The Gloom of the System

Bogota, Colombia. Riot police after being attacked with paint bombs by protesting students and teachers in a march for the defense of public education. Photo: Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty | The Political Notebook

“November 10 we fill the plaza,” read the graffito on the cathedral wall. And they did: tens of thousands of students from public and private universities marched south along the central avenues of Bogotá until they reached the Plaza de Bolivar, the city's historic center. The march, one of many that year, paralyzed Colombia's capital, a city of 6 million people that already suffers from sclerotic arteries and epic traffic jams. The students were protesting a proposed reform to Colombia’s 19-year-old higher education law, arguing that it underfunded and made inroads towards privatizing public universities. They climbed light posts, carried massive signs, sang and beat drums, and for the most part stayed away from officers of the ESMAD – the anti-disturbance squads of the National Police, whose black, insect-like body armor ranks amongst the world's most sci-fi-frightening riot gear.

When I was in Bogotá around Christmas, all that was left was the graffiti, especially on la séptima (a central north-south thoroughfare) as it neared the plaza, which is flanked by the cathedral and several government buildings. Most of it was boilerplate (“Resist!” over and over again), some of it was threatening (“If they privatize the U, pipe bombs will fly”), some more youthfully inspired (“Don't adapt your mind: the flaw is in reality”). It all seemed unremarkable to me. Bogotá, especially near the plaza, has a great tradition of inflammatory political graffiti – there is a hammer and sickle smack on the cathedral's stately wooden front door, and I'm pretty sure it’s been there for a while. But when I watched coverage of the event, the media made an effort to highlight the graffiti as an act of vandalism by the students – one of very few they could point to. The students had filled the streets regularly for eight months, in Bogotá and in cities and towns throughout the country, and over time people became vocally impressed by how peaceful the mobilizations were. This is a big deal in Colombia: the precedent for urban student protests is one of ugly violence on the part of both protesters and police. Capuchos, usually anarchist students who cover their faces with hoods, are known for deploying arsenals of homemade bombs, and the ESMAD has been accused of human rights violations by the UN.

But this time the students were charming: puppets, dancing, mild nudity! Nearly every face was uncovered and smiling. On several occasions, the students organized front lines to slowly approach the cops in formation along the edges of the march and, one by one, hug them. The cops, usually local officers rather than ESMAD, reciprocated. When clusters of students got rowdy and started throwing things at police, other groups formed chains in front of the cops to get them to stop. Even the most documented act of overt disrespect towards the ESMAD was lovely: seeing a line of officers with their riot shields out, students would pelt them with colorful paintballs, making an abstract canvas of the drab polycarbonate.


On November 10, as the students were marching, Bogotá's interim mayor Clara López (who was appointed when her predecessor was ousted for corruption) appeared on television praising the students' peaceful behavior. She seemed to be enjoying herself. Bits of confetti fell from her hair.Along with the marches, the students had held a month-long strike, effectively shutting down public universities around the country. On November 11, the day after the march, President Juan Manuel Santos formally withdrew the reform, and the students started returning to class.

Public higher education in Colombia is in a state of crisis. The system is severely underfinanced, and the student body is growing unsustainably. Students like to point out that the Colombian government spends between three and four times as much annually on a prisoner as it does on a public university student, almost five times as much on a soldier. By way of comparison, the Colombian government spends roughly 0.4% of GDP on higher education, while the average government of the European Union spends over 1% (with some spending 2% or more). Beyond this, education has long been a principal mechanism of Colombia's deeply entrenched class segregation: the country's endogamous elite shuffles its progeny from fancy private high schools to fancy private universities, which in turn spit them, frequently by way of academic jaunts abroad, into Colombia's firmament of political and industrial power (my own experience in one of Bogotá's elite private high schools made it abundantly clear that this process does not necessarily involve much effort on the student’s part.) Meanwhile, public universities offer the only real opportunity for advanced education to students of humbler origins: more than 70% of the student body of the Universidad Nacional, the largest and most prestigious public university in the country, comes from the second and third lowest tax brackets in the country, corresponding roughly to the lower middle class. With a labor market as stratified and inaccessible as Colombia's, it's not clear that this translates to real economic opportunities; nevertheless, public higher education gives many people more of a chance that they would have otherwise.

