Paradigm War at the Heart of Colombia Crisis

By scheduling a meeting with movement representatives for November 2, the government succeeded in diffusing the momentum gained in recent weeks by indigenous protests. But behind the headlines a profound process is underway: The indigenous protests are only the most visible sign of a growing coalition of social movements, including labor unions, Afro-descendant organizations, campesino unions, and human rights and women's groups. The coalition is up against the diametrically opposed economic and security doctrines of the Uribe administration and the Colombian establishment.

October 31, 2008

The Indigenous and Popular mobilization in southern Colombia, or Minga, that began on October 12th, continues well into its third week, although its momentum has been slowed down somewhat in recent days, filling the movement with uncertainty as to what we can expect to happen next.

Last weekend, after a long march that brought up to 40,000 indigenous people to Cali, accompanied by hundreds of striking sugar cane workers, Afro-Colombian peasants, and a large representation of the women’s movement, protesters converged for a public meeting with President Alvaro Uribe on Sunday that never materialized. What was supposed to be the beginning of a long-term negotiation about the five main points on the people’s agenda turned into a short-lived photo-op that may have long-lasting consequences for the future of the popular movement.

Indeed, the most lasting image of last Sunday’s encounter in Cali was President Uribe, surrounded by his security detail and some ministers, standing on a pedestrian walk bridge overlooking where the communities had gathered hours earlier, using a megaphone to shout at the fading crowd, who yelled back at him in a moment of high tension, if not rousing street theater.

Uribe’s impromptu appearance at the site came hours after the massive public gathering with the indigenous leadership had begun, an empty chair on the stage symbolizing the President’s absence. President Uribe, citing unsubstantiated security concerns, wanted the leaders to meet with him at the studios of Tele-Pacífico in Cali for the face to face, going against the wishes of the indigenous representatives, who had demanded an open, public dialogue with the community, as opposed to one “behind closed doors.” Things quickly fell apart.

That night and throughout the next day, in countless news broadcasts on television and radio, and in print reports in all of the nation’s newspapers, the primary perspective people received was that of a disrespectful and out of control indigenous crowd screaming hateful statements at a victimized president, who came all the way from Bogotá to meet with them. Despite acting and appearing very un-presidential in this episode, losing his temper at the angry crowd while taunting them through the megaphone, in the end it could be seen as another public relations “golazo” for the image savvy head of state.

And now, several days removed from this unfortunate incident, it’s fair to say that the tens of thousands of indigenous and popular protesters who have been mobilizing throughout the country over the last 2-1/2 weeks are no longer making headlines. The country’s news media have moved on to bigger and better things, such as the dramatic escape of former Congressman and FARC kidnap victim Oscar Tulio Lizcano, who, with the help of a disgruntled guerilla deserter, managed to walk his way to freedom after eight years of captivity in the jungles. This is the kind of meaty stuff Colombian news consumers really want to hear about, not some pesky protesters made up of mostly black and brown people who, as one acquaintance recently said to me, “always want more than what they already have.”

It’s as if, once again, in the eyes of Colombian public opinion, indigenous people don’t exist.

The Minga Continues

Of course, this does not mean they’re not still mobilized. If anything, they remain in a state of high alert. Since Monday, the indigenous leadership has been meeting in urgency to develop a strategy to respond to the current crisis. The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca has written an open letter to the president, reminding him of the commitments consistently broken by the government.

After Sunday’s fiasco, the government suggested it would meet with the leadership in Popayán, the capital of Cauca, this coming Sunday. However, this idea was quickly dispelled, as the community insisted on meeting directly with the president, but only on indigenous territory. On Tuesday it was confirmed that President Uribe had agreed to meet face to face with them in La Maria, in Piendamó, in northern Cauca, the indigenous reserve dubbed the “territory of peaceful coexistence,” where the Minga had initially started on October 12th, only to be met by the heavy hand of the public security forces sent in, ironically, by the president.

What’s not so clear at the moment is what will be on the agenda in Sunday’s meeting, and how serious the discussions will be. The five points that make up the basis of the protests are still on the table, but the government’s position, echoed in countless news reports over the last several days, continues to focus on the issue of lands that are supposed to be returned to the indigenous people of northern Cauca. Whether or not the broader agenda of the Popular Minga will be part of the dialogue is another question entirely.

This issue was cautiously addressed directly by the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, in a statement released over a week ago, when it was becoming clear that the government was hoping to change the subject and distort the main points of the protests.

In the October 21st missive, ACIN stated “It’s clear that our struggle…includes the issue of lands, which is transcendental for indigenous people. But we reiterate so that it remains totally clear, that we are not only demanding that the government comply with agreements and resolve the necessities and rights relating solely to the issue of lands; the issue of land is not a problem exclusive to the indigenous people, nor is it something that relates only to the department of Cauca.”

