“La Esperanza de América Latina”: The Ongoing Student Revolution in Colombia

This post is a part of our “Latin America’s Ongoing Revolutions” series, which explores the colonial and post-colonial angles of Latin America’s revolutionary history. Check out the entire series.

By Amanda C. Waterhouse

The student is a storied figure in Latin American protest history. Alternately lauded and denigrated, students across the region often see their role as critical civic participation, usually outside of formal politics. They push for more just policies for themselves and with other social sectors through tactics such as street protest, strikes, meetings, occupations, and revolutionary art and writing. Colombia is no different: what to many involved in social movements seems like students’ critical pressure for equitability and human rights, to others appears as unnecessary and destructive disruption of everyday life, especially in the country’s cities, where university students gather in large public institutions.

Recent protests in Colombia have borne out this dynamic. In November 2019, organizers called a general strike to protest cuts to the pension system and labor reforms, and many unions joined. Other groups attached a host of additional issues, including the erosion of the 2016 peace deal between the government and the FARC-EP, human rights violations and the killing of social leaders, and environmental degradations. The massive strike, which saw 200,000 people in the streets of Bogotá on November 21, according to official estimates, quickly turned into an ongoing protest movement of unprecedented size and scope. Though many have criticized them, especially for the property destruction that some engage in, students have been an instrumental sector in propelling the broad-based recent movement and its long-term antecedents.  

A Long History of the Student Movement

Colombian students emerged as organized sociopolitical actors in the first decades of the twentieth century. They founded the Federación de Estudiantes Colombianos (FEC, Colombian Student Federation) in the early 1920s. In 1929, at least one student in Bogotá was killed protesting the infamous masacre de las bananeras.[1] The student’s assassination marked a key moment in loss of legitimacy for the Conservative political party that ultimately led to a long period of Liberal power.[2] University students also formed part of the support committee for Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, an anti-establishment politician who criticized the easy convivencia (coexistence) between Colombia’s establishment political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. Gaitán’s assassination on April 9, 1948, when he would have likely been the Liberal candidate in the next presidential election, sparked a massive, nationwide uprising against the Conservative government then in power, in which students participated.[3]

Colombian students were also famously involved in the widespread social protests in 1957 that overthrew dictatorial president General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. Rojas Pinilla seized power in a bloodless coup in 1953 with the support of leaders from both political parties, who wanted to quell violent partisan fighting, especially in rural areas, known simply as La Violencia.[4] Students were one of the most active social sectors during his repressive administration, and the army shot and killed a number of students during a march in Bogotá in June 1954, which frustrated the anniversary of the dictatorship and fed opposition.[5] By May 1957, Rojas had lost what consent existed for him to govern, even from elites. Students orchestrated nationwide demonstrations, which led to a national strike, in which students were a “definitive actor” in successfully deposing Rojas from power.[6] Beginning in 1958, the student movement entered a period of radicalization as Liberals and Conservatives agreed to a power-sharing pact to form the National Front (1958–1974). According to Mauricio Archila, students soon posed “an enmity with bipartisanship,”[7] leading to the formation of a new left through groups such as the Movimiento Obrero Estudiantil Campesino (MOEC).[8]

After a downturn in 1966–1967, the student movement resurged in 1968 through 1971, rallying around problems of educational reform, scientific development, and democracy, and against police violence and U.S. imperialism.[9] State repression followed, with the army killing students protesting at Universidad del Valle in Cali in February of 1971, sparking nation-wide unrest.[10]  In subsequent years, university protests continued across Colombia as students confronted the state for control over educational institutions even after the National Front ended in 1974. Peaking in 1975–1976, student protest decreased thereafter, due to organizing issues in the midst of radicalization and state repression.[11] Students were detained, tortured, tried before military tribunals, and imprisoned.[12] They endured both direct confrontation with public forces along with the ire of authorities as wide ranging as civil, military, church, and media.[13] The 1970s had seen extreme peaks and valleys in student protest, but it was not until the next decades (1980s–1990s) when student mobilization and protest reached the highest average of actions.[14]

During the early 1980s, the student movement revived to fight authoritarianism and defend democratic services.[15] University and, eventually, high school students mobilized in great numbers. Students and professors were detained, accused of links to guerrilleros, expelled or fired, and again faced military tribunals, torture, and forced disappearance.[16] Violent repression had a chilling effect on confrontational forms of student protest, especially when it intruded on campus life. In 1987, a number of faculty at the Universidad de Antioquia were killed after speaking out against political assassinations. Later in the same year, Universidad Nacional professor and leader of the leftist Unión Patriótica (UP) Jaime Pardo Leal was also killed.[17]

