The 2008 Indigenous and Popular Minga in Colombia: Civil Resistance and Alternative Communication Practices*
The word minga comes from the indigenous Quechua language of the Andean region, and refers to a collective work effort whereby everybody in the community commits all their resources and time to achieve a common objective. A minga can only be carried out after deliberation and consultation with the people; its legitimacy thus emanates from the base. A successful minga requires full consensus; even one detractor can potentially ruin the outcome for the collective. It could be a minga to build a new school, to complete the harvest, or even to find a lost child. The term is thus used deliberately by the indigenous communities of Colombia to describe their popular mobilizations – first, as a nod to ancestral cultural tradition, and second, as a political exhortation to continue working until the overall objectives of the community are achieved.
From October 11 to November 24, 2008, Colombia’s popular movement, spearheaded by the country’s indigenous organizations, carried out an unprecedented six-week mobilization and march to protest President Alvaro Uribe Vélez’s economic development and military/security policies, as well as the ongoing violations of the rights of indigenous people. The minga popular, as it was called, brought together upwards of 40,000 people throughout the process. It began in the southwestern department of Cauca, where Colombia’s indigenous movement first emerged in the early 1970s, but it was a national mobilization that included representatives of the many diverse indigenous communities from every region of the country. They marched for days, northward, first to the city of Cali, Colombia’s third largest, culminating weeks later with a massive rally in front of the national palace in downtown Bogotá.
Along the way, the indigenous movement was dramatically confronted by heavily-armed state security forces as communities blocked the Pan American Highway in an act of civil disobedience (resulting in three deaths and over 120 wounded). The marchers participated in an unprecedented, nationally-televised debate with President Uribe and his ministers on an indigenous reserve in Cauca, and met with dozens of communities throughout the country in town hall meetings and local assemblies, all the while promoting the minga’s five-point agenda of political and social action through their communications media.
The minga popular was described by its leadership as the beginning of a nationwide “conversation with the people,” a popular uprising of sorts, designed to transform Colombian society and politics through coordinated, non-violent mobilization. It received considerable support from the Colombian population, as well as tremendous expressions of international solidarity. One of the keys to the success of the six-week mobilization was the indigenous community’s strategic use of communication technology, which, combined with its traditional communication practices of grassroots assemblies and public consultations, was able to convey an alternative (people’s) narrative about their broader struggle to the Colombian people.
This was done despite problematic coverage of the minga on the part of the corporate media, coverage that regularly provided the government a platform to justify its actions and policies vis-à-vis the communities. This paper examines the trajectory of the minga, with a focus on the multi-tiered communication practices of the indigenous movement, particularly of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN), one of the leading organizations of the broader national movement. Juxtaposing a small sample of mainstream media coverage with the community’s responses presented through their own community media, we see how communication became one of the most important tools in keeping the movement unified during a very long and difficult protest action, while at the same time galvanizing broader Colombian public opinion.
Background on the 2008 Minga
Although it was the continuation of a longer process of organizing and protest that stretches back to 2004, the latest chapter of the popular and indigenous minga began on October 11, 2008 as the violence and the threats against the movement increased in several parts of the country. In August 2008, the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and its regional organization ACIN received disturbing threats via email that were reminiscent of the terror campaigns waged for years by right-wing paramilitaries in the Colombian countryside. One message, received on August 11, was signed by the previously unknown Campesinos Embejucados del Cauca, or Furious Peasants of Cauca (CEC). The seven-page missive criticized the indigenous movement’s ongoing land recuperation campaign in the department, claiming, without providing any evidence, that the effort was being spearheaded by “former CRIC leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC,” the country’s largest and oldest left-wing guerrilla organization. This accusation was consistent with the almost constant declarations in recent years of government officials, from the President on down, which link members of the indigenous leadership with “dark forces,” “subversion,” or “terrorism,” coded ways of saying FARC guerrillas. The e-mail missive announced forthcoming assassinations in the community, stating: “Don’t be surprised when … [you] are found dead and a significant number of your members have disappeared.… We want Popayán, Cali and Bogotá free of Indians because that is where their … greatest concentrations of leaders are.” Just as troubling was the hateful tone of the letter, which referred to the Nasa people as Pa-Heces, meaning feces, a racist play on the Spanish name for the community, Páez.