Much like the New York’s former schools chancellor, Cathie Black, Santos’s minister of education, María Fernanda Campo, has strong business background -- she was the president of Bogotá's Chamber of Commerce for ten years -- but no functional experience in education. Campo's role as education minister also revealed a crucial aspect of Santos's executive style: a tendency to prioritize the private sector's interests and emulate its modes of governance, Bloomberg-style. But whereas Black was quickly undone by the ferocious attention that surrounds public education in New York City, Campo has had ample time to make her mark on policy. Her business background was evident when she first rolled out the proposed reform in March of 2011. She initially wanted the new law to allow for the creation of for-profit universities, a la University of Phoenix, but the negative response from the academic community was so strong and immediate that this element was removed before the reform was ever presented to congress.

Still, Campo's allegiances remained clear. Economically speaking, there were three highly contentious aspects to the reform. First: it shifted the basis of the formula for state funding from the Consumer Price Index to the Gross Domestic Product, largely on the assumption that an oncoming explosion in mining and other extractive industries would lift GDP and thus increase university funding. In other words, instead of just giving universities more money, the reform gambled their financing on an assumption of future economic growth. Second: Campo acknowledged that, even with this anticipated growth, GDP-based funding would probably still be insufficient to close university budget gaps. In response, it allowed and encouraged public universities to invite direct investment from the private sector, which would very likely have included, in large proportion, the same extractive industries. Third: the reform focused its investments on the demand rather than the supply of public higher education. In other words, most of its new resources were to be directed towards funding new student loans instead of rehabilitating and expanding universities themselves.

In August, the students formed the Mesa Amplia Nacional Estudiantil (MANE), a nationwide assembly of students from universities both public and private. The MANE operated as a consesus-based, direct-democratic assembly, and counted on the participation of several existing student organizations. Dozens of universities were represented. The first meeting of the MANE drew about a thousand students, who met at the Universidad Distrital, a public university in Bogotá. Subsequent meetings rotated from city to city and, according to students I interviewed, reached three thousand. Naturally, they were chaotic: students described endless hours of heated, circular arguments both ideological and strategic that often devolved into physical fights.

Nevertheless, the MANE began to function as an authoritative decision making body. In their second meeting, which took place in early October in Cali, a large city near the Pacific coast, they made the plan to strike en masse as soon as Santos submitted his proposal to congress. Such coordination was crucial in framing the larger conflict in simple terms (“The Students vs. The Government”) and eroding Santos’ and Campos’ initial stubbornness: their claims to simply “not understand” why the students were protesting were harder to sustain when the students could answer this question repeatedly and more or less in unison.

In December I met Jennifer Vanegas, who studies social work at the Nacional and has been directly involved in the mobilizations and the MANE. She was confident and articulate, and she had her messages down pat – her rhetoric was cleanly consistent with what I'd heard from other members of the MANE and what I had read in their declarations. As can be reasonably expected from young people who spend their days in universities, this rhetoric was programmatic and jargony: education in Colombia, Vanegas told me, was “completely colonial, eurocentric, patriarchal.” Her energetic optimism was nearly unflappable. She described the movement's ambitions as no less than “giving Colombia an X-Ray” and “changing the way we do politics.”

These declarations were characteristic of another crucial consequence of the formation of the MANE: it led the movement to rapidly expand its scope. The students have linked up with other mobilized sectors of Colombian society, namely workers, peasants and indigenous communities – a taxi driver's union and other labor groups, for instance, have joined the students on their marches. The MANE's first official declarations parted from the question of education, but went on to address Colombia's internal armed conflict, its economic relations with the United States, and other major issues facing the country.


Indeed, the explicitly articulated enemy of the student movement became not Santos’s proposed reform, or even his administration, but neoliberalism writ large. The expansion of the students’ agenda was fueled by October's passage of a long-delayed US-Colombia free trade agreement in the American congress. The FTA was the coup de grace for a long series of Colombian presidents who have advanced policies of privatization, deregulation and aggressive pursuit of foreign investment. The agreement will open Colombia to heavily subsidized American agricultural products, imperiling the ability of Colombian agriculture to compete in the domestic market. Simultaneously, it will open Colombia's export-driven industries (such as, again, mining) to unrestrained investment and control by American companies, whose size and technological advancement give them strong advantages; this, combined with the deregulation also implied by the FTA, will likely cause extensive environmental damage. Lastly, the terms of the FTA limit Colombia's ability to exert regulatory control over its own commodity and capital markets, meaning that, in the event of serious instability, austerity will basically be the only macroeconomic recourse.

