Colombia: students continue strike, massive marches

Tens of thousands of students and their supporters marched in cities across Colombia on Nov. 3 in a continuing struggle against proposed changes to Law 30, the legislation that has governed higher education since 1992. More than 1.8 million students from 37 public universities and at least 17 private ones have carried out an open-ended strike since Oct. 11 to protest the changes, which they say will “reduce education to a commodity.” They are also protesting Colombia’s free trade agreement (FTA) with the US, which the US Congress approved on Oct. 12.

According to press reports, as many as 600,000 people joined the Nov. 3 demonstrations in 31 cities, including MedellĂ­n, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga, Manizales and Armenia. In Bogotá the sheer number of protesters forced the local mass transit system, TransMilenio, to shut down during the evening, and major roads, including routes 30 and 45, were impassable because of traffic jams. The Bogotá protests included a public debate in the late afternoon; Education Minister MarĂ­a Fernanda Campo and other officials were invited but failed to attend. Later, at least 10,000 protesters held an evening of celebration in the Plaza de BolĂ­var, with dancing, puppets and a “kiss-a-thon” illuminated with torches.

The government of right-wing president Juan Manuel Santos has already sent its legislative proposal to Congress, and a committee of the Chamber of Representatives of the Congress is scheduled to begin debating on Nov. 8. The changes would give more academic and financial independence to individual universities, but students say this would force the institutions to generate their own income, opening up the system to the profit motive and to exploitation by multinational corporations. The strikers are demanding free, high-quality public university education. “[I]n a soldier they invest 18 milion pesos [about $9,400],” the students said, referring to Colombia’s mandatory military service; “in a student, hardly more than 2 million [$1,044].”

Student leaders insist that the government must withdraw the proposed changes before any negotiations can take place. The strike will continue indefinitely, they say, with mass demonstrations planned for each week—the same tactic Chilean students have used in a protest which has shut down much of Chile’s educational system since June. “[W]e will not permit the loss of public education,” Sergio Fernández, a spokesperson for the Colombian Student Organization (OCE), told Bogotá’s Radio W. “We would prefer to lose the semester, or whatever it takes, than to lose this right.” (Semana, Colombia, Nov. 3, from EFE and from staff; Prensa Latina, Nov. 4; Colombia Reports, Nov. 4; La Jornada, Mexico, Nov. 4)

The 11 Congress members from the center-left Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA) have joined with two representatives of the indigenous sectors and two from the Green Party (PV) to call for the government to withdraw its education proposal. The legislators argued that there can’t be a fair debate on the issue, since the government counts on the support of more than 90% of the legislators. When Education Minister Campo announced on Nov. 4 that the government would not withdraw the measure, PDS senator Camilo Romero Galeano called for her resignation. (Caracol, Colombia, Nov. 4; Radio Santa Fe, Bogotá, Nov. 4)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 6.

See our last post on Colombia.