The Successful Hunger Strike That Changed Colombia’s University of Tolima

Tolima, Colombia (GVO) – Between July 6 and July 15, 2016, nine people at the University of Tolima, Colombia — students, professors and staff members — organized a hunger strike to protest the serious administrative, financial, democratic, and leadership crisis occurring at this higher education institution, for which they held the Dean José Herman Muñoz Ñungo directly responsible.

The group initiated the strike after having exhausted all proper channels of negotiation. Among other things, their demands included the dean’s response to a list of 21 questions and his resignation. Not only was the dean reluctant to leave his position and respond to the questions, but the University Governing Board also kept silent, prolonging the hunger strike up to nine days.

Thanks to the mediation of a committee of local people and the presence of the Ministry of Labor, an agreement was signed at the cessation of the strike on July 31 and it included the dean’s resignation and a written acceptance of various petition points.

José Javier Cepera summed up the fight on alternative news site Rebelión:

Basically, the hunger for justice at the university is a necessity and it involves trying to open new spaces and carry out collective actions in defense of a public institution. But demanding structural transformation not only consists of raising funds, but also of re-thinking the university, its headquarters, board of directors, agreements, regulations, reasons, feelings and projects in a way so they aren’t meant to serve the market, political groups and civil servants, but instead support the sovereignty of the people excluded from these times.

The group of hunger-strikers wrote on cultural magazine El Salmón that not only did they do this in support of the University of Tolima but also “to defend public universities, threatened today by privatization politics of the Ministry of National Education.” They also talked about their hope that the community would make the commitment to follow this process closely:

We should inform the university community and the community in general that this movement cannot be solely reduced to the resignation of a dean. It is an exercise of radical transformation of the University of Tolima, within the framework of AUTONOMY, SELF-REGULATION and ACADEMIC QUALITY. For this reason, we call the entire community together to form a large social pact that, through discussion, allows the configuration of a modern university, in the service of the region, not in the service of the interests of the politicians on duty. In accordance with Laws 550 and 1740, we reject any infringement upon UNIVERSITY AUTONOMY or deceptive reorganization and hiring of friends. We will also reject the authoritarian imposition of a dean on behalf of any sector. In other words, the dean in charge, along with the rest of the staff, should abide by a process of legitimization within the academic community.

There were so many protests both online and within the community in general that the dean, José Herman Muñoz Ñungo, felt obligated to request – within the signed agreement – the “cessation of hostility and psychological violence.”

Labor unions and other organizations across the nation joined together to demonstrate in support of the strikers and their rights. At the University of Tolima alone there were three profound milestones of support: a petition that demanded the resignation of Dean Múñoz with more than 3,000 signatures; the university’s decision to support the strike by stopping all activities since July 12; and the call that university members made to the Colombian Attorney General’s Office to investigate the dean and other officials for embezzlement.

On Twitter there were multiple expressions of solidarity and support for the strikers using the hashtag #HuelgaDeHambreUT (UTHungerStrike):

 

Called to resistance and solidarity with the hunger strike defending the UT

 

Don’t give up, the future is worth fighting for. If you do, we won’t matter to the government.

 

Let’s all go tomorrow and support our friends and teachers at the strike.

‘For national public education a big change needs to come’

In order to dive deeper into the reasoning behind the strike, Global Voices interviewed one of the strikers, Carlos Arturo Gamboa Bobadilla, a pioneer blogger in the Colombian blogsphere as well as a writer, activist, teacher and president of the University Professor Union Association (ASPU). Despite his physical fatigue, he reported thoroughly on the strike on his blog and Facebook page because, as he himself expressed in one of his posts, “I don’t think I could ever be a silent protester, I wasn’t born to be a high priest of silence.”

Global Voices (GV): Let’s start with the most important: How do you physically and mentally feel right now?

Carlos Arturo Gamboa Bobadilla (CAGB): My body is really weak after nine days of hunger strike, but fortunately, according to a medical evaluation, I haven’t suffered any complications. Now I have to rest a few days and follow the proper care. We strikers left very mentally strengthened. We achieved some concrete objectives, but above all, we made the University of Tolima’s problem nationally visible. In order to resolve the problems they must be acknowledged first and I think that now very few people can remain on the sidelines about the reality we suffer.