In Colombia, neoliberalism is intrinsically tied to the a long-standing, close economic and military relationship with the US, cultivated in order to wage an internal war against a guerrilla insurgency that, combined with paramilitary and criminal violence, has battered the country since the 1960’s. These policies have led to what many consider strong advances—just last year, the armed forces killed the top guerrilla commander in the country, something they had never managed to do before. But these gains have been contingent on what are unquestionably very large costs. Colombia is one of the region's fastest-growing economies; at the same time, it has the highest levels of wealth inequality in Latin America and some of the highest in the world. The government's war effort has severely weakened and marginalized the FARC – the main guerrilla army, which is irredeemably brutal and politically illegitimate – while also leading to the world’s highest number of internally displaced people and a series of scandals involving government ties to equally brutal and illegitimate narco-paramilitary forces.


From the beginning, the MANE clearly positioned itself in this context. The Programa Mínimo, the MANE's roadmap for reform, explicitly demands that new funds for higher education be diverted from the military budget, the public debt, and tax subsidies to foreign multinationals. As the students saw it, the government, with its disinvestment and steps towards privatization, was twisting higher education to fit and perpetuate a political and macroeconomic system they decried as unequal, violent and exploitative.

The student mobilizations in Colombia have strong parallels with many of the mass movements that welled up around the world in 2011, particularly with Occupy Wall Street. Like Occupy, the students are protesting what they consider government's exclusive allegiance to financial power. Both have employed horizontalism and direct democracy as organizing principles. And, at least in their radical elements (which in both cases are more substantial than fringe), the movements see the same much larger enemy: global capitalism. If the Zuccotti crowd mingled with the MANE, they'd spend hours denouncing the FTA as the inaugural bell for a gigantic orgy of their countries' most nefarious villains.

More specific questions of education also unite them. In the same way that students in Colombia mobilized around the issue of student debt, the extravagant costs of higher education in the US and the growing student loan bubble, combined with the inaccessible labor market, have been a rallying point for Occupy from the very beginning. Student activists in the US and in Colombia are driven by the same ideal of higher education as an inalienable right rather than a commercial good. Forrest Hylton, an American professor of history at Los Andes, a private university in Bogotá, described the Colombian student movement's scope as expanding to address “the whole issue of what's public, and what people have a right to – not just in education but also healthcare, jobs, housing.” Much the same could be said of Occupy.

Of course, the differences between the movements are also plentiful. Colombia presents a morass of complications for any movement on the left, which has had trouble shaking a Marxist-Leninist hangover dating back to the mid 20th century. Leftist social and political movements in Colombia have been undone many times over by their relationships, both real and perceived, with armed groups, and by what Hylton calls the “geological layers of ideology” driving the counterinsurgency. Indeed, the suggestion is often made that the current student movement has been infiltrated by the guerrillas, although no one has proffered any real evidence to substantiate it.


In a sense, Colombia's war-torn nature gave the students an advantage that Occupy doesn't have. The Colombian population has a pretty good idea of what a real threat looks like, and everyone knew that the student mobilizations were not that. For this reason, full scale police repression, of the sort seen throughout the US last fall, would have been hard for the government to justify. But one thing in particular distinguishes the student mobilizations from Occupy: the students in Colombia obtained an early, defining concession from the government, and opened a space for direct negotiation with the political establishment. And, because the mobilizations in Colombia started with a small enemy (the proposed reform), the possibility of victory allowed for the germination of much larger ideas. When President Santos agreed to withdraw the reform from congress, the students accomplished the first of many goals, and cemented their status as a force to contend with. For those inclined to view this victory positively, there is a clear lesson to be drawn: for the achievement of short-term, concrete political goals, broad social movements need localized fulcrum points to exercise their leverage.

The students' early victory is also a tremendous complicating factor. Occupy and the Colombian students tend to see themselves in much the same way that Herbert Marcuse saw the worldwide youth movements in the late 60s: as “the ferment of hope in the overpowering and stifling capitalist metropoles,” testifying “to the truth of the alternative – the real need, and the real possibility of a free society.” But this role depends entirely on the movements' ability to consider themselves fundamentally apart from the systems they critique: free from the strictures of negotiated political discussion, imaginations are free to run wild. But now, for better or for worse, the Colombian student movement is anchored to earth.

