On November 10, 2008, the association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) sent a letter to Barack Obama. After congratulating him on his electoral victory, the group called on Obama to make good on his promise of change, extending an invitation to the new president to jointly fulfill “our [shared] responsibilities to Mother Earth and history.” With these brief words, the ACIN made clear to Obama — and to us — that politics in this region of the world is no longer going to be articulated in the mode of the petition, but rather in the active mode of moving forward. This understanding of politics sees words not so much as tools for diplomacy or compromise, but as a way to effect change in the world.
“We do not write to ask or demand anything for ourselves,” the group told Obama. Instead, the group’s members suggested that he take the initiative to listen to their words. “We have lost many lives defending these words, which we have . . . backed up with our civil resistance. . . . These are the words that we have shared through Colombia since October 10, through the Minga of Resistance, a national mobilization we convened as indigenous people, in association with other peoples and processes.”
Minga is a Quechua word meaning “collective work” with wide currency among popular and poor sectors, both indigenous and mestizo, of the Andean republics. The Cauca-based minga of 2008 was grounded in the territorial and cultural demands of Colombia’s indigenous peoples, yet it is a movement that now extends across the Andes, engaging indigenous and non-indigenous sectors in Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru (see “Against the Law of the Jungle"). Minga, however, is a concept that has traveled not only because of the “natural” cultural solidarities that run through indigenous ideals of community life, but also because Andean authorities long ago found in the minga a useful means to organize corvée labor, first in colonial mines and then later for the roads and public works that would provide evidence for the state’s presence in their nations’ otherwise forgotten indigenous territories. Thus the ACIN’s call to join in minga, as a name for a collective action that is at once local and international, gains force from both its cultural and historical references to a shared experience of subjugation. By calling their movement a minga, the indigenous participants call attention to both the work that must go into politics and the idea that that work must be collective. They also, of course, reclaim it from long histories of state-led attempts to organize and control collective politics and community organization.
As such, the word minga would seem to stand at an opposite pole from the word policy, understood as a plan or strategy that is formulated, enacted, and imposed in response to the perceived “best interests” of two or more nation-states. For “policy makers,” indigenous peoples and their movements are forces to be reckoned with not as hosts who invite, but rather as “problems” or “special interests” who crosscut and disrupt the neat geopolitics of sovereignty and capital flows. A first challenge for a left call to policy, then, is to avoid this language. Policy needs to be rethought in a different register than that of either interest or imposition. Yet how to do this if U.S. policy makers are so intimately tied up with a government, and a state, that has and will continue to act in the name of “interests” not our own?
As commentators in this issue note, the task of taking on policy—especially in an era of hope—is riddled with dangers. The first is that we end up endorsing a “best case scenario” in which we try to mediate the definition of national interest in such a way that it effects “the least harm”—that we engage in a politics that encourages a “softer” form of imperialism, without taking on the tenets of imperialism as such. A second danger is that we succumb to the policy worldview in which groups like the Minga of Resistance are conflated with identities or sectors that are imagined to compete with the identities and interests of national states. Although it is important to insist that “policy makers” meet the demands of indigenous organizations and respect their cultural and territorial rights, it is less easy to figure out how to make policy makers understand that movements like the minga are not just a gaggle of special interests, but people who are actively redefining the landscape of both politics and policy making.
Indeed, the ACIN’s invitation to Obama to “join with us” is not only unusual for its directionality as an invitation extended from “below”; it is also unusual for its having been extended from a specific sort of place—one located somewhere outside of the usual maps of national boundaries and contested sovereignties that constitute the terrain of bilateral policy making. In asking for a “change in the relation between the United States and the indigenous peoples of the world,” and in denouncing the murders of more than 2,100 “indigenous peoples in the past six years,” the ACIN letter avoids locating indigenous peoples in any specific national context. While policy makers might see the nation as a site from which to contest unjust killings, for the ACIN peoples, the murders are offensive not only because they violate national laws, but also because they testify to the hypocrisy of both their own governments and that of the United States—expressing allegiance to “the rule of law” while remaining indifferent to what ACIN calls “the ultimate law, which is respect for life.”
A similar dislocation of sovereign authority constitutes the grounds for their objections to the U.S. free trade agreement (FTA) and the Colombian government’s “Laws of Dispossession and other institutional norms that legalize the loss of our lands, our fundamental freedoms, and our rights.” As they see it, the laws not only violate their constitutional rights in Colombia as autonomous territories and peoples, but they also effectively violate Colombia’s national sovereignty by making any change in the law contingent on the obligation to compensate foreign capital.
Their objections to this process, however, have less to do with questions of sovereignty per se than with the fact that both of the governments that would potentially be involved in a U.S.-Colombia FTA respect some international agreements, while ignoring others, such as the International Labor Organization Covenant 169 and the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. What begins as a refusal to engage in the idiom of national or even ethnic community thus ends as a condemnation of policies that have led to a situation in which people, like the ACIN, are moving on their own, without waiting for either nations or policies to tell them what they can and cannot achieve.
If we are to engage in the project of articulating something like a “policy agenda” from the left, we should start by questioning the idea that policy constitutes a device for administering life through the prism of the nation-state. To do this, we can take inspiration and ideas from the many movements like ACIN whose calls for autonomy and popular action constitute a de facto rejection of both partisan politics and the nation-state’s claims to exercise exclusive moral and legal jurisdiction over such things as resources, nature, and human lives. After all, among the many other things that ACIN and other indigenous organizations are forcing us to question is the assumption that the only alternative to “privatization” is “nationalization.” Why not, they ask us, imagine policies that deterritorialize resources, and why hold on to the questionable idea that public goods must necessarily be administered by nation-states that, in many cases, are themselves deeply committed to capitalism, inequality, and impunity?
Another lesson we can perhaps take into the world of left policy discussion is a questioning of the temporal frameworks that restrict policy to short-term goals and established economic and political “interests.” Without denying the continuing importance of fighting for justice and human rights in the moment, it might be worth asking ourselves what sorts of temporalities we inherit and how they limit our imaginations when we always assume that the nation-state—and its cycles of national-level electoral politics—forms the only framework within which to engage in policy and policy critique.
The new political landscape that both the Obama administration and the left will have to confront in Latin America is one in which the ideals of democracy have already been substantially reworked “from below.” Political movements in places like Oaxaca, Cusco, and Cauca are not waiting for policy makers to attend to their demands. Nor are they waiting for us to define democracy for them. Instead, they are moving ahead in ways that threaten to make the capitalist nation-state obsolete as a framework for administering democratic demands. This new political landscape holds out the promise that it will force the hand of states like Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, which have been forceful and even brutal in their attempts to silence and devalue the popular political imaginaries that call for an end both to party politics and to state sovereignties grounded in impunity and unilateral decision making.
The danger it holds is that states and their policy makers can more easily continue to ignore progressive political movements on the grounds that they move in their own territories, outside the framework of national economies and laws. This is clearly the case for movements that call, for example, for subsistence economies and autonomous modes of governance that seem to resonate with the neoliberal state’s calls for decentralized economies and “local responsibility.” Our task as leftist policy critics is to insist that this sidelining of popular political projects is not acceptable—either politically or as an accurate picture of what Latin America is today.
1. “An Open Letter From the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, to U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama,” Santander de Quilichao, Cauca, Colombia, November 10, 2008; available at http://mamaradio.blogspot.com.
Deborah Poole is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Program in Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her recent publications include A Blackwell Companion to Latin American Anthropology (Blackwell, 2008).