Fear of paramilitary quietens protesters

October 24, 2003

The graffiti daubed on the side of the library building overlooking the National University's Che Guevara Square is blunt: "Don't vote in the referendum - revolution is the solution."

But today, it seems students in Colombia's capital Bogot prefer to voice their opposition to the government through abstaining in referenda than bloody confrontation.

While Bolivian academics joined hunger strikes and violent demonstrations to force president Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada to resign last week, protest at Colombia's premier university in the run up to this weekend's national referendum on sweeping constitutional and electoral reform was subdued.

A mixture of fear of violent repression and student apathy has tamed a once notoriously militant group. Two weeks ago, the National University was closed for a few hours as some 60 students took part in a demonstration.

Stones were thrown and a bus set alight before police moved in. Witness Felipe Galindo interpreted the prompt response as "a sign from the government that it will not tolerate student protests".

But no further student action appears to have been planned and criticism of the referendum has been limited to open meetings and faculty debates.

There is a consensus that students are now more cautious and reluctant to protest publicly, particularly since president Alvaro Uribe's election last August.

German Romero, who is studying law at the university, explained: "They're afraid to demonstrate because of the presence of rightwing paramilitary groups in the university who collude with the government. They don't want to be blacklisted as leftwing sympathisers."

Armando Borrero, a former sociology lecturer who worked at the National University for 14 years, believes that the student body has also become more apathetic as its make-up has changed.

"The university population used to represent people from all regions of Colombia," he said. "Now the majority is from Bogot ; they are not as affected by the violence and conflict in rural areas and therefore are not so concerned."

Nevertheless, opposition to the referendum is high. Daniel Rico, an economics lecturer, estimated that about 85 per cent of students were against it.

"Abstention is the only right response because approval of the referendum would mean more power for Uribe," Mr Rico said.

Among the president's proposals is a three-year freeze on civil service salaries and pensions to divert funds to the health service.

"This will adversely affect university staff, particularly since inflation is currently 8 per cent," Mr Rico said.

Despite the calm, some university staff are not so sure the days of protest are over. One security guard was convinced there would still be some spontaneous demonstrations from a vocal minority of militant students.

"It's all underground," he observed. "No doubt some students will come out on the streets again."

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