How the Colombian student movement won

From the Preorg! blog, published 21 May 2013. Original at:

In 2011 the Colombian government proposed a sweeping marketization program for the Colombian higher education system, including allowing private capital to invest in public universities. Students across the country rose up to fight the proposals. By the end of the year the protests against the reform had forced the government to abandon their plans.

Since many campaigns against university marketisation and privatisation in other countries have struggled in the face of an overwhelmingly neo-liberal global political climate, I was interested to find out what the Colombian student movement had done to beat the odds.

At the core of the student was an organisation call MANE, so I spoke to Boris Duarte, one of their spokespeople.

Duarte, along with many other students, became involved in the fight over education in Colombia in 2005 when the government proposed a set of academic reforms that established a system of valuations and credits that many felt had little to do with quality education and followed a neo-liberalising logic. This battle was lost.

Later Duarte became a member of one of Colombia’s big national student organisations, Identitad Estudiantil. In 2007 they fought against government plans to cut academic budgets. This campaign was partially successful in defending budgets but the students failed to get everything they had demanded.

Since the attacks on academia by Colombia’s solidly neo-liberal government just kept coming, some students started to discuss a broader organisational approach.

“In 2008 a group of five national student organisations started to approach the necessity of creating a qualitative leap in our ability to work together and respond to proposals from the government,” explained Duarte.

“We wanted to go beyond responding in an ad hoc way to these proposals and changes that were clearly going to keep coming. So we had three goals: to create greater unity of political action, the construction of a political strategy against the neo-liberal educational model, and to move forward in organisational terms.”

These five national student organisations expressed five differing political tendencies on the Colombian left, with the usual history of sectarian bickering this implies, so getting them to work together was no easy task.

“Between 2008 and 2010 we had a lot of discussions in the student movement to develop strategies for mobilisation that would enable us to organise ourselves better,” said Duarte.

That simple sentence covers three years of work. It demonstrates a patience in organising that I have never seen in the UK. I like the word that Colombians often use to talk about organising: instead of talking about an organisation they talk about a ‘process’. Though an everyday word here it seems to me to imply something dynamic rather than static, a process that changes those involved.

For those three years the different organisations were not just working between themselves, said Duarte, but were also working outside universities, in schools, in neighbourhoods, to get other people involved in the student movement. He sees this as a key factor when the big moment arrived: “people outside of academia got involved in a big way in the strikes and protests as a result of these three years of work.”

In 2010 the students faced the first attempt at education reform by the government of former President Uribe. It sought to fundamentally change the method of financing universities to link financing to GDP and to marketise the system. In the end Uribe didn’t have the ability or time to press his changes through, but the campaign to neo-liberalise the universities was carried forward by his successor President Santos.

As Santos began to prepare his plans to present to the country in 2011 the radical nature of the program became clear: he proposed the opening of universities to private capital, a change in the evaluation standards to make the universities fit a model of ‘productivity’, and a cut in budgets and restructuring of financing in order to make universities dependent on private money.

In response the students began to make their own plans.

“A national meeting was called at the beginning of 2011, and this meeting aimed to transform the student movement into something in which people beyond the student movement could become a part, whether sports teams, cultural collectives, artists, academics, public and private instutions, technical colleges,” said Duarte.

This was the beginning of the Mesa Amplia Nacional Estudantil, or MANE.

MANE had a dual-pronged strategy. They were going to strike, and strike as hard as they could, but they also wanted to offer to the country their vision of what education should be. To this end a major part of the MANE project was the construction of a Minimal Program, a set of demands to the government expressing the minimum with which they would be satisfied.

It was a ‘minimal’ program in the sense that many of those involved in its construction were revolutionary socialists of various stripes and in some other Colombia would wish for a much more radicalised education system. But what they demanded now was simple, comprehensible across the political spectrum, and listed in six points:

  • Free education, paid for by the state
  • Administrative autonomy and democratisation of academia
  • Greater provision for student welfare
  • High quality education
  • The ability to exercise democratic freedoms
  • A socially engaged academia

“With this minimal program we got a huge response from people across the country,” said Duarte, who believes that the broad appeal of the program helped to defeat the government’s plans.

The Minimal Program, and any other formal decision or position of the MANE, were put to the country by spokespeople like Duarte.

The job of the spokespeople was to voice the MANE program and if any of them went beyond this in official interviews they could be relieved of their positions. Internally they were allowed to express views different to the Minimal Program and other consensus ideas of the national committee, but externally it was their job to give voice to MANE.

An aside here on the organisation form of the MANE, and in the present tense, for the organisation is still going. The organisation is run by the national committee, which is composed of delegates from every university. The delegates are chosen by assemblies at each university and the number of delegates from each institution is weighted according to it size.

It is the committee that chooses the spokespeople, and can deselect them if necessary. It also sets up various ancillary committees such as one for communication strategy.

So all of this was in place by the time President Santos formally set out his proposals in the middle of 2011. The MANE immediately called a series of national days of action. On each occasion about 32 public universities went into strike, with support from some private universities who didn’t strike but supported the campaign, and support on the street extending beyond the students.

Back to Duarte: “We convoked 3 or 4 national days of action. It caused a lot of disruption so it obviously made the national news. We had a group of official spokespeople across the country – that was very important. After a big day of cultural action on the 10thOctober the reform came to be seen as an antidemocratic move and was withdrawn from Congress.”

It sounds very simple when you put it like that, but he is careful to underline that the important bit is the three years of organising that went before. This was a major reform proposal early in a government’s term that had a lot of backing within the government ranks. It was the student movement and only the student movement that stopped it happening. Colombia’s public universities remain public.

Duarte’s use of the term ‘cultural’ interested me. The images of the Colombian student protests that went around the world were indeed artistic, and interestingly – for a country that has clandestine protest groups dedicated to fighting the police – seemed to be mostly peaceful.

I asked if there had been a decision to use peaceful tactics only. The answer was no, it was just that the movement had been conceived as a cultural movement, prioritising artistic expression, and had made links with the world beyond academia. In this context violence on the street hadn’t made sense. There were isolated incidents of it but they were rare.

“We generated so much support from the general population that it was much more difficult to repress us,” said Duarte. “Rather than a non-violent movement, it was a democratic movement. We wanted it to be for all of society, not just for students. So this was just what people wanted to do.”

It is now a couple of years since their victory so I asked what MANE is doing now. Duarte is optimistic about the future of the organisation.

“One of our main complaints in 2011 was that the government was failing to consult people, they kept changing education without any democratic mandate. So since then we have been constructing an alternative proposal, democratic and including people from across Colombia. Today we have a proposal for a law to reform education that we will present to the people on June of this year.”

“The other thing we have been doing is strengthening the MANE in the regions. In 2011 a lot of the actions happened in Bogota. Now our organisational methods have improved and we have a more solid structure in the regions.”

So the MANE process will be maintained for as long as it is a useful way to exert a continuous influence on higher education.

Duarte has a few last words: “And we want to make clear to the people abroad that this is not democratic government in Colombia. We live in a repressive political system that doesn’t allow participation. We in contrast want a new education for sovereignty, democracy and peace.”

There is indeed a huge amount of repression of the left in Colombia and it makes little sense to see the country as a functioning democracy. All the more impressive then that, when in so many countries the battles to save education from neoliberalisation have been lost, the Colombian students won.

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