The form that student protest took during the late 1980s and early 1990s was thus aimed more toward institutional changes rather than tactics that might result in confrontation with security forces. Students re-politicized within their universities and expanded beyond their institutional limits.[18] In 1989–1990, university students pushed for a Constituent Assembly to reform the Constitution of 1886.[19] They proposed the Séptima Papeleta, a seventh vote, in addition to the six kinds of officials being elected, to convene the assembly during the elections of 1990. The push began in private universities, but it garnered public support, including from demobilized guerrillas such as former M-19 members.[20] Their success led to the Constitution of 1991, which translated material and symbolic needs into broad cultural, gender, and ethnic rights.[21]

The constitution helped remake the landscape of social movements in Colombia by empowering social actors such as environmentalists, human rights defenders, victims of violence, LGBTI people, and Afro-Colombians under the banner of multicultural difference, to make rights-based demands on the state. However, as traditional organized sectors such as workers and peasants decreased in a context of growing neoliberal openness, there was a lessening of overall social protest in the 1990s. Protests increased again starting in 1999, including in relation to peace talks with the FARC-EP. People soon mobilized also in response to the presidency of Alvaro Uribe Velez (2002–2010), as they opposed attempts to change the constitution and implement free trade agreements, as well as Uribe’s seeking of a second reelection.[22] Student marches for peace and against violence became more common as the armed conflict escalated on all sides—including in paramilitary massacres—and public funding for education remained a central issue.[23] Recent years have seen peaks in student organizing around certain political moments, such as in response to proposed reforms of Law 30 on higher education in 2011 and following the electoral defeat of the plebiscite on the Colombian government’s peace deal with the FARC-EP in 2016.[24] 

Taking up the Mantle of Protest

In the massive protests of 2019–2020, students returned to play a significant role. As one of the traditional conveners of protest movements, the government harassed student leaders before the November 21 strike.[25] In Bogotá, an ESMAD (Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios, Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron) police officer lethally injured high school student Dilan Cruz on November 23.[26] His death became a rallying cry for the right to protest and an end to state violence and the disposability of human life. “Por qué, por qué, por qué nos asesinan, si somos la esperanza de América Latina?” [Why, why, why do they kill us, if we are the hope of Latin America?], young people chanted in a protest refrain that took on new meaning in the weeks after Cruz’s death, as protesters continued to take to the streets. City authorities issued a curfew for the first time since 1977.[27] Yet demonstrations continued until they lost momentum ahead of the Christmas holiday.

The protest movement in Colombia has been halting since January of 2020, but students have continued to agitate. At the National University in Bogotá, they clashed with the police and  camped on campus in a hunger strike while advocating for government tuition support in the midst of the COVID-19 public health and economic crisis.[28] After recent widespread unrest due to police violence and ongoing massacres,[29] the general strike on September 21 had student leaders and unions, once again, at the forefront of the social mobilizations,[30] along with indigenous leaders in a large October 21 strike.[31] The movement is picking up steam again as the one-year anniversary of the November 21 strike approaches, and broad-based action could erupt at any moment.

Continued student organizing shows that student protest is not an add-on to normal political life in Colombia, but a pillar so fundamental that it persists even when the most basic rights erode. Students have long agitated amidst extreme adversity and violence. They have, as Martha Cecilia García notes, defended their participation in co-governance within educational institutions, especially universities, and addressed the broader political, economic, and social problems of the country.[32] The student movement will likely take different forms as the economic fallout from the pandemic persists and many more become excluded from formal educational institutions than ever before, but student protest as a broad banner for the revolutionary role of young people in Colombia will no doubt continue.


Amanda C. Waterhouse is a PhD Candidate in History at Indiana University. Her dissertation examines the relationship between protest and architecture, infrastructure, and urban planning during the first decades of the Cold War in Colombia, including within universities. Find her on Twitter @AmandaCWater.

Title Image: A protest in the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá on November 24, 2019. (Photo by Fabián Plazas Diaz)

Further Readings:

“1970 y 1977, los últimos toques de queda en Bogotá,” El Espectador, November 22, 2019, https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/bogota/1970-y-1977-los-ultimos-toques-de-queda-en-bogota.

Acosta, Luis Jaime. “Colombian unions, students seek to revive mass protests against government, police violence.” Reuters, September 22, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-protests/colombian-unions-students-seek-to-revive-mass-protests-against-government-police-violence-idUSKCN26C2XQ.