With this and other subsequent threats, it appeared that a new stage of violence was beginning to unfold against indigenous leaders. By mid-2008, what was taking place in Cauca and throughout Colombia was a return to the strategies carried out by the right in the 1970s and early 1980s, when dramatic indigenous land seizures were directly challenging the authority of large landowners, the Catholic Church, and the military and political establishment. Back then, the repression was much more overt and fierce – death squads killed off members of the community by the dozens, while the police established a revolving door of detentions for the movement’s most visible leaders. Now the approach was different, with unknown or not easily identifiable sources carrying out the threats and the subsequent violence.
Almost immediately after receiving the threats in August, CRIC and ACIN saw them carried out. Within the next two months, eight Nasa people were killed by gunmen in different parts of the department, while several other indigenous activists and their collaborators had to go into hiding, some forced into exile abroad. Indeed, the community remained on high alert for several weeks leading up to the start of the popular minga in early October.
As in the past, the primary struggle remained focused on the issue of land and territory. It is what some analysts describe as the “de-territorialization” of the indigenous movement, in terms of permanently altering the dynamics within indigenous territory by displacing and expelling the people from their ancestral lands, which are then opened up for development by non-indigenous actors. One of the most dramatic contemporary examples of this violent, strategic displacement was the Nilo Massacre of 1991.
From the Nilo Massacre to the Minga’s five demands
On December 16, 1991, 20 indigenous people from the Huellas-Caloto community, including five women and four children, were murdered as they met to discuss a struggle over land rights in the estate of El Nilo in northern Cauca. Some 60 hooded gunmen stormed into the building where the community was meeting and opened fire. Initial news reports endorsed by the government indicated that the gunmen were drug traffickers who had been seizing land in the region to grow opium poppies. The official story was a simplistic account that was easy to convey to a public already used to the horrific violence of the drug trade. So the early news reports served as a way to further demonize drug violence in the eyes of Colombian public opinion, while minimizing any alternative narrative that might have exposed the systemic abuses directed at indigenous people by vested interests in the department of Cauca.
As a result of the work of the indigenous communities and their allies in the human rights sector, it soon became apparent that the masterminds of the massacre were not simply narco-traffickers operating outside of the law. The killings had followed a relentless pattern of harassment and threats against the Huellas community by gunmen loyal to local landowners who were disputing the indigenous community’s claim to ownership of the land. In many ways, it was a massacre foretold. After years of investigations by human rights attorneys, and independent prosecutors within the Colombian justice system, as well as demands for justice by family members of the victims, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was presented with documentary evidence of the involvement of members of the National Police, both before and during the horrific events. They were working hand in hand with wealthy landowners with ties to the drug trade, who were not comfortable with the organizing and mobilizing capacity of CRIC and the local communities. The nefarious yet profound links between “legitimate” actors such as the police and traditional landowners in Cauca, and “illegal” actors profiting from the drug trade, were finally exposed for what they were. Clearly, the 1991 massacre was a response to the fact that the indigenous movement was not only getting in the way of these entrenched interests, but directly challenging their legitimacy.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Colombian state should return almost 16,000 hectares of land as part of the reparation to victims of the massacre. In 1998, after years of foot-dragging from the Executive branch, President Ernesto Samper acknowledged the responsibility of state actors in the massacre, and on behalf of the Colombian state, apologized to the families of the victims. He also made promises to the victims’ relatives and to the communities. In 1999, he signed an agreement with CRIC to implement the recommendations of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in the matter of Justice and Individual and Collective Reparations, including the court-mandated return of the 16,000 hectares of land.
To this day, less than half of the land has been returned to any of the victims’ family members, despite repeated promises from various governments. As in other parts of the country, the issue of recuperation of indigenous lands in the department of Cauca continues to be a major point of contention between the government and the indigenous movement, and has sparked repeated mobilizations by the community in the last 18 years. This fight over land has also led to an aggressive backlash directed at the leadership from all sides in the conflict who are seeking territorial control within indigenous reserves – government forces, right-wing paramilitaries, and left-wing guerrillas, particularly FARC.