Rudy Amanda Hurtado, an anthropology student at the public Universidad del Cauca in Popayán, a small city near the Pacific coast, described the fault lines that began to grow within the movement once Santos allowed for the possibility of negotiation. After the November 10 march, the students set basic conditions for ending the strike: the government had to withdraw the reform and agree to negotiate directly with the MANE. The following day, the government acquiesced. These conditions were announced in a formal press conference by a group of students, most of them leaders of existing student organizations. However, Hurtado said that other conditions for lifting the strike had been proposed – demanding, for instance, that the government provide financial assistance to the cash-strapped MANE while it drafted its proposal. Hurtado felt these ideas were not properly discussed before the announcement. The decision to call off the strike, she said, was made by “the official MANE,”  excluding many students not affiliated with existing organizations, which brought their hierarchies into the MANE's decision making process.

After the November 10 march, Hurtado said, “I was tired.” Everyone was tired. When students went back to their schools, they “didn't want to hear anything about assemblies or anything like that. People were interested in finishing their semester.” The movement slowed. The students went ahead with a march they had planned for November 24 in Bogotá, intended to show solidarity with the student movement in Chile. Around ten thousand students showed up – not an insignificant number, but a sharp drop from November 10. After that, the marches stopped.


In the first week of December, the MANE met again, this time in Neiva, a city in south central Colombia. Hurtado and Vanegas both described this as by far the most contentious of the assemblies. To put this in contrast, most of the previous meetings had been contentious to the point of violence: Hurtado told me that, at the assembly in Cali in October, she saw a group of students, who had been quarrelling over some ideological fine point, pull knives on each other, prompting her to run out of the room. The assembly in Neiva saw these arguments rise to a fever pitch. The stakes, after all, were much higher – no longer just planning marches and ideological pronouncements, the students were tasked with actually describing, in detail, the alternative they had been clamoring for. By the end of the two-day assembly, the students had made little headway in terms of content. What came out instead was a document in which, over the course of seven pages, the MANE congratulates itself for its achievements, then sets a daunting timetable: after a series of monthly meetings to discuss both the content of their proposed reform and the means of drawing it up, the students hope to have their proposal to the government no sooner than August of this year. By then the students will have finished two semesters, and the universities' fiscal crisis will have had no reason to subside.

Meanwhile, internal tensions abound. Several regional constituencies have felt marginalized by the MANE's Bogotá-centric concerns, and these geographic strains are embroiled with deeper questions of identity. Gender is another sticking point. Vanegas, the student at the Nacional, said many of the males who have taken leadership roles in the movement have evinced strong sexist tendencies, expressed, for instance, in a desire for their female peers to occupy essentially secretarial roles. Add to these the standard schisms that plague coalitions of leftists from anarchists to liberals, and the challenge is clear. These tensions have crippled movements trying only to plan their next set of actions. It remains to be seen what they will do to a movement tasked with drafting a complex and comprehensive policy proposal.

The students' positions, as articulated by the Programa Mínimo, are also simply untenable. Even if the students develop proposals that are sound when limited to the question of public higher education, they are very likely to continue bundling them in anti-neoliberal rhetoric. Regardless of the value or correctness of these positions, they are far afield of anything Santos's government will accept. Take the most pressing issue, financing: it is one thing to demand increased funding for public higher education, another to demand that these funds be diverted from the military budget. On these issues, the students begin to gamble with their appeal to public opinion – the war (namely, the desire for it to end) is an extremely sore spot for most Colombians, and Santos finished 2011 with approval ratings hovering around 70%. Even Santos's predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, remained fairly popular after his administration's intense war effort resorted to allegiances with paramilitaries, illegal wiretaps and “false positives” – murdering civilians and dressing them in guerrilla uniforms to fudge military statistics. In short, public sympathy is likely to be precarious, and the political establishment is likely to be unsympathetic.


