in Medellín, two students were injured when ESMAD shot them in the face with tear gas cannisters and rubber bullets.

The coming weeks will feature massive student protests and marches across Colombia; as predicted in CounterPunch, repression has escalated mobilization rather than contained it. In exercising rights as citizens, as Alejandro’s story demonstrates, these brave, noble young people risk their lives fighting for a more peaceful, democratic future. Gustavo Marulanda’s murder reminds us that Colombia has already had its share of student martyrs. As protest and mobilization continue on October 24 and October 31, leading up to a nationwide general strike of trade unions and social movement organization on November 21, I pray history does not repeat itself as tragedy.

Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.