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CAUT/ACPPU Bulletin Online


Vol 49 | No 4 | April 2002

Public Universities Under Attack in Colombia

Back Print
Dieter Misgeld

In his world-famous novel A Hundred Years of Solitude, Colombian writer Gabriel GarciaMarquez describes a terrible massacre. It occurred in 1928. The massacre put an end to a successful, and famous, strike by the banana workers in Ciegana Magdalena (Central Colombia) - a strike that constituted the first fully organized act of resistance by a population of workers and their families treated with total disrespect by a foreign fruit company, and with total disregard for their needs.

In Marquez's description, based on historical records, the massacre was committed by the Colombian army, in collaboration with the civilian authorities, and with the indulgence of the Catholic Church. The representative of the U.S.-owned company - an American citizen - had initiated this process of breaking the workers' resistance.

Three thousand workers and members of their families were murdered in the massacre, testifies one of the protagonists in the novel.

A total cover-up followed and Marquez concludes: "In that way they were finally able to wipe out the union leaders."

Unfortunately, Colombia has not changed to this day. In late December 2001, it was reported that 152 trade union leaders had been assassinated in the previous year alone, along with more than 1,000 peasant leaders. They included representatives of teachers' unions and academics. Between 1987 and 1999, approximately 2,500 unionists and leaders of workers' organizations were assassinated.

This information has been provided by ASPU (Asociación Sindical de Profesores Universitarios), the union representing academics working in public universities. These notes are contained in documents distributed by the National Congress of University Professors in October 2001, which has as its theme the strengthening and defence of the beleaguered public universities.

The terrible situation was highlighted for me when a young faculty member from a university now struck by a wave of death-threats asked me to help him and his colleagues achieve greater security, or to escape from the country. Participating in a symposium in Bogotá in early December last year on "Human Rights and the University," I realized this was a theme particularly affecting the public universities.

Public universities are under attack because their academics and staffs have formed unions. And unions are everywhere under attack in Colombia. Unions are regarded as supporters of the guerrilla insurgency by the organizers of the paramilitary death-squads, groups linked to the army and to sections of the state security apparatus, as well as to wealthy landowners and the most powerful bosses of the cocaine trade.

Public universities are under attack because they provide a location for independent and critical research - research critical of the militarization of the country, of its neoliberal extremism, and of the infinite hypocrisy of referring to the guerrillas as terrorists, when paramilitary and military death-squads are responsible for at least 83 per cent of all human rights violations (according to ASPU). The violations include large-scale massacres and mass expulsions, assassinations, kidnapping, torture, forcing many individuals and families into exile, and making death threats a matter of daily routine.

Here we may want to take note of one case in particular - the assassination of Dr. Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, a noted legal scholar and teacher at the National University in Bogotá, the country's largest and foremost public university. Umaña was assassinated in 1998, as he left the auditorium where he lectured. I was told he had the habit of greeting his audience in the following way: "Welcome, all of you interested in human rights and constitutional law. A welcome also to the members of military intelligence here present."

Umaña was also Colombia's most prominent human rights lawyer. It may not come as a surprise that a number of younger or beginning lawyers and legal scholars working with him had to leave Colombia after his death.

Eduardo Umaña Luna, his father, is perhaps Colombia's best known legal scholar, a former dean of law at the National University. These two names stand out in the struggle for academic freedom and for critical and humane intelligence that demands a university free of rampant commercialism and engaged with a national history and a national vocation. As a public university, the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá still plays this role, despite the fact it has not been allowed to hire new full-time faculty for 10 years and is starved for funds all-around.

Its active role in maintaining critical awareness of Colombia's actual situation and the history which has produced it, is also manifested in a kind of running commentary scripted on the whitewashed walls of university buildings.

There is a veritable culture of graffiti here with often quite artistic works on display. And, although it covers large stretches of wall in highly visible areas, and sometimes can even be found on the inside of buildings, it is accepted and included in university life like an unofficial yet widely recognized part of the curriculum. The force of this written commentary is revealed when one learns the central square on campus is called "Plaza Che Guevara" and one notices an elaborate painting of the famous revolutionary above the entrance to the central auditorium.

Opposite this entrance, above the one leading to the university library, is a painting of Camilo Torres, the revolutionary priest who joined the guerrilla forces in the 1960s and fell very quickly in his first encounter with armed combat. Torres was the founder of the first sociology department in Colombia, and a galvanizing presence on the campus of Colombia's most important public university. He was one who combined academic effort with social and political activism.

