Mike’s tours bypass the standard tourist attractions and take you directly into the heart and soul of Bogota, from a small coffee roasting operation, to one of the “Zones of Tolerance of High Profile Social Activities” (red light district), to a fantastic fruit and vegetable market in the center of Bogota. You can even have a conversation with one of the local emerald dealers, a local homeless poet and other important members of Bogota’s thriving community.
Most notably, the bike tour allows one to savor the vast amounts of mind-blowing graffiti that decorates nearly every quarter of Bogota. Political and artistic graffiti can be found just about anywhere in Bogota from statements against neo-liberal politics scrawled on public buildings to intricate works of art on any open blank space, to the large amounts of artwork that cover every building of the local public university.
The National University of Colombia is a hotbed for socialist and communist thought. Funded by the capitalist government of Colombia, the University maintains complete autonomy; even the city police are barred from the campus. Protests against the sitting government and power structure are common, sometimes resulting in police beatings and tear gas outside the campus grounds.
Education at the University of Colombia is available for all those who pass the required tests to enter though spaces are limited and students pay tuition on a sliding scale. Thus, in contrast to elite private institutions such as the University of Los Andes, students at the University of Colombia come from all parts of the country. Even the poorest and most marginalized by the elites of Colombia are able to study here. Various buildings on campus are named for communist and revolutionary heroes. Tributes to fallen political martyrs and protests against police and state brutality are everywhere.
As in the US, discussions as to the benefits and costs to private investment into education are politically divisive. The present government now calls for more private involvement in the University. Students and faculty see this as an imposition on their autonomy and are vocally protesting to keep it. What the future holds is up to speculation, but if the independence of the University is indeed compromised at some future date, the atmosphere of the University may certainly change. Arguments for private investment in the Universities point to the limited number of spaces available. Students of modest means who are unable to win a seat must often go to private Universities anyway.**
In the US, youth is commodified and held up as a means to sell and markets consumer goods. In Bogota, youth and the voices of youth mean something. If it were otherwise, places like the University of Bogota would be like any large American institution, a chapel to the economic interests of private research funding and the state interests of creating and sustaining and elite class. Mostly, though, it is refreshing to see Colombian youth still interested in relevant politics and political action in contrast to those on our own campuses. If ever there were a reason to support public education and the maintaining of educational opportunities for all, this is it.
** Thanks to Mike for the clarification