In March a student delegation went to Colombia to meet with other students in order to build a network between the struggle there and the North. The students were able to discuss issues around the current presidential election, the persecution of student activists working to protect public education and how the international community can play an important role in witnessing and calling for solidarity with the people of Colombia.
One of the most active student groups is the Movimiento Estudiantil Universitario Organizado (MEUNO). This group feels that the Colombian state neglects and oppresses the public sector and has taken it upon itself to defend public education and other aspects of public space. Through a series of outreach projects based around education they are seeking ways to overcome social disintegration and rebuild a sense of community in some of the most socially disadvantaged parts of the city.
MEUNO is based in Cali where its aim is to strengthen existing community organisations and trade union relations who also defend the rights of the public sector. It is important to MEUNO to promote social creativity in the community and create programs and projects for more people to get involved where they can use their university education in the real world. A current project the delegation was able to witness during their visit was a scheme to encourage reading and literacy amongst street vendors within Cali’s sprawling Santa Helena marketplace. From a stall, they offer a lending service for books that are donated to them. When we visited, we found an impressive selection of reading material that included language, mathematics, politics, science, as well as fiction.
Santa Helena is the largest market in Cali and locals told the delegation that it had the lowest prices. The market was originally founded 40 years ago and went corrupt under the control of the state. The existence of the lending stall has allowed MEUNO to become more integrated with the market, and the group now uses its facilities to run workshops on rights and literacy.Today the marketplace is self-managed through their store holders association whose president is a member of MEUNO. The store holders pay to belong to the association and all have a say in how the market is run and decide communally about what changes are necessary. The association is working hard to improve practices and conditions within the market, for example by segregating the different types of stall for purposes of hygiene and by establishing recycling practices.
The students involved in the Santa Helena project have a wide range of knowledge and skills they provide including engineering, sanitation and low-cost dentistry. MEUNO also hopes that the book stall will encourage others to run their own shops, but they have run into much apathy amongst the students and their community. They told the delegation that this was due to the level of state terrorism against any public resistance to the savage, neo-liberal regime in place by the government. They overcome this by creating a united, community support base. They also told the delegation that they do not consider themselves pacifists, but they believe in peace with social justice.
They hope the project will continue and create a strong solidarity amongst the people who participate and get involved in running their own market. They believe this will encourage them all how to run a better society.
Another project taking shape when we visited was an evening school in Agua Blanca, Cali’s poorest district, where the levels of poverty and unemployment are enormous. The aim of the school is to provide affordable informal education to adults (16 upwards) who have fallen through the gaps in state provision, but at the same time to foster a greater sense of community and provide people with the vital tools to find ways out of the grinding poverty trap that they are in. When the project started, MEUNO conducted a survey of local residents to establish what they felt their own needs to be, and found that one of the biggest complaints was a lack of knowledge about where to receive appropriate help. In practice what will really set this school apart is the students’ insistence on taking teaching away from the classroom as much as possible and encouraging people to learn by doing in a series of micro projects within the community.
For example, they contend that a good deal of practical physics can be learnt throug simple building work. The concept of communication lies at the heart of MEUNO’s strategy, and they hope that their work will enable highly deprived people to recognise the commonality of their struggle and build up their own capacities to defend vital public resources.
Cathy Corazon and Max Fuller
Graffitti in Valle de Cauca University.