Will people power have a chance in Colombia?

Yesterday (April 22), as the attacks on their communities continue to intensify, the indigenous communities of Northern Cauca, specifically Toribio and now Jambalo, convoked an assembly in the main city of the region, Santander de Quilichao. Supporters of the movement came, on very short notice, from different parts of the country, to affirm the indigenous position of autonomy. The Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, in their own communique, summarized the military situation: the FARC have exerted a major effort since April 14, taking over the municipality of Toribio. They took over other nearby towns as well, including Tacueyo (April 19), and Jambalo (April 22). Over the past week, FARC and the Colombian military/police battled in Toribio and elsewhere. The FARC are in the mountains; the Colombian army controls various roads leading up to the communities. The FARC has set blockades of their own. The civilian population, having suffered various deaths (including children) has largely been displaced to centers around Toribio and elsewhere in the region where they have families. Dozens of homes have been destroyed in the fighting. The FARC use their gas pipe bombs, the Colombian military uses aerial bombardment. The hospital was damaged, disrupting health services, and the health organization is overstretched. All agricultural activity has been interrupted.

Colombia’s indigenous peoples have long been invisible in the mainstream media, but these combats have seen reports on Toribio appear all over AP wires and on BBC world. Even the best reports, however, present the story as a battle between the FARC and the government, with the indigenous communities being either the background or the battlefield itself. And while many of the messages of solidarity and support that have come from organizations and individuals of conscience in Colombia and throughout the world describe the urgent humanitarian situation, with over 1800 people displaced, dozens of houses destroyed, dozens injured and several killed, it is very important that the words and message of the communities themselves not be lost.

These are no passive victims. The people of Northern Cauca have a long memory of resistance going back to the warrior La Gaitana who led her people against the Spanish colonizers, to Manuel Quintin Lame who helped them win back their land in the 19th century, to ‘La Violencia’ in which their gains were reversed after 1948, to the land struggles of the 1970s in which they won their land back. There are many who carried arms to fight for autonomy in the 1970s and 1980s, fighting all those who would deny it to them. But in recent years they have become the moral and political guide of the movements in Colombia. In February 2004, they enacted a political judgement against the military for murdering one of their youths. In September of that year they organized a massive march against Uribe’s ‘Democratic Security’ counterinsurgency policy and against the Free Trade Agreement with the US. In March 2005 they organized a popular consultation against the FTA in which participation was unprecedentedly massive at 70% and rejection of FTA was virtually unanimous. Beyond all these actions, and most important, they are administering their own affairs, from the economy to justice, according to their laws and their practices, and using participatory democracy and assemblies to do so. Their ‘guardia indigena’ walk unarmed, with their moral authority symbolized in batons they carry, and resolve conflicts, protect people, and in August 2004, rescued the mayor of Toribio, who had been kidnapped by FARC.

Returning to last week’s attacks, the Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe Velez, arrived the day after the first FARC offensive for just long enough to pour some fuel on the fire. Along with his supporter, the governor of Cauca, Juan Jose Chaux Mosquera, Uribe walked the streets of Toribio under heavy guard. Uribe taunted the guerrillas and accused them of cowardice and terrorism. He promised humanitarian aid. He said ‘the population of Toribio has to decide which side they are on’. Then he took his heavy guard and left. Raul Reyes, the FARC’s spokesperson, replied in an interview to ANNCOL that ‘the government is in a very weak position to give assurances that it has the capacity to force the FARC into retreat.’

The FARC counterattack followed a day after Uribe’s provocation. Uribe was long gone. The humanitarian aid never arrived. But the Defense Minister (also named Uribe) announced the government’s determination: “Government forces will not withdraw from this zone,” he told the AP.

FARC has obviously decided these towns are of great symbolic importance. An AP story quoted a FARC platoon leader saying “We have no plans to leave here,” and that 500 FARC members were involved in the siege. But it is hard to imagine how they could hold the region if the government throws all its weight against it. Ultimately, they will withdraw, after more lives are lost, and the corrosive military presence in this stronghold of indigenous autonomy will be all the greater.

Meanwhile, the population have activated their contingency plans: permanent assembly, to keep the communities together and protected as much as possible, while political pressure is built to get the armed actors out of the region. They will have to contend, in their plans, not only with the utter lack of respect for them on the part of the FARC and the Colombian army’s brutality, but also for all the legal repression by the government, based on phony pretexts. Last year, before the September 2004 march, the government arrested indigenous leader Alcibiades Escue. Like Toribio’s mayor Arquimedes Vitonas, Alcibiades Escue was essentially kidnapped, though several phony legal pretexts were provided by his kidnappers (the Colombian government in this case). Also like Arquimedes Vitonas, Alcibiades was freed by popular mobilization. Today the movement is warning that the National government has already threatened legal actions and prosecutions against the very people who are being attacked and displaced.

Their project is not neutrality or passivity, but autonomy. The military actions and military bluster over their territories drowns out the fact that they have their own ideas and plans for how to live – including how to resolve Colombia’s armed conflict. It starts with respect for civilian populations, with respect, in the words they would use, for life. That means, as a starting point, demilitarization of their region.

Days ago, indigenous movements led the way in Colombia’s neighbour, Ecuador, not very far from Cauca at all, to overthrow a President who was abusive and corrupt. Their struggle is far from over, and they have hard days ahead. But they showed, as Bolivians showed just over a year ago, that popular power is real. The indigenous of Cauca are Colombia’s seeds of that kind of power. Their process is too important to be allowed to be destroyed by those who fear it or hold it in contempt because they can’t understand it.

Justin Podur visited Northern Cauca in February 2004. His photo essay, with much background and interviews on the indigenous movement there, can be found at: http://www.en-camino.org/caucaphotoessay/caucaphotoindex.htm

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.