By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
At first, they tried to close their eyes to the problem, but after a while, they got used to having to talk about it. We also realized that to make schools a zone of peace, we would have to present some alternative to arms and drugs for young people. All over the state we got the government to build playing fields for sports, so young people would have something else to do. We built cultural centers.
The discussion about the violence became much broader than just the schools, to encompass the whole society. We told the women, "You're the mothers of the children who are killing other children. We have to talk about this." We were able to stop the war in our schools for two consecutive years.
What is the situation in your school now?
We no longer have children carrying guns. Our school is a place to study and learn, for knowledge and investigation, not for conflict. Our parents now try to get the government to give us the resources we need.
Is the escalation of the war having an impact on Medellin?
This year the situation became very dangerous again because the paramilitaries entered our city. They took over a big section of Medellin, in zones where we had been working. It's much more difficult to have a dialogue with the paramilitaries. They're organized and financed by the army. It's a way for the government to intervene directly in our communities.
Some schools have had to close for two or three months at a time, because the fights between the gangs have become much sharper. Students who are displaced go to other schools, and our classrooms are too small to accept them all. In some schools, there are 60 to 65 students in a single classroom. The paramilitaries even stop public buses from entering those barrios, so the children no longer have a way of getting to school.
Have you been able to get the cooperation of the government in controlling the paramilitaries?
No. The conflict has gotten worse, and we haven't been able to get the paramilitaries to have the same kind of dialogue with us.
Is that because they look at teachers and unions as an enemy?
They accuse teachers of fighting against the government's education-reform law. When we try to organize parents to oppose it, they accuse us of being insurgents.
That stigma can result in being killed. We know the government itself is behind them.
How have teachers tried to assert their political rights given that level of repression, and how has the government responded?
In 1992 we participated in formulating Colombia's basic education law. Teachers wrote some of the articles which were incorporated into the constitution, and established that education was a responsibility of the state, the family and the whole of society.
The most important part of the law that we won was Section 60, which mandates a special budget for education consisting of 60 percent of the net national budget. In May 2001 the Interior Ministry, at the command of the International Monetary Fund, decided to break the back of the teachers' movement and reform the education law, getting rid of the special budget. They substituted a system in which education became the responsibility of the different states, without providing them any resources. Today we basically have no guarantee of funds for public education.
The reforms the government proposes are all coming from the International Monetary Fund. They want to privatize social services, making individuals responsible for their own education and health care, although people have no jobs and often not even enough money for food. The government wants to make it easier for foreign companies to exploit our natural resources and labor.
What is it like to be a trade-union leader in Colombia? We know that over 150 union leaders there are murdered every year.
Being a trade unionist is very dangerous in Colombia. We're called terrorists, because we fight for better conditions and for collective bargaining, and because we oppose the restructuring of laws governing education, labor rights and so on. All these actions make us a military target.
Are you afraid?
Yes, because we are constantly threatened.
Who is making the threats and doing the killing?
A lot come from the large landowners and big-business owners who are trying to reduce salaries to increase their profits.
The paramilitaries attack trade unionists because we oppose the restructuring of the economy. We also run the risk of being silenced because we denounce the human-rights violations, and the armed actors responsible for them.
Do unions see a way out of the war?
The Unitary Confederation of Workers has proposed a number of steps toward peace. We want to include all the social movements in this process -- workers, women, youth, community leaders and others. All should be able to express their needs, propose their own agendas, and point to what they think are the sources of the conflict. Our work is part of something larger, a broader search for peace.
We want the negotiations between the government and the guerrillas to begin again, and civil society needs to be included. We need a cease-fire. No other solution is possible except for negotiation.