The minga’s organizers made the government’s fulfillment of its pledges to the community one of its five main rallying points, which were:
1. Opposition to the Free Trade Agreements between Colombia and the US, Canada and Europe, seeing them as part of a problematic economic development model that did not respect the rights and concerns of indigenous communities;
2. An end to legislation such as the Forestry Laws and the new Mining Code, pushed through the Colombian Congress by the Uribe-backed majority, measures that the indigenous movement describe as “laws of displacement” that “destroy and deny rights and freedoms,” and that reversed many of the gains won by the indigenous movement in the 1991 Constitution;
3. An end to the militarization of indigenous territory and to the expansion of the government’s “war on terror” under the guise of Uribe’s “democratic security strategy,” funded primarily through the US Plan Colombia;
4. Respect and application of international and national agreements relating to indigenous rights, such as the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Worldwide, as well as the return of indigenous lands promised in previous agreements with the government such as that related to the Nilo massacre;
5. An open call, not just for indigenous peoples, but to all sectors, to construct jointly a “new society.”
This agenda was made clear from the start of the mobilization in the movement’s daily communiqués, on its websites, and over the airwaves of its many community radio stations. The agenda was also discussed publicly in the countless community gatherings throughout northern Cauca, in their self-described “sweeps” or barridos. Yet not surprisingly, the specific points being proposed by the indigenous movement were completely absent from the major media’s initial coverage of the first two weeks of the protest. Reports on RCN and Caracol television (the largest networks in Colombia) stressed the return of indigenous lands as the reason for the mass mobilization. This incomplete coverage made it appear that the minga was primarily an “indigenist” mobilization with a limited agenda, one that could be resolved simply by returning small parcels of land to the communities in Cauca, without addressing some of the other, more structural concerns that covered a broad cross-section of Colombian society.
Undoubtedly, the agenda was ambitious in its breadth. This made it difficult from the start to convey the message clearly through the mainstream media. Nevertheless, armed with these five points and the traditional staffs of authority in hand, the mingueros set out to carry out their public conversation with the entire nation, or at least those they could actually reach, either physically, in their meetings and assemblies, or virtually, on the radio and in the internet. The communities marched throughout the country, carrying out a dialogue about their agenda, and their concerns about the direction of the Uribe government.
Media representations of the Minga
Six days into the Indigenous and Popular Mobilizations in Cauca (and the rest of Colombia), the propaganda war between the indigenous movement and the government was well underway. And in this first phase of the minga, the government of Alvaro Uribe took the upper hand. This initial phase of the mobilization began when the indigenous communities started arriving in the indigenous reserve of La Maria, in the municipality of Piendamó, in central Cauca on October 11, and continued until they began the march towards Cali several days later. The communities maintained control of the Pan American Highway for 36 hours during this period, but the security forces’ tough response broke the indigenous resistance. President Uribe was determined to take back the highway by force, arguing that the blockade was a violent action, not civil disobedience.
The indigenous base insisted on this form of resistance – that is, the physical blockade of the highway as an act of civil disobedience – because they wanted to draw the urgent attention of the government through the mass media. Nevertheless, after a period of reflection and strategic analysis through their traditional assemblies and their own media channels, the communities recognized that any form of perceived violence would ultimately play into the hands of the government, which could isolate the communities from the rest of civil society by accusing them of being “agents of armed subversion.” For this reason, they decided to march toward Cali and carry out a different approach in the protest and their communication with the nation.
In this first phase, the President held several high profile news conferences stating that they had “clear evidence” that the mass popular protest in Cauca was being controlled by the FARC. The Commander of the National Police, General Óscar Naranjo, stated unequivocally that the Sixth Front of the FARC was behind the disturbances that developed on the indigenous reserve of La Maria, adjacent to the portion of the Pan American Highway that the communities had decided to block. And at the Palacio Nariño, the Minister of Social Protection, Diego Palacio, stated, with a straight face, “the government continues to respect social protest and mobilization, as long as it is for civil causes,” adding that the indigenous mobilizations of the previous few days contain the presence of “destabilizing forces.”
These official statements began echoing throughout the mainstream media in the first several days of the minga. During this period, the government’s claims about what was happening in the indigenous protests were among the top stories in the front page of El Tiempo and other major national and regional newspapers. It had become conventional wisdom, with every story tracked in El Tiempo, El Espectador and El Colombiano, the three largest newspapers in Colombia, from October 12 to 16, citing violence sparked by the indigenous movement. It allowed the Uribe Administration to set the agenda, present its arguments to domestic journalists with indignation and authority, and come off as the victim once again. The indigenous movement’s demands for justice were set aside as they faced off against the Colombian Army and Police in La Maria, their leaders forced to deny the charges directed against them by those in authority. The official projections had become the media’s frame.
