Despite National and Global Distractions, the Popular Minga Marches on to Bogotá

Bogotá, Colombia-As up to 6,000 indigenous protesters participating in the ongoing "Minga Popular" approached the city limits of Ibagué, in the department of Tolima, they were met by a squadron of mounted and special forces police known as ESMAD, as well as the Army, who were given explicit orders by President Alvaro Uribe not to let them into the main highway of the city.

Bogotá, Colombia-The order to keep them out of the city apparently came from President Alvaro Uribe.

As up to 6,000 indigenous protesters participating in the ongoing "Minga Popular" approached the city limits of Ibagué, in the department of Tolima, they were met by a squadron of mounted and special forces police known as ESMAD, as well as the Army, who were given explicit orders not to let them into the main highway of the city.

On Tuesday, President Uribe had said the indigenous protesters should pass right through, but not stay in Ibagué, as a result of the "yellow alert" that had been announced related to the possible eruption of the Machín Volcano. Already some local families had been displaced as a result of the warning, so the government thought the presence of thousands of outsiders would only make matters worse for the local authorities. At least that’s how it was presented publicly.

The leadership of the Minga, however, saw the order as yet another attempt to stifle their long march to Bogotá, a march called to protest the government’s economic development and security policies. The indigenous protesters, joined by union activists and sectors of the peasant movement, resumed their march on Monday in the city of Cali, on the 24th anniversary of the assassination of one of the indigenous movement’s most iconic leaders, Alvaro Ulcué. In actuality, the Minga really kicked off over a month ago, with the mobilization that began in La Maria, Piendamó, in the department of Cauca, on October 12th.

Given the over-the-top show of force the state security forces utilized against the people during the start of the mobilization several weeks back, one could not help but appreciate the frustration and anger expressed by the people as they arrived yesterday in Ibagué, only to be told they could not stay.

"This is yet another example that should be shown to the rest of the world, of the ongoing attacks that we as indigenous communities are facing here," said Luís Evelis Andrade, Chief Council of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, ONIC.

Andrade and others pointed out that theirs was a peaceful protest that, if anything, would show solidarity with the families displaced by the unexpected seismic activity of Machín. There was no legitimate reason to keep them out of the city, other than to sidetrack their message and keep them from talking directly with the people of Ibagué.

ImageA Dialogue with the People

Indeed, one of the main purposes of the Minga is to expand the scope of the popular movement that over the last several weeks has been publicly confronting the Uribe Administration on issues ranging from the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement to human rights abuses carried out by the military as a result of the government’s so-called "Democratic Security Strategy." After meeting with the President in a dramatic public debate on November 2nd in La Maria, Cauca, the communities decided to continue their protest with a national march to the capital, culminating with a massive "Congress of the People" scheduled for November 24th.

Along the way, they will carry out barridos with local communities throughout the country, an ongoing dialogue designed to dispel the myth propagated by the government in the mainstream media, that the indigenous protests are a local phenomenon solely concerned about "returning some lands" to certain native communities in Cauca. Keeping the marchers out of Ibagué would have prevented them from reaching a very important sector of the population.

Nevertheless, after some tense moments at the entrance of town that lasted a little bit over a half hour, it was agreed that the protesters could proceed with their planned march, and make their way to the famous Parque Murillo Toro, where they held a town-hall like meeting with the community. Once there, they articulated the five-point agenda of the Minga, and the need to continue building the mobilization throughout the country.

As they made their way through the streets of Ibagué, the protesters were welcomed with cheers from the people lining the streets. They were later met with messages of solidarity from local and national union leaders, including Pedro Varón, president of the Central Workers Union, CUT, and Carlos Rivas of the Tolima Teacher’s Union, SIMATOL, both of whom acknowledged the important role the indigenous communities were playing in bringing together so many popular sectors in Colombia at this point in time, including women’s organizations, youth groups, the sugar cane workers, and the trade union movement.

U.S. Transition Getting Considerable Attention

The timing of the mobilization coincides with major events that are taking place in Washington with the Presidential transition process. Some activists see this as an opportunity to present the movement’s agenda vis a vis free trade and Plan Colombia, to both national and international public opinion, while, at least for the time being, Colombia is making headlines once again up north.

