Colombia: students suspend strike, continue mobilizations

Students began returning to classes in Colombia’s public universities on Nov. 17, a day after the government of right-wing president Juan Manuel Santos formally withdrew a proposed law that the students considered an effort to privatize higher education. The Broad National Student Panel (MANE), the coordinating group for the student movement, quickly responded by announcing the suspension of a month-old strike that had shut down the country’s public universities and many of the private schools, although the group said students at some universities may stay on strike over local issues.

National student mobilizations will continue, according to MANE leaders, including a continental day of action on Nov. 24 that Colombian and Chilean students had planned earlier. Chilean schools have been on strike for six months in a similar struggle for public education. Students from Guatemala have also decided to join the Nov. 24 demonstrations, which may draw support in other countries as well.

In addition to withdrawing the proposed Law 112—an amendment to Law 30, which currently regulates higher education—President Santos’ government met another of the students’ conditions by agreeing to hold broad discussions on the higher education system with students, professors and administrators. The government also agreed not to cancel the current semester, but individual universities will be allowed to cancel if they feel they can’t make up the lost time.

“We know that what’s been accomplished so far is without any doubt a victory against the desire to privatize and in favor of a system of higher education with university autonomy and democracy, one that is national and has serious scientific and academic content,” MANE said in its announcement. But MANE spokesperson Álvaro Forero warned that the government might go back on its promises. “That’s why it’s [only] a suspension of the strike,” he said. The students are right to maintain their demonstrations and not to trust the government, historian Mauricio Archila told the Colombian weekly magazine Semana. “About 20% of the protests in Colombia between 1975 and 2010 happened because of [government] noncompliance with agreements or laws. There’s an historical reason for being distrustful.” (Semana, Nov. 17; Adital, Brazil, Nov. 17; Colombia Reports, Nov. 17)

President Santos’ concessions to the students have brought criticism from his allies on the right. On Nov. 10 Santos’ cousin, Francisco Santos, posted a video blog on YouTube charging that the president “doesn’t like to confront problems.” The students should be met “forcefully, with the legal arm of state repression,” including the use of electric shocks to control nonviolent protesters, according to Francisco Santos, who was vice president during the 2002-2010 administration of President Alvaro Uribe Vélez and is now a host on RCN radio. The video quickly went viral, outraging many viewers, and the former vice president, who handled human rights issues for the Uribe administration, posted an apology on Nov. 11. (Colombia Reports, Nov. 11)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 20.

See our last posts on South American student protests and Colombia.