It is striking how this display of students' artistic skill, political insight and determination is tolerated by university authorities, but it is an important tradition and legacy of the university. The mission of any "national" public university, wherever it exists, is to demand society and its leading and most powerful groups not become indifferent to the well-being of the majority of their populations, and to help design programs and interventions which can make a real difference.

Most of the students at the National University in Bogotá do not have the resources to attend the two or three outstanding but exclusive private universities that also exist. Many among them may not want to. As elsewhere in Latin America, for example in Mexico, these students claim the right to the education that the Constitution of Colombia guarantees them. That is why there still exists a network of public universities in Colombia, some functioning quite well academically on a national level and having a significant impact locally. One such school is the Universidad del Valle in Cali, whose history and philosophy departments impressed me. Others are terribly beleaguered and being demoralized by death-squad threats and actual killings, for example Medellin and Universidad Atlantico.

When one looks at the larger context, three factors stand out:

Firstly, Colombia is one of the countries in the Americas which has been most ruthless in the execution of neoliberal policies on a continent where this is common practice.

These policies condemn more than half of the country's population to living in poverty. In a document published in October 2001, ASPU states that 23 million of Colombia's 40 million inhabitants cannot satisfy their basic needs and 7.5 million live in conditions of extreme poverty. Average per person income has fallen from $2,716 U.S. in 1997 to $1,986 U.S. in 2000. Since new legislation affecting them was passed in 1993, social security and publicly funded health care have deteriorated rapidly.

Secondly, the country is in a state of civil war. The roots of this war lie in a series of efforts to inaugurate land reform, a matter of great contention in several Latin American countries. One merely needs to remember the Mexican Revolution early in the twentieth century and today's Zapatista indigenous uprising in southern Mexico.

The land reform efforts were aborted by politically initiated violence which resulted in the formation of several guerrilla groups resisting violence, largely initiated by wealthy landowners and an entrenched oligarchy.

Ultimately, Latin America's oldest, largest and toughest guerrilla force - the FARC-EP or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - was organized in these conflicts. The war against it and a younger, but also important, guerrilla force, the ELN, has led to the formation of a huge army.

Today, military expenditures outstrip every other item in the federal budget with the exception of repayment of debt to international lending agencies. Since the early 1980s a "dirty war" has been carried out, a phenomenon better known from the military dictatorships of the southern cone (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil) of Latin America.

This war consists of the regular terrorization of civilian populations, especially in the countryside, largely for the sake of eroding support for the guerrillas and stifling all forms of social protest. This terror by massacres and mass expulsions has led to the highest internal displacement rate in the world after the Sudan, reaching a level of close to two million people displaced from their homes and lands, many now living miserably on the edges of cities.

Thirdly, Colombia is recipient to the second highest level of U.S. military aid in the world, after Israel. This form of assistance initially set aside for the "war on drugs" (the official justification) is connected with the so-called "Plan Colombia." The president of Colombia initially took to Washington a "Plan for Peace, Prosperity and the Strengthening of the State."

But as the U.S. government successfully connected the hostilities in Colombia with their own campaign against drug use at home, support for Plan Colombia was granted and quickly became, in 2000, not merely a plan to form and train anti-narcotics battalions, or to fumigate and spray with herbicide areas in the countryside where the cocoa leaf and opium poppies are grown, but rather a plan to support Colombian army operations in southern Colombia, the stronghold of the FARC.

On Feb. 5, 2002, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America insisted, in the strongest terms possible, that Washington refrain from delivering the next financial instalment of Plan Colombia since the Colombian government has not complied with even one of the conditions regarding human rights imposed by the U.S. Congress regarding the provision of financial assistance under the plan.

These three points turn up with great regularity in much academic, journalistic and political writing about Colombia - the situation of the universities cannot be separated from them. In particular, the pressure exerted on the public universities, on their associations and their teachers unions, and the effort to take them over and to terrorize alleged "guerrilla supporters," cannot be explained without taking note of a plan pursued by powerful groups in the country, to create a "society without opposition."

This is not surprising as similar plans are underway for all of Latin America. The three conditions I mention mean that resistance to neoliberal policies, the defence of marginalized groups - such as the indigenous and Afro-Pacific and Afro-Caribbean communities and others - the concern for the displaced, the defence of human rights which does not shy away from, for example, mentioning connections between the paramilitary death squads and the military, accurate journalism, criticism of Plan Colombia and of the operations of transnational corporations in Colombia, are all treated as dangerous to the interest of the state and of the ruling elite, and as linkable to the guerrillas.

