Colombian Students Defeat Efforts to Privatize Higher Education

Last year, the Colombian Student Movement, organized around the National Student Broad Council or Mesa Amplia Nacional Estudiantil, (MANE), soundly defeated the effort by recently elected president Juan Manuel Santos to privatize public higher education. The success of the student movement came at the end of a two-month-long national student strike and a number of massive demonstrations throughout the country that were the product of unrelenting, courageous, and creative student organizing that drew support from trade unions and the public in general. In March 2012, Sergio Fernandez, a law student at the National University of Colombia and MANE representative, visited the U.S. to establish links with Colombian organizations in this country to develop networks of support and solidarity with the student movement in Colombia. We had extended conversations about the recent successes of the student movement in Colombia and its plans for the future.


Historical Context of the Struggle


Colombia is a country with a long history of social inequality and violence inherited from a colonial system of exploitation that neither the War of Independence of the 1820s, the Liberal Revolution of the 1850s, nor the 1929 insurrection of the Bolsheviks of Tolima could overcome. The Coffee Boom of the early 1900s re-positioned the country in the U.S.-dominated capitalist economy and strengthened its most socially regressive elite. The Peasants War, which in Colombia is simply known as “The Violence,” is one of the most significant and defining moments in the modern history of the country. The Violence exploded in 1948 as a popular response to the murder of Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who had dared to denounce the coffee oligarchy and its imperialist masters, and had promised agrarian reform. This conflict lasted 10 years and, it’s estimated, caused the death of more than 300,000 people.


In 1957, leaders of the two main political parties, liberals and conservatives, signed a mutual amnesty accord and agreed to alternate the presidency of the country. They also agreed to violently suppress the peasant resistance, which had organized “independent republics,” that were, in fact, agricultural communities of self-defense outside the control of the central government. According to Eduardo Galeanos’s often cited work, Open Veins of Latin America, “In a single operation to defeat the rebels of Marquetalia,” one of those 16 “Independent Republics,” “the army shot a million and a half pieces of ordnance, dropped 20,000 bombs, and mobilized by land and air, 16,000 soldiers.” The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Frente Armado Revolucionario Colombiano (FARC), the largest guerrilla group in the country, had its beginnings in those early peasant struggles and its endurance to this day relates to this profound connection to those early peasant roots.


Since then, successive governments have tried to crush the armed resistance but, according to Nazih Richani, author of System of Violence, “between the 1960s and the mid-1990s, the balance of forces between the guerrillas and the state did not allow either of the two to prevail.” This inability of the Colombian government to defeat the guerrillas militarily had as much to do with the resilience of the resistance as with the weakness of a central government absent from many marginalized areas, and a poorly-trained, ill-equipped, and corrupt national army.


In 1962, for instance, the head of the U.S. Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg led a military mission to Colombia and, according to Hylton’s Evil Hour in Colombia, “complained [of] the lack of preparation and professionalism” of the Colombian military, “recommending the creation of local death squads accountable only to the U.S. government.”


These conditions required the privatization of violence that took the form of paramilitary forces, which, with the financial support of the elite and the complicity and participation of large sections of the Colombian military and police, carried out the repression and outright murder of the opposition. The training and professionalization of the Colombian Armed Forces, meanwhile, was conducted at the School of the Americas and then further advanced by the enactment of Plan Colombia, a 5-year, $4 billion aid package, signed in 2000 by U.S. President Clinton. All through the 1980s and mid-1990s the Colombian government conducted peace negotiations with the guerrillas, but all the talks of peace couldn’t hide the relentless repression of the popular forces and the targeted assassination of trade union and peasant leaders, human right organizations, and opposition or progressive politicians.


In 1985, as part of the peace negotiation with the Betancour government, FARC and the Colombian Communist Party founded the Patriotic Union or Unión Patriótica (UP), a political party that could participate in the electoral process. The UP attempted to be an alternative to the two traditional parties and, by advocating for the needs of the poor, attracted the support of many peace and social justice activists. In the 1986 general elections, the UP experienced some measure of success, getting a few members elected to the Senate and Chamber of Representatives, along with 14 deputies, 351 councilpeople, and 23 mayors. It received a similar level of electoral support during the 1988 elections. These efforts by the UP to promote changes by peaceful electoral means faced violent opposition.