Early in January, in an effort to gain perspective on the movement from someone with experience in the academic and political establishment, I corresponded with Paul Bromberg, who was formerly an administrator at the Universidad Nacional and is currently a professor of urban studies there. (He was also briefly interim mayor of Bogotá in the late 90's, after his predecessor stepped down to run for the presidency.) Bromberg is an idiosyncratic thinker, but to the extent that he has been involved in politics he has generally aligned himself with parties and politicians on the left. Although he saw the reform proposed by the government as insufficient and misguided, he also views the student movement negatively. He suspects that the negotiations between the students and the government will be for show, and that an actual reform will be developed in parallel by university administrators and congress. This, to Bromberg, is a good thing. As a student at the Nacional, he was involved in the student movement of the 70’s, and has since come to see it as setting a precedent whereby any reform to the system of higher education is robotically rejected along inflexible ideological lines. As a result, Bromberg thinks the students are essentially regressive, if not reactionary: their categorical rejection of markets and debt is “medieval,” their view of international trade is “mercantilist,” their insistence that all problems be discussed and resolved in “la plaza pública” is unmitigated ochlocracy. In all of this Bromberg sees one of the country’s basic problems, if not the root of them all: Colombia does not value knowledge. It values grandstanding and politicking. And this is reflected in the country's educational system and the students it produces.

But there is a chicken-and-the-egg conundrum here: if education in Colombia has long been in crisis, where are these students supposed to have drawn the knowledge they need to present fully-formed, sophisticated political propositions, the kind that could fly in congress? "Perhaps they don't need it, or shouldn't be expected to have it. One of the most valuable aspects of the Occupy movement is that it challenges the widespread assertion that the only people entitled to talk about finance are those who work in it. And even if, for now, the MANE's written declarations add up to a lot of sloganeering with no political viability, the movement has publicly and loudly asked a lot of questions that are worth asking: about the deeply ingrained, rarely-questioned priorities of the national government – war and economic growth – and about the costs and consequences of these priorities. This is the one victory that gets constantly handed to Occupy: it “changed the conversation.” It’s an accomplishment worth celebrating, but it will also begin to wear thin if it doesn't lead to something else.

On this, the students in Colombia took things one step further: they forced the government to acknowledge certain constituencies with more than organized violence and speeches. Soon after Santos withdrew the reform, the Colombian journalists Juanita León and Camila Osorio pointed out that the president grew up in a family with deep roots in Colombian politics and media, which have a history of being closely intertwined. He has spent his life in the halls of power, responding to its demands and playing by its insular rules. No matter the outcome of the negotiations, one thing is new: Santos has suddenly had to factor in the opinions of people who didn't already have his ear.


Bromberg characterized the students mobilizing in Colombia as one thing: “Young. That is the main thing. This means they are ‘freethinkers,’ ‘ingenuous,’ ‘ignorant,’ ‘adventurous,’ ‘in adaptation,’ ‘disconcerted.’ They go out to the street’s because ‘it’s cool.’” This is probably true, and it’s good to hold them to task for it. But it’s also worth remembering the words that describe the people in power: cynical, disingenuous, scheming, and, well, powerful.

As Hurtado sees it, “Colombia's youth are a sick youth. We're all children of the war. We've had parents kidnapped, we have family in the guerrilla or the paramilitaries—something. Some person you know has been touched by the violence.” This breeds a “narco mentality,” a consuming, instinctual preoccupation with self-preservation that overrides the communal good. Nevertheless, Hurtado said, “The young person is the one who longs for a dignified education,” and thus the one who is willing to fight for it.

“Don’t adapt your mind: the flaw is in reality.” Maybe the shift from young and ingenuous to old and cynical is stronger in a place like Colombia – the poles further apart, the transformation more common and complete. There are a lot of good reasons for this, even for the privileged, educated and liberal-minded, for whom intellectual youth is normally easier to hold on to. The amount of deeply disheartening things you see within the borders of your own country, things in which you are probably complicit, is enormous, and they are things you don’t need to think much about to be disheartened by: violence, crippling poverty, brazen corruption. Every year is another year of dealing with an incomprehensible reality, and the idea of a solution – a real solution, acceptable to mind and in matter – becomes more distant and laughable.

This is why the Colombian student movement's sudden and uncomfortable position of power speaks to questions much larger than itself. What happens to idealism when it ceases to be oppositional? How do alternative visions of the world progress when they are asked to stop being merely alternatives? When is pragmatism cynical, and when is cynicism useful?

The next few months in Colombia may bring answers, be they bitter or inspiring, to these questions, and to the question assailing people who have lately found themselves wrapped up in what feels very much like a new political consciousness: where, then, from here?