According to Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos, the country’s six-decade long civil war is now officially over. Last November, the government inked a peace deal with the largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that might potentially bring the oldest armed conflict in the entire Western hemisphere to a final close. Moreover, President Santos is currently negotiating a peace settlement with Colombia’s second largest rebel organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN). Despite these diplomatic achievements over the past years, very few Colombians expect the peace accords to bring about fundamental changes to their day-to-day lives.
Notwithstanding the fact that rates of homicide, kidnapping and terrorist activities have dropped over the past decade, a great deal of potential for violence remains. Colombia’s guerrilla groups are indeed just two out of several actors engaged in the country’s social and political conflict. Right-wing paramilitaries – officially demobilized over a decade ago – and criminal gangs still remain active in the drug business, illegal mining and contraband trade. The peace deal signed with the FARC guerrillas has allowed newly emerging armed groups to gain force by aggressively expanding their activities to those areas where the guerrillas have demobilized and to take over the illicit economy the rebels left behind. Assassinations of social leaders actively involved in land recuperations, environmental struggles against large-scale mining and other mega-projects have also increased. In the poor neighbourhoods of Colombia’s major cities that are marked by high unemployment, organized crime, and the absence of the State, violence also goes on unabated. Death threats against trade unionists, lawyers, students and university professors remain all too prevalent.
Notwithstanding the fact that rates of homicide, kidnapping and terrorist activities have dropped over the past decade, a great deal of potential for violence remains.
Colombia has never been a poster child, when it comes to dealing with difference without resorting to violence. The country has a longstanding history of systemic state or state-sponsored/paramilitary terror directed against all forms of civic dissent, social protest, and collective resistance to the oligarchic and plutocratic regime. With the intensification and militarization of the social and political conflict during the 1960s, Colombia’s public universities increasingly became battle grounds for the different warring parties. The armed confrontation has always provided the socio-political context for the ideological polarization that Colombia’s universities must deal with to this day. However, the violence was not merely a product of internal pressures.
However, the violence was not merely a product of internal pressures.
In the early 1970s, a US Army manual included civil society organizations along with armed guerrilla insurgents among its list of subversive forces. The manual explicitly mentioned the ‘appearance of questionable doctrine in the educational system’ and ‘increased student activity against the government and its police, or against minority groups, foreigners and the like’ as indicators of insurgent infiltration. By the 1990s, Colombia bore witness to a strong wave of political violence in the form of assassinations of student activists and radical leftist professors by far-right paramilitaries. With the arrival of the paramilitary groups at university campuses during that decade, death threats, killings, extortions and kidnappings became common. In Colombia’s broader historical context, paramilitarism has always had a crucial conservative function to control the social demands of civil organizations, trade unions or human rights activists.
In the academic context, the political objective was to silence critical voices and to stifle unwanted research that was considered a threat to the most reactionary sectors of Colombia’s society. In their eyes, the country’s public universities were breeding grounds for guerrillas, and therefore had to be “cleansed” by violent means. As a consequence, self-censorship of professors became the norm. Several years ago, one of my colleagues was very frank about the issue. ‘If I ever mention Marx in class’, he said, ‘I always make sure to unequivocally distance myself from his ideas, so everyone knows which side I am on’. Even though the situation has undeniably improved over the past years, a certain climate of fear and persecution persists to this day.
One story that is worth briefly recounting is that of sociology professor, Miguel Ángel Beltrán, who was illegally detained in Mexico in May 2009. Beltrán was accused of being a member of the FARC and spent two years behind bars. Despite eventually being declared innocent, he was still removed from his university position by Colombia’s former ultra-conservative State Attorney for ‘promoting subversion’. The case also revealed that Colombia’s military intelligence was operating a nationwide network of student spies, who filed reports about their activist colleagues and dissident professors. I myself once likely fell afoul of such practices, when a student — without explanation and in vaguely hostile temper — suddenly began filming my lectures. Even so, there are still plenty of radical professors who stand up against the existing regime of self-censorship and intimidation with their critical research. In recent years, student organizations have played a leading role in promoting civic strikes which often end up in heavy clashes with Colombia’s anti-riot police on campuses. Many radical students are also active members in leftist political parties and social movements such as the Patriotic March and the Peoples’ Congress. Their ongoing struggles are a living example of the fact that Colombia’s public universities have historically not only functioned as a terrain of conflict, but also of critical debate, social change and hope for a better future.