Saturday, October 18, 2008

Call for "Territory of Peace and Coexistence"

Report from Mario Murillo on Popular Mobilization in Colombia

At the moment, over 12,000 indigenous and peasant activists, as well as representatives of other social sectors of southern Colombia, including striking sugar cane workers, are urgently congregating in the “Territory of Peace and Coexistence” in La Maria Piendamó, in Cauca, confronting a massive presence of heavily armed special forces units who have been ordered by the government to dislodge them with helicopters, tear gas and automatic weapons.

Latest reports say that over 60 people have been injured in the actions, many of them severely, and at least two indigenous activists have been killed.

The popular mobilization began on October 12th, and was called by the indigenous movement to protest the militarization of their territories by the Colombian Army, with the strategic support of the U.S. They are particularly concerned with the so-called “Strategy to Strengthen Democracy and Social Development (2007-2013),” otherwise known as Plan Colombia II, which would be executed through the President’s own Center for Coordination of Integral Action, or CCAI, supported by the U.S. Embassy and the Southern Command in conjunction with various ministries of the Colombian government.

As I wrote in a previous post, in introducing the project to the Colombian press, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos made it clear that, following on the apparent successes of Uribe’s first term, the next several years would be dedicated to the “final recuperation of those zones where there is a persistent presence of terrorist groups and narco-traffickers.” (“Threats Mount Against Indigenous Social Movements in Northern Cauca,”

The protesters are also strongly opposed to the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and the failure of the government of President Uribe to fulfill several accords with the indigenous communities relating to various issues affecting them, particularly related to return of indigenous lands to the communities.

From the start of this latest mobilization, the protesters have been demanding a face to face with President Uribe, with the objective of expressing their many concerns relating to the government’s policies vis a vis indigenous people. The leaders say only then will they consider ending the mobilization, and eventually lifting their blockade of the Pan American highway. Uribe, meanwhile, says they will not accept any blocking of the highways, and has chosen to meet them head on with the force of the state, not at the negotiating table.The organizations behind the protest have been putting out press releases and public statements for weeks, letting people know what they were protesting about and why, while also denouncing the intervention of all armed actors – legal or illegal – in their territories. In a massive grassroots education campaign, the leadership has organized workshops and teach-ins to explain why the “Life Plans” of the community are under severe threat of extinction from various sources: paramilitary groups linked to large landowners, FARC rebels who intimidate and harass throughout indigenous territory, the government, through its development plans and extensive military presence.

But none of these positions are known or understood by the Colombian people, who are constantly spoon-fed information from government sources with very little space for more comprehensive analysis or reporting.

If the Colombian media stopped focusing so much attention on celebrity gossip and sensationalist crime stories, and paid some attention to the organizing processes in the communities, it would be clear that the unfolding protests around the country, currently at a crisis mode, is not the work of guerillas, but of a people that is fed up with the way things are in the countryside.I was in northern Cauca for a week and left on the day the mobilization began, and one thing is clear: there are a lot of angry people in the indigenous and peasant communities. I also visited with the sugar cane workers on strike in Valle del Cauca, living in makeshift tents and basically starving for the past four weeks since they’ve been on strike.

The mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous workers see the Free Trade Agreement as a direct attack against their interests, already compromised by labor laws passed in 2005 that essentially makes them indentured servants for the giants of Colombia’s sugar industry. These workers are not too happy either, and have blocked the entrances to all the major sugar plantations throughout the south of the country. The sugar cane workers have also joined forces with the indigenous protesters over the last week, blocking the Pan American Highway in the municipality of Candelaria, in Valle del Cauca, on Wednesday.

These are the same workers who, when the strike began, were told by Uribe that “they had a right to protest,” but that “dark forces of the guerillas were forcing them” to carry out the work stoppage.

Many of these same workers told me last week, at the encampment outside the Pichichí sugar plantation in the municipality of Guacarí, that yes, they have been obligated to protest, not by “dark forces” or guerilla infiltration, but by their children, who want a better future for themselves.

As I listened to these words, I only wished that Barack Obama, and anybody up north with a conscience, could have heard them as well.

-From Bogota, Colombia, October 15, 2008 by Mario Murillo
Mario A. Murillo is associate professor of communication at Hofstra University and author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. He is currently living in Colombia, working on a book about the indigenous movement and its uses of community media.

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