Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Protest: Classes Canceled

I remember as a child I used to love listening to the radio in the morning when there was a big snowfall. I couldn’t wait to hear whether school was canceled. They call them snow days. I loved snow days, especially when I hadn’t finished my homework.

There are no snow days in Colombia. There are protest days. This month I began taking Spanish classes every weekday afternoon at the Universidad Nacional, which is the largest university in Bogota. Many of its students have strong political views. Yesterday, in the quad hung a gigantic Cuban flag next to the equally large portrait of Ernesto “Che” Guevara that is emblazoned on one of the buildings. Many people had gathered to honor the 40th anniversary of Che’s death. It didn’t surprise me. Graffiti is spray-painted on virtually every building on campus, with some having more than others, such as the political science building. The graffiti is mostly left-wing slogans and views. Che and socialism are some favorites. My first classroom had “ELN” and the Soviet hammer and sickle sprayed on the walls. For a well-reputed university, I am surprised they let students deface the property. But maybe that’s from being spoiled during my undergraduate days at the University of Vermont or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Anyhow, back to my story. The Universidad Nacional has two entrances. I always enter through the one near the Transmilenio bus stop. I walked to the entrance and the security guard stopped me. He had never done this before to me, or anybody, as far as I had seen. He asked me where I was going? To Spanish class, I said. No, he said, there are no classes. The university was closed. What? There had been a protest.

I walked around the perimeter of the campus to the only other entrance I know of, which is near my Spanish class. I was kind of upset because I had to go pee. Pieces of bricks and other debris littered the street leading up to the entrance on Calle 26. The entrance was blocked off with yellow tape, and behind it workers in royal blue suits, wearing white gas masks and black boots were cleaning up the rubble. I began taking photos when a Colombian student approached me and said I shouldn’t take too many because I could get in trouble. He said there was a protest. Why? I asked. I never really got a definitive answer. Before I told him where I was from, he said he had studied at the University of Illinois and had been to Chicago. Small world. His name was Camilio and like many people I meet who have some English experience, he wanted to practice his English. We walked back to the bus stop, and on the way peed next to the fence surrounding the campus. It’s normal in Colombia to pee in public. I’ve seen men peeing on the sidewalks of busy streets in broad daylight. It’s not common, but it happens.

When I got home, I read a blurb in El Tiempo about the protest. It said the university closed around noon because a group of demonstrators, masked young men, had commemorated Che’s death by destroying the entrance. Three armored cars and a truck with police in riot gear arrived and controlled the situation. They used water and tear gas. Traffic was blocked for three hours.