viernes, 20 de julio de 2007

Univive! Privatization and Murder in the Universidad de Valle

*The following article part based on interviews with lecturers, students and student leaders of the University of Valle who’s names cannot be referenced for security purposes. Sources at bottom of feed.

‘Education is a right of everyone - socially based. Equally, knowledge is a social entity without exclusion to age, sex and ethnicity.’ (El Educador)

The Universidad de Valle (Univalle), South West Colombia, is known for its radical politics and tolerant liberal environment. It is also one of the most respected academic establishments in Latin America. As the third largest of Colombia´s 14 remaining public universities it has much to lose from privatization. It is currently baring the full weight by a state that seems determined to dismantle all public goods for the benefit of international `free trade ´ and the accumulation of private wealth. Cardboard coffins can be seen placed outside the campus as a reminder of the students who have been murdered because of their resistance against it.

Neoliberal Resructuring

The Dean of the Humanities Faculty is very worried about the implications of the Ley de Transferencias (the legislation pertaining to the regions budgetary allowance). Between 2009 and 2019 these cuts will amount to 51.3 billion pesos. Higher education will be one of the services hardest hit.

The cuts make up part of the National Plan of Development 2006 – 10, a long term legislative package being pushed by the Uribe administration. Of particular worry to the staff is Article 38 of the Plan which will devolve the State’s responsibility to provide pensions at a ratio of 80:20 to the universities. The aim is to make the institutions self- managing and self-sustaining. The effect will be a financial burden around 1.4 billion pesos annually for the payment of pensions alone.

This burden will be transferred to the students in the form of higher fees. After graduating, students will be obliged to make a return payment as a form of education tax. Subsidies will also disappear. The subsequent rise in the cost of food, transport and housing is a big concern for the lower income students of this public university.

These World Bank approved measures of decentralization are pending the approval of the new Free Trade Treaty with the United States. This treaty does not treat public education as an essential service; as such it will be submitted to the laws of the market. Private universities - as profitable enterprises - look set to flourish. Their public counterparts will experience larger class sizes and affected academic standards say FECODE (Federacion Colombiano de Educacion) - the national teachers’ federation.

A Curriculum for 'Development'

Under the changes the curriculum will be re-orientated to technical, more ‘rentable´ vocations. In effect, the establishments will be reconstructed to create ‘qualified workers’. This is in keeping with the Free Trade Treaties ‘development´ of Colombia as an exporter of cheap primary goods with no value added. According to analyst Andrés García, we will see the devaluing of higher education “in as much as the priority will no longer be knowledge but to know how to do”.


In the month of May Univalle was in a state of "anormality" – a strike linked up to a national movement of protest against the changes. The period saw frequent police blockades, acts of intimidation and clashes with protesters. In spite of this students remained in the university carrying out other academic activities and holding regular forums on the subject of the privatization. On the 12 June the campus held a national assembly of students and teachers to debate the future of the university. Over 1000 packed into the auditorium to participate in an impressive example oratory and direct democracy. The assembly voted to change from "anormality" to "flexibility" - thereby reinstating classes, though without examinations. Uncertainty characterizes academic life here.

As with universities across the country, Univalle staged a permanent encampment during the student/teacher strike. The aim of the campamentalistas is to form a peaceful resistance based on the principle of permanence in the face of the changes. They are also a space of self-education and the formation of methods of protest. One such method has been to embark busses and deliver a brief seminar of public awareness-raising. On the national Day of the Fallen Student 08 June over three thousand students made symbolic human chain around their campus. The atmosphere was jubilant and defiant. For one lecturer I interviewed this was an attempt “renovate the language of protest”.

Provocation and Stigmatization

The concern of many is the threat of provocation from police violence and infiltrators. Student protest can be used as a pretext to close down the university thereby breaking the resistance as occurred with the Universidad Nacional in Bogota (4 June – 10 July), when the directorship instigated a forced vacation. In the worst case scenario the institution can be reopened with reforms imposed, as was the case in February 2006 with Universidad de Atlantico (Barranquilla). The establishment reopened with its staff drastically cut, fees raised by 1000% and many buildings and assets sold off. The justification for this closure was corruption. As such, Univalle maintains complete administrative transparency to avoid what one staff member described it as “dar papaya” (to give papaya fruit) or to tempt fate.

To add to the sense of siege, the Government seems intent criminalizing the name of student protest. Alex is documenting the protests on his camera. He showed an image of the local Mayors publicity billboard that he found at a bus stop. It claimed that the local government was fighting terrorism and showed a large image of a capuche (masked protester) wearing a Ché Guevara T shirt and holding a rock in his hand. “They are associating students with terrorists for protesting with rocks”, he complained, “meanwhile they are entering our campus with rifles.”

