Colombia: Social Conflict Replaces Warfare

Popular Minga

Social conflict has overtaken the center of the political stage, displacing President Alvaro Uribe, who merely repeats the script that brought him so much success in the war: the Indians, sugarcane workers, teachers, government workers, truckers, and anyone else who protests and mobilizes is being manipulated by the FARC guerrillas.

Source: Americas Policy Program, Center for International Policy (CIP)


Popular Minga (Photo M. Murillo)

Social conflict has overtaken the center of the political stage, displacing President Alvaro Uribe, who merely repeats the script that brought him so much success in the war: the Indians, sugarcane workers, teachers, government workers, truckers, and anyone else who protests and mobilizes is being manipulated by the FARC guerrillas.

"If you watch what is happening in Cauca department, you can understand that a new political perspective has substituted social action for armed confrontation," says journalist and sociologist Alfredo Molano. In Cauca, in southwestern Colombia, tens of thousands of Nasa Indians along with other ethnicities have been on a "Minga por la Vida," a collective mobilization in support of life values, since Oct. 12. And an equal number of sugarcane cutters have been on strike for two months. Something is changing in Colombia.

So far in 2008, the government has hit the FARC rebel forces hard, but political initiative no longer resides in the president’s Nariño Palace offices. In the street, ways of doing politics are being reconfigured into mass actions that cannot be denounced as terrorism, as the president and his closest ministers would wish. The temptation to criminalize social protest can lead to a grave failure for Uribe, because people are beginning to overcome their fear, and even the union movement is showing its face.

Strong denunciations of human rights violations are beginning to appear at the same time. Uribe was forced to retire 27 military officers in a scandal that cost the Army commander, General Mario Montoya, his job. It was proven that military troops kidnapped poor young men from urban peripheries and later counted them as dead "guerrillas" in the mountains. Three thousand members of the military are being investigated by the justice system. In the last televised U.S. presidential debate, Barack Obama told John McCain that as long as trade union members were being murdered in Colombia, the Free Trade Agreement would not be signed.

Hundreds of Protests

September and October have been filled with strikes, work stoppages, and demonstrations. Federal Justice Department workers carried out a prolonged strike for better wages and a department budget that would guarantee its autonomy. The government declared a state of "internal disturbance," an outlandish reaction showing the mindset of the government that thinks it sees guerrillas behind every union, every strike, and every protest. Shortly afterward, federal workers in the electoral system, the "Registraduría," followed suit, as later did teachers and truck drivers who had been on strike in August.

On Sept. 15, 12,000 sugarcane cutters went on strike and occupied eight sugar mills in Cauca Valley. The cutters, almost all of whom are Afro-Colombians, arise at four in the morning, work from 6:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. under a punishing sun, and return home around 8:00 p.m., after making 5,400 slashes with their machetes and inhaling smoke from the burning canes and the herbicide glyphosate used on the plantations.

They earn about $10 a day and must pay for their own social security, tools, work clothes, and transportation to the cane field. At dusk, long brown silhouettes can be seen along the Pan-American Highway between Cali and Popayán, staggering like zombies after a criminally brutal workday.

At the beginning of the strike, they described their miserable living and working conditions and won the support of a good part of the population that usually turns its back on demands by Afro-Colombians and indigenous people. The authorities were surprised by the long continuation of a strike they thought would be over in a few days. The demands are simple: the cutters want contracts and wages for days not worked when the mills are shut down and for days when they seek medical treatment, since accidents at work disable 200 workers each year. And they want to eliminate the mobile scales that tip in the owners’ favor.

For the government and the Association of Sugarcane Growers, the main problem is that the strike forced the importation of sugar from Ecuador and Bolivia, paralyzed the production of ethanol, and raised the price of gasoline. In a show of little common sense, the minister of Social Protection told the parliament that the strike was not a social problem but a protest by criminals. Several cane cutters were detained, and it was decided to expel foreign journalists who were covering the strike.

The labor reforms approved in Colombia in 1990 and, especially, in 2002, completely deregulated the labor market. In 1992, for each temporary job, five permanent ones were created. With the establishment of the Associated Work Cooperatives (CTAs), labor’s map was turned on its head: in the first 10 months of 2008, for each permanent job, 10 temporary jobs were created, according to a study by the National University.