Archila, Mauricio. “Entre la academia y la política: el movimiento estudiantil en Colombia, 1920–1974.” In Movimientos estudiantiles en la historia de América Latina, vol. I, edited byRenate Marsiske, 158–174.Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1999.

Archila Neira, Mauricio. “El paro cívico nacional del 14 de septiembre de 1977. Un ejercicio de memoria colectiva.” Revista de Economía Institucional 18, no. 35 (Dec. 2016): 313–318. http://dx.doi.org/10.18601/01245996.v18n35.18.

Archila Neira, Mauricio. Social Protests in Colombia: A History, 1958–1990. Translated by Camilo Ordoñez-Zambrano. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019.

Bocanegra, Nelson. “Thousands, including indigenous people, march in peaceful Colombia protests.” Reuters, October 21, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-protests/not-even-the-pandemic-will-stop-colombia-protests-leaders-say-idUSKBN27627N.

Boren, Mark Edelman. Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Braun, Herbert. The Assassination of Gaitán: Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Caro, Jorge Enrique Elías and Antonino Vidal Ortega. “The worker’s massacre of 1928 in the Magdalena Zona Bananera – Colombia. An unfinished story.” Memorias 9, no. 18 (December 2012): 22–54. http://www.scielo.org.co/pdf/memor/n18/n18a03.pdf.

Castellanos, Gabriela. Jalisco pierde en Cali. Cali, Colombia: Universidad del Valle, 2015.

Collins, Joshua. “Bogotazo: What’s behind Colombian protests?” Medium, September 14, 2020. https://medium.com/muros-invisibles/bogotazo-whats-behind-colombian-protests-b8e2e0fff8aa.

“Controversia: 27 allanamientos se realizaron a líderes estudiantiles antes del paro,” Colombia.com, 19 November 2019. https://www.colombia.com/actualidad/noticias/controversia-27-allanamientos-lideres-estudiantiles-247981.

 “Dilan Cruz, Colombian teenager injured by police projectile, dies.” BBC, November 26, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-50557496.

Dudley, Steven. Waking Ghosts: Murder and Guerilla Politics in Colombia. New York: Routledge, 2004.

García, Martha Cecilia. “Luchas Estudiantiles.” In 25 años de luchas sociales en Colombia, 1975–2000, edited by Helena Gardeazábal Garzón, 167–204. Bogotá: CINEP, 2002.

“Movimientos estudiantiles: el poder de los jóvenes,” Semana, June 24, 2017.  https://www.semana.com/educacion/articulo/movimientos-estudiantiles-historicos-en-colombia/529694/.

Noriega, Christina. “Colombians Take On Their Militarized Police.” The Nation, September 28, 2020. https://www.thenation.com/article/world/police-colombia-acab/.

Peñaranda, Isabel and Julián Gómez-Delgado. “Colombia’s New Awakening.” Jacobin, December 8, 2019. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2019/12/colombia-protests-paro-nacional-ivan-duque-farc.

Power, Thomas. “Massacres in Colombia Lay Bare Next Phase of Conflict.” NACLA, September 18, 2020.https://nacla.org/colombia-massacres-duque.

Roldán, Mary. Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia, Colombia, 1946–1953. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.

Salazar, Miguel. “Colombia’s Peace Deal Paved the Way for Its Historic Protests.” The Nation, December 12, 2019.https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/colombia-strikes-duque/.

Turkewitz, Julie. “Pandemic Drives Millions from Latin America’s Universities.” New York Times, September 4, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/04/world/americas/latin-america-education.html.

Endnotes:

[1] The banana worker massacre occurred in 1928, when the Colombian army killed striking United Fruit workers in Ciénaga, Magdalena. For more information, see Jorge Enrique Elías Caro and Antonino Vidal Ortega, “The worker’s massacre of 1928 in the Magdalena Zona Bananera – Colombia. An unfinished story,” Memorias 9, no. 18 (December 2012): 22–54, http://www.scielo.org.co/pdf/memor/n18/n18a03.pdf.

[2] Mauricio Archila, “Entre la academia y la política: el movimiento estudiantil en Colombia, 1920–1974,” in Movimientos estudiantiles en la historia de América Latina, vol. I, ed. Renate Marsiske(Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1999), 158–174, at 162.

[3] Herbert Braun, The Assassination of Gaitán: Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 151; 173–174.

[4] For more on La Violencia, see Mary Roldán, Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia, Colombia, 1946–1953 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002). “La Violenca” (the violence) saw widespread and brutal bipartisan infighting, and though historians debate its exact periodization, it was propelled at a large scale by the assassination of Gaitán in 1948 and often considered to last until the beginning of the National Front in 1958.  