By the mid-1990s, allegedly 5,000 of its members had been murdered, including 2 presidential candidates, 8 congresspeople, 70 councilpeople, several dozen deputies and mayors, hundreds of trade unionists, community and peasant leaders, and countless militants. Although Amnesty International reported in 1988 that the Colombian military had a “deliberate policy of political murder,” to this day the majority of cases involving the murder of UP members have remained unresolved. The assassination of Bernardo Jaramillo, UP presidential candidate, on March 22, 1990, marked the demise of the UP as a political force and the hope of solving social conflicts by electoral means.


The assassination of leftist presidential candidates and political activists was only the beginning of a deepening civil war that, during the 1990s, saw the growth of the paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC). In 1999 alone, the AUC was responsible for 403 peasant massacres in guerrilla-controlled areas and caused the displacement of more than 1.8 million Colombians. The Amnesty Law—rejected by the UN and the EU as, “unacceptable according to international standards”—signed by President Uribe in July 2005, allowed the paramilitaries to keep their land and privileges and to enter the political arena. The electoral success of paramilitary groups—which in the 2006 Congressional elections captured 22 of the 32 departments through a combination of intimidation and assassinations—justifies the use of the terms “Para-politics” and “Para-states” to describe the reality of Colombia’s political situation.


All these forces—the central government, the military, and the paramilitary, in overt or covert alliance, working with the support of mostly U.S. multinational corporations—stand opposed to the aspiration of the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, the urban poor, the industrial and urban workers, the students, and the progressive forces in the country. What is remarkable, given this relentlessly violent context, is the consistency and determination of the popular forces to find new forms of struggle to build a more egalitarian society. What is encouraging about the recent growth of the student movement and its success defeating efforts to privatize public higher education is its strong connection to other progressive movements .


State of Higher Education in Colombia


Sergio Fernandez describes his country as, “the third most unequal place in the world in terms of disparity of incomes and opportunities,” resulting from the economic opening of Colombia to foreign investments. This embracing of the free market that took place during the 1990s under President Cesar Gaviria increased imports 700 percent. The collapse of a national industry unable to compete with foreign corporations led to the increase of unemployment in the cities, while in the country the acquisition of enormous tracks of land by the drug cartels and retired military officers concentrated land in a few hands. Forrest Hylton, in his book Evil Hour in Colombia, explains that, “By 2004, 0.4 percent of landowners possessed 61 percent of all titled land, while rural poverty was up from 82.6 percent in 2001 to 85 percent in 2003.” This extreme concentration of land, most of it dedicated to coca cultivation and the export agribusiness, makes it necessary for Colombia to import food, including coffee.


Conditions for Colombian students reflect the marked inequalities in their society and Fernandez explains the logic of an elite that seems to believe that, “a second rate country only needs a second rate education.” To illustrate his point he observes that, “of the 40 percent of elementary school students who enter high school, only 20 percent can get into either public or private colleges after graduation. Only 11 percent can go to a public university and a mere 5 percent graduate from colleges. Most notably, only 3 percent of college graduates can find a job.” This can be explained, in part, by the poor quality of the university system, of which the National University, the most important university in the country, is a prime example. As Fernandez further explains, “The University has been granting MD degrees to students who’ve never received practical training because there are no teaching hospitals…. The San Juan de Dios, the National University teaching hospital, was forced to close because of bankruptcy.”


In this context, the educational reform presented by President Santos and his Minister of Education, Maria Fernandez Campo, was not an attempt to solve the profound crisis of the Colombian educational system, but rather, it tried to open the educational market to private national and foreign investors. The government, in fact, conceived higher education as a possible lucrative business that would require tuition increases and the reduction of university salaries and services, which would have a dramatic impact on the quality of education. Specifically, the proposed legislation would have made it possible for private U.S. universities, established in Colombia, to receive the same type of public financing as public universities. Tuitions could be increased in response to market demands without public oversight, as a direct application of the Free Trade Agreement concerned with fair entrepreneurial competition, also signed last year by the Santos administration. The elimination of services would be replaced by student loans issued by banks interested in expanding into new markets as a way to deal with the global financial crisis.


Some of the U.S. financial entities interested in a southern expansion include the Apollo Group, Inc., as well as the venture capital firm J.H. Whitney and Co. The Apollo Group owns and operates Phoenix University and in a joint venture with the Carlyle Group, Inc., formed Apollo Global, which owns the Universidad de Arte, Ciencias y Comunicación (UNIACC) in Chile, the Universidad Latino Americana (ULA College) in Mexico, and Meritus University in Canada. Further, the reform would expand private investment in higher education, creating alternative institutions outside the private and public university systems that currently are not allowed to function for-profit. Giselle Medina, speaking on behalf of the Colombian Federation of University students, FEU, explained that the government was trying to “turn our education into just another commodity.”


