Students Mobilise for National Day of Protest and Prepare for Repression

News from Colombia | on: Monday, 10 October 2011

Poster calling for national protest on 12th October

Poster calling for national protest on 12th October

Colombian student organisations grouped in the University Students Federation (FEU) have announced that since the Colombian government is insisting on putting the educational reforms to parliament, they will mobilise for a national day of protest on the 12-13th of October. This follows mobilisations across the country by students and other sectors in protest at cuts to the public sector and the proposed free trade deal with the US. Last Wednesday 22 students were wounded in demonstrations fiercely repressed by the ESMAD riot police in the cities of Cali, Neiva and Monteria.

The students are protesting against the government’s proposal to reform Law 30 which governs education. The proposals would open up education funding to the private sector as well as opening curricula to private influence. Students and academics have rejected government promises that this would open the door to higher investment, stating that the government’s figures are unrealistic. Furthermore, the FEU sees the reforms as being in violation of Article 67 of the Colombian constitution, which states that “education is a right and a public service.” Moreover, students protest that the educational reform was drawn up behind closed doors without the participation of those that work or study in the education sector. They are calling for the Bill to be withdrawn and for a new project to be drawn up democratically, with the full involvement of all those involved in education.

Students have long been targets of repression in Colombia. Since the FEU was set up in 2005 to unite all students’ trade unions, it has been a victim of constant persecution and the violation of human rights by both government forces and paramilitaries. In 2008 the then Director of the DAS security service (now in hiding in Panama, fleeing accusations of links to paramilitarism) accused the organisation of having been set up by insurgents, which resulted in death threats to the leadership and set the scene for a series of judicial set-ups against FEU members. In August 2009 two members of the FEU were arrested on accusations of handling money for ‘terrorists’. In 2010 they were released on lack of evidence.

In September the FEU held its 3rd National Congress, with over 3,000 delegates from across the country as well as international delegates from across Latin America. This meeting proposed a new educational model that would be in the interest of the whole country, and like the recent demonstrations, called for “less war and more education!” A few days later student and social leaders from Huila and Caqueta were arrested on charges of ‘rebellion’ and ‘conspiracy to commit crime’. Those arrested are all recognised student leaders, or members of peasant organisations. The eight, Omar Alfonso Combita (FEU), social leader and the Rector of the educational institution of San Ramos, Fabian Camilo Escudero (FEU) human rights lawyer, Omar Marin (FEU) human rights lawyer, Dario Sierra Castro (President of the Aguililla neighbourhood association (JAC) and member of the regional association of JACs, Luis Alfredo Fernandez, the treasurer of the Algeciras Permanent Committee of human rights, Carlos Lugo, a musician and student activist, Jorge Elecier Gaitan (member of the FEU executive) and Paola Soto a member of a local peasant association, were all arrested and their homes searched. They were then immediately transferred from Neiva and Florencia to Bogota, without being allowed to bring clothes, nor given access to a legal defence.

In a statement the FEU has said “once again the national government wants to punish the student movement for its full commitment to education as a right, to a political solution to the armed social conflict and to the achievement of peace with social justice,” it continues, “we know the persecution will not stop, we know the state will not end its efforts to silence critical thought.”

Meanwhile, Colombian media have begun insinuating that the upcoming marches may be infiltrated by guerrillas. This is not uncommon in Colombia and usually acts as a pretext for police brutality and serves to stigmatize participants in social protest. Meanwhile President Santos has ‘welcomed’ the protests while also admonishing the students to ‘watch out’ for violence, since this will “not be tolerated.”

The ESMAD riot police are notorious for their violent repression of social protest. In 2005 they killed a 15 year-old student, Yuri Neiva and in March, the ESMAD also violently broke up another student demonstration against the proposed privatisation of education. Last week Colombian riot police injured 22 students during protests, and in July they injured dozens of protesting oil workers - firing tear gas, rubber bullets and even throwing pipe bombs.

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