The clearest example of this unbalanced perspective can be seen in a random sample of 25 news articles and dispatches from October 17, 2008, on the websites of RCN, Caracol, El Tiempo, El Liberal and Noticias Uno (the first three being the media of record in the country, with a massive reach that is unchallenged, the latter two representing a local newspaper from southern Colombia, and an independent national news channel that provides some of the most comprehensive investigative reporting in all of Colombia). What was most telling in these news outlets was the wide array of sources that were cited providing the government’s perspective, and the very few that were cited providing that of the indigenous movement. President Uribe, General Naranjo, Minister Palacio, as well as the director of the DAS, Colombia’s equivalent of the FBI, María del Pilar Hurtado, were quoted repeatedly throughout the sample, stating again and again how they have exposed this nefarious plan to topple the Uribe government, manifested in both the sugar cane workers’ strike that was simultaneously occurring in southern Colombia, and the indigenous protests. Hurtado was quoted in one report in El Tiempo saying that “the cane workers’ strike in Valle del Cauca and Cauca involved the participation of foreigners who were looking to destabilize the government,” without providing any names or other evidence. Accusations about the FARC’s role in the indigenous protests appeared in 19 of the 25 articles I collected from this one day, with at least 10 not even presenting the indigenous community’s response.1 No doubt, the government’s message was getting out through its communication channels.
On the other hand, the sources used from the indigenous movement were very limited. The one voice that was heard/quoted again and again was that of Daniel Piñacué, a Nasa leader from Belalcázar, in Tierradentro, Cauca, who has a long history in the indigenous movement, but who was not one of the principal organizers of the mobilization. He was quoted in several of the articles in this small sample, stating that “the mobilization will continue,” and that “we will continue to respect the authorities, while they provoke us.” On several occasions he denied the accusations about FARC infiltration in the movement, but only after the case was already made by several of the above-mentioned government officials. On several reports from RCN Radio, the correspondent had included the voice of Daniel Piñacué’s brother, Jesús, one of the most visible indigenous personalities in the country, having served in the Colombian Senate for several terms. Only in one report, notably on Noticias UNO, did a voice representing the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, come through in the coverage, a significant oversight given that ACIN was one of the main organizations behind the protest. They and CRIC, the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, had been putting out communiqués and reports for weeks about the march, and had been calling on the government to meet with them to publicly discuss their demands, but to no avail. So on the one hand, you had repeated government accusations directed against the indigenous movement from various official sources, while on the other, you had the response from two well-known brothers who, while having a long history with the movement, were not directly involved in the protests.
Meanwhile, the entire narrative contained within the initial press coverage of the minga remained stuck on the battles unfolding on the Pan American highway, and who was to blame for the violence. Television images did show the army and police using gunfire to disperse the protesters, thereby refuting the government’s claims that no live fire had been used on the protesters. But this was only after CNN’s Karl Penhaul broadcast footage provided to him from an indigenous cameraman on a hand-held portable camera. Commanders on the ground were given top priority, presented as the voice of reason against a horde of indigenous protesters running wild.
The coverage was fundamentally about the violence, while the underlying reasons for the mobilization were disregarded. The demands of the popular movement were made completely irrelevant. It is hard to imagine that the media workers covering this story could not have been aware of the issues the communities were raising through their protests, but in some of the coverage the ignorance came across loud and clear. For example, in one report in El Tiempo, which to its credit was about the International Federation of Human Rights’ criticism of Uribe’s handling of the protests, the author states: “The Indians initiated the encounter last week in commemoration of 516 years since the discovery of America, what they call the displacement.” Nowhere in the piece, or in any other articles I had tracked in this preliminary sample up to this point, were the five points being put forth by the indigenous movement mentioned, even in passing.
The movement, however, did not remain silent, and consistently pushed its point of view through its own media channels. In CRIC’s missive about the state of the “Minga Popular” released on October 16, their arguments attempted to contextualize the constant accusations that FARC was behind the indigenous movement’s actions. In their missive, they state:
Let us be clear: If there are Indians involved in the insurgency, or any other armed group, it is a personal decision of theirs that goes against our organizational and community process.
This clarification went completely unmentioned in the news sample mentioned above, leaving the news consumer with a choice between countless government sources stating FARC and CRIC/ACIN had direct links to one another, and two “leaders” denying the accusations.
From the start of the minga, the communiqués and the actions of the movement took a position of autonomy vis-à-vis the guerrillas. The ACIN and CRIC publicly denounced FARC for its incursions into its territories. Nevertheless, the Uribe government continued to make the unsubstantiated link in an attempt to avoid any dialogue with the communities, and to justify the heavy-handed military approach to dislodging them from the Pan American Highway. The reasons for the protests, which are based on a profound critique, not only of the current government but of the entire system, were not elaborated on in the media coverage.
