Teachers in the firing line

Published: Wed 1 Dec 2004 09:29 AM
Teachers in the firing line
Colombian teachers are amongst the principal victims in the state-sponsored campaign to eliminate domestic opposition to the government of Alvaro Uribe. A member of the Colombian teachers’ union is assassinated every single week. Steve Sinnott, Deputy General Secretary of the British teachers’ union, NUT, explains why….
30.11.2004 [Steve Sinnott, Justice For Colombia Bulletin no. 7] If you were a teacher in Colombia, how would you answer the questions your students asked you about the country they are growing up in? Like, why is it too dangerous to travel to visit relatives in the countryside? Or why is it that 3 million Colombian children aren’t even in school? Why do some teachers simply ‘disappear’? And is it like this in other countries?
In Colombia there are questions you learn not to ask, and opinions you learn to keep to yourself. Those with the courage to challenge this state of affairs find themselves targeted by army-backed paramilitary death squads. It is remarkable that the murder of hundreds of student activists has not made young Colombians even more dispirited and confused.
Colombian teachers are amongst the principal victims in the state-sponsored campaign to eliminate domestic opposition to the government of Alvaro Uribe Velez. Much of the opposition to privatisation, budget cuts and militarisation has come from the trade unions, of which the teachers’ union FECODE is the largest.
Of the 184 trade unionists killed in Colombia in 2002, 83 were teachers. Many others were forcibly ‘disappeared’. But teachers are targeted above all others because they are uniquely placed to influence the next generation. The government sees its battle for young hearts and minds as no less important than its war against the leftwing FARC guerrillas, or its war on the trade unions and other elements of civil society.
Growing up in a country where the legacy of colonialism, racism and injustice is not just entrenched, but actively promoted, inquiring young minds will either learn to understand and challenge that legacy, or to defend and apologise for it.
Colombian children rely on teachers for guidance because very often their parents are unable to provide it. Unemployment rates of 20%, a mushrooming informal employment market, and the dramatic decline in living standards of both working and middle class Colombians hardly give many parents the time or energy to answer their children’s difficult questions.
The press and TV are in the hands of families which have held power for generations, and which promote the same mindset that their forefathers used to justify their rule. Though Colombia is a nominal democracy, any country in which 1% of the people own 58% of the land clearly has scant respect for the poor, especially when they make up over 60% of the population.
The Uribe government’s contempt for social sciences components of the national curriculum is the most benign of measures designed to create a compliant, docile, intellectually feeble electorate. Colombian teachers with other ideas of an education which could inspire the young are being systematically targeted by paramilitaries.
They need the support of British teachers and trade unionists more than ever.
This is why the NUT invited FECODE (the Colombian teachers’ union) General Secretary, Witney Chavez Sanchez, to address our conference in Harrogate in April. He told us that a member of his union has been assassinated every single week for the past 15 years and of the numerous activists and leaders that FECODE had lost to the paramilitaries.
Most importantly though, he told us that it is only because of international pressure that the situation is not far worse. We need to work together to increase that pressure. We need to demand that the UK government stop sending military aid to the Colombian army until they cease working with the death squads. And we need to make it clear to President Uribe that we will continue to denounce him and his policies until he ends the barbarous practice of targeting Colombia’s teachers.

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