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Colombia’s university students face on-going repression of their protests, while they continue their month-long university strike, demanding adequate funding for the public university system. Recently elected conservative president Ivan Duque faces his first crisis. We speak to Prof. Forrest Hylton

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For further background information, see: Remaking the Common Good: The Crisis of Public Higher Education in Colombia

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.

Colombian police brutally cracked down on university student protests last week in Colombia. Students at 32 universities have been on strike for over a month now, demanding increased resources to revive the country’s 32 public universities. Negotiations between the National Union of Students in Higher Education and the government have been suspended, and now students say that the only way forward is if right-wing president, Ivan Duque, himself gets involved. Meanwhile, student leaders are facing increased death threats and at least three leaders have disappeared. This Thursday, another major protest march is taking place, called the march of pencils, and students are being joined by various indigenous groups in support.

Now joining me to talk about these developments in Columbia is Forrest Hylton. Forrest is Associate Professor of History at the National University of Colombia in Medellin. Also, he’s the author of the book, Evil Hour in Colombia. Thanks for joining us today, Forrest.

FORREST HYLTON: It’s good to be here, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So let’s start from the beginning. Hardly any news outlets have been covering this story. So how did the strike start and exactly what are the students demanding?

FORREST HYLTON: Well, before we get into student demands, I think I would like to just state that the three students who were disappeared or reported missing have been returned safe and sound to their homes and families. And so, fortunately, nothing happened to them. And so far, the response to the death threats that were issued to a student of mine who is one of the leading representatives of the movement right now, his name is Alejandro Palacio, the response in support of Alejandro and in support of the movement itself has been overwhelming here in Colombia. As yet, very little is known about it internationally, which of course is why we are here.

So in terms of the demands, students are saying that in fact, the universities have a historic debt of fifteen billion pesos. So I’m not exactly sure what that is in dollar figures, but that is the number that they are insisting on in terms of a historic deficit that’s been accumulating year after year, really since the neoliberal reforms of higher education went into effect in 1992. And so, they’re demanding that the government come up with a long-term plan to pay off that historical debt that has accumulated, of fifteen billion pesos, in infrastructure above all, because particularly in Bogota, the campus is simply falling apart physically.

And students are also demanding another three billion Colombian pesos for the continued functioning of the universities. They want one point five billion pesos for the technical and vocational school known as SENA and they also are demanding a freeze on the tuition and fees arms race at private universities. Even though this is a strike of the public universities, the private universities, many of them, have come out in solidarity of public university students, as happened in 2011. And in fact, because, as we’ll discuss, the model that Columbia is using favors so heavily the private universities, there is no way to fight to defend higher education as a public good, as part of the common good, without addressing issues related to private universities.

So students are demanding a freeze in private universities on tuition and fees, and they are also demanding the refinancing of student loans at zero percent interest rates. And they’re demanding, above all, essentially civil rights, respect for their civil right to protest without violent repression from the anti-riot police known as ESMAD, who made their appearance on the scene last week and have continued to appear this week. And that is the principal source of violence in the protests, is ESMAD attacking student demonstrators. But there are also instances of police agents, masked police agents infiltrating the march, engaging in acts of vandalism or provocation with the police, and then the anti-riot police, ESMAD, used that as a pretext to attack student demonstrators.

So that’s what’s been going on. And there’s video evidence to show these masked infiltrators coordinating with the anti-riot police before any of this even starts. Particularly last Thursday in Bogota, it’s crystal clear that that’s what happened. If we think back to the whole wave of global justice protests that were happening throughout Europe, the United States and a number of other parts in the world, when the World Social Forum was happening, before September 11, 2001, we remember that that sort of thing was common, that was essentially a state of the art for how to combat mass protest, infiltrate masked police agents into a mass protest, engage in sort of small group violence and vandalism that is then used as a pretext for a massively disproportionate police response to what is overwhelmingly non-violent demonstration.

GREG WILPERT: Now, I imagine most of the students in Bogota, at least at the public universities, are supporting this. But does this mean that the university operations are completely shut down? What’s the situation like in terms of being able to hold classes, or are any classes being held, and what’s going on in terms of studying for students right now?

FORREST HYLTON: Unfortunately, classes have not been going on. And the idea was to try to resolve this in a timely fashion in order to get back to classes. But in the first meeting that students and professors had with officials from the Ministry of Education, it was clear that the officials had no knowledge or understanding of sort of even the ABCs of the issue. They weren’t actually prepared for the meeting and they weren’t qualified to conduct it. So that meant that students, after meeting for eleven hours with the Ministry of Education, discussing facts and figures about what exactly students are owed and what public universities need in order to complete the school year this year and next year, it was clear that the government had no intention of really negotiating any sort of monetary figure about what they could give us now.

That meant that students and professors walked away from the negotiating table demanding a more serious set of negotiations with President Ivan Duque himself, with the disclaimer that they tried everything they could to negotiate with people in the Ministry of Education but there was clearly no political will to do so within the ministry. So they have scaled back the demand to meet with the president and they are now saying they would meet with the minister of education as well as the finance minister to discuss these issues again. And that is sort of the latest development in terms of what we’re pressuring for.