Students Organizing and Strategies


MANE, which came into existence in 2011, comprises more than 300 student organizations that are committed to developing a single platform of actions in opposition to the proposed educational reform. Currently, all affiliated universities have their own student council and each of these institutions have democratically-elected delegates to MANE. Delegates participate in MANE plenary sessions once or twice per semester, where decisions are made by the consensus of the group. In addition, MANE has an Operating Committee that has 4 permanent representatives from public universities, 2 from private universities, and one representative per every 5,000 students. Members of the Operating Committee are either elected or appointed. None of the delegates hold permanent positions and all are subject to recall from the students at their respective institutions. Further, MANE has 23 national spokespeople at the national level, representing each of the most important cities in the country.


One of the initial challenges faced by the student movement was a government campaign of misinformation. The government tacitly denied having any plans to privatize the university system and portrayed the students, on the one hand, as too young and too stupid to know what was best for them or the country and on the other, as dupes or willing accomplices of terrorism. While at first the public and many students were skeptical of the students’ position, activists demonstrated their understanding of the proposed legislation by studying the proposal in depth and conducting extensive public discussions on the significant issues. At the same time they organized festive and creative public events, such as their much-celebrated Kiss-a-thon, where male and female students occupied public squares and kissed, as they pointedly and sarcastically challenged the accusation of terrorism. Students also organized streaking marches, parades with parents, parades with torches or balloons, street theater, street lectures, and a hug-a-thon, where they hugged each other—and even some of the police officers assigned to guarding them.


The students were able to move from these popular media-catching activities to very successful massive demonstrations. On April 7, May 1 and September 7, 2011, students and their allies in the social movements and general population took to the streets. The National University Consultative Process followed these street demonstrations in early October, in which more than 40 public and private universities participated in a national survey. The majority of the students—more than 70,000 or a clear 95 percent—rejected the educational reform bill proposed by the government. MANE then called for a National Student Strike on October 12, 2011, hoping that half a million students would join. El Tiempo, a Colombian daily, reported in mid October 2011 that, “the strike, that will begin with demonstrations in the most important cities, was called after a broad national student consultative process on the executive bill.” The National Student Strike was the biggest act of defiance by students in Colombia and had the participation of almost all the public universities in the country, with the notable exception of the Military College. Thirty of the forty private universities also participated in massive public demonstrations, although they did not join the National Student Strike. On November 8, more than a million people marched in the whole country and, although President Juan Manuel Santos had publicly announced a week earlier that, “the reform will go on, because it will go on,” the next day, on November 9, 2012, he withdrew his higher education reform proposal.


According to Fernandez, the student movement confronted severe police repression and generally there were many students injured during large demonstrations. “But when there is no police presence there are no disturbances,” he claimed. In some cases, the students received support from the political establishment, which also kept the worst forms of repression in check. For instance, the students arranged a meeting with the Mayor of the City of Bogotá who was a member of the Polo Democrático Alternativo and supported the students’ educational demands.


Overall, the students were able to confront the repression directed against the movement using a two-pronged approach. First, they made sure that all their calls to action were made publicly and in a clear and straightforward manner, to appeal to and guarantee general popular support. Their use of creative actions, such as the Kiss-a-thon, must be seen in this context. This activity, in fact, managed to popularize the students’ views and political positions in a non-confrontational manner, and allowed them to forge links to the artistic community. Second, the movement established a Human Right Commission of students and legal personnel, to protect large mobilizations. There were, in fact, several different commissions to deal with different aspects of the work of the movement. In spite of all these precautions, there was an incident at the University of Cali that resulted in the death of a student, and there were many injured as a result of police aggression, particularly at private universities.


Unifying Demands


Fernandez argues that the success of the student movement has as much to do with the increased poverty and inequality of Colombian society as with the decision of national student organizations to join efforts and act as a united and unifying force. This level of unity had not been seen in the country since 1971. The unity of the movement was made possible, in part, by the precedent and experience of the different parties that were already working together as part of the Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA), an association of 36 political organizations. As an extension of that work and responding to a call made last year by student leaders who were members of parties involved in the Polo Democrático Alternativo—more than 300 national student organizations came together around a minimum program articulated in the 6 following demands:


I. FINANCING: The student movement demands that the Colombian government guarantee the appropriate funding of the university system. This demand is grounded on the concept that education is a right and a necessary condition for national development. The students’ response to the arguments that the government doesn’t have the money is that funding could and should come from increasing the tariffs of foreign corporations. To illustrate their point, students point out that Grace and other multinationals that extract gold from Colombia only pay a 4 percent tariff, while the indigenous communities of the Guajira region, involved in salt extraction, pay 12 percent. This demand also attempts to address what Fernandez calls “the trap of educational loans and debts that puts students at the mercy of the banks.” Further, he explains that the student movement proposes that resources for education should come from cuts to the military budget and by eliminating tax breaks to corporations.


