Inter Press Service | 23 October 2008
COLOMBIA: Uribe Agrees to Talks with Indigenous Protesters
By Constanza Vieira*
BOGOTA, Oct 23 (IPS) — "The police did fire" on indigenous protesters, said Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who yielded to pressure to meet next Sunday with the leaders of a two-week-long demonstration by native groups.
On Wednesday night, the rightwing president acknowledged an incident that was videotaped by protesters in the La María indigenous reservation in the southwestern province of Cauca and broadcast by the U.S. cable news network CNN. The video shows a masked, uniformed police officer shooting in the direction of the demonstrators.
But with respect to the three indigenous people killed since the protests began on Oct. 12 — one on Oct. 14 and two on Oct. 21 — Uribe maintained that they weren’t shot by the security forces, but were killed by explosives used by "the terrorists," as he refers to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, who he accuses of infiltrating the peaceful demonstration.
National police chief General Óscar Naranjo, meanwhile, said that "up to 700 police" have been deployed against the protesters, although last week he said the police numbered 1,000.
Naranjo identified the police sniper by name, and said he opened fire because "250 indigenous people" were throwing explosives from a nearby ditch.
The indigenous movement roundly rejects allegations that participants in the demonstration have used explosives.
On Thursday evening, Uribe personally called the cell-phone of one of the leaders of the demonstration, named the National Minga of Indigenous and Popular Resistance ("minga" is a traditional indigenous meeting for the collective good), Daniel Piñacué, to inform the organisers that he would meet with them Sunday in Cali.
Although the thousands of demonstrators have already made half of the 98-km trek northwards from La María to Cali, the capital of the province of Valle del Cauca, Uribe had originally scheduled his Sunday meeting with the leaders at 9:00 AM in Popayán, the capital of the neighbouring province of Cauca, 130 km south of Cali.
The Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) had responded earlier Thursday to Uribe’s initial agreement to talks by protesting in an open letter that the meeting with the indigenous community leaders should not take place far away from the rest of the people participating in the Minga.
The leaders are also insisting that the talks take the form of a public debate, and that the agenda include the questions of human rights, an end to attacks on indigenous communities and occupation of their territory, the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a repeal of laws that threaten indigenous reservations and thus the very survival of native groups, and compliance with previous agreements signed with social organisations and movements.
ALONG THE WAY
An assembly of 115 traditional indigenous leaders, presided over by local Guambiana council member Ayda Quilcué, was held Wednesday in Santander de Quilichao in Cauca province, 60 km from Cali, to organise food and water supplies for the roughly 30,000 men and women now taking part in the Minga.
The protesters took the assembly’s advice to rest up and regain their strength, under improvised tents in the midday heat, and amidst smoke from cooking fires and the aroma of food.
They were also waiting for the arrival of another 6,000 to 7,000 members of the Awá, Pasto, Pijao, Embera-Katío, Embera-Dovida, Embera-Chamí, Zenú, Kankuamo, Wayúu, U’wa, Barí, Mokaza, Quillacinga, Kamentzá, Tule, Muisca, Sikuani, Coreguaje, Sáliba and Inga native ethnic groups from 20 of Colombia’s 32 departments (provinces).
Although entire family groups are taking part — grandparents, parents, siblings, uncles, aunts and cousins — children, who did participate in a similar Minga march to Cali four years ago, are noticeably absent this time around.
"The harsh clashes with the security forces that occurred over the last two weeks in La María led to our decision that they should not take part, so they have returned home," one father told IPS.
Welcomed by applause from local residents, the Minga participants filed into the town of Villa Rica at noon Thursday. In the afternoon, the march was joined by sugar cane cutters who have been on strike since Sept. 15 demanding basic rights like stable job contracts, a living wage, and sick days.
Four leaders of the cane harvesters’ strike have been arrested, as well as two well-known advisers of leftwing Senator Alexander López, who is chairman of the Senate human rights commission.
In June, López called a public hearing in the Senate on the harsh working and living conditions of the sugar cane workers. A month earlier, Uribe had suggested that he be arrested for "inciting class struggle." The president made his suggestion to a general whose alleged ties to a local drug trafficker emerged in September.
A column of indigenous women taking part in the Minga was joined before reaching Villa Rica by two women’s peace groups, the Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres (Women’s Peace Route) and the Organización Femenina Popular (Popular Women’s Organisation, OFP).
The Minga participants are listening to local residents at every village and town along the way, and explaining what they are demanding of the Uribe administration, such as respect for the "territorial integrity and collective and human rights of indigenous people," which they say are violated because their natural resource-rich lands are coveted by transnational corporations, landowners and other economic interests, and are fought over by the armed groups in the country’s decades-long civil war.
They are also calling for the repeal of constitutional reforms and laws that they say infringe on their rights, like the rural statute, the mining code, water laws and the forestry law.
The Minga has now added to its demands a public clearing of their name by the president, who has called them "terrorists" and has urged that their leaders be arrested and brought to trial.
The police have accused the Quilcué Council of ties to the guerrillas, and Uribe ordered the trial of Nasa leader Piñacué, indigenous governor of the Calderas reservation and director of the Nasa de Belalcázar radio station in Cauca.
"It’s obvious that President Uribe has it out for our people, and is vociferating against us in the media, offering rewards, militarising our territories, and accusing our leaders," said a statement issued by the CRIC.
Uribe’s acknowledgement that the police had opened fire on the demonstrators was prompted by the video broadcast around the world. But why did he agree to the protesters’ demand for talks?
On Thursday, public employees and other sectors took part in a 24-hour strike called by the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) central workers union. And truckers, whose work stoppage in August caused severe economic problems, joined the Minga Wednesday and announced that they would also take part in Thursday’s strike.
Since Monday, Uribe has also been receiving thousands of emails calling on him to engage in "Dialogue, Not Violence!" — an Internet campaign by Avaaz.org, an international global online advocacy network.
He also received strongly-worded letters Wednesday from Argentine Nobel Peace Prize-winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and 32 members of the European Parliament (MEPs), at a time when the Colombian government is hoping for a free trade agreement with the European Union.
The signatories included the vice president of that body, Italian lawmaker Luisa Morgantini, and members of the DAND Delegation, which is handling relations with the Andean Community trade bloc, made up of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
The MEPs from 13 different countries expressed "deep indignation about these serious violations of indigenous and trade unionists’ rights that should not go unpunished.
"We consider as legitimate the claims of the indigenous people for the respect of their land and autonomy, for the survival of their 102 different peoples, of which 18 are in constant danger of disappearance, and for the indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources. Likewise we recognise the legitimate claims of the sugar cane workers for decent work," they added.
"We urge the Colombian government to order the police and army to immediately stop the repression against the indigenous peoples’ and workers’ movement," said the MEPs, who also condemned "the permanent use of the pretext of fighting against terrorism to repress the social movement in Colombia."
For his part, Pérez Esquivel said the police crackdown on the Minga was "brutal and inconceivable," and criticised Uribe’s "lack of propensity to engage in dialogue."
"To say there are infiltrators in the demonstrations and that they are attacking the police is of a naïvete that is hard to believe," he added in his letter.
"In these demonstrations, indigenous people are merely demanding respect for their right to their land, respect for the autonomy of their communities, and fulfillment of agreements signed with the government," said Pérez Esquivel. * With additional on-site reporting by Judith Henríquez Acuña.