Police Assassinate Students

Graffiti outside the campus reads `Danger - Police assassinating Students in the area’. In recent years, 3 local university students have been murdered by police and paramilitaries in an attempt to suppress social protest: Jonny Silva (22 September 2005), William Ortiz (10 April 2006) and Julian Hurtado (05 October 2006). There have been the frequent occurrences of police entering the campus grounds in armored vehicles and using violence against the students, carrying out searches and even burning possessions. This is in direct violation of the autonomy allotted to Colombian universities by their constitution.

The three fallen students of Univalle

I met the parents of Jonny Silva were very keen that I tell the people in my country to write to the Fiscalia (the Prosecutors Office) demanding that the security and rights of protesting students be respected. Their son was shot indiscriminately in the back by the heavily armed ESMAD public order squadron who had illegally entered the university grounds. He was unable to run from the Police as he had polio. Human rights groups in the city have recently been sending out early warnings on the presence of armed intelligence agents inside marches. On the 20 June, ESMAD entered the campus and violently reacted against protesters with crowd dispersal devices fired at head level. Several were injured and two were detained and later transferred to the local Police intelligence department.

“The Systematic Suppression of Civil Society in the Universities”

“The militarization of the universities is both physical and symbolic. We have a heavy police presence around the ground and infiltration of intelligence and paramilitaries inside the grounds. On the other hand there are national service conditions that restrict access to courses and block graduations. What we are witnessing is the systematic suppression of civil society in the universities”
(Student delivering a workshop on the Day of the Fallen Student 09 June, 2007).

Since the murder of student councilor Julian Hurtado (by paramilitaries in October of last year), there have been acts of police violence, intimidation and stigmatization against student leaders in Univalle and its departmental branches. There have also been at least three death threats by the reinserted paramilitary group Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) that has resulted in the recipients having to leave the region. I am told by members of the student council that this has had marked effect on the strength and effectiveness of their organisation. Nationally, the last 18 months has seen the murder of 8 student leaders, the displacement of more than 20 students, and the imprisonment of 10 students accused of rebellion.

'All species evolve in Colombia except the rights: Police assassinate students'

Teachers are also frequently found on paramilitary hit lists in Colombia. Indeed the highest number of murdered Colombian trade unionists belong to this profession. Univalle’s teachers' body CORPUV have not been immune to the threats. One lecturer described this as nothing less than the “suppression of critical thinking”.


Resisting the dismantling of these most cherished of public goods, is the most vibrant contemporary mobilizations of social protest in Colombia. Their creativity and consciousness is inspiring to observers from countries with a more depoliticized student population. Yet the changes, if successful, will serve to neutralize one of the last bastions of free thinking Colombian civil society; one step closer to the cultivation of a passive workforce of obedience and productiveness. Stand against this and you may well be met be met by State led methods of oppression, complemented by more illicit, para-state structures. The relationship is perhaps best described by the Spanish metaphor - ‘like dirt under the fingernails’.

In one sense this is just one more symptom of a State that seems intent on rolling back what little state provision is available to the 50% of Colombians who live below the poverty line. Today the stakes could not be higher. The students of Univalle are at the forefront of a national movement to save popular, public education in Colombia. The time to express our solidarity with them is now.

Please write to your local Colombian Embassy demanding that the security and rights of the student protests be respected…or do something more imaginative:

In the UK, also send your e-mail to Colombian Embassy: with a copy to

If you are in the USA, these are the Colombian Ambassador's contact points in Washington, DC:
Sr. Luis Alberto Moreno
Ambassador of the Republic of Colombia
2118 Leroy Place NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
Teléfono: +1 (202) 387 8338
Fax: +1 (202) 232 8643


'We call on the Student Council of Palmira, Univalle, not to continue with its activities that only serve to fuel this war and plunge the country into disgrace.

This call is for you to abandon the city and not continue carrying out marches or closing the university - depriving the students and workers of their fundamental rights.


We are not going to allow that you, alongside the Polo Democratico [party] bring these guerilla rats here.

We await for you to adhere to these orders, open the university and leave.




ACCION URGENTE: AGRESION Y DETENCION A ESTUDIANTES DE LA UNIVERSIDAD DEL VALLE POR PARTE DEL ESMAD, (Fundación Comité Solidaridad con Presos Políticos Sección Valle, 21 junio 2007)

Siguen las amenazas y los hostigamientos contra el movimiento estudantil (Comunicado a la Comunidad Universitaria y Comunidad en General, Junio 2007)

Alerta Temprana: Hostigamientos en Contra las Lideres Estudiantiles (SINTRAUNICOR, CPDH, CUT, Santiago de Cali 2007)

Ideas: Boletín de Opinión (Facultad de Humanidades, UNIVALLE, no.4 Junio 2007)

La Palabra: Periodico Cultural de la Universidad de Valle (Junio 2006)

Posicón de los Departamentos Frente al Proyecto de Acto Legislativo que Midifica el SGP (Federaci{on Nacional de los Departamentos, 2007,

‘Unificar el Movimiento Social para Defender la Educacion Publica y Popular’, El Educador Caucano (No.24, Marzo/Abril 2007)

'The Universities: Boosting the Fight Against Tyranny', Gloria Florez,

2 comentarios:

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