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Colombia: A Crime To Be Poor And Study

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

31 October 2009

In the very week that the Comptroller General in Colombia announced that in real and absolute terms the budgets for Colombia’s public universities had been cut since Uribe came to power, creating difficulties for the students they mobilised and protested and were criminalised by the President for defending public education.

The reduction in the budget affects the quality of education but also the quantity.  A smaller budget means fewer students.  Some 58,000 people apply each year for just 4,000 places in the National University in Bogotá.  Although the National University was designed for the poor sectors of society and the fee is a percentage of income up to a ceiling, many rich people who would in other times have gone to the more famous private universities such as the Javeriana and the Andes now apply to the public universities.  This is particularly the case in prestige degrees such as medicine, where the public system outshines the private universities.  All of this pushes more low income families out of the system as rich children, educated in private schools with private lessons etc score higher points (not unlike the system in the Free State.)

The students at the National University took matters into their own hands on Friday 16th of October by blocking the Director’s car and preventing it from leaving the University or indeed from reversing back.  The stand off lasted nearly four hours.  They demanded that the Director discuss with the students the budget for the University.  He refused.  The stand off was eventually brought to an end by the intervention of other staff and the calling of a meeting for the following Monday, which Wasserman did not, in the end, attend.

However, Uribe intervened and countermanded the Mayor’s office by ordering the riot police to enter the University, something which they had never done due to the international agreements on the independence of campuses around the world.  They immediately set about baton charging the students even though the issue had been resolved and the students were dispersing.  They arrested a number of people.  Once again the President intervened, turning up to declare alongside a meek Wasserman that the students were terrorists and that they would be charged with kidnapping, punishable by 40 years in jail.

This is not the first time that Uribe has usurped the powers of the prosecutor’s office and the judiciary.  He has neither the power nor the authority to decide upon arrests, charges etc.  The Police, true to form, followed up by saying they were investigating whether the guerrillas were behind the “kidnapping”.  This is part of a wider campaign since Uribe took power to criminalise any form of protest, peaceful or otherwise.  In many ways it is still safer to be a guerrilla fighter, than take part in peaceful and legal protest.

It remains to be seen whether the prosecutors’ take their cue from the President and charge them with kidnapping, though it is unlikely as the law is very specific on the issue and it would be hard to make it stick.  Nevertheless, the immediate result was that in the media the demand for proper funding of the Universities was criminalised and the new budget will go through paving the way for privatisation, which is Uribe’s ultimate objective.  Education will be only for the elite and the US model is very much admired in the circles that send their children abroad for post graduate study.


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