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

9 huelguistas de hambre UT Foto facebook

Nine hunger strikers at the University of Tolima. Photo from Kalitos Gamboa's Facebook account, used with his permission.

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 15, which included the dean's resignation by July 31 and a written acceptance of various petition points.

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

En últimas, la sed de justicia en la Universidad es una necesidad, y se trata de intentar abrir nuevos espacios, realizar acciones colectivas en defensa de lo público pero exigiendo transformación estructurales – no solo consiste en buscar la captación de recursos económicos sino en repensar la Universidad, sus bases, directivas, acuerdos, normatividad, razones, sentimientos y proyectos que no sigan encaminadas al servicio del mercado, los grupos políticos y el servilismo politiquero sino para la soberanía de los pueblos excluidos de estos tiempos

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:

Debemos informar a la comunidad universitaria y a la comunidad en general, que este movimiento no se reduce únicamente a la renuncia de un rector, es un ejercicio de transformación radical de la Universidad del Tolima, en el marco de la AUTONOMÍA, la AUTORREGULACIÓN Y la CALIDAD ACADEMICA; por eso convocamos a toda la comunidad a construir un gran pacto social que permita, desde el debate, la configuración de una universidad moderna, al servicio de la región y no de los intereses politiqueros de turno. Rechazamos cualquier intento de violación de la AUTONOMÍA UNIVERSITARIA, como es el caso de la Ley 550, la Ley 1740 o las reestructuraciones amañadas y a dedo; tampoco aceptaremos la imposición de manera autoritaria de un rector por parte de ningún sector; es decir, el rector encargado y los demás asignados, deberán obedecer a un proceso de legitimación dentro de la comunidad académica.

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.”

Carlos Arturo Gamboa Bobadilla durante la huelga de hambre. Foto de su cuenta de Facebook, utilizada con su autorización.

Carlos Arturo Gamboa Bobadilla during the hunger strike. Photo from his Facebook account, used with his permission.

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

Carlos Arturo Gamboa Bobadilla (CAGB): El cuerpo se resiente bastante en nueve días de huelga de hambre, pero afortunadamente, según la valoración médica, no tengo ninguna complicación. La cuestión ahora consiste en descansar unos días y ejercer los cuidados correspondientes. Mentalmente los huelguistas salimos muy fortalecidos, logramos algunos objetivos concretos, pero sobre todo visibilizamos el problema de la Universidad del Tolima nacionalmente. Para que los problemas se empiecen a solucionar hay que aceptarlos primero, y creo que ahora muy pocas personas podrán mantenerse al margen de la realidad que padecemos.

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.

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

CAGB: Aunque fue extrema, en el sentido de que arriesgas mucho de ti mismo en ello, como experiencia humana me permitió reflexionar sobre algunas cosas, entre ellas el tema de la solidaridad que siempre me ha inquietado. Nosotros nos indignamos por todo, pero no actuamos y cuando alguien actúa no nos solidarizamos. En la Universidad encontré solidaridad de muchas personas, incluso de algunos muy distantes de nuestra forma de pensar. Padecer hambre es sentirse más humano, es acercarse a la condición animal que nos antecede, es también reflexionar sobre el sentido de la existencia porque si no te alimentas te descompones y eso te hace pensar en la vida en el sentido de estar “aquí”.

No creo que hubiese atentado contra mi vida, lo que hicimos los huelguistas fue un acto de desprendimiento por una institución que se hundía, es un símbolo de resistencia en donde la acción es igual de contundente a la idea.

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: Lo que sucede en la Universidad del Tolima es casi un laboratorio de la situación de la educación superior en Colombia, con un ingrediente más, el fracaso de un grupo de poder que estuvo durante los últimos cuatro años al frente de su dirección. Ahora nos toca recomponer muchas cosas, la UT apenas lleva 60 años funcionando, digamos que está en su etapa embrionaria como institución. Es el momento de modernizarla, de blindarla contra la politiquería regional, de reorientarla académicamente, de entroncarla con la región, de limitarle su misión porque no podemos seguir intentando parecernos a lo que no somos.

Para la educación pública nacional se debe venir un gran cambio, los tiempos de posconflicto lo requieren. Sin un sistema educativo nacional que le apueste a la reconstrucción del país, será más difícil enraizar el sentido de la paz. Creo que la educación, si se orienta bien, es fundamental para la redefinición de la democracia, la ciudadanía y la activación de un sujeto en derecho. Esto se debe presionar, el Estado no parece muy interesado en ello, entonces seremos nosotros, las comunidades educativas quienes empujen ese cambio.

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: Esencial. La educación les permite a las personas adquirir otras dimensiones, otras lecturas del mundo, y sobre todo reconocer las posibilidades del saber. Para ello, los currículos deben ser transformados, deben estar en disposición de un proyecto de país, deben abandonar las falacias de la competitividad y el falso progreso como meta última y centrarse en esa primicia que Jacques Delors denomina «aprender a vivir juntos», es quizás lo que más nos falta como colombianos.

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.

Carlos Gamboa desde su huelga. Foto de su cuenta de Facebook, utilizada con su autorización.

Carlos Gamboa while on strike. Photo from Facebook, used with permission.

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

CAGB: Creo que todo está imbricado en mí. No me imagino ser un docente sin capacidad de acción y pensamiento críticos, o un escritor encerrado frente a un ordenador intentando narrar o poetizar la vida sin vivirla de facto. Si observas con cuidado todas estas acciones están cruzadas por la palabra, creo que vengo siendo eso: un encantado por las palabras que generen acción transformadora. Si la palabra no busca transformar es mejor guardar silencio.

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: La frase surgió tratando de elaborar un cuento en el cual el personaje central debía ser un idealista. El cuento fracasó y quedó la frase. La guardé para mí, en el fondo soy eso, un idealista y me agrada serlo. No me gusta el mundo en el que nací y el que habito, que es peor hoy que cuando nací; quisiera cambiarlo y cada día lo intento, desde las acciones más pequeñas, estamos en el tiempo de la revolución de las pequeñas cosas, por eso luchar por cambiar una institución formadora como la Universidad del Tolima, merece todo nuestro esfuerzo. Espero ser idealista hasta el final, porque me hastía ver tanto conformismo; también me desagrada ver antiguos luchadores refugiados en el confort que provee el egoísmo del bienestar individual.

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: El deseo de cambio. Estamos supeditados a ello o feneceremos. Debemos frenar. El mundo va al desfiladero de su existencia. Cada día contribuimos con nuestro consumismo desaforado a depredar el planeta, es fácil de ver, pero difícil de cambiar. A veces quisiera tener el poder de resetear las mentes, eso es imposible, por eso soy profesor, porque considero que desde las aulas es posible cambiar el chip de la autodestrucción que hace tiempo nos implantó el capitalismo.

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.

 

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