Lieke Prins: Studying the revolution. The political ideology of Colombian social science students as a trigger for action.
Blog: Colombia between hope and fear
When I initially left my house in Amsterdam to live in Colombia for three months I had planned to go to Chocó and study Afro-Colombian small-scale gold miners and their resistance strategies against large-scale mining companies. However, the first night in my new house with my new roommates in Medellin made me rethink my initial plans and inspired me to change in course of my research.
On the first night we were sitting on the floor of our apartment, getting to know each other. One of my roommates, an anthropology student of the Universidad de Antioquia, Ana Paula, had made us a simple dinner and aguapanela, a sweet sugary drink from Colombia. The small talk you normally have when you meet new people lasted for only two minutes; the conversation soon got a more serious tone and the two girls started to discuss the developments of La mesa de Havana – the peace negotiations between the insurgent group the FARC and government Santos.
The girls talked passionately about the construction of peace, the developments of the country and the future of the conflict. They argued: “We are the sons and daughters of the war but we want to be the generation that will be known in the history books as the generation that created peace.” Their statement caused a strong expression in their faces. Later on I realized that this expression reflected a mission that manifested itself in every aspect of their lives. Anthropology students wanted to make connections between people in a country of diversity and stigmatization. Law students dedicated their career to fight for human rights and social justice. Political science students wanted to create and participate in a fair democratic system and represent left wing social movements. They were all studying and participating in social movements and protests for a peaceful society. I decided to focus on their perspectives on peace.
The students were not the only ones that wanted peace. Just like the government and the FARC and many other Colombians people were mobilizing and negotiating peace. But what is peace? “What is peace to you?”, I asked all my interlocutors, and this triggered interesting answers. Some had difficulty imagining a Colombia in peace. The idea of a country in which there would be no violence almost made them feel uncomfortable. Others had high hopes for the country. They argued that peace meant good health care and education, basic needs for the entire nation, social justice, human rights, and fair democracy. Peace meant living without fear. To be able to go where you wanted. To be able to speak your mind without fear for the possible repercussions. To be able to develop into the person you want to be.
My Colombian friends were fighting for peace but doubted the notion of peace of the government and the FARC. Even more so, they questioned the motives of the government to build peace in the first place. “I ask, why? Why do they want to build peace?”, Andreas said. He and many others feared the motivation of Santos to construct peace. The students argued that the government wanted to demobilize the insurgent group in order to liberate the territories from the FARC and lease out the territory to multinationals. They stated the government wanted to gain quick economic profits which will impair the living situation of the people living in those territories. The students feared that when the conflict between the government and the FARC concerning territory and natural resources would be “resolved” a new conflict concerning territory and natural resources between large-scale extraction companies and the local population would emerge.
Not only did my friends fear that the end of one conflict would be the start of the next conflict, they also feared the start of the possible peace process. What will happen if peace is signed? In the past peace negotiations were followed by periods of extreme violence. What will happen if the FARC is demobilize
d and the rightwing Bandas Criminales gain more and more strength? The students had little faith in the government which is no surprise considering the actions of the government over the last couple of decades. However, what will happen if the agreement does not succeed?
During my fieldwork I got to know the different sides and perspectives concerning peace and the peace process. The developments of the country do not only give hope they also bring fear. The peace negotiations do not necessarily mean peace. The intentions to end one conflict could lead to the next conflict. The notions of peace differ. However, my friends all acknowledged the importance of La mesa de Havana and the signing of the agreement. It would be a necessary and first step for the path to peace. And when on the 24th of August the peace agreement was signed, my Facebook wall exploded with messages of hope. However, the final step of the agreement has yet to be taken: what does the Colombian population think?
Blog: Vamos a la lucha!
During the three months of my fieldwork in Medellín (the second-largest city in Colombia) I researched the political ideology of social science students and how this ideology manifested itself in practice. In order to understand their position and their actions, I lived with two Colombian students and participated in their day-to-day life. From the very first moment that I met the two girls, I noticed their passion concerning the construction of peace, their resistance movements against the politically right capitalist mindset, their fight for justice and their search for human security. Not only did they resist, they dedicated all of their time to build – for what they believed to be – a better Colombia. During interviews, observations and heaps of informal conversations with my roommates and their peers I started to understand the conflict, the political ideology and the actions of the students step by step. However, on the 17th of March, during the national strike I felt and experienced the pain and the hurt and the necessity for change for the first time.
The national strike was promoted throughout the streets of Medellín, and at the university phrases where written in the hallways to encourage students to join the march. On social media my friends shared information and motivational video’s to stimulate their friends to come. The strike was promoted through all possible means and therefore it was no surprise that the strike was attended by hundreds of people in Medellín alone.
That morning we were sitting on Marian’s bed having a coffee and talking about today’s strike. Marian said that she was hoping that the police and the ESMAD (the Colombian anti disturbance squad) would not use teargas and violence. I was surprised by her comment and asked her if it was common that those institutions used such strong measures. It was! She started to tell a story about the previous protests in which she had participated, where she had to run away from the police but was coughing so badly due to the teargas that she was unable to run and lost her friends. She described her fear and the craziness of the situation. She continued saying that I had to remind her to bring cigarettes. It helps to blow smoke in your eyes when you have inhaled teargas. Smoke takes away the burning feeling.
Marian and I went to the strike with cigarettes against the teargas, identity cards because “you never know”, and good walking shoes. She told me to stay close, it would be dangerous to get lost and she instructed me to always stay with the group. The risk of participating in the strike soon became clear to me. We arrived at the start of the strike, the police and the ESMAD were standing on every corner and two apaches of the police and the army were circling above the strike. Whereas for me – coming from the Netherlands – these institutions mean security and control, for the students these institutions are their opponents that are representing and defending the corrupt neoliberal government. Using your voice and protesting against this same rightwing neoliberal structure is therefore risky. Because – according to my respondents – the “controlling institutions” will use violence without reason, that will in turn trigger violence and the situation can escalate.
The messages the marching people were addressing concerned the need for equality, social justice, education, human security, and health care. The expressions of the messages differed. Some participants used graffiti to spray on the walls, leaving permanent marks with their claims. Others used banners to make their claim with one strong one-liners.
Translation: “I protest, so that they respect the lives of social leaders”
The visual messages were to the point and captured the essence of their claim with one image or phrase. However, hearing my friends and all of the people marching along screaming and shouting about justice, fair democracy, peace and the necessity for change was much stronger for me. Through the songs I felt and experienced their pain. “You should see the things that happen; you should see the turns they take. With a nation that is walking ahead and a government that is walking back.”
The students – and with them many other Colombians – made their claims through all means and strategies possible. Whereas protesting directly implied risk the students took the risks for granted, united and made their claim for a just and peaceful Colombia.