Reportage. University students gathered in the streets of Bogota and across Colombia this month to demand the right to education. With the war officially over and narco traffickers the stuff of museums, the Colombian youth are eager to reclaim their country.

Fewer guns, more freedom: The students walking to change Colombia

The central square of the largest campus of the Universidad Nacional in Bogota, Colombia, is officially called Santander Square, but everyone knows it as Che Guevara Square. A mural of Che’s face looks out from the side of the main building. On Oct. 10, umbrellas filled the whole square. It was one of the rallying points for the big national demonstration by university students against cuts in funding for education. It was a historic day: students, teachers, administrative personnel, even the presidents of the public universities went out into the streets—including those from private universities (of which there is one on every street corner in Bogota, ranging from high-ranking and with a great reputation to the so-called “garage universities,” run-down diploma mills selling illusions for a premium). For everyone, this is a matter of civic duty.

When we set out and it finally stopped raining, the bridges across the grand boulevard were overflowed with people and adorned with banners. Convoys of marchers gradually flowed in from other parts of the city. The procession seemed to go on without end. There were no banners or signs from political parties anywhere. Students marched bearing insignia symbolizing their departments and disciplines: architecture students carrying a large cardboard building on their shoulders (the authorities literally had their department’s building demolished, so they no longer have an academic home). Students from the school of design wielded enormous pencils (and I am reminded of the broken pencils held by Argentinian students protesting against the “Night of the Pencils” massacre during the dictatorship). The group of indigenous students, in traditional garb, played their ritual conches and carried bilingual signs saying, “We want to study.” The history students shouted, “Where is history? History is in the streets!”

The most prominent slogan, both chanted and sung, was “Somos estudiantes, queremos estudiar, para cambiar la sociedad” (“We are students, we want to study, to change society”). They demanded education as a civil right and a weapon in the struggle. A sign said: “You cannot make the country different with indifferent people.” Many featured wordplay: for instance, a banner called out President Ivan Duque (a right-winger), saying “Con Duque no hay quien se eduque” (“With Duque, no one will get an education”).

I was reminded of the great song by Violeta Parra: “Me gustan los estudiantes, jardín de las alegrías, uccelli libertari come gli elementi, lievito del pane che uscirà dal forno per nutrire i poveri…” (“I like the students: a garden of joys, birds flying free like the elements, yeast for the bread that will come out of the oven and feed the poor…”).

We passed a large building under construction, and we saw working men and women on the unfinished floors saluting us with clenched fists and makeshift flags. A friend next to me said they must know we are marching so that their children can study as well. Another said that maybe their sons and daughters are among us, studying at the public university and fighting to be able to continue.

We started out at 10 a.m. By 4 p.m., we arrived at the central square, and there were converging convoys of marchers trying to squeeze into the square as far as the eye could see. On the stage, Gustavo Petro—a former guerrilla fighter, mayor of Bogota and left-wing presidential candidate (who got eight million votes)—made a speech. Not everyone agreed with his presence there because they don’t like the idea that a politician, even a respected figure of the left, would be the one to sum up a day which belonged to them. In the end, according to the next day’s newspapers, 400,000 people marched in the largest demonstration on record.


The hardest thing about demonstrations is not the march itself, but managing to navigate the crowded streets on the return journey. On that day, however, it was actually pleasant, and it all felt like a day of celebration, with streets full of the smiling faces of girls and boys among banners and flags or with a sign in hand. Bogota was transformed, and the students showed the way.

At the university, currently occupied, everyone decided that, even on this day of mass mobilization, my seminar on the project of the civil calendar would still take place, because this is also a form of struggle. And, in a Colombia still struggling to escape decades of conflict, the civil calendar marks a good place to start.