The Five Points through the government’s lens
The first time any news report actually mentioned the minga’s five-point agenda was after the government acknowledged that such an agenda existed. This acknowledgment was made inevitable by the leadership’s decision to end the blockade of the Pan American Highway and begin their long march to Cali. Just before the indigenous and peasant communities were about to kick off their northbound trek, the Minister of Agriculture, Andrés Felipe Arias, finally recognized the five points, in the name of the national government, specifically addressing the fourth point about respecting international and national treaties and previously agreed upon accords relating to indigenous territory. For some observers, Arias’s statement that the government was “looking into ways of returning lands” to certain communities in Cauca was seen as a step forward considering the harsh response of the previous week. However, once again, it was limited in its scope, calling the issue an “indigenous” matter, relating only to the question of land.
Furthermore, while on the one hand, the government claimed it was willing to resolve this problem, arguing that it would "buy some lands" and return them to the communities, they continued with their harsh accusations and confrontational tone. That same day, the Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, pointed out in another news conference that the indigenous protesters were the violent ones who were “firing on Colombian special police forces” during the previous week's confrontations on the Pan American highway. The picture one got from the reportage at that point was that the government was willing to give in to the protesters’ demands for the return of land despite the protesters’ use of violence and their apparent intransigence.
This issue was cautiously addressed by the communications team of ACIN, in a statement released on October 21, when it was becoming clear that the government was beginning to change the subject and gain political points by distorting the main points of the protests. The ACIN stated:
It is clear that our struggle… includes the issue of lands, which is transcendental for indigenous people. But we reiterate… that we are not only demanding that the government comply with agreements… relating solely to the issue of lands; the issue of land is not a problem exclusive to the indigenous people, nor is it something that relates only to the department of Cauca.
The ACIN also reiterated its opposition to the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which they described as “a fundamental component of our agenda of mobilization, and that must be addressed.” Addressing media coverage of the unfolding events, ACIN denounced “the irresponsible management of these important issues by both the government and the commercial mass media” and called for “a highly conscientious mobilization of a broad cross section of sectors” in response.
The second phase of the minga, therefore, began with the long march toward Cali. After several days of marching and meetings, the minga arrived in Cali, where a public meeting had been scheduled between the leaders of the march and the President to discuss the demands of the community. There was considerable disagreement within the leadership as to how to carry out the event, because many indigenous activists were concerned that it would become one of Uribe’s famous “community councils.” The community councils are weekly, public gatherings that the Uribe Administration has orchestrated in every municipality in the country since taking office in 2002. At these highly mediated, staged events, the President lines up with several ministers to answer concerns and questions from the community, presenting an image to the country of a tireless worker who is always in touch with the people. Many analysts have attributed Uribe’s favorable approval ratings to these public relations efforts. So a meeting with the President, while on the surface potentially beneficial to the minga, also could have been used against them if it were not arranged carefully.
When the indigenous movement had originally decided to march, the primary idea was to call on the entire population to participate and to hold events in every town and city that they would pass through – in essence, to have a conversation with the people. For example, part of their plan was to link the march to the struggle of the sugar cane workers, who at the time were approaching two months of a dramatic work stoppage in southern Colombia. A meeting with Uribe, solely for the sake of a meeting, would not have served the longer-term purpose of a key part of the indigenous leadership, and most likely would have ended the minga. It is important to note that many different sectors were participating in the minga from the very beginning, including peasant farmer organizations from southern Cauca, the cane workers, and a number of other indigenous delegations from other departments, including regional organizations from Valle, Risaralda, Caldas, Chocó, Nariño, Córdoba and Magdalena, coordinated by the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, ONIC.
The problem with the event scheduled for October 26 was that the President insisted on meeting with a small group of leaders at the studios of a local television station, not out in the open, in public, as the community had demanded. So after arriving in Cali to a triumphant welcome by many of the city’s residents, upwards of 40,000 people were gathered at the campus of the University of el Valle, waiting in vain for the President to arrive. What was supposed to be the beginning of a long-term, open dialogue about the five main points on the community’s agenda did not take place, although five hours later, the president and his entourage did show up, surrounded by security and dozens of television cameras. Things quickly fell apart. Uribe’s impromptu appearance at the site turned into a short-lived photo-op for the President. Indeed, the most lasting image of the encounter in Cali was President Uribe, surrounded by his security detail and some ministers, standing on a pedestrian walk bridge overlooking where the communities had gathered hours earlier, using a megaphone to shout at the fading crowd, who yelled back at him in a moment of high tension, if not rousing street theater.
