Over the last couple of weeks, members of the Colombian Patriotic March movement have been touring the UK and Ireland. David Florez, a student from the National University of Bogota and General Secretary of the Federation of Students joined London NCAFC to talk to us about the Colombian student movement and how they toppled the neoliberal education reforms of the Santos government in 2011.
The Colombian context
Florez began by outlining the social and economic context in Colombia and how this has moulded the student movement. Colombia has the third highest inequality in the world: 1% of the population own 59% of the fertile land; 8 million people live in misery. Since previous neoliberal reforms, healthcare is not free. The ongoing civil war has left 5 million people internally displaced and a further 5 million in exile. The brutal regime keeps over 9,500 political prisoners, including over 50 student leaders. Assassinations of social leaders are common: 8 leading members of the Patriotic March movement have been killed.
Annually, the government invests $9000 in each soldier, compared to $1500 in each student. In 2011, the Santos government attempted to introduce neoliberal education reforms through Congress which would benefit the finance sector. Public universities would be forced to compete for funding from the private sector, and students to take high interest bank loans, replacing the state subsidy. This would create so-called ‘mixed-universities’, which banks would have a role in administrating, in effect the end of the public universities.
The student movement unites
The first objective of the movement against the reforms was to unite the students across public and private institutions, who were traditionally not organised together. % national student organisations represent the public university students; however, the private university students had little organisation, despite that they were often the most highly indebted.
In order to do this, emergency student assemblies were organised in every university to discuss three elements of the campaign:
Each assembly sent delegates to a 10,000 student Congress, which formed the National Comprehensive Student Table (MANE). The 5 national organisations agreed to unite to follow the policy set by the MANE Congress, which was determined by the delegates from faculty and university assemblies. The MANE also elected spokespeople, with reserved regional and indigenous positions. It strove to work on consensus decision-making; on some issues, however, votes were necessary.
Within the student movement there was an internal debate: should the MANE oppose all or merely some of the reforms? This question almost broke the unity of the MANE; however, in the end the MANE voted for full opposition, so as to not give legitimacy to any of the reforms.
Externally, the MANE created a ‘Minimum Student Programme’, an expression of its 5 core policies:
- Free education
- Quality education
- Welfare support
- Respect and autonomy from private interests for universities
- Peace in Colombia and national sovereignty: the government should fund education not war, and academic work should not be used to support the war.
Having united, it was essential to gain public opinion. To do this, the MANE adopted diverse tactics to support the normal practice of demonstrations. Cultural events were organised, attempts were made to bridge the generational divide and to unite with the trade union movement, and most importantly links were made with wider social issues.
The MANE drew comparisons between the proposed education reforms and the previous privatisation of the healthcare system, which provides very poor service and is almost universally disliked in Colombia. Having done so, they ran a campaign on were the resources for education could be found, linking to discontent over government failure to collect corporation tax, and suggesting a new levy on the banking system.
Shutting down universities
In autumn 2011, the demonstrations began. For over 2 months, the MANE organised weekly, escalating protests, including a joint demonstration with the student movement in Chile on 24 October. This international solidarity was important; in October 2011 a meeting of the Latin American student federation took place which cemented links between the Chilean and Colombian struggles, and both movements now symbolically march under each others’ flags at protests.
The demonstrations entailed an absolute halt to academic work (a student strike) and activists organised alternative academic activities, as well as fora to divise an alternative education bill to go to Congress.
In an attempt to co opt the movement, the government invited MANE spokespeople to join the Colombian Congressional debate on the education bill, leading to a second internal debate: should the MANe engage in negotiation with the government? Again, it was decided that the MANE student movement should not pass legitimacy to a Congress which is composed of 85% government party representatives, and the least trusted institution in Colombia.
The government waivers
With the demonstrations continuing and the students refusing to negotiate, President Santos began to be pressured by his allies to withdraw the bill, as the students had public support. When word of this was passed to the MANE, they organised to put maximum pressure on the government: a national demonstration was organised in the capital Bogota to bring the whole student movement together in one city.
By this point, the government were on the back foot. President Santos attempted to negotiate with the MANE spokespeople, who refused until after the demonstration had taken place. With the ‘Bogota Take Over’ planned to begin at 10am, the President went on national television at 9am and withdrew the reforms. Victory in hand, the demonstration became a party and memorial to honour one assassinated student leader and 5 currently imprisoned.
Having defeated the reforms, the student movement is putting the finishing touches to its alternative education bill, along the lines of the ‘Minimum Student Programme’. They have not won completely however; the current government-controlled Congress would never approve their bill. They therefore hope for a National Constituent Assembly. Meanwhile, Colombian students have become hugely politicised; the mobilisation is spilling into wider social movements such as the Patriotic March, which aims to unite workers, farmers, students and others into a popular front for peace and social justice in Colombia.
I was struck by the similarities with the ongoing Quebecois student movement. Despite knowing little about the struggle in Quebec, the Colombian student movement displayed many overlaps in tactics and organisation with the Quebecois: the implementation of a student strike that halted academic activity; regular, escalating street protests; a national coalition of student groups (MANE in Colombia, CLASSE in Quebec) which was based on local departmental or faculty assemblies which operated directly democratically. Further, in both Colombia and Quebec, a variety of student organisations exist, which creates the space for radical politics to appear and to win.
To me, this should be counterposed to the situation in the UK, where the NUS presents a monolithic, hegemonic organisation which is unable and unwilling to build the kind of struggle seen in Colombia. Clearly, the contexts are very different; however, I found it interesting to see that students had reacted in similar ways based on direct democracy and direct action to different situations. Florez and the Patriotic March representatives invited a delegation from NCAFC to visit Colombia this year; I would suggest we eagerly take this opportunity to learn more, bearing in mind NCAFC’s summer conference, which is mandated to consider a new form of organising within NCAFC and a challenge to the NUS’s hegemony of defeat.