Petro’s ‘University of peace’, a ray of hope for Colombia’s Catatumbo

By Laia Mataix Gómez

El Tarra, Colombia, Jan 2 (EFE).- Bryan always wanted to study medicine to “help those in need,” but he was born in the marginalized and troubled Colombian region of Catatumbo, where higher education is scarce and lack of opportunity condemns young people to abandon their studies and work “at whatever comes up,” which in these parts usually means picking coca.

Alexandra is also in no doubt: she wants to study systems engineering now that she has finished high school, she tells Efe while helping out at a communal cooking pot in El Tarra, a municipality in the department of Norte de Santander.

“I have a son, and that’s what motivates me the most to get ahead in life,” she says.

Like Bryan, she is aware that going to university is normally out of reach for people like them.

But both are hopeful after a promise made by Colombia’s first-ever left-wing president, former rebel fighter Gustavo Petro: the University of Catatumbo, a “university of peace” for a region that for decades has known nothing but armed conflict, with coca as the only way to make a decent living.

El Tarra was chosen to build the first headquarters of the university, which is still shrouded in more doubts than certainties. But both the national and local administrations have made it a priority so that Catatumbo will no longer be a merely associated with violence and illegal drugs.

In one of his first trips after taking office, Petro said that “a bigger, more powerful Catatumbo is possible, if on the side of the government we are capable of producing, of increasing the productivity of the region, of bringing public university to the municipality”.

Both Bryan and Alexandra were unable to continue their studies, because there is no higher education offer in their area, forcing them to work in whatever they can to help their families. “In the kitchen, on the farm, whatever I can get,” says Alexandra, who has just turned 18 and has a one-and-a-half-year-old son.

In one way or another, the youth of Catatumbo are pushed into the illegal economy that has become the region’s livelihood: coca has spurred development that the state has never been able to match and provides work for those who don’t have other opportunities.

Petro “is the first president who dares to touch the lands of Catatumbo” as “past presidents only said that people from Catatumbo are guerrillas,'” Alexandra says.

This area is known as a hotbed of illegal armed groups, both FARC dissidents and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas and paramilitaries, who fight for control of the coca trade.

In fact, Catatumbo is one of the priority regions for Petro’s government to promote its “total peace” policy, which not only seeks to negotiate an end to the violence with armed groups, but also encompasses strategies to guarantee the development of the country’s most marginalized areas, especially in terms of education and health.

“We are people who want to get ahead. We thank Petro for giving us Catatumberos this opportunity to get ahead,” says Alexandra, who is hopeful that she and her son will have the chance to gain a university education.

The university is a project “to really transform the area,” says the mayor of El Tarra, Yair Díaz. Currently “no more than 1%” of young people have access to the nearest university, which is in Ocaña, he told Efe.

The land to start the construction of the University of Catatumbo is already prepared to “meet the needs of young people in the region: in the case of El Tarra, we have more than 1,500 young people who have not been able to access university.” There are also thousands more from nearby municipalities, including those on the Venezuelan side of the nearby border.

The university will open “the doors to all the youth of Catatumbo so that they can study whatever they want, because that way they will be able to pursue degrees that will allow them to link knowledge to the territory; knowledge to the land; knowledge to the furrow, to transformation”, president Petro said of a project that has given the region a reason to hope after decades of suffering. EFE


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