A mentality develops which aims to incarcerate society and subject it to an intense form of supervision. Totalitarian practices that we once associated with the existence of the Soviet system become common and the effect in intellectual and academic life is the growth of censorship and self-censorship, a phenomenon known from all forms of dictatorial rule.

Colombia is very complex, because practices of surveillance and of intimidation by terror, of ownership concentration (of the media, of land, of large enterprises) and of the relentless erosion of social support provided by the state, as well as the growing importance of the military, police and intelligence services, can all occur while maintaining a quasi-democratic political system with regular presidential and congressional elections.

This appearance has been effectively maintained and the two largest and established political parties can engage in vociferous and costly election campaigns, while the judiciary is dysfunctional and impunity with respect to human rights violations is close to total. Street crime grows exponentially, outstripping political assassinations and kidnappings. And this is not even to mention the corrosive effects of the drug trade.

Researchers and students working in the public universities can still enjoy some, albeit very limited, security when addressing these issues. When I gave various lectures at the National University in late November, I had the opportunity to listen to well-known and forceful opposition voices brought to the gathering by colleagues. We engaged in a frank discussion of the issues, including the situation of the peace negotiations between the government and the insurgency.

Other, often superb, researchers work with institutes financed as NGOs or they work as consultants and advisors with organizations and institutions. Two of the best-known researchers working in this manner leave the country quite regularly for months or a year or more at a time. But they do not enjoy the regular contact and exchange which their colleagues have access to in the public universities, nor a regular relationship with political and social organizations available to these colleagues.

Also, my discussion is concerned with the consequences of neglect and indifference to public universities in a country in which extreme neoliberal tendencies may lead to their eventual privatization. This would lead to a further marginalization of critical and independent voices. It is true that there are two or three exceptional private universities but they have a longer history and do not have the same character as newly established post-secondary institutions. These newer institutions do not, and will not, resemble Catholic post-secondary education already in existence in Latin American countries.

In all likelihood, they would be commercially driven centres of applied or sponsored research with limited or even highly restricted curricula geared directly to acquiring job-related skills. They would have few facilities, few permanently employed academics, and there would be no protection of academic freedom. The Pinochet regime in Chile left such a legacy after 1990 when a restricted democracy was introduced to succeed it. And the University of Chile, shattered and fragmented by the regime, never returned to its former position as one of the outstanding centres of learning in Latin America.

Several years ago observers of change in Latin America would have regarded Colombia as an anomaly. It still had a somewhat functioning electoral democracy, a reasonably functioning economy, and a good education system. Rather than being an example of what can go wrong in Latin America, it was perceived as a relatively safe ally of the North, existence of the guerrillas notwithstanding.

The anomalies, it seemed, were the military dictatorships of the southern cone. Now it appears Colombia may represent a frightening possibility of the future, including for countries such as Canada - a nation in which civil liberties are hollowed out, due to a two-pronged attack by the establishment of a total security state, on the one hand, and the proliferation of schemes for privatization and total commercialization on the other.

In Colombia, this process has reached a level, long in coming, at which "democracy" has become a mere façade concealing practices of terror and intimidation applied to large sections of the population.

Freedom is not quite dead, however, when graffiti, like that reproduced above, still appears, as did this one, on the campus of the National University. A most eloquent comment on the war in Afghanistan: The members of a student group from the National University and their friends who have made this drawing understood a basic issue hardly commented upon by North American media in late November. That the "war against terrorism" would be fought with the wrong weapons - i.e., militarily only - and that nourishment and care in general would be in short supply or come too late for large numbers of people. They understood this because this is also their experience.

Student commentary, such as the one mentioned above, and campaigns, such as the Canadian student campaign for the freezing of tuition, may remind us of the importance of education as a public good, together with public health care and adequate nourishment for all.

I am convinced that universities can only survive with integrity the present trend toward exploitative privatization and the growing concentration of military, financial and political power, if the search for alternatives to these powers becomes a major concern. It will require rethinking public universities, as well, so that they become more open and more connected to the communities of which they are a part and to the concerns of the growing number of people excluded from a decent life, the realization of their own capabilities and a full experience of their own dignity.

Dieter Misgeld is professor of theory and policy studies in education at the University of Toronto/Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.