Image Source: "Colombia Venezuela map" by F3rn4nd0 10:30, 31 December 2007 (UTC) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Colombia_Venezuela_map.png#/media/File:Colombia_Venezuela_map.png

Image Source: “Colombia Venezuela map” by F3rn4nd0  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

GV: How would you define your experience during the hunger strike? Was it worth the sacrifice and threat to your own life?

CAGB: Even though it was extreme, in the sense of putting yourself at risk, as a human experience it allowed me to reflect on some things such as human solidarity, which has always preoccupied me. We get upset about everything, but we don’t act and then when someone acts we don’t show support. I found solidarity at the university from many people, including some who have a very different way of thinking. To suffer from hunger is to feel more human, moving closer to the animal condition that precedes us, and also to reflect on the meaning of existence because if you don’t feed yourself, you decompose and that makes you think about life and the meaning of being “here.”

I don’t believe I threatened my life. What we strikers did was an act of detachment from a sinking institution. It’s a symbol of resistance where the action is as equally as convincing as the idea.

GV: How do you see the future of the University of Tolima and public university education in Colombia?

CAGB: What’s happening at the University of Tolima is almost a laboratory of the situation of higher education in Colombia, with one more ingredient: the failure of a group that has been in power for the last four years. Now it’s our job to repair many things. The UT has been in operation for at least 60 years; let’s just say it’s in its embryonic stage as an institution. It’s time to modernize it, to armor it against the regional politicking, to define its mission because we can’t continue trying to look like something were not.

For national public education a big change needs to come, times of post-conflict require it. Without a national education system that positions itself for the reconstruction of the country, it will be more difficult to lay down the foundations of peace. I think education, if it is properly guided, is fundamental for redefining democracy, citizenship and politically active citizens. This must be pushed and the state doesn’t seem very interested in doing it so it will be us, the educational communities, who push for this change.

GV: What do you consider the role of education to be in the process of peace in Colombia these days?

CAGB: Essential. Education allows people to acquire other dimensions and other readings from around the world, and above all, to recognize the possibilities of knowledge. The curriculum should be revamped accordingly; it should be a national project; it should abandon the fallacies of competitiveness and false progress as the ultimate goal and focus on Jacques Delors’ original idea about “learning to live together,” which is maybe what we lack the most as Colombians.

GV: Do you consider yourself an activist, writer, teacher, or something else?

CAGB: I think it’s all interwoven in me. I don’t imagine myself being a teacher without the ability to act and think critically, or a writer locked up in front of a computer trying to narrate or poeticize life without actually living it. If you observe carefully, all of these actions are crossed by words, I think of myself as this: a lover of words that generate transformative action. If words do not seek to transform, it’s better to remain silent.

GV: Regarding your statement, “The day I wake up without the will to change the world, will be the day the world has changed me,” do you believe this day will come?

CAGB: This statement came about while trying to elaborate a story in which the main character was supposed to be an idealist. The story failed and the statement remained. I saved it for me. In my heart that’s what I am — an idealist — and I am pleased to be it. I don’t like the world I was born into and live in, which is worse today than when I was born. I would like to change it and each day I try with the smallest actions. We’re in times of revolution of the small things, that’s why fighting to change an educational institution like the University of Tolima deserves all our effort. I hope to be an idealist until the end, because I am tired of seeing so much conformity. Nor do I like seeing old refugee fighters in the comfort that is provided by the selfishness of individual well-being.

GV: Is there anything else you would like to share with the world?

CAGB: The desire for change. We are dependent on it or we will cease to exist. We must stop. The world is headed to the chasm of its existence. Everyday we contribute to the pillage of the Earth with our immeasurable consumerism, it’s easy to see, but difficult to change. Sometimes I would like to have the power to reset minds, but that’s impossible and that’s why I am a professor, because I believe that inside the classroom it’s possible to reprogram the self-destruction chip that capitalism implanted in us sometime ago.

 

This report prepared by Lully and translated by Danelle Hood for Global Voices Online.