As we pulled up to the university in the old school bus after a four-hour morning drive from Bogota, I saw him. It was Jesus, and he was wearing a ski mask.
And when I saw him, I knew that my trip would be about more than watching my boyfriend´s band play at the environmental festival the school was hosting.
My interview subject, Niro Lopez, fell into my lap. I would have spent the whole day roaming campus, scanning the student body for those who “looked” revolutionary – whatever that means.
But I didn´t have to – he found me. As I watched him, the charismatic organizer of the event, an upperclassman with a certain fire in his eyes, I knew he could help me shed light into the social problems Colombia is facing at the moment.
He agreed to the interview immediately. We met on the second floor of a typical school building in a classroom designated as a student office. We were accompanied by a couple members of the band, a videographer making a documentary about them, and a group of fellow students.
Thanks to Niro, I got a little more insight into the student revolt that is brewing and will erupt if Law 30 is passed. I hope this interview gives you a bit of an insider look into Colombia’s current events, local politics, and inequality, from the perspective of one student who allowed his voice to be heard.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Me: What’s your name?
Niro: My name is Niro Lopez. I’m a student of economy in the eighth semester at the Pedagogical and Technological University of Colombia.
Me: As a foreigner in Colombia, I don’t know much about the laws. I’ve seen a lot of things on the news involving students and the government. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Niro: Well, what’s happening in the moment with the national government… there are people in charge of public resources, and also certain parts of the resources of private citizens, in universities and within education. In Colombia, there’s a social phenomenon that is pertinent to the national government. That is inequality, a social gap that is, above all, in the educational part.
This year, the national government wants to impose the Law 30, an educational reform. Students with little resources, like me, pay a minimum salary, which in Colombia would be, less than a minimum salary, that in Colombian pesos would be more or less 320,000 pesos [$179 USD] in our university. They want to increase it to more or less 2,500,000 [$1,395 USD] per semester.
What happens? Right now, we students are rejecting a reform like this not only because they will take the benefits of the students of low incomes like us, but because the injection of private capital to the university wants to form technicians and not students with education.
What do I mean? Let’s say that a multinational corporation like Coca-Cola will have an office here. It could be that this student office would disappear in order to give Coca-Cola a space, an office here that they will hand over to regulate the proposed capital in the university. This is more or less the problem with the reform of the Law 30.
Me: What are the students doing about this?
Niro: Right now, what we students are doing is very little, also because of a social problem that we have in Colombia. It’s because the reform of the Law 30 is passed by the congress of the republic. In Colombia, the republican congress, who is in charge of enacting these reforms, is led by people of corruption. That’s not what I say, that’s what the studies and the statistics say. 70% of the congressmen that were elected in the last election were convicted of parapolitics.
What happens with this reform? The students are sharing knowledge so that the people understand. But this reform arrives to Congress. If the political overseeing isn’t clean and transparent, we can’t do anything about that.
Me: And what would happen if you guys speak out? What could they do to you guys?
Niro: In Colombia, there’s a social phenomenon called repression. The repression is basically that they have the people of Colombia oppressed. Why? Because, when you say, “What happens to you guys if you speak out,” or what you see on the news with people in masks in the universities, that there’s guerilla infiltration, that there are terrorists, when everyone knows that it isn’t that. What they know is that we are the same students that organize ourselves.
What they hear on the street is the feeling of protest that we use as a medium for other actions. I’m not saying here that we students have to mask ourselves to be heard. I’m just going over what is happening in Colombia.
One of the things that is going on in Colombia is that there is a war. Many people don’t want to accept that there’s a war. One of the things that the national reform says is that they are going to compare what is more educational. What is economically more profitable, excuse me – if they choose a route of economy or a route of philosophy. It can be seen clearly that they are displacing a course that helps the formation of students educationally for a course that serves to inject money.
Me: Are you afraid to organize things like this?
Niro: In Colombia, the fear was lost a while ago, above all here in Boyacá.
Because I study economy, and I compare my own territory, I become aware that Boyacá is richer per extension than the United States. If we cultivated our territory like they do in the United States in Boyacá, it wouldn’t even equal 50% of the production that they could do here.
But what happens? This is like everywhere in the world. Where there is natural richness, there is absolute poverty. What happens in Congo? What happens in Africa? Chocó is the poorest region in Colombia, and the next poorest department is Boyacá. Here in Boyacá, we have to not be afraid. We have to organize ourselves and know that we are rich and that we don’t want the government to corrupt us.
Me: But those that are fighting against this, have they, for example, the military and the police, taken action against you guys?
Niro: Since 1994 when the FARC formed in Colombia, this was also the beginning of the repression, you could say, against students. Because the students, not all of us are guerillas, yeah? We have a left-leaning way of thinking and we continue lines like Che Guevara, like they say Mao, more than a revolutionary. But I don’t unite with my companions if they are left or right or center. It doesn’t matter to me.
What matters to me is to defend my university and to defend the population. And where there is inequity, it doesn’t matter if you’re blue, green, yellow, red – the important thing is that we can’t allow this.
In Boyacá, if you take a walk around the villages, you’ll see an incredible poverty. But it’s a social poverty, yeah? Because you look at the land…. The land is there. It has to be cultivated. We’re missing this as well, a social culture so that the people take advantage of what the land offers us.
Me: What do you think is the solution?
Niro: The solution is to organize ourselves, definitely. Give the people understanding that… I don’t know. Give the people tools so that they understand. And the tools aren’t weapons. The people have to be cultured. The people have to be taught to read. If you see the statistics of Boyacá, Boyacá is one of the departments with the most illiteracy in Colombia. And a village that can’t read is an ignorant village. You have to give them the tools. As soon as the people can read, they’ll understand a bit more and they’ll understand many of the social problems.
The national government wants this. They take money from a college and buy two tanks. In Colombia, there is something very, to me it seems even funny because if you become aware, this university has a deficit. We are under budget by 140 billion pesos [$78,984,845 USD]. And the attack of guerilla Mono Jojoy alone cost, with all the weapons that they sent and everything, cost 675 billion pesos [$380,818,053 USD], something like that. That’s not even a small part of what the university needs for us to keep moving forward.
The war in Colombia isn’t going to be resolved. This is something they have showed since Alvaro Uribe. If the guerillas finish, there will be more people to fight, because in Colombia there is a lot of poverty and we aren’t going to let people die of hunger.
Me: Would you like to tell the foreigners that don’t know a lot about Colombia something?
Niro: Of course! Even though there’s a social conflict, that there’s inequality, here we are happy. I believe that it’s one of the happiest countries in the world. You can say that even with all the things that happen here, the people are very united. The people are very good with foreigners. In fact, I had told you guys that there are people here from other countries that are doing exchanges, people from France, England, and China. And they are our brothers also.
There are no flags. You don’t have to see flags, you don’t have to see national anthems… If you see the first point in the human rights declaration, you’ll see that every man is free to walk where he wants. But flags were born, countries were born, and look.
We are immigrants. But welcome to Colombia! Come to Colombia. Colombia is passion. Colombia is life.
My name is Jasmine Stephenson and I've been traveling around the world since 2007. I'm currently enjoying the expat life in Medellín, Colombia.