No End in Sight: Indigenous and Popular Minga Continues, Debate with Colombian President Stalls

Three weeks ago yesterday, the Indigenous and Popular Mobilization began with a five point agenda of action directed towards the government and the entire nation. Now, after dramatic protests that included the blockade of the Pan American Highway, clashes with heavily armed state security forcesresulting in one indigenous activist killed and over 120 wounded, and a long, arduous march to the city of Cali, the Minga Popular continues, one day after the highly anticipated debate with President Alvaro Uribe. Profound Contradictions Between Government and Indigenous Movement Evident in Sunday’s Historic Encounter

La Maria, Piendamó, Cauca, Colombia-Three weeks ago yesterday, the Indigenous and Popular Mobilization or Minga Popular, began in the indigenous reserve of La Maria, Piendamó, in the department of Cauca with a five point agenda of action directed towards the government and the entire nation.

And now, after dramatic protests that included the blockade of the Pan American Highway, clashes with heavily armed state security forces resulting in one indigenous activist killed and over 120 wounded, and a long, arduous march to the city of Cali, the Minga Popular continues, one day after the highly anticipated debate with President Alvaro Uribe, which was held on Sunday, not coincidentally, in the same location where it started, the indigenous resguardo of La Maria, known by the community as the "Territory of Peace and Coexistence."

The open, public debate was an extraordinary event in many ways, exceeding the expectations of the over 3,000 indigenous and community participants from throughout the region, who began arriving on Saturday in the midst of a consistent, driving rain. The setting was surreal from the start, as hundreds of disciplined indigenous guard, decked out in their red and green bandanas, staffs of authority in hand, walked past almost as many uniformed, M-16 bearing members of the National Police, there to provide security for the President. This was but one of many clashes of perspectives that were evident on Sunday, and that perhaps is at the heart of the Minga’s ongoing call to action.

The people attending the debate sat through over six hours of dramatic discussion between the leaders of the mobilization and the President and some of his cabinet ministers, the profound differences in their respective worldviews readily apparent from the start.

President Alvaro Uribe’s opening remarks, uttered in a calm, hushed tone, were nonetheless defiant in nature, including a mild reprimand to the community for not having sang the words of the Colombian National Anthem during the opening ceremony, while standing up and singing with pride their anthems of the Guardia Indígena and of the Nasa people, known as "The Children of Cauca."

"I have to express my concern with the fact that some of you did not stand to the National Anthem. It seems to me we should respect the anthems of all the people, and this is something that preoccupies me considerably," he said at the outset, in a sense setting the tone of the entire event.

In response, Aida Quilcué, the Chief Counsel of the Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca, CRIC, and one of the national representatives of the Minga Popular, reminded the President that over two weeks ago, when they were being confronted by Special Forces Police in that very location, the officers "tore down our flag, the flag of the CRIC, and burned it."

Image"Is that a sign of respect of our people," she asked the President? "This, to me, is a sign of the discrimination, the hate, the rancor, the heartless inhumanity that we have faced as a people for so long in this country."

The guidelines for the debate were agreed upon by the leaders of the Minga and the government on Saturday, and were designed to allow ample time to discuss the five main points on the agenda of the Minga: human rights and the government’s "democratic security strategy"; Free Trade Agreements with the United States and other countries; counter-reform measures and legislation passed by the Congress in recent years that directly impact indigenous rights and their territories; the fulfillment of past accords with the government related to return of indigenous lands; and finally, the need to address these issues in a comprehensive fashion that not only takes into account the indigenous people of Cauca, but other indigenous communities on a national level, as well as many other social sectors marginalized by the neo-liberal economic policies adopted by the government.

Indeed, the last point was among the major concerns expressed to me by many of the people who began gathering at La Maria prior to the start of the event: whether or not one sector of the indigenous leadership was willing to let the debate with the President – and an eventual negotiation on a narrow platform based on the return of some indigenous territory – be the end all of the Popular Minga.

After weeks of mobilizing and marching throughout southern Colombia, in conjunction with various other sectors including the striking Sugar Cane cutters, campesinos and the women’s movement, some leaders thought it would be a lost opportunity not to continue the march and mobilization as a strategy to build a broad-based popular movement on a national level.