Not surprisingly, that night and throughout the next day, in countless media reports, the primary perspective people received was that of a disrespectful and out of control indigenous crowd screaming hateful statements at a victimized president, who came all the way from Bogotá to meet with them. Despite acting and appearing very un-presidential in this episode, losing his temper at the angry crowd while taunting them through the megaphone, Uribe gained a significant public relations victory, as an apparently savvy head of state. The indigenous movement was presented as not serious about dialogue, and as disrespectful to the President. That the President had arrived several hours late to the public gathering after the indigenous leadership refused to meet with him behind closed doors was nowhere evident in the coverage. The drumbeat of criticism against the movement became more intense than it had been during the earlier confrontations on the Pan American Highway. For the next week, despite the minga’s continuation, it received practically no coverage from the mainstream media. It was as if the minga was over, at least in the public’s mind. It was not until the following week, when the community and the President finally did meet in an unprecedented debate “on equal terms” at La Maria, that the cameras began rolling once again.
The public debate
The November 1 public debate was an extraordinary event in many ways, exceeding the expectations of the approximately 4,000 indigenous and community participants from throughout the region, who began arriving the day before in the midst of a driving rain. The setting was surreal from the start, as hundreds of disciplined indigenous guard, decked out in their red and green bandanas and carrying their staffs of authority, walked past almost as many uniformed, M-16-bearing members of the National Police, there to provide security for the President. The people attending the debate sat through over six hours of dramatic discussion between the leaders of the mobilization and the President and some of his cabinet ministers, the profound differences in their respective worldviews readily apparent from the start.
President Alvaro Uribe’s opening remarks, uttered in a calm, hushed tone, were nonetheless defiant in nature, including a reprimand to the community for not having sung the words of the Colombian National Anthem during the opening ceremony, while standing up and singing with pride their anthems of the Guardia Indígena and of the Nasa people, known as “The Children of Cauca.” In response, Aida Quilcué, Chief Counsel of CRIC and a national representative of the minga, reminded the President that roughly three weeks earlier, as the communities were being confronted by Special Forces Police in that very location, the officers “tore down our flag, the flag of the CRIC, and burned it.” “Is that a sign of respect of our people,” she asked the President? “This, to me, is a sign of the discrimination, the hate, the rancor, the heartless inhumanity that we have faced as a people for so long in this country.”
The guidelines for the debate were agreed upon by the leaders of the minga and the government, and were designed to allow ample time to discuss the five main points on the minga agenda: human rights and the government’s “democratic security strategy”; Free Trade Agreements with the United States and other countries; counter-reform measures and legislation passed by the Congress in recent years that directly impact indigenous rights and their territories; the fulfillment of past accords with the government related to return of indigenous lands; and finally, the need to address these issues in a comprehensive fashion that takes into account not only the indigenous people of Cauca, but other indigenous communities on a national level, as well as many other social sectors impacted by the government’s policies.
Prior to the debate, there was some concern expressed by people attending that the event was potentially a strategic mistake on the part of the leadership, allowing the president to hold one of his well-known community councils on indigenous territory. To present this to the nation as the ultimate achievement of three weeks of mobilizing would have been to negate all the efforts and sacrifices of thousands of people, and all the coalition building that was behind the minga. There was considerable disagreement between the indigenous leadership and the government on just about every issue discussed in the debate, and the people were expressing their discomfort in their body language and their comments throughout the day. The rank and file seemed to be very clear that the struggle of the minga was not about a limited negotiation with the government, but about creating a long-term, democratic, non-violent movement for social change.
Tied to their anger and unrest was their ongoing critique of the way the mainstream news media were covering the mobilization, and of what appeared to be deliberate distortions of the positions of the popular movement, and the responses from the government. There was a massive presence of media at the November 1 debate, from the smallest community media outlets in the country to RCN and Caracol. As a result, many different storylines emerged. However, once again, the one that most consistently came across was the narrow perspective of the government. For example, in the main story about the debate with the president, published in El Espectador the next morning, the first thing the author pointed out – from a meeting that lasted just over six hours – is how Uribe responded to one heckler in the audience, who in his outrage over the president’s refusal to remove the armed forces from La Maria, screamed out an insult at the head of state. El Espectador quoted Uribe saying “Man, don’t offend me, send me arguments.” The assumption one can make from this is that there were no arguments emanating from the indigenous movement.