II. AUTONOMY AND DEMOCRACY: Students demand the right of the national universities to democratically establish their government bodies that would make autonomous educational and financial decisions. This demand attempts to confront a problem common to Latin American universities where the state hands over decision-making powers and the provision of services to the private sector. In the context of a private sector dominated by transnational business and finance, the students feel that the form and content of their education, as well as the research conducted at the universities, reflect the interests of this business class and not the interest of the majority of Colombians. Pablo Gentili, author of A Falsificação do Consenso, argues that, “the problem is not the fact that the academic community has lost its power. The problem is that the market has won it.” This demand seeks to democratize the decision-making process at the university, to include the participation of students, faculty and university workers and guarantee the expression of and response to their interests and needs.




III. ACADEMIC QUALITY: Students understand that the quality of their education is contingent on appropriate financing, employment conditions of faculty and university personnel and the respect for academic freedom. This demand for academic quality responds to the concrete material needs of Colombian higher education while challenging the very definition of quality education. Specifically, it attempts to re-define the concept of quality, challenging its elite and hegemonic nature, emphasizing instead the socially transformative possibilities of education. The students reject standardized and theoretical standards of measure that lack a practical dimension, as well as those forms of evaluation, such as Saber Pro, which are unreliable as academic measures and were imposed by entities outside of the public university system.


IV. UNIVERSITY WELFARE: The movement demands that the budget of the university includes the financing of welfare services for the students as well as job security for campus workers. This demand is grounded in the concept that a concern for the welfare of the students is an integral part of a more egalitarian education, particularly considering the profound inequalities of Colombian society. The students demand services to respond to the needs of the poorer students, such as free or reduced lunches, university housing, transportation and health services, as well as sport, cultural, and artistic activities that make their democratic aspirations concrete.


V. DEMOCRATIC FREEDOMS: The students demand respect for their right to free speech within the university and the right to organize for students, faculty, and campus workers. This demand attempts to address the anti-democratic tendencies in Colombian society, which profoundly affect the university community and restrict human rights.


VI. UNIVERSITY SOCIETY: The student movement demands a re-structuring of the university to respond to the needs of the Colombian society as a whole. The movement conceives a university that works to generate solutions to the problems in the country, such as the marginalization of Indigenous, Afro-Colombians, and poor communities, and that proposes ways to improve the conditions of women or that of the 44 percent who are unemployed. By the same token, the students conceive as one of the responsibilities of the university to propose ways to resolve the divide between the government and the guerrillas to put an end to the armed conflict.


Trade Union Support


Trade Unions in Colombia have been decimated by violence. A 2009 Report by a group of Colombian Trade Union Federations at an International Trade Union Conference, calls the country, “the most dangerous place in the world to exercise our rights to trade union association.” It adds that, “in 2008, 48 trade union leaders and members were murdered, and so far in 2009, there have been 17 activists and trade union leaders murdered.” In a different section, the document states that, “Since 2002, there have been 475 members of the trade union movement murdered.” The document further explains that accusations of links with guerrilla groups were designed to justify the violence, perpetrated by agents of the state, as demonstrated by official investigations, that have implicated 37 members of the military and Congress.


In spite of these difficult circumstances, from very early on, the student movement benefited from trade union support. Both the United Workers Central or Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), and the Federation of Colombian Educators or Federación Colombiana de Educadores (FECODE), supported the students, collaborated in the organizing process, and participated in massive popular demonstrations. CUT, founded in 1986, unites more than 45 worker federations and 600 trade unions, and represents 80 percent of all the trade unions in Colombia. CUT fights for the labor rights of its members and opposes the neoliberal policies of the Colombian government. It has often criticized Colombia’s subservience to the dictates of the U.S. and the IMF and it opposed the signing of the Free Trade Agreement. In October 2011, it called on 600,000 state workers to participate in a national action to demand back pay and denounce the layoff of more than 120,000 public service workers.