Halfway along the 250-mile journey between Bogota and Medellin, full of sharp curves, steep climbs and loaded trucks, we stopped for a visit at the Hacienda Napoles. Nowadays it is a state-run national park, but it used to be the fiefdom of Pablo Escobar, the ruthless and charismatic king of the narcotics trade, who, in his delusions of grandeur, built up here a kind of private Africa, with kitsch decorations and a zoo full of exotic animals. An audio guide explained the attractions in exhaustive detail, including about a pair of hippos that were smuggled in. (How can you actually smuggle two hippos? After all, they don’t fit in the false bottom of a suitcase. That alone is a sign of the omnipotence of the narcos). The first two hippos reproduced, and now there is a herd of 40 aggressive hippos running wild. They leave the estate at night and go rummaging through the streets of the nearby villages.

There are placards and a small museum of remembrance that celebrates the victory of the state over organized crime. However, right above the arch at the entrance stands a replica of the small plane in which Escobar made his first flight smuggling drugs into the United States. The police still have the original; however, the fact that the managers of the state-run park have made a replica and put it there shows that they are themselves well aware that many people come here attracted by the ambiguous aura of Pablo Escobar, which can still be felt at the site.

In Medellín, the National University was occupied, and tents and hammocks were set up on the concrete floor of the cafeteria. A bust depicted Camilo Torres, the guerrilla fighter and priest, who taught here. A large banner said, “Arte en resistencia” (“Art in resistance”). A girl told me that they were fighting against gender bias at the institution; another, who came from a village nearby, told me about the need to change agriculture, modernize and democratize it. A collective of art students from the other public university, Universidad de Antioquia, performed a concert with classic songs from every genre of Colombian popular music. They insist on art and culture as rights and as means of struggle. In this city, which has seen so much blood spilled by drug trafficking, repression and civil war, a sign said: “Less guns, more books.”


The next morning, I visited a working class neighborhood, the Comuna 13. This is a day of remembrance: on Oct. 16, 2002, “Operation Orion,” conducted jointly by the army and paramilitary forces, attacked this neighborhood with helicopters, bombs and tanks. Their pretext was landing a blow against the guerrillas, but the reality was an indiscriminate massacre. I am struck by this date because I recall its correlation with our own Italian history—the Nazi raid of the Rome ghetto—and this correspondence makes me feel the strongest emotional bond to what happened here.

“In October, I lost a son to Operation Orion,” Rosa Amalia Tejado Alvarez told me. “In March, they killed another one; then, during the following months, my daughter-in-law and a cousin.” This was not so much a military mission as a terrorist act, by which a new right-wing government made clear their intentions to the country. “Killing never solves anything—but that day they killed everyone, children, old people, people who were innocent bystanders,” Tejado Alvarez said. Caught between government repression and drug trafficking, dying of natural causes is the exception, not the rule.

The organizers of the remembrance activities were the Young Christian Association (a local version of the YMCA) and an extraordinary group called Partido de la Doñas (not a political organization, but a group of solidarity and mutual support, claiming collective memory and defending the district). Their manifesto says that “pain must not be politicized.” There were members of all ages, but I was particularly struck by the older women, dressed festively with red and purple shirts, hats and multicolored ribbons. When the music started, they danced freely and fearlessly. It was clear that, if pressed, there is nothing these women could not accomplish.

The festivity turned into a street party, full of pride and joy, where people ate, talked and danced together. They told me that just a few hundred meters away lies the territory of the armed gangs of drug traffickers. In the morning, Rosendo Espinosa, a parrandero musician, played me a song written about them: “I don’t understand how they think, those who make war, they know that if you win you end up in jail, and if you lose you end up in the ground.” The day ends with Duván Calvo, a young local singer-songwriter, who sang in one of his songs: “I dream of the day when we will be able to share our dreams and lives, and simply say: I am Colombian.”

I returned to Bogota. The next day was a public holiday, and I awoke to the sound of drums and chanted slogans underneath my window. The universities were still occupied and on strike—I thought it must be another student march. I went out to join them and was surprised to find a parade led by drummers, people in masks, clowns and street artists. Their signs say “Bogotá ciudad caminable” (“Bogota is a walking city”).

They walk to take back their city. Walking has become a political act, and the people there that day almost all young—perhaps they were in the crowd that marched a few days ago. Among their slogans, there was one that would have fit perfectly then: “Tenemos, tenemos, tenemos cultura” (“We have, we have, we have culture”).

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