Unfortunately, the rest of the report in El Espectador did not include any of the well-established arguments of the communities, and did not cite even one person from the community. It also failed to mention that the heckler who screamed out in righteous anger at the president was immediately removed from the audience by about ten members of the indigenous guard, who were given strict orders not to allow this kind of behavior to muddle the content of the movement’s message. The article closes with the quote from President Uribe saying: “With the help of God, we will get to that dialogue with great respect, we will listen to each other with great respect, we will give our reasons with respect to find the best solutions for the country.” Once again, Uribe came across as the reasonable one, while the indigenous spokespersons were strident and intransigent.
Colombian media traditions
A lot has been written about how the commercial mass information and cultural industries continue to perpetuate profound myths about Colombian democracy and society. This is done on several levels, most prominently in the way reporters, editors, commentators and the like accept the institutional definitions provided by official sources to frame the so-called fringes of society. For generations, this marginalization has also been manifest in the way state institutions have limited the spaces in which these dissenting community voices may be heard, although precisely because of the years of organizing around media and democracy, this latter approach has been become less effective. Colombia, despite its very fragile democratic institutions, has a long tradition of community-based media projects that consistently challenge the corporate media.
The indigenous communities have their own media channels, and utilized them extensively as the minga continued to unfold. There are 26 indigenous radio stations around the country licensed as public interest broadcasters, plus a constellation of other smaller, low-power stations broadcasting to local indigenous communities. In the department of Cauca, the indigenous media are perhaps the most effective and well organized, particularly that of the ACIN, whose communication network includes one public interest station in Santander de Quilichao, two community stations – one in Toribio and the other in Jambaló – a smaller, low-power station in Canoas, plus a video production team and an elaborate website (http://nasaacin.org/). The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, ONIC, also has its own website, which includes a virtual radio station, Achi Bedea, which throughout the minga streamed the voices of indigenous activists from every region of the country for a national and international audience. These and other indigenous media outlets are linked to the broader network of national, alternative media, such as IndyMedia-Colombia, SICO, SIPAZ, La Red de Prensa Alternativa del Sur del País, among many others. In many respects, these alternative community media channels were successful in gathering support on an international level, and getting NGOs and other human rights groups to pay attention to the progress of the minga, the difficulties they were facing as a result of confrontations with the government forces, and the specifics of their political agenda.
The bigger question is whether or not the indigenous community and alternative radio stations, the websites and independent media networks in Colombia can counteract the damaging effects of the mainstream media’s overwhelming tendency to give an unfiltered voice to the official authorities, especially on radio and on television news. It is part of a pattern that has gone on for many years in the Colombian news media that is not easy to break, even with the growing use of these community channels. The consistent practice of the commercial mass media has been to either ignore the communities by making them invisible, clump them all together in a process of homogenization, or present them as nothing more than passive actors, the poor, defenseless victims of an unjust system – “el pobre indio.” There is also the more benevolent yet equally harmful tendency to celebrate their exotic-ness, embracing the apparent novelty of their different forms of dressing, their spiritual and healing practices, or their internal justice system, without really understanding the significance of each. Meanwhile, when the communities take matters into their own hands in acts of massive protest and mobilization, as they did with the minga, the dominant media usually represent these steps as acts of criminality, emphasizing their propensity to break the law – block highways, occupy territory “illegally,” etc. – as a way to address their grievances. The unsubstantiated association with “dark forces of terror,” meaning the FARC guerrillas, becomes the accepted message that is very difficult to refute. The deliberate intent of the government is to discredit the leadership’s claims of non-violent protest action by linking them to what Colombian public opinion has understood to be the most violent actors in the country.
The recent backlash against indigenous organizations that has been on the upswing under Uribe has made it much more difficult for the movement to put forward its message of social transformation through peaceful means, especially through mainstream channels. This is connected to the fact that, with very few exceptions, the Colombian mass media rarely if ever depict the complex organizational structures of indigenous communities, characterized by deliberative consensus-building, grassroots participation, and leadership accountability. These faulty patterns of media coverage leave the audience with the perennial question, why would people behave like this if they can employ the legitimate instruments of the democratic system to promote their interests and seek redress from the dominant society? I’ve heard it repeated by many people in Colombia, even those one would normally consider to be enlightened: “Those Indians are always looking for trouble, and they constantly want more.”