Among the federations that are part of CUT, FECODE, which represents some 330,000 educators, would have been the most affected by the reform and the students found a strong ally in this organization. Senén Niño Avedaño, president of the Federation, declared to the press that, “The objectives of the university students’ mobilizations coincide with FECODE objectives, which is the defense of public education, and implies the basic right to free, quality education, provided and directly administered by the state, from pre-school to the university level.” FECODE endorsed and participated in many of the activities called by the students and made a national call to all its members to participate in the national day of protest on November 10, urging them to march with the students to all the government or mayoral offices of every district capital. The federation supported the students’ demands, but also put forward its own demands that included, in addition to the defense of state public and higher education, their opposition to the government’s neoliberal policies and demanded the right to safety and physical protection for all Colombian educators.


As importantly, FECODE and some of its associated board of directors, have developed closer collaborations with MANE as part of the Committees to Defend the Right to Education, providing coordinated and joint direction to their activities and leadership to other student and faculty organizations. MANE, in turn, in collaboration with the trade unions, has developed a methodology of discussions, facilitated by the trade unions, which was presented as part of the Technical Arguments during the June 8, 2012 Presentation of Motions to the Nation. By and large, CUT and FECODE supported the alternative proposal that students were attempting to articulate in opposition to that of the government and the traditional political establishment.


The Future of the Students’ Demands


While there are many political tendencies within MANE, including many that support a radical transformation of Colombian society, MANE is not a political party and its function is not to fight for a socialist revolution, but to represent the interest of the students nationally. Nevertheless, according to Fernandez, students hold the aspiration that their activities as part of MANE contribute to democratizing their society, and are important steps towards the development of national sovereignty, democracy, and peace. As an expression of those aspirations, MANE has formally invited the participation of Indigenous communities, trade unions, women’s organizations, and academia to be part of a consultative process to articulate a vision of the type of democratic, higher education reform that could benefit Colombian students and society.


The movement presented the results of these consultative processes to the country as a whole, in collaboration with its political allies, at the Presentation of Technical Arguments and Political Proposals from June 7-9 of 2012. The Presentation of Juridical Arguments and Documents has been scheduled for October 3-5. The membership of MANE has a diverse party affiliation and has received the support of members of Congress affiliated to the Green Party of Colombia, the Polo Democratico Alternativo, and the Social Alternativa. There exists, therefore, the possibility of presenting the students’ Alternative Proposal for Educational Reform to Congress, even when some of those supporting parties currently question the democratic nature of the Colombian Congress because of paramilitary influence. Alternatively, the student movement may choose to request a constitutional amendment, requiring a Constituent Assembly or a National Plebiscite.


The current success of the movement advances the notion that general social participation and mobilization may be the only way to achieve the necessary social transformations in Colombian society. In fact, according to Fernandez, students consider this understanding of the need to promote mass mobilizations and general popular participation as the historic lesson of their struggle. These concepts, not altogether new, are however currently grounded in a rejection of electoral politics or any other forms of politics removed from mass political engagement and participation. More generally, Fernandez explains that there is a rejection of the neo-liberal policies that previous and current governments have been promoting, and feels that the students’ struggle and program embody an anti-imperialist sentiment that is slowly growing in Colombian society.


The struggle and recent successes of the Colombian students must be understood in the context of a global popular response to the economic crisis of the international capitalist system. Recently, students from Quebec to Chile have gone on strike. In Chile, students are attempting to dismantle the system set in place under the authoritarian rule of General Pinochet. In Quebec, meanwhile, and according to a recent Wall Street Journal article reporting on the four-month-long student strike, “protesters have described their fight not just over tuition increases, but also against what they say is a corrupt capitalist system.” At the University of Puerto Rico, in spite of arrests and intimidation, students conducted spirited campaigns to remove ROTC from their campus, denouncing its colonial status and refusing to become accomplices in the militaristic adventures of the empire. In the U.S., the California university system has stopped accepting more students for the next academic year and, according to Noam Chomsky, “one of the best academic systems in the world is being dismantled.” Ten years ago, Mexican students went on strike against similar privatization efforts and, although temporarily defeated, even today there are a few UNAM buildings still occupied by students who participated in the strike.


The struggle and recent victory of the student movement in Colombia, according to Fernandez, have energized society and provided impetus and encouragement to other social justice organizations currently conducting courageous struggles in the country. This alone can be counted as a success or a victory in the face of a history of violence, brutal repression, intimidation, and fear. Fernandez claims that this early victory, the defeat of the higher education reform proposed by the president, was only the first round on a long and protracted struggle. Beyond this point, the continued growth and success of the Colombian student movement may depend on a number of factors, including forging stronger ties to industrial and rural workers, as well as developing alliances with working class army troops. All these alliances could make it possible for the movement to survive, thrive, and deepen institutional challenges.



Carlos Suárez-Boulangger is a political activist and writer living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.