The southwest Colombian province of Cauca has a long and celebrated history of popular resistance to injustice and violence. In a country where decades of war have torn apart the social fabric, breeding a deep (and prudent) fear of involvement in anything political — because such involvement so often gets people killed — the communities of Cauca have not only continued to stand up against exploitation and attacks, but to do so with force and unity, in enormous numbers.
It is a beautiful, life-affirming place.
Led by a five-centuries-old indigenous resistance, the social movement in Cauca is exceptionally well organized. Campesinos (peasant farmers), Afro-Colombian groups, and trade unions routinely join their “elder brothers and sisters” — as they often refer to Cauca’s indigenous groups — in multi-day marches along the Pan-American Highway, or occupations of it, involving tens of thousand of people, standing up for life and dignified conditions of living. In September 2004, about 60,000 marched three days along the highway demanding respect for their autonomy and protesting President Alvaro Uribe Velez’s economic and security policies.
On a number of occasions over recent years, when Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas have kidnapped indigenous leaders, the Nasa — Cauca’s largest indigenous group — have sent a few hundred people after them into the mountains, unarmed except for their bastones de mando (authority sticks), and persuaded the FARC to hand over those they had kidnapped. Last month, a tightly knit coalition of indigenous, campesino, Afro-Colombian and union organizations launched a campaign to reclaim stolen lands and demand land reform — in a country where 0.4% of the population now controls over half the agricultural land — calling the effort “Liberation of Mother Earth.”
This kind of resistance has its costs and consequences. Nearly every time Cauca’s indigenous organizations announce a new march or “Mobilization” (the name they use for long-term occupations of the highway), Colombia’s usually unflappable rightist president gets on TV and radio to plead with them to call it off. When they go ahead with their plans anyway, military and government officials call them guerrillas, sanctioning paramilitary attacks. When the police attempt to dislodge them, there are always many wounded, and often a few killed — as happened just a couple weeks ago when indigenous squatters refused to budge from land they had reclaimed.
And there are other risks. Word arrived yesterday that two of the movement’s most visible leaders have been jailed.
The latest attempt to silence resistance
José Vicente Otero Chate, a Nasa indigenous leader and former mayor of the municipality of Caldono, was detained back on October 6. And Miguel Alberto Fernández Orozco, President of the CUT (United Workers’ Central)-Cauca and leader of the campesino (peasant farmer) organization CIMA, was detained on Tuesday, November 1. The indigenous, campesino, Afro-Colombian and labor sectors of the social movement see the detentions as an attack not just on two individuals but on the entire process of organization and resistance in Cauca.
José Vicente was instrumental in carrying out a popular consultation in Cauca this past March on the Andean Free Trade Agreement currently under negotiation between the U.S. and Andean governments. The outcome, unsurprisingly, was that the vast majority opposes the so-called “free trade” deal and sees it as a direct threat to their food security. Two months after the consultation, José Vicente’s home was raided by members of the Colombian Army, who planted weapons inside, then accused him of terrorism. He was arrested on October 6.
Miguel, the trade union and campesino movement leader, has received a series of death threats in recent years. In 2004, he spent several months in exile in Massachusetts, as part of the (now defunct) State Department-funded AFL-CIO Solidarity Center protection program for threatened Colombian unionists. Since returning to Cauca, he has received renewed death threats against himself and his family on at least two occasions. The most recent came on Monday October 17, when the Agro-environmental Association of San Pablo, in neighboring Nariño province, received a pamphlet signed by the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the primary paramilitary federation). The pamphlet stated that CIMA, an organization Miguel helps direct, and a sister campesino organization in Nariño “are led by terrorists and leftist thugs.” It advises the organizations “to remain neutral in your thoughts, and not use your organizations to conduct intelligence work or destabilize the region. We are watching every step you take.”
Miguel is the best kind of leader. His clarity of thought, generosity of heart, and simple strength of will and ability are such as to make a person — despite it all — proud, again, to a member of the species “man.” Hopeful again for a sane and decent future.
The charges brought against Miguel are something else. They would be hilarious if the situation weren’t so deadly serious. If initial reports are correct, Miguel’s arrest represents a new level of Orwellian absurdity for Colombia’s “justice” system.
Everyone thought the height of absurdity had been reached already, when, a couple years ago, the “authorities” started charging people who had the bravery to still speak publicly about the collaboration between paramilitaries and the Armed Forces — a simple fact known to everyone in Colombia’s countryside, but one that people are prudently cautious about uttering publicly, after seeing many who did so have to flee town and finding the bodies of others mutilated in nearby rivers — with “calumny” and “slander,” for soiling the good name of Colombia’s military and police.
Then, just this year, Uribe pushed the bar even further: he named the law providing his paramilitary allies with political legitimacy, legalization of their stolen lands and fortunes, and what amounts to a blanket pardon for countless, unspeakably gruesome crimes against humanity — wait for it — “The Justice and Peace Law.” It was a rich linguistic coup on so many levels, there isn’t space to even scratch the surface here.
The point, however, is that with Miguel they may have pushed it a step further still. Miguel appears to have been arrested on the accusation — by anonymous informants — that he fabricated the death threats against himself and his family. That there were in fact no threats made against him, that he made them up. In other words, this time the charge appears to be that he soiled the good name of the paramilitaries.
It’s hard to believe, often, how critical a role a flood of messages sent to Colombian and U.S. authorities by people in the U.S. can play in securing release in a situation like this. What’s more, it tells those who are going after José Vicente and Miguel that future attempts to silence the popular movement will be met with similar international scrutiny and condemnation, and that then plays into their “cost-benefit analysis” when contemplating jailing or threatening or murdering or torturing another of our courageous elder brothers and sisters.
Please ask the U.S. Ambassador in Colombia to investigate these cases and to pressure Colombian authorities for the immediate release of José Vicente and Miguel if it is found that there is no evidence against them. A short and simple message does the trick. Please send it to:
U.S. Ambassador William Wood: AmbassadorB@state.gov
And copy (“Cc.”):
Please also copy (“Cc.”) the following addresses on the e-mails you send, so that Cauca’s social organizations will know what communications the government authorities are receiving: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the action alert CIMA sent with this news, they closed with the following dateline:
Popayán, in times of dignity and resistance, November 2005
May our times be so, too.
PHILLIP CRYAN lives in Ames, Iowa, and spent 2002 and 2003 doing human rights work in Colombia. He is writing a book about U.S. policy in Colombia, and popular resistance to it, for Common Courage Press. In July 2006 he will help lead a Witness for Peace delegation of labor activists to Colombia — for more information, visit http://www.witnessforpeace.org or contact Phillip at email@example.com.