Last week I reported in Counterpunch on a recent effort by the Colombian government to suppress the vibrant social movement in the southwest Colombian province of Cauca. In particular, I focused on the recent detentions of trade union and campesino (peasant farmer) movement leader Miguel Fernandez and Nasa indigenous leader José Vicente Otero Chate.
It has been a busy week since then, on both sides of the struggle…….
José Vicente and Miguel
On Friday November 4, over 400 people gathered outside the DAS (Administrative Security Department) headquarters in the city of Popayán to protest the illegal detention there of Miguel Fernandez. That same day, Colombian and U.S. authorities began to receive a steady stream of messages from people concerned about Miguel and José Vicente. On Monday November 7th, a group of trade unionists and other concerned citizens, including City Councilor Félix Arroyo, demanded the two leaders’ release at the Colombian Consulate in Boston.
During a second demonstration at the DAS headquarters in Popayán on the night of Tuesday November 8th, Miguel was freed. A campesino movement leader and close friend of Miguel describes the scene when Miguel emerged from the building and walked towards the demonstrators: “The joy was tremendous. Some started to applaud, others shouted chants; the embraces began immediately. Tears of elation ran, confusing themselves together with the rain that was falling.”
But the joy felt that night by our brothers and sisters in Cauca, sweet and refreshing as it was, was also short-lived. The following day they learned that Miguel had only been released conditionally, that the charges against him have not been dropped. So the persecution of this trade union and campesino movement leader — on the absurd grounds that he invented death threats against himself and his family — continues.
José Vicente Otero’s plight is more complicated, and his incarceration — his “political kidnapping,” as the social organizations have decided to refer to it — has gone on for over a month. The charges against him have changed since he was arrested. Initially, José Vicente was charged with being a leader of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrilla group. When his lawyers were able to dismantle that lie in court, José Vicente was charged with weapons possession. Neighbors say they watched as military and DAS personnel planted weapons during their search of José Vicente’s home in April.
Land occupations and the current situation in Cauca
Cauca’s indigenous, campesino, Afro-Colombian, and trade unionist organizations see the persecution of these two important leaders as just the tip of the iceberg. They see these attacks as an attempt to frighten, divide, and silence their social movement, which for many years has been a guiding light for all Colombians who seek peace and justice. Most recently, the social movement has been focused on supporting a massive action by the Nasa indigenous peoples in the municipality of Caloto to regain land that is rightfully theirs.
For one month — since October 12 — hundreds of indigenous people have occupied an hacienda (estate) in Caloto, seeking a dialogue with the Colombian government on agreements reached between the government and Cauca’s indigenous groups six years ago, which the government has failed to fulfill. These agreements were made formal in the federal government’s Decree 982, regarding “the social and economic emergency of Cauca’s indigenous communities.” The indigenous peoples have made it clear that they use this land occupation as a last resort after years of government refusal to honor the agreements or even enter dialogue with the indigenous organizations.
The government has responded to their peaceful action with massive, violent force.
Over forty people have been wounded by police attempts to dislodge them. On Wednesday November 9, Rodrigo Vargas Becerra, a human rights defender who witnessed the police’s violent actions, was arrested. He was accused of carrying explosives, a charge witnesses call ridiculous.
Then, when over 500 police descended on the hacienda on the morning of Thursday November 10, the attack killed Belisario Camayo Guetoto, an 18 year old indigenous man.
The Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) offered a list of the things Belisario died in pursuit of, the things they have occupied the hacienda and resisted violent attacks to achieve, including this:
He simply wanted us, with the example of his dignity, to move from the passive discourse of demanding our rights to taking action to make them a reality. History has taught us that rights are not granted, but won through struggle.
Today, the siege continues. The indigenous ‘squatters’ — an oxymoron, but you get what I mean — have not budged, but they expect further and more intense attempts to dislodge them in coming days. They also anticipate more arrests of the leaders of their organizations, and those of Afro-Colombian, trade union, and campesino groups, as the government campaign to frighten, divide and silence them moves forward. For the occupants of the hacienda, the situation is likely to get a lot more difficult before it gets better. And a lot is riding on the success or failure of their struggle. A campesino leader from central Cauca explained the overall situation simply: “What happens to the indigenous people [in Caloto] will affect all of our organizations, and ultimately the whole country.”
What does all this have to do with u.s.?
The U.S. has provided over $4 billion in ‘aid’ to Colombia since 2000, over 80% of it to Colombia’s military and police. This makes Colombia far and away the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside the Middle East, with the largest U.S. Embassy in the world now in Bogotá (that is, if you agree that the U.S. installation in Baghdad is not an embassy). Continued U.S. financial support for the Colombian military and police — whose collaboration with brutal right-wing paramilitaries has been documented not only by human rights groups and journalists but also, extensively, by the U.S. State Department — sends human rights violators in Colombia a very clear message: if they seek to wipe out the social movement judicially or physically, if they work with paramilitaries and even get caught at it, there’s no reason to worry. The U.S. aid won’t stop flowing.
In the shadow of this bond between the Colombian government and the U.S., there’s some leverage for people to use: if you saw the news from Cauca last week and sent a quick message to Colombian and U.S. authorities, then it’s likely you contributed to Miguel’s release from custody. Further messages — just short, simple expressions of your concern, demonstrations that you’re watching — sent now can have a positive impact on his life and the lives of other persecuted leaders in Cauca, and on the survival and longevity of their organizations’ and communities’ struggle for life, land and dignity.
Please write to U.S. Ambassador William Wood (AmbassadorB@state.gov) and Human Rights Officer Laura Kirkpatrick (firstname.lastname@example.org), asking them to:
a. Ensure that the Colombian authorities investigate the charges against José Vicente Otero, Miguel Fernandez and Rodrigo Vargas Becerra; drop the charges if there is no basis for them; and release José Vicente and Rodrigo from jail.
b. Ask the Colombian government to respect the property rights of indigenous peoples, especially in Caloto, Cauca, and ensure that no U.S. military aid is used to violently suppress peaceful land occupations and protests.
And write to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Vélez (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, Fax (57) 1-566-2071) and the Governor of Cauca, Juan José Chaux Mosquera (Fax (57) 2-824-3597), asking them to:
a. Fulfill commitments made to Cauca’s indigenous groups, especially those contained in Decree 982 regarding the “social and economic emergency of Cauca’s indigenous communities.”
b. Accept the indigenous, campesino, Afro-Colombian and trade union groups’ invitation to dialogue, rather than responding to their initiatives — such as the indigenous reclaiming of land in Caloto — with violence.
c. Drop charges against José Vicente Otero, Rodrigo Vargas Becerra and Miguel Fernandez, and release the first two from detention.
Please 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: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
It’s remarkable how much these kinds of messages can mean to the folks who give the orders — to arrest, threaten, murder, torture — in Colombia and other countries whose people bear the brunt of our bad government’s violence. It’s important that we put to use the leverage we have, because doing so can have real effects on protecting the lives of people our world desperately needs alive.
But what’s most important, for our own sake and also for the sake of the brave souls resisting injustice at the risk of their own lives in Cauca and so many other beautiful places in our world, is that we heed the Nasa’s call, and Belisario’s example: “to move from the passive discourse of demanding our rights” — or demanding protection of the rights of others — to taking the necessary steps to make justice and fairness and basic human decency real, here, now. In Colombia and everywhere else, the effects of such a change in U.S. society would be felt immediately. For, just as the Nasa have found to be the case for Colombia, a thorough search of U.S. history yields not a single case of rights beneficently granted, and a great many cases — though sadly few in recent years — of real progress won through struggle.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.