Archive article from The Socialist Issue 415
Union delegation sees effects of Uribe’s education cuts
I WENT to Colombia in July this year with a trade union delegation to assess the political situation and discover what life is like for ordinary Colombians. Of particular interest to me was the visit we made to the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogota to hear testimonies from those students who have been affected by repressive government policies and paramilitary violence.
Justine Gallagher, Manchester
I wanted to see how the lives of students in Colombia differed from my own life as a student. We learned that not only is it an extreme challenge to even become a student in Colombia, but also that simply being one can amount to putting your own life at risk.
Poverty and a lack of assistance from the state means that very few Colombians manage to get to university in the first place. 70% of education is private, and there are 900 private higher education institutions compared to 32 public ones.
Since President ¡lvaro Uribe came to power in 2002 he has cut the education budget in order to pump more capital into the military. Many professors now work part-time and library and welfare services have suffered.
Six public universities are in financial crisis, for example the one at Cartagena. Uribe has also tried to curb the autonomy of universities by prescribing which courses are taught. Enrolment fees are now 2-3 million pesos a year (around $1,000) which is too much for most Colombians.
The government’s objective is to attempt to prevent analytical thinking as this will prevent criticism of the government. For example, a professor who researched the repercussions of Plan Colombia (the programme agreed with the US ostensibly as a counter-narcotics strategy which has resulted in the loss of 30% of the Colombian Amazon rainforest) was assassinated by paramilitaries who have yet to be punished for their crimes.
In Colombia, anyone who thinks differently to the government or contradicts them is seen as a threat and those who are perceived to be becoming politically active at university run the risk of forcible displacement.
The result of this is that students cannot lead what we would regard as a normal student life. Many are wary simply to hang around with friends or go out for a drink. Often if there is even the slightest suspicion that someone is stirring up anti-government fervour they will receive death threats.
Many students start to become politically active after they have become the victims of government violence or displacements. Because of the continual threat posed to students in Colombia by the AUC (the largest paramilitary organisation) the students’ union of the Universidad Nacional has to offer aid to displaced students. They put them in touch with people willing to have their homes used as a refuge.
A Human Rights Commission has been set up by the students’ union to help people to flee death threats or to settle back into student life after having to relocate. Colombia is the only country in the world where these Human Rights departments are required.
The Students’ Union believes that the student struggle should complement the broader social struggle, which is why they collaborate with the CUT (the Confederation of Trade Unions) and try to maintain links between agricultural unions, take part in national strikes, attempt to reach people in poor districts etc.
They believe that “education produces freedom” and are therefore determined to help student activists to remain in education and “work like a virus to change the system from the inside”.
Although students in our own country do not face death threats and displacement for becoming politically involved, there are parallels between the educational policies of the Uribe government and that of our own.
The introduction of top-up fees means many working-class students are discouraged from continuing their education at university level, which is also the case in Colombia. Increasing privatisation of educational institutions in this country means that big business is able to have a greater influence on what is taught, and so educational autonomy is slowly diminishing, much as it is in Colombia.
The Labour Party shows little sympathy for the plight of the working class, actively trying to exclude them from increasing their knowledge. “Education produces freedom” by alerting people to their own exploitation and teaching them how to challenge the system that binds them.
Wrecked by violence and poverty
RIGHT-WING President Alvaro Uribe, since his election in 2002, has pursued a ‘neo-liberal’ agenda and maintains close economic and military ties with the US.
Colombia is one of the most violent places on earth. Every year over 25,000 people are murdered out of a population of 42 million An estimated 2,000-3,000 people are kidnapped each year. In the last 12 years more than 2,500 trade union activists have been executed and thousands more tortured and beaten by death squads such as the AUC (Self Defence Forces of Colombia) which are linked to the armed forces. During the last decade, more than one million people have been ‘displaced’ by the civil war.
Like the rest of South America, Colombia’s governments in the 1990s introduced a ‘neo-liberal’ economic programme of privatisations, cuts in public services, lower corporate taxes, and opening up the economy to foreign capital. As a result there was a sharp decline in living standards with 55% of the population living below the poverty line and unemployment officially standing at around 20%.
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