With the CTAs, employers avoid paying fiscal costs and other taxes to the state and enjoy a huge reduction in labor costs. The U.S. Congress questioned the "dumping" of the labor force, among other issues, in order to freeze the signing of the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia.

The cane cutters redoubled their resistance to the owners, who had to spend 54 days negotiating with delegates from the Sinalcorteros Union. The cutters were unable to eliminate the CTAs or get an agreement on direct contracts, but they won a 12% increase in wages, control over the weighing scales, provision of tools, broader owner coverage of missed work for illness or accidents, and a work day ending at 4:00 p.m. The union came out of this strengthened: it went from 870 to 3,000 members.

Deterioration in working conditions and the constant increase in the cost of food is at the root of the re-launching of the work protest. That is why Molano, persecuted by a government that forced him into a six-year exile, insists that: "The current protest is the tip of the iceberg of a social movement that can move toward the democratization of the country." The national strike by the CUT union on Oct. 23, the first of its magnitude in years, can be taken as a sign of evolving changes.

The Great Indigenous "Minga"

The most important protest, which disturbs the government, began on Oct. 12—the Minga of Indigenous Peoples—a mobilization of collective and community work that seeks to reverse the situation of Colombia’s 100 ethnic groups and was called by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), and Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN).

There are five demands: rejection of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, which they consider an agreement "between owners and against the people"; repeal of the constitutional reforms that subject indigenous peoples to isolation and death; rejection of Plan Colombia, "which infests our lands and sows them with displacement and death"; government fulfillment of its agreements after the 1991 El Nilo massacre—in which 20 Indians were killed from the Nasa tribe, the most mobilized and best organized indigenous group—and that include the transfer of thousands of acres of land promised by the state as compensation.

The indigenous mobilization began with the blocking of the strategically important Pan-American Highway by some 10,000 people who were brutally attacked by the armed forces, with two dead and some 90 wounded, mostly from gunshots. The communities retreated and occupied other sections of the highway. When the government refused to meet with them, they began a march toward Cali, joined by sugarcane workers and other union groups.

As on previous occasions, the Indians were catalysts for social action, since their demands are more political than those of other sectors, and they are better able to explain them. They denounced the fact that in the six years of the Uribe administration, 1,243 Indians were murdered from the 100-plus ethnic groups in Colombia, and 54,000 were displaced from their lands. The motto, "We are all cane cutters, we are all Indians," showed a new political and social connection in a country until recently polarized, and paralyzed, by war.

In Cali more that 20,000 indigenous people waited for Uribe to show up in order to begin a round of conversations, after having walked for a week along the Pan-American Highway. Uribe finally arrived as the Indians, tired of waiting, were leaving. That mis-encounter of Sunday, Oct. 19, was not improved by the Nov. 2 meeting in La María (Piendamó), where thousands of indigenous people have been gathered since Oct. 12 and have formed what they call a Land of Dialogue, Coexistence, and Negotiation.

After six hours of listening to presidential arrogance and providing data to show the continual violation of human rights in Colombia, the Indigenous and Popular Minga decided to "walk the word," to keep walking in support of life. They actually took the same path as all the indigenous peoples in the continent—after dozens of meetings, they decided to keep moving forward.

On Nov. 9, they began a new march, from Cali to Bogotá, where they arrived on Nov. 24. The march crosses part of the Andes and includes several cities, so that discussions on their problems can be held with the people. In Bogotá, they will form a Congress of Social Organizations in order to develop a common agenda for social movements.

Because of the importance of international attention to Colombia in order to avoid more repression, on Nov. 8, the ACIN sent a letter to President-elect Obama that denounced the continued violations of indigenous peoples’ human rights. They link it to Plan Colombia as well as the Free Trade Agreement: "Large transnational corporations have profited from oil and gas contracts, mining concessions, privatizations, and low wages, and are now after the biodiversity of our territories."

