No one can ignore tens of thousands of people marching, disciplined and peaceful, along 60 miles of highway in the middle of a country at war. When large numbers of people are organized enough to pull off such a mobilization, not even media outlets skilled in the arts of pro-government distortion and omission can help but pay attention. And the government listens up too.
From September 14-16 about 60,000 people marched along the Panamerican Highway in southwestern Colombia demanding respect for their autonomy and protesting President Alvaro Uribe Velez’s economic and security policies. Led by regional and national indigenous organizations, the march also included peasant farmers, Afro-Colombians, union members and students.
When indigenous Nasas in the southwestern province of Cauca expelled a unit of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas from their town in 2002, the Bogot· daily El Tiempo heralded the resistance as an example of civilian support for the government’s counterinsurgency policies. The newspaper, Colombia’s largest, ignored the Nasas when they explained that they defend their autonomy against any threat, whether from guerrillas, paramilitaries or government forces (See “Resistance is Allegiance,”. Indigenous groups like the Nasas are accustomed to such distortions.
But this time Colombian media paid better attention. Leading the way were El Tiempo and El Pais, the biggest newspaper of Cali, the march’s destination. Both papers began reporting on the protest several days before its 60,000 participants had taken a single step. Opinion pieces and daily reports continued throughout the march and the following weekend, spilling into coverage of the September 21 release of Alcibiades Escue Musicue, a Nasa leader jailed on bogus rebellion charges 19 days earlier. Indigenous leaders threatened further marches to secure his release.
On September 17, El Pais explained the three principle complaints behind the march: attacks by the various armed actors, an effort by Uribe’s government to alter Constitutional recognition of indigenous territorial rights, and the government’s efforts to negotiate international trade treaties that will leave indigenous people with few protections against multinational corporate plunder.
In a September 14 house editorial, El Tiempo chastised the government for shutting down a Nasa radio station, warned against further censorship of indigenous opposition to Uribe, and warned officials not to ignore the march: “Let’s hope this protest’s significance doesn’t fall on deaf ears.”
Some newspaper reports even delved into history. El Tiempo on September 17 relayed a lesson from Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC) leader Climaco Alvarez about the unarmed indigenous guards that kept order during the march. In 1535, he explained, a woman named La Gaitana organized the first such guards as she led area resistance to Spanish conquest.
(Coverage by foreign outlets was not nearly as extensive, but the march did receive a story or two each from the BBC, Reuters, the Associated Press and the Spanish news service EFE.)
Government officials, like media, began to pay a lot more attention than usual to indigenous people. President Uribe even flew to the southwestern Colombian city of Popay·n on September 10 to try to intimidate the march’s leaders into calling it off.
How have the indigenous organizations become so strong that they strike fear in the hard-line president’s heart and secure decent coverage from pro-Uribe newspapers? Through organizing, organizing and organizing, according to the September 17 El Pais article: “analysts and the community leaders themselves say [the march] demonstrates the level of organization and commitment to their cause achieved over more than 30 years of continuous work.”
Uribe’s principal fear seemed to be that the marchers would seize the Panamerican Highway, blocking traffic on the region’s most important commercial route. In November 1999 a coalition of peasant farmer, indigenous and union organizations took control of the highway for over three weeks, demanding improved healthcare, infrastructure and education for the impoverished region. After the more than 40,000 protestors resisted attempts by the Armed Forces and police to violently dislodge them, the government found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to negotiate with civilians who were not only disrupting commerce but also increasingly popular on a national level, after television news broadcast footage of government violence against them.
The source of these groups’ strength can be discerned, perhaps, in a line from the September 14 communique sent out by the Colombian National Indigenous Organization (ONIC), the Northern Cauca Indigenous Councils Association (ACIN), and the CRIC, inaugurating the recent march: “We do not speak for the government to hear; we talk to the people.”
As El Pais and other papers reported, the indigenous organizations put this principle into practice during the march by deploying a number of “community communicators,” operators of small mobile radio stations. These stations broadcast messages from marchers to the members of their communities who remained at home. And they kept international supporters of the march informed via Internet links to the broadcasts. One communicator, whose picture appeared in a number of papers, set up a transmitter and antenna on an adapted tandem bicycle.
It may seem paradoxical that this community-level focus is what produced a national political force demanding the media’s respect and Uribe’s worry. But how else can people build such power?
“We already know how [the State] operates and who it serves,” the ONIC, ACIN and CRIC explained in the September 14 communique (developing an argument that can be applied to media as much as the government). “What we need now,” they continued, “is to build popular mechanisms for sovereignty and resistance. For that, we the people need to come together.”
PHILLIP CRYAN writes the Media column for Colombia Week. This essay was adapted from a recent Colombia Week column. In 2002 and 2003, Cryan did human rights work in Colombia. Next year Common Courage Press will publish News From the Southern Front, a book he is writing about the impacts of recent U.S. intervention in the country. He lives in Ames, Iowa, and can be reached at: email@example.com