Furthermore, by shifting the focus of its public discourse about the minga to the singular issue of returning indigenous lands back to some communities in Cauca, Uribe’s government won political points by demonstrating to Colombian public opinion that he was interested in resolving the “Indian problem.” At the same time, Uribe discounted the broader social and political platform that was the basis of the mobilization, and the important connections that the leaders were making with other sectors. Yes, the minga was spearheaded by the national indigenous movement, but it was representative of many other social actors not content with the way things are in the country, including the trade union movement, public sector workers, Colombian agricultural sectors like the cane cutters and other peasant farmers, the student movement, and even many parts of the independent political opposition. Indeed, as the minga made its way through the country, key figures of the Polo Democrático Alternativo, the main left opposition party, made it a point to associate themselves with the mandate that had been established by the tens of thousands of participants in the weeks-long protest. One of the most surreal images of the massive rally in Bolívar Plaza on November 21 was the mayor of Bogotá, Samuel Moreno, a moderate member of the PDA, standing on the main stage in his impeccably tailored business suit, surrounded by a disciplined contingent of indigenous guard, welcoming the mingueros to the capital.
The mainstream media’s misrepresentations and distortions should not be surprising, given the institutional structures that have for decades characterized the Colombian media, structures specifically put in place by very powerful private and state interests who are naturally threatened by the kinds of issues being raised by the communities and their allies in the popular movement.
The Minga Continues
The success of the indigenous movement’s media channels, and their ability to counteract the official messages that emanate from the corporate media is always dependent on their traditional communication strategies, and the extent to which they can connect to many different, non-indigenous people who may not necessarily be a part of the movement. In other words, had they not carried out the constant “barridos,” or sweeps in the community, and held dozens of assemblies and town hall-like meetings in every town, university, union hall, or public plaza they passed through during the six-week minga, their message would have been drowned out even further. That “conversation with the people” through traditional means continues today, even after the mass rally in Bogotá. As they stated in their communiqués throughout the end of 2008, “the minga is not one event or one protest, but a process that must be nurtured, and must grow.”
Nevertheless, what happened in those six weeks in October and November of last year was a multifaceted web of non-violent action and civic engagement that we have simply not seen in Colombia before. In the process, the minga garnered considerable solidarity from abroad, primarily through their websites, with messages of support coming from throughout Latin America, North America and Europe. They were able to mobilize their own communities over such a long period of time through their consistent coverage on their many radio stations throughout the country. And they were warmly received by large and small crowds in communities, towns and cities along their march primarily because of their relentless commitment to maintaining a face-to-face, ongoing dialogue with the people. This is the essence of their communication action process, one that they have been practicing for generations, and represents perhaps the most important organizational aspect of the movement.
The tens of thousands of people who participated in the minga, the countless others they represent back home in their communities, and the many sectors they locked arms with along the way – from workers to poor peasant farmers, to victims of state-sponsored political violence – stand in the way of the powerful entrenched interests that make up the Colombian system. It is why some observers described the minga’s moral legitimacy as more of a threat to the current regime than the guerrillas, who, through their violent actions and attacks on civilians, have become caricatures of their revolutionary past, giving the regime a perfect excuse to continue in its unrepentant militarization. The indigenous movement is complex, multifaceted, and by no means homogenous, although it generally shares an ancestral vision of the need to protect Mother Earth through projects based on principles of sustainable development and community participation. They perceive the government’s development strategies as counter to these interests, a vision shared by many other marginalized sectors of Colombian society. As I have tried to show, they carry out their resistance through a dynamic process of grassroots communication, keeping in mind the differences of perspectives that make up the collective will.
We should note that there were some important members of the indigenous leadership who felt that the objectives of the minga should have been driven by indigenous issues and concerns. These leaders disagreed with the call for a broad-based struggle along common lines with other sectors. However, as the march moved on, this singular indigenist perspective was drowned out by the larger five-point agenda, a consensus based on ongoing consultation with the base communities. The difficult decision to march all the way to Bogotá after almost four weeks of arduous mobilizing was the primary example of this consensus that emerged from the ground up. The dramatic handshake and pledge of cooperation between Feliciano Valencia, a member of CRIC’s council of chiefs and one of the most visible spokespersons of the minga, and the president of the Central Workers Union, CUT, Narcisso Mora, at the rally in Bogotá’s Bolívar Plaza was an unprecedented message to the nation that the indigenous movement was not acting alone in its resistance to the neo-liberal economic model and the security strategy of the Uribe regime and its supporters in Washington.
*Initially presented at the International Political Science Association Conference Santiago, Chile, July 14-17, 2009.
1. At one point, as I was going through these many news articles, I had Caracol Radio turned on, and over a period of about two hours, the same correspondent reporting from the Presidential Press conference came on at least four times, with dramatic soundbites from the President and Minister Palacio.