For the ACIN, the war in Colombia and violation of human rights are part of a grand multinational project to appropriate lives, or, as they say, to "transform life into merchandise." That is why they believe that "the destruction of our peoples in Colombia is a consequence of an error that today we call a crisis," but which is only a product of "greed and the enshrinement of the accumulation of wealth."

Something Is Changing

Molano believes that President Uribe "is in a difficult situation," for local as well as international reasons. The global crisis is starting to affect his base of support among urban middle classes, "in debt up to 25% of their income," according to Molano. But the crisis will also block him from continuing the astronomical military expenditures that are 4.6% of the GDP. Molano believes that "there will be more social demands and less U.S. support."

But not everything is about the economy. Broad sectors in Colombian society are beginning to understand that accusations by human rights organizations were not exaggerated. In late September, newspapers all reported that 11 young men who had disappeared from Bogotá and Soacha were found in mass graves in another department, North Santander, and had been classified by the army as subversives who died in combat.

A few days later, the number of dead rose to 23, and then it seemed there might be more than 100. The Defensoría del Pueblo, Colombia’s Public Advocate or Human Rights Ombudsman, stated that so far in 2008, 5,522 accusations of disappearances have been made. The "Preliminary Report of the International Mission to Study Extrajudicial Executions and Impunity in Colombia," published in October 2007, stated that in the past five years, confirmed cases of extrajudicial executions number 955.

Apparently the military is repeating its usual pattern. It kidnaps poor young men, even some with mental problems, from urban peripheral areas, kills them, and transports their bodies to other places, where they are included in the body count of the war against the guerrilla. The few cases that have been clarified so far indicate that they are just the tip of the iceberg that involves a monstrous form of human rights violation.

In the midst of the scandal, Uribe retired 27 military officers, including three generals, and Army Chief Montoya had to resign. In his Sunday column on Nov. 9, Molano asks a very disturbing question: "What has been done to the poor, since we see fewer and fewer of them? Is this another outcome of the Democratic Security Policy?"

Molano thus reminds us that beginning in the 1980s, paramilitaries undertook "social cleansing" that became particularly virulent in cities such as Cali, where they murdered beggars, homosexuals, prostitutes, and people with mental and physical disabilities. These Nazi-like practices never vanished, and Molano’s question asks if "social cleansing" is behind the current disappearances.

Also, at the end of October Amnesty International published its latest report on Colombia, titled "Leave Us Alone!" It states that "impunity continues to be at the heart of the human rights crisis in the country, since most of those responsible have not been taken to court." It also reports that the Colombian government denies the gravity of the situation and claims, contrary to all evidence, that the paramilitary has disappeared. In just the first six months of 2008, Amnesty recorded 270,000 victims of forced displacement, 41% more than in 2007.

Sectors of the urban middle classes have tended to distance themselves from the Uribe government when there are reports of serious crimes that confirm a high level of corruption in the state and link the government to human rights violations against people not involved in the war. This tendency will grow with the election of Obama and the consequences of the global crisis.

In the next weeks, when the indigenous Minga march arrives in Bogotá, it will be possible to assess whether the urban population is actually abandoning its clear support for the government and undertaking a more or less consistent oppositional effort. It will not be easy. In October alone, more than 20 indigenous people were murdered, because, as the call for the march on Bogotá states, the current administration believes that "whoever opposes the government is a terrorist" and should be repressed.

Like the Zapatistas in Mexico when they called for "The Other Campaign," the vast experience of the Nasa people tells them that "no sector acting alone can fight the agenda of exploitation and subjugation that the government has been implementing." Minga mobilization is the tool chosen by those from below "to agree on our word and turn it into our path." It is only a first step. But, as they know, it’s the one that determines the direction and makes tracks.

Translated for the Americas Policy Program by Maria Roof.

Raúl Zibechi is international analyst for Brecha of Montevideo, Uruguay, lecturer and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to several social groups. He is a monthly collaborator with the Americas Policy Program (

To reprint this article, please contact The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the CIP Americas Policy Program or the Center for International Policy.



Resources Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca,

Foro de la Solidaridad Confiar, Medellín, 18 de octubre de 2008.

Desde Abajo No. 139, revista mensual octubre de 2008, Bogotá.

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