Yesterday, November 14th, the rectors of the public universities issued their first communique in quite some time, saying that it was really necessary to begin to find a solution, to get back to the negotiating table with the government. And the rectors, once again, affirming their support for student protests. So this is very interesting. There’s been a kind of ebb and flow of administrative support for this strike from the period from October 10 until a deal was reached between the rectors of the universities and the Ministry of Education. So that’s a span, October 10 to October 28, a little over two weeks, administrators were very much supporting student demands and they were supporting student right to protest.

Once they made a deal with the Ministry of Education on October 28 for an additional one point two billion pesos to be given out over four years, they insisted that the deal was done, and it was now time to go back to classes. The problem with the agreement of October 28 is it did not include the two major actors here, above all, students, and professors who support them through their trade union, the Association of University Professors. So students and professors were absolutely left out of the agreement reached by top level administrators in the ministry. On October 28 and then came a lot of administrative pressure on students, as well as professors, to come on, get back to class. We got the best deal that we could, we did what we could to save public universities, but we really can’t do much in terms of the long term issues or the medium term issues, so let’s get back to class.

Students were not happy and were not willing to accept an agreement that was made over their heads and without their consultation. So what’s interesting is how this is turning into an issue of who governs the university and how, and who has the right to make decisions that don’t involve, say students and professors. Students and professors are insisting that they need to be consulted and that they need to participate in the major decisions affecting the university and how we’re going to get from where we are right now, which is a sort of standoff, to getting back in the business of teaching classes and taking classes.

GREG WILPERT: So I just want to zoom out a little bit and look at the bigger picture in terms of the context in which this is happening. President Ivan Duque was elected president last June, and he is basically an acolyte of former right-wing president Alvaro Uribe, who was responsible for much of the violence in Colombia during his presidency, especially because of his tacit support for right-wing paramilitary forces. Now, Duque himself is, I guess, basically a neoliberal right-winger of sorts. What kind of president is he shaping up to be now that he’s been in office for a few months and has been dealing with a student strike?

FORREST HYLTON: Well, he’s the kind of president who needed, yesterday in Paris, he needed UNESCO to remove a whole bunch of Colombians who had signed up to participate in an event that he was hosting. And these Colombians were removed violently, and one of them was a woman over 65 years of age who had every right to be at the event and had signed up legitimately and made it past the security filters before the events started, only to find that she was going to be violently removed from the event. So it’s clear that Duque is in full damage control mode in Europe right now. He is trying to keep this from becoming some kind of international issue or scandal. And the repressive tactics that are being employed don’t seem to be helping the situation.

It has to be said that until last week, there was very little evidence of ESMAD or anti-riot police presence and that the tendency of the student movement has been to broaden itself by reaching out to public school teachers’ unions as well as the major trade union confederations and Colombia. So what we’re really trying to avoid is sort of small group radicalism that leads to clashes with police. And one of the problems that the National University is having right now is that its administrative buildings are occupied by a group of students who clearly felt compelled to take desperate measures in order to try to force negotiations with the government. So far, occupying the administration building in Bogota has really only created further chaos and seems to be providing the possible pretext for more riot police intervention.

Last night, at the university where I Medellin, the National University, there were clashes between protesters and these anti-riot police. And the anti-riot police actually entered onto the National University campus, which is illegal and sets a very negative precedent in terms of what we might expect going forward as we continue to protest. So there’s really been an escalation and an intensification of conflict and tension beginning probably last Thursday when we marched and continuing sort of through this week. And there’s a real danger that these mass mobilizations will get turned into sort of a series of skirmishes with police. And of course, it’s very easy in that instance to label student demonstrators vandals, to insist that student demonstrators are violent.

And it must be said that the media coverage of this movement has just been dreadful. And if there is any bloodshed, if any students meet with any kind of physical harm, the media will bear a significant amount of responsibility for the type of coverage that they’ve been giving to this. They absolutely refuse to acknowledge the kind of central democratic legitimacy that student demands have in civil society. And this this government of Ivan Duque really has been caught completely flat footed. And generally, the strategy in instances like these is just to stall for time and stall for time and see if everybody gets so worn out that they kind of have to go back to normal, even though very little has been achieved. And it does not appear that that’s what’s going to happen this time out and it also does not appear that the government has any sort of plan B or how to resolve this situation. So long story short, after 100 days in power, Duque looks like a very weak leader.

GREG WILPERT: Well, unfortunately we’re going to have to leave it there for now, but I’m sure we’ll come back as see how the situation develops. I was speaking to Forrest Hylton, Associate Professor of History at the National University of Colombia in Medellin. Thanks again for us for having joined us today.

FORREST HYLTON: Thanks for having me, Greg, and I look forward to talking to you as things develop.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.

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Forrest Hylton teaches history at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Medellín. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair Thomson, co-author of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007). He has contributed to New Left Review, NACLA Report on the Americas, and CounterPunch, and his short fiction and translations have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail. Also, he authored the novel Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy (City Works Press, 2010).