- OpEd -

BOGOTÁ - I occasionally like to return to the first text I read when I entered the National University of Colombia. It was an extract from Elogio de la dificultad (In Praise of Difficulty), a 1980 essay by Colombian teacher and thinker Estanislao Zuleta . The text was in a beautiful booklet given to students beginning their university courses in the second half of 2000. I go back to it especially to find one sentence that has stuck in my mind since: "... our misery is not so much in the frustration of our desires, as in the way we desire, we do it badly."

The saying began to make sense in my very first week at university, which is also when I began forming an impression of the hooded radicals on campus (capuchos) that has, in fact, changed very little over the years. They were never difficult to identify, in spite of their efforts to wrap themselves in mystery and anonymity, as I attended the same lectures and seminars as most of them (though outsiders did appear specifically for violent protests ). Fellow students did go out to throw stones sporadically, some even for fun, but almost all of them would gradually distance themselves from the more combative lot, as they realized the changes they wanted in our society would not be attained by throwing bricks (no doubt from university corridors) at police vans.

The most radical students were always the ones who stayed the longest. Excessively ideological, they could not imagine their lives outside their particular organizations, and were often tasked with recruiting heedless novices, flattered at being sought and accepted into a group. They might have said that they have both easily won and fleeting.

Their common denominator was a desire to show themselves as the most capable at interpreting political theory, which would give them a leading role in fighting social injustice. They were ready to fight as the brave rebels they presumed themselves to be, in a society with no awareness of the abuses of the oppressive establishment, often reinforced by a conniving media that were accomplices of the powerful and tools of alienation. Radical students considered themselves to be the vanguard, the owners of truth, and the chosen.

The enemies of these radicals were state power co-opted by the elites (but almost always represented by the riot police), the yankee empire, the oligarchy, mass media, the petite bourgeoisie, and so on. In short, those who did not share their ideas. But they were few, very few. All I could see in them was frauds playing a cat-and-mouse game with the police, wanting to stand out in the easiest way: by using violence.

For decades, the civil war in this country gave the ruling elite the perfect excuse for distracting people from structural problems in the country like corruption, wealth inequality and the development model. Now our society can freely debate on such issues, thanks to the end of the pretense that the communist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas were the cause of all our miseries.

Students have enough strength to convene thousands around them.

That is why it is a shame to see hooded radicals turn student-led marches into riots and clashes, as seen in the mass protests recently at our nation's capital. These have caused immense harm to the student movement and their rightful demands for quality education. Not only are they useful scapegoats for an establishment looking to keep things unchanged in an unjust, class-divided education system, but they have also decisively fortified the negative impression already afflicting public university students.

Students have the capacity to summon thousands around them. Let them summon the citizens (just not on public transport), take over other causes and win over the support of ordinary folk. Let them march for education and while they are at it, demand the Attorney-General's resignation (regarding the Odebrecht bribery scandal). We need more and better public education, to strip corrupt people of their long-held power. To achieve this, students do not need hooded radicals, and nor opportunistic politicians with messianic airs. Please do not let anyone snatch from you what belongs to us all.

You must keep up hope to build a new and inclusive national project that can fit everyone, regardless of one's political position. Everyone. Because as Zuleta said, "the most difficult, important and necessary thing, or what must at least be tried, is to preserve the willingness to fight for a different society without falling into a paranoid interpretation of that struggle. to positively value respect and difference, not as to lesser evil or inevitable fact, but as something that enriches life and drives creation and thought. " Do not give up.

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