The ACIN also reiterated its opposition to the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which they described as “a fundamental component of our agenda of mobilization, and that must be addressed.” At the moment, the agenda for Sunday does not appear to include this issue.

The Indigenous Guard, a nonviolent self-defense force.

But the bigger concern expressed to me by many people involved in the Minga is the damaging effect a narrowly focused meeting with the president can have on the future of the popular movement, which has been energized by the mobilization of the past several weeks. As ACIN writes in its website:

“The irresponsible management of these important issues by both the government and the commercial mass media, requires a highly conscientious mobilization of a broad cross section of sectors, and the consolidation and development of a practical national agenda to advance towards the country that is possible and necessary.”

The Sugar cane workers that joined the mobilization and who have been accompanied by the indigenous activists of northern Cauca since their strike began in mid-September understand this. So do the thousands of women from the organization Ruta Pacífica, who met their indigenous colleagues along the way to Cali one week ago today. The trade union movement that carried out its general strike last week, mentioning in their proclamations the importance of solidarity with the Minga Popular, also have it very clear that in order to shake the current regime, pressure has to come from many different sectors. There are many ways to say no. The indigenous communities cannot do it alone. But this, some fear, is exactly Uribe’s strategy.

Colombia’s Paradigm War

In short, the struggle for indigenous rights must not be seen as a one-dimensional struggle affecting a small proportion of the broader Colombian population, that is, the approximately two-million indigenous people living in the hundreds of resguardos (reserves) throughout the national territory. Unfortunately, this shortsighted critique of the indigenous movement is shared by sectors of both the right and the left, and reflects a limited understanding of the historical processes that have unfolded in complex ways within the communities themselves. It also fails to recognize the diversity of the movement, the many organizations and political tendencies that make up the movement, and the manner in which, despite their significant differences, they have coalesced with other sectors of society to confront the intolerance of the Colombian establishment.

This multi-dimensional organizing process is manifesting itself right now in the ongoing Popular and Indigenous Minga, which, with the above-mentioned five-point agenda, started in La Maria, Piendamó, in northern Cauca on October 12th, and marched its way north to Cali from various points in southwest Colombia, where it was joined by thousands of striking sugar cane workers, union members representing Colombian truckers, the Ruta Pacífica women’s movement, Afro-Colombian peasants, and family members of the victims of paramilitary terror.

After the unfortunate developments of last Sunday, the people behind the Popular Minga are now waiting, once again, for the President to come to the territory of “Peace and Coexistence,” and meet with them on their terms, and in the same location where the communities were forcefully confronted by the military and police -with bullets, tanks and tear gas, I might add- over two weeks ago, resulting in at least three dead and over 120 wounded. It must not be forgotten that one of the motives of the mobilization was to get the President to address their five point agenda, which for the most part was ignored by the government and the news media until the situation got really ugly.

As I mentioned above, the primary concern right now for many of the most disciplined and respected leaders in the movement is what exactly will they be discussing with the President on Sunday when he and his entourage arrives in La Maria? Is the broader process of coalition-building and collective resistance being compromised?

By shifting the focus of the dialogue to the singular issue of returning indigenous land back to some communities in Cauca, the government of Alvaro Uribe is winning public opinion points by showing to the world that he is supposedly interested in resolving the “Indian problem.” Yet at the same time, Uribe is deliberately avoiding addressing the broader social and political platform that is the basis of today’s popular uprising. Yes, this uprising just so happens to be spearheaded by the indigenous movement, but it is representative of many other social actors not comfortable with the way things are in the country.

Their struggle is a multi-tiered battle in defense of a different way of seeing the world, what some might call a paradigm war.

On the one hand you have a highly centralized system of power that, under the cover of state institutions that receive their legitimacy through superficial democratic practices of elections, political parties, and “parliamentary debate,” is sustained by entrenched economic forces that have permanent and open access to those same institutions. This nexus of power is promoted and nourished by an incestuous mass media system operated by what on the surface appear to be independent actors, but who are undeniably cut out of the same narrow cloth of political, economic, and even racial privilege.

While there are occasional flashes of courageous independence that emerges from this media system, thereby cementing the myth of open, democratic participation in the public sphere, for the most part it is a highly commercialized, market-driven model that promotes rampant consumerism in its audiences while deliberately excluding a broad cross section of voices that represent the diverse Colombian nation. This media system, again and again, serves as a megaphone for the government to present its case to the public, allowing the president, his ministers and the military brass to justify their day-to-day actions, regardless of how undemocratic or repressive they may be.