The popular opinion seemed to have won out in the end, when, as the darkness settled over the mountains of Cauca, and a steady drizzle continued to dampen the assembly site, Aida Quilcué stated, and then asked of the people gathered: "The President of the Republic did not give us a clear, concrete political response to any of our concerns today. So should the Minga continue?"

The overwhelming response from the energized crowd was a rousing "Si!" So it will continue.

The mood leading up to Sunday’s gathering could have best been described as extremely tense and uncertain. Precisely because of the President’s uncanny ability to deliberately manipulate statistics and change the subject, and the mainstream media’s consistent willingness to play along, there was growing concern that the debate was a strategic mistake on the part of the leadership, allowing the president to hold one of his now infamous community councils on indigenous territory. These are the highly stage-managed public forums where Uribe and his ministers set the agenda and make it appear as if the people’s voices are actually being heard. The weekly consejo comunitarios, held in municipalities throughout the country, are one of the key ingredients to President Uribe’s popularity in terms of mainstream public opinion polls. To present this to the nation as the ultimate achievement of three weeks of mobilizing would have been to negate all the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of people, and all the coalition building that was behind the minga.

There was also considerable disillusionment expressed by many people attending the event when it became apparent that the National Police were controlling the entire process of security, superceding the authority of the indigenous guard, who were forced to walk through a rigorous frisk detail at the entrance of the outdoor assembly hall. The indigenous governor of the cabildo of La Maria, the Guambiano Elides Pechiné, told me over coffee and fried bread on Sunday morning, "One of the reasons we wanted to meet here was that this is indigenous territory, where the indigenous authority must be respected. How autonomous can we be if we have all these armed police taking over the security instead of the guardia indígena?"

Despite these reservations, Feliciano Valencia, member of the council of chiefs of CRIC, and one of the movement’s most articulate spokespersons, made it clear from the start in his intervention that the debate was not the end, but just a part of the ongoing process of popular mobilization that will now go all the way to Bogotá, as the indigenous movement of Colombia advances its dialogue with the nation, across many social sectors, about the need for fundamental social transformation.

"Today’s event is not one of President Uribe’s orchestrated community councils, nor is it a negotiation over a few points, in order to push us aside as if everything is okay after a few hours of talking," Valencia told me moments before his initial intervention. "This gathering is part of a much larger process that began well before October 12th, and will last until we begin to make a profound change in the neo-liberal model that has devastated our communities, and those of many other sectors."

Valencia addressed the growing human rights crisis in the country, the recent wave of assassinations over the last few months in indigenous communities, and the manner in which it is connected to the larger impact of President Uribe’s Democratic Security Strategy.

"When we talk about human rights, we’re talking about it at every level, not only the direct violence against us, but the entire democratic security policy of the government, the militarization of our territories, the laws that have been passed designed to displace us and rob us of our lands," he said.

As expected, President Uribe restated the merits of his security policies, not only in Cauca, but on a national level. Rolling out the commander of the National Police as one of his hand puppets, he said security had improved considerably in Cauca since becoming President, arguing that before 2002 "there was a 90% chance that you would get kidnapped by the terrorists of the FARC if you drove between Popayán and Cali on the Pan American Highway."

In addressing the community’s well-documented charges about excessive use of violence by government forces, made before the audience by a CRIC lawyer with videotape images of the October 12-15th clashes where Police fired at protesters, the President continued to insist that the taking over of the Pan American Highway was an act of violence, "and that the government will not tolerate the blockade of any roadways while I am President." On several occasions, he referred to the "violence that was being planned from La Maria," as justification for the Police’s actions.

The issue of the presence of Colombian Army and Police on indigenous territories continues to be one of the biggest problems for the communities, who consistently argue that this ongoing militarization is a violation of the autonomy of indigenous authority. The leadership also points to the systematic abuse that occurs as a result, either by the government forces themselves, or by other armed actors in their territories, such as paramilitary groups or the guerillas of FARC. They point to seven indigenous activists killed in Northern Cauca alone since August.

But President Uribe made it clear that under his administration, the state security forces will be welcome anytime, anywhere on the national territory.

"I don’t agree with this idea that in some parts of the country we can prohibit the entrance of the public force, including on indigenous territory," he said.

