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Students take part in a street play depicting people wounded in demonstrations during an antigovernment protest in Bogotá, Colombia, on 15 May.

AP Photo/Fernando Vergara

Amid violence and protests, Colombian universities seek to promote a national dialogue

In the first week of May, hundreds of college students in Colombia turned off their webcams during online classes and shared the same profile picture, a black background with a message in capital letters: “It is difficult to study while my people are being killed.” It was their way of supporting a national strike and protests that started on 28 April and left 19 people dead in the first week, many of them apparently killed by the Colombian police and its antiriot squad.

The webcam demonstration marked a turning point in the involvement of Colombia’s academic world in the country’s social upheaval, which has only escalated since then. More than 40 people have now died and there are more than 2000 complaints of police brutality, including 27 cases of sexual violence; nearly 200 people are missing. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets, initially to protest a tax reform that was later withdrawn, and now to demand measures against police brutality, inequality, and the economic impact of the pandemic, which has left 42% of Colombians living on less than $90 monthly.

University students from all fields have led demonstrations in the biggest cities and nearly 8000 Colombian researchers have signed a letter rejecting police brutality. The Colombian Association of Evolutionary Biology and the Colombian Botanical Association have released statements supporting protesters and demanding respect for human rights. On 8 May, ornithologists and biology students boycotted Colombia’s participation in the biggest international bird-watching event, the Global Big Day.

Meanwhile, university and academic leaders have sought to foster a national dialogue to help the country overcome the crisis. On 5 May, the presidents of the seven biggest universities, both public and private, signed an open letter outlining six fundamental policy changes that might move the country forward. (They had been working on such proposals since late 2019, when there was a similar wave of protests.) Among the proposals: a restructuring of the country’s fiscal policy, universal and equitable access to health care, implementation of the 2016 peace agreements with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla movement, institutional mechanisms to reduce police violence, and universal quality education.

“Our country’s problems are structural,” says Dolly Montoya Castaño, head of the National University of Colombia (UNAL), who drafted the open letter. “And academia has a lot to say about them. We bring an accumulated body of research and work that can contribute to the solution of these fundamental problems.”

The universities are organizing six working groups to come up with concrete public policy proposals in the six areas discussed in the open letter. Many universities have also begun discussions at the local level. UNAL, the nation’s largest university, has held 14 open forums about social problems since the 2019 strike, and is about to publish the results of those discussions. The University of the Andes, an elite private university that had historically remained silent about social discontent, has held similar public events.

Colombia’s universities may be well-placed to play a constructive role in national reform. A December 2020 survey showed 73% of young people trust them. And they have taken inspiration from other Latin American countries that have seen civil unrest recently. For example, they’re planning to imitate Tenemos que Hablar de Chile (we have to talk about Chile), an online platform set up by Chilean universities where the public can exchange ideas and proposals on the country’s future.

Colombia's crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic have hit young people particularly hard. One in every four people under age 28 is unemployed. “Many feel excluded, without opportunities, without hope,” Alejandro Gaviria, president of the University of the Andes, wrote in a recent op-ed. In the recent survey, nearly 30% of young people said their primary emotions are fear, sadness, and rage. “There is no guarantee of a future for young people,” says biologist Andrés Cuervo, director of the Ornithology Collection at UNAL.

Public universities—the only type of education the vast majority of students can afford—are chronically underfunded, with sometimes ramshackle classrooms and poorly equipped laboratories. There is no budget for undergrad research, says Jonathan Stiven Espitia Romero, a biology student at UNAL. “So, we have to raise our voice as scientists.”

Gaviria fears the violence will escalate if the attempt at a national dialogue fails. Montoya Castaño adds that “if Colombia is a country that does not understand that it has to educate its youth, it will be a country at war for the rest of its days.”