Earlier in the week, much attention was given in the Colombian media to the high-profile meeting between outgoing President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama, and more specifically, whether or not the two addressed the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement in their private discussions. It was reported in the New York Times that during their meeting, President Bush had placed the bilateral trade deal between Washington and Bogotá as a condition to Obama’s request for an emergency recovery package for the ailing U.S. automobile industry. Later it was denied by both camps that there was a quid pro quo on these issues, although the report left considerable doubt in the minds of both the union and indigenous leadership here in Colombia.

The Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, said on its website the "exchange of favors may not have been discussed explicitly (between Bush and Obama), but no doubt it was a tacit proposal. Impunity in exchange for the US-Colombia FTA. The lives of trade unionists in exchange for the FTA. The lives of 1,200 indians killed over the last six years in exchange for the FTA. We cannot accept that life is traded for a free trade agreement."

Anti-FTA activists in Colombia welcomed the election of Barack Obama, who had spoken against the Colombia trade deal throughout his campaign, including in the last Presidential debate held just three weeks before election day. During the campaign, President Uribe had been extremely critical of Obama, especially after the Illinois Democrat spoke out against the rampant human rights abuses committed against trade union activists in Colombia in an April 2008 speech. On several occasions, Uribe called Obama mis-informed, a tag that Senator John McCain used against Obama on this particular issue during the debate. President Uribe – and McCain – argued that the U.S.-backed "democratic security strategy" led to marked improvements in the everyday work of organized labor in Colombia, a claim that Amnesty International called the President’s relentless denial of his country’s human rights crisis.

In the last week, Uribe has claimed in the Colombian media that he was "totally neutral" with respect to the U.S. elections, although a number of columnists had to remind him that he continuously courted the Republican ticket, hoping for a continuation of Bush’s policies regarding Colombia. He embraced Sen. McCain in the coastal city of Cartagena in July, and met face to face with Sarah Palin at the Colombian mission to the UN in New York when he was there for the General Assembly sessions. Now Uribe is faced with a temporary snub from the Obama team. How long it will last is anybody’s guess.

With Obama in the White House come January, there is considerable hope from Colombia’s popular movement that the focus of U.S. policy towards Colombia will gradually move away from its emphasis on militarization and free trade, and shift towards human rights and social concerns. People are not naive to think it will lead to revolutionary change in policy, remembering that it was a Democratic Administration that pushed through Plan Colombia. Yet there is some degree of optimism, and a general feeling that Obama will be more open to their concerns. In an open letter to the President-elect, ACIN expressed gratitude for Obama’s recognition of the problem facing the trade union movement, but urged him to also consider the violence and aggression committed against indigenous peoples.

"We hope that you will contribute to change all this," they wrote. "We hope that you will listen to our words. … These are the words that we have shared throughout Colombia since October 10th, through the Minga of Resistance, a national mobilization we convened as indigenous peoples, in association with other peoples and processes. We believe that the spirit of change in your people cannot be contained."

The chances of these words being heard and felt by Barack Obama hinge on whether or not the Minga can reach many more people, both here in Colombia and in the U.S. Unfortunately, at least for the time being, their message to the Colombian people is not getting the same media coverage that the protests were receiving several weeks back, when the national police were firing on peaceful protesters in La Maria. Naturally, a non-violent march, even with thousands of people, meeting in permanent assembly with concerned citizens in cities and towns throughout the country, does not have the same dramatic impact that violent confrontations have, at least for the major corporate media. As a result, the Minga’s collective message of resistance is instead being drowned out by, for example, tonight’s Latin Grammy Awards ceremony, where several Colombian artists are up for some big prizes.

This is the banal stuff that Colombian media love to report on, relentlessly.

As for the U.S. public, it’s an even more difficult challenge. Colombia has never been, and is not now, high up on the agenda of policy makers and the corporate media. That said, there is considerable reason to be concerned. Both the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post published editorials in the last few days urging the passage of the US-Colombia FTA. They see it as a matter of U.S. national security, and argue that now is the time to "seal the deal." It is strikingly clear that the urgent cries of the Minga Popular are not even on the radar screen of the shortsighted editorial writers in the U.S.

But the resilience of the thousands of people participating in this historic march is evident nonetheless, and is resonating in many circles within Colombia and outside. The consistent messages of solidarity have been coming in from throughout Latin America, Europe and Canada. The hope is that the movement will keep growing, from Ibagué, where it left this morning, to its next several stops along the way, until it reaches Bogotá next week for the People’s Congress at the footsteps of the Presidential Palace.

And eventually makes untilit makes its presence felt, all the way up to Washington.