He kept referring to the "bandits of the FARC," and the damage they have caused to the entire country, making it necessary for the government "to continue to pursue them until we win this war." Yet he did not apologize, nor retract the many statements he and several other officials have made on repeated occasions linking the indigenous protesters and its leadership to the guerillas. Despite claiming to "respect the dignity of all indigenous people," he insisted that there "was evidence that these delinquents were manipulating the situation and promoting violence" within indigenous territory.

In addressing Valencia’s denunciations relating to the Colombian military’s use of "false positives" – that is, civilians being executed by soldiers and later dressed as guerillas to increase the numbers of "combat deaths" – Uribe responded by taking a few pot shots at international human rights workers such as Jose Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of Human Rights Watch – Americas.

"Here in Colombia, we don’t need those international allies of FARC to teach us about Human rights. Mr. Vivanco is not a professor of human rights to tell us how we should carry out human rights. This is a democratic country with a democratic government," he stated emphatically. Interesting that this verbal "false positive" against Vivanco is the same kind of language he has used repeatedly against human rights workers in Colombia, as well as the indigenous and popular movement.

Aida Quilcué reprimanded him, saying: "Stop talking about these bandits as if we’re bandits, we’re talking about our people here, and we’re demanding the respect for our rights."

The community was visibly unsettled. The people who gathered on Sunday in La Maria are a small portion of the 40,000 people who marched their way to Cali last week, profoundly unhappy not only with the government’s economic and security policies, but with its prevailing attitude in the face of this popular discontent, which many participants described to me as arrogant and intransigent, notwithstanding the willingness of the President to meet face to face in this "debate."

There is considerable disagreement on just about every issue discussed in the debate, and the people were expressing in their body language and their comments throughout the day. They are very clear that the struggle is not about a limited negotiation with the government, but about creating a movement of resistance.

Which is why the minga will now move on for the next several weeks. Where it will lead is still unclear.

Tied to this anger and unrest is the ongoing critique about the way the mainstream news media continue to present the story that is unfolding here, the positions of the popular movement, and the responses from the government. There was a massive presence of media at Sunday’s debate, from the smallest community media to RCN and Caracol. No doubt, many different storylines are available with such a diverse showing of media present. However, the most consistent one that comes across is the narrow perspective of the government.

For example, in today’s main story about the debate with the president, published in El Espectador website this morning, the first thing the author points out – out of a meeting that lasted just over six hours – is how Uribe responded to one heckler in the audience, who in his outrage over the president’s refusal to remove the public forces from La Maria, screamed out an insult at the head of state. El Tiempo quoted Uribe saying "Man, don’t offend me, send me arguments." The assumption one can make from this is that there are no arguments.

Unfortunately, the rest of the report in El Tiempo did not include any of the well-established arguments of the communities, and did not cite even one person from the community in the entire article. It also failed to mention that the heckler who screamed out in righteous anger at the president was immediately removed from the audience by about ten members of the indigenous guard, who were given strict command not to allow this kind of behavior to muddle the content of the movement’s message. The article closes with the quote from President Uribe saying: "With the help of God, we will get to that dialogue with great respect, we will listen to each other with great respect, we will give our reasons with respect to find the best solutions for the country."

Another day in the false representations of the indigenous community.

Over the next several days, the leadership will go back to their communities and discuss what steps need to be taken next in a process of evaluation and consent. The idea that is being kicked around right now is to conduct a comprehensive campaign of consciousness-raising throughout the country that would include forums, workshops, debates and discussion at the grassroots level, across different sectors, about the nature of the minga. Already, student groups, women’s organizations, and union activists are preparing to hold such meetings with their constituents, following the lead of some of the most disciplined indigenous activists in the country, who will continue to do the same with their base, here in Cauca and other regions of Colombia.

As ACIN’s communiqué about the debate stated: "This time, the spectacle could not hide the truth, nor silence the voice of the people. The Minga continues."

With these words, the people enthusiastically get ready for the next stop, most likely a People’s Congress, scheduled in downtown Bogotá within the next few weeks.

Mario A. Murillo is associate professor of Communication at Hofstra University in New York, and the author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. He is currently living in Colombia, finishing a book about the indigenous movement and its uses of community media.