Colombia’s largest student organization takes to the street on Thursday to show solidarity with ongoing strikes throughout the country. According to the students, they might join what has already become the most widespread anti-government protests in recent history.
Student representative Amaury Nuñez told Colombia Reports that a “strike is the last option the MANE has in its plans. First is consensus, debate and focus on solutions to the budgetary problems facing public universities.”
Thursday’s mobilization in support of striking farmers, miners, truckers and an accumulation of other striking sectors, is meant to be a one-time thing, said the student leader.
However, if the government of Juan Manuel Santos fails to take their proposals for a higher education reform seriously, the students will abandon classes and again take to the streets.
After leading massive protests in 2011, one of the largest, most organized and most effective in recent history, student organization MANE has been noticeably plodding in its approach to the most recent bout of ongoing civil unrest in Colombia.
Though the MANE also claims the Santos administration has failed to comply with the promises it made during negotiations in 2011, Nuñez explained that much of the summer has been spent formalizing an education reform proposal, rather than preparing for another nationwide walkout.
The MANE, moreover, claims no responsibility for various violent encounters between university students and public forces that have flared up over the past week. Nuñez even went so far as to denounce the protesters involved, saying they “delegitimize the larger student movement,” and calling on government officials to avoid “demonizing respectful, lawful student mobilization” with “false characterizations.”
According to Nuñez, the demonstrations planned for Thursday’s National Day of Struggle and Solidarity are meant to support Colombia’s striking workers, particularly those from its agriculture sector, and garner attention for the MANE’s reform proposal. More demonstrations have already been planned for September, but Nuñez said the MANE has no timeline for entering strike activities, and would prefer instead to work with the government in the restructuring of the 2014 university budget, set to be released in November.
The MANE’s reform proposal, which Nuñez said was sent to government officials Wednesday, contains a detailed plan to combat “the 20 years of neoliberal policies that have submerged the public university system in unmanageable budget problems and generalized resource scarcity”.
“The number of students is higher everyday,” he said, “but the quality of facilities and services continues to fall in gigantic leaps.” Overcrowding is a growing problem, and despite rising tuition costs, investment in the student body continues to drop. Each year, there are less tenured professors and fulltime staff, and the measures agreed upon during 2011’s negotiations with the government have yet to be put in place, or “flagrantly ignored” in other cases.
Nuñez and the MANE, however, do not discuss their situation with the same intensity as other protest organizers. Their arguments are thorough, but their rhetoric is reserved, and they have so far refused to commit to any full-on strike activities. The MANE, says Nuñez, “is watching how things are going with the national protests.
“We support the other protest movements, but we have to make our own decisions, and we have to make them through the appropriate mechanisms. We want to give the government the chance to work with us to solve our problems before a strike is necessary.”
Other groups have been similarly transparent with their efforts to engage the government in dialogue, and whether or not the Santos administration will have to deal with an additional 200,000 protesters, and the total shutdown of its public universities, will depend on its ability to learn from how things have gone so far.
“Up until this point,” said Nuñez, “the government has turned its back entirely on each of the distinct national bodies [involved in protest activities].”
And with new groups joining the protests daily, and economic paralysis taking hold of the agricultural regions of the country, Nuñez says the Santos administration needs to “consolidate democratic channels of participation to resolve the problems facing each sector”, or face plunging the country into an even deeper level of disorder.
“The treatment afforded by the government to the other protests will be key in the MANE’s subsequent decisions to go on national strike or not.”
And as Colombia’s public high and elementary school workers threaten to go on indefinite strike in September, keeping university students out of the protests may be the only chance for the Colombian government to preserve its public education system, and with it, the fundamental structure of Colombian society.
- Interview with Amaury Nuñez (MANE)