Democratic Security Strategy Must Be Discussed

This system of power is also propped up by a state security and military apparatus that has never in its history been successful at providing truly comprehensive security for the vast majority of the population, choosing instead to operate only for those same interests that have dominated Colombian politics for generations. This “security” apparatus – the Armed Forces, the National Police, the intelligence services – has been confronted openly by a number of guerilla insurgencies over the last fifty years, resulting in a strategic stalemate that has rarely tilted in favor of one side over another.

However, this ongoing conflict has led the Armed Forces to resort to dirty war tactics that have targeted civilian populations first and foremost, either directly, as was the case in the 1970s and 1980s, or indirectly, through paramilitary proxies funded by narcotrafficking, as we’ve seen since the 1990s.

Today, under the guise of a “democratic security strategy” designed with the assistance and paid for primarily by the government of the United States, these dirty-war tactics in the name of counter-insurgency have supposedly been put in check, while successfully pushing back the guerillas in the process. Indeed, in the eyes of the government, there is no internal conflict in Colombia, but rampant terrorism that, slowly but surely, is being militarily defeated.

The apparent progress made on the battlefield against the guerillas of FARC over the last two to three years is presented to the public as good news that must continue, lest we fall back into the state of battlefield ineptitude and corruption that characterized the military’s response to the armed insurgencies for decades.

The latest revelations about the military’s use of “false positives” – that is, the brutal killing of innocents to demonstrate success in the war against “terrorism” - are nothing but aberrations in today’s Colombia, rectified in the eyes of public opinion by a high profile press conference called by the President where, with considerable indignation and authority, he announced the dismissal of some of these “rogue elements.” From Uribe’s perspective, the disgraced officers that committed these atrocities make the rest of the “well-respected” institution of the Armed Forces look bad.

The arrogant, almost authoritarian example he provides for the Generals and Colonels under his command – that is, to do things his way regardless of the consequences – is never presented as part of the problem. Could it be possible that Uribe’s constant accusations of “guerilla infiltration” in every manifestation of public discontent may be having an effect on the way army officers perceive innocent civilians in the countryside?

Meanwhile, meticulously-researched reports about this policy of terror being waged by Colombian security forces against non-combatants, put out by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, are conveniently written off by the President and his ministers as having a deliberately political agenda. It is no coincidence that these issues are on the agenda of the Popular Minga, although one would be hard pressed to find any mention of it in the countless media reports about the protests over the last 18 days.

The government’s rosy view of how things are going in the country is especially welcomed by those sectors of the political and economic establishment that look to profit handsomely from the wealth of the country, be it through unbalanced free trade agreements like the US-FTA, or the limitless investment opportunities that exist in mining and Colombia’s other extractive industries. Very little consideration is given to the long-term impact these developments might have on the environment, or on struggling workers, peasants and indigenous communities. And yes, these concerns are on the agenda of the Minga.

The tens of thousands of people that are participating in the Popular Minga, and the countless others they represent back home in their communities, stand in the way of the permanent consolidation of this system of power. They are the other side of this paradigm war. Indeed, it is fair to say that today, the Minga’s moral legitimacy is more of a threat to the current regime than the guerillas themselves, who have become nothing but caricatures of their revolutionary past, while providing the perfect excuse for the regime to continue in its unrepentant intransigence.

This movement is multifaceted, and by no means homogenous, although it generally shares the vision of its ancestors of the need to protect Mother Earth through comprehensive community projects based on the principles of sustainable development and community participation. They have tried to carry this out through a complex process of grassroots communication and participation, keeping in mind the differences of perspectives that make up the collective will.

This organizational process of resistance has been sustained by an organic connection to the land, territory that has been consistently reduced and absorbed by the above-described system of power. As a result, the indigenous movement has become the primary obstacle to the corporate, undemocratic machinations of Uribismo, backed up unconditionally by U.S. imperial power.

Unfortunately, the voices of the indigenous communities – and the popular movement in general – continue to be marginalized and misrepresented by a media system that is driven by commercial, corporate consumerism. They have become a footnote in the daily presentations of the Colombian reality on television, radio and the newspapers, even when the events are unfolding right before our eyes, as they have been for the last three weeks. This process of invisibilization and distortion makes it that much easier for the dark forces of reaction to constantly change the subject, and shift the public’s attention through the use of sideshows and pseudo-events.

We can only hope that the wisdom of the indigenous leadership does not fall for these easy distractions, and remain true to the message and the objectives of the Popular Minga.

Mario A. Murillo will be reporting on the latest developments over the next couple of days as he travels to La María on his blog MAMA Radio, where this article was originally published.

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