[5] Archila, “Entre la academia,” 165–166.

[6] Mark Edelman Boren, Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject (New York: Routledge, 2001), 118; Archila, “Entre la academia,” 166–167.

[7] Mauricio Archila Neira, Social Protests in Colombia: A History, 1958–1990, trans. Camilo Ordoñez-Zambrano (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2019), 86. This was in contrast to the fact that their efforts were inscribed into bipartisanism at the outset of the National Front, as recounted in Archila, “Entre la academia,” 166–167.

[8] Archila, Social Protests, 154.

[9] Ibid., 86; Boren, Student Resistance, 148.

[10] For a novelized account that utilizes historical materials, see Gabriela Castellanos, Jalisco pierde en Cali (Cali, Colombia: Universidad del Valle, 2015).

[11] Archila, Social Protests in Colombia, 84; 87; Archila, “Entre la acdemia,” 171, cited in Martha Cecilia García, “Luchas Estudiantiles,” in 25 años de luchas sociales en Colombia, 1975–2000, ed.Helena Gardeazábal Garzón (Bogotá: CINEP, 2002), 167–204, at 197.

[12] García, “Luchas Estudiantiles,” 178; 182.

[13] Ibid., 182.  

[14] Archila, Social Protests, 65.

[15] Ibid., 87.

[16] García, “Luchas Estudiantiles,” 184. For more on the complicated relationship between student leaders and guerilla groups, especially the M-19 (Movimiento 19 de Abril), which emerged publicly in 1974 and operated in urban settings, see Archila, Social Protests, 161, 177–178, 199n127 and 199n128.

[17] Archila, Social Protests in Colombia, 88. See also García, “Luchas Estudiantiles,” 185–186. For more on the Unión Patriótica, a political party established in 1985 by agreements with the FARC and annihilated by paramilitary violence, see Archila Neira, Social Protests, 166, 212; and Steven Dudley, Waking Ghosts: Murder and Guerilla Politics in Colombia (New York: Routledge, 2004).

[18] Archila, Social Protests in Colombia, 88–89.

[19] García, “Luchas Estudiantiles,” 186.

[20] Archila, Social Protests, 84; 88.

[21] Ibid.,126.

[22] Ibid., 327–333.

[23] García, “Luchas Estudiantiles,” 188–189. 

[24] Archila, Social Protests, 331–332; see also “Movimientos estudiantiles: el poder de los jóvenes,” Semana, June 24, 2017, https://www.semana.com/educacion/articulo/movimientos-estudiantiles-historicos-en-colombia/529694/.

[25] “Controversia: 27 allanamientos se realizaron a líderes estudiantiles antes del paro,” Colombia.com, November 19, 2019, https://www.colombia.com/actualidad/noticias/controversia-27-allanamientos-lideres-estudiantiles-247981.

[26] “Dilan Cruz, Colombian teenager injured by police projectile, dies,” BBC, November 26, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-50557496.

[27] “1970 y 1977, los últimos toques de queda en Bogotá,” El Espectador, November 22, 2019, https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/bogota/1970-y-1977-los-ultimos-toques-de-queda-en-bogota/; Mauricio Archila Neira, “El paro cívico nacional del 14 de septiembre de 1977. Un ejercicio de memoria colectiva,” Revista de Economía Institucional 18, no. 35 (Dec. 2016): 313–318, http://dx.doi.org/10.18601/01245996.v18n35.18.

[28] Julie Turkewitz, “Pandemic Drives Millions from Latin America’s Universities,” New York Times, September 4, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/04/world/americas/latin-america-education.html.

[29] Christina Noriega, “Colombians Take On Their Militarized Police,” The Nation, September 28, 2020, https://www.thenation.com/article/world/police-colombia-acab/; Thomas Power, “Massacres in Colombia Lay Bare Next Phase of Conflict,” NACLA,September 18, 2020,https://nacla.org/colombia-massacres-duque.

[30] Luis Jaime Acosta, “Colombian unions, students seek to revive mass protests against government, police violence,” Reuters, September 22, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-protests/colombian-unions-students-seek-to-revive-mass-protests-against-government-police-violence-idUSKCN26C2XQ.

[31] Nelson Bocanegra, “Thousands, including indigenous people, march in peaceful Colombia protests,” Reuters, October 21, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-colombia-protests/not-even-the-pandemic-will-stop-colombia-protests-leaders-say-idUSKBN27627N.

[32] García, “Luchas Estudiantiles,” 202.  

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