Colombia’s Double Realities: Threats Against Indigenous Communities Ignored as Calls for a Second Re-election of President Uribe Get Louder

September 12, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

The second re-election of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is one step closer to becoming a reality now that the National Registry has received the petitions containing over five million signatures in support of a constitutional amendment that would allow for yet another term for the hard-line president. The re-election measure must be approved by the legislature, and its future is still uncertain. Meanwhile, President Uribe is remaining silent on the issue, resisting the temptation to campaign openly for what would amount to 12 years of uninterrupted rule in the Palacio Nariño. The truth is, he doesn’t have to speak out on the issue. There are plenty of other high profile figures in the Colombian political establishment that are doing the work for him, both within Colombia and abroad. Meanwhile, these backers of President Uribe, while touting the Colombian leader’s successes, ignore the human rights reality on the ground, particularly with regard to indigenous communities.

Among Uribe’s loyal campaigners is José Obdulio Gaviria, a close advisor and supporter of the president, whose controversial comments about Colombian human rights defenders, the internal conflict and displaced communities have generally gone unnoticed by a media system permanently fixated on the successes of Uribe’s Democratic Security Strategy. On July 29, in a room within the National Press Building in Washington during a recent visit to the United States, Gaviria discussed the current state of affairs in Colombia in front of a group of 30-40 businessmen, academics and journalists, describing the current political juncture as a “post-conflict period,” where the problems of the guerillas and paramilitaries “have been overcome completely.” As he has done on other occasions, his provocative speech laid out a utopian vision of Colombian national affairs, while denouncing everybody who may have a different take on his version of reality.

Gaviria called the problem of displacement a “fictitious creation” of enemies of Colombia “involved in an international propaganda campaign” to discredit the security gains of the Uribe government. “We don’t have internally displaced people, we have migration,” he said with no hint of irony. “Those people left for the large cities and live there like migrants, much like the middle and upper classes who have moved to other countries.”

He said similar things about the ongoing problem of assassinations of trade unionists in Colombia, where this year alone 22 union members have been killed. From Gaviria’s standpoint, these reports are all false because human rights groups describe “anybody dead who happens to have a union card in their pocket” as a political assassination.

According to Gaviria, the right wing paramilitaries no longer exist. He discounted reports that a new generation of illegal militias has emerged in the wake of the troubled demobilization process between the government and the leadership of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the umbrella paramilitary group on the US State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. “We shouldn’t believe those sectors who claim that the paramilitaries have camouflaged themselves and made a spurious deal that has led to impunity. Paramilitarism is finished, that terrible night is over,” he triumphantly told his audience.

Gaviria and his friends in the Colombian government point to the extradition of several top paramilitary leaders to the United States to face drug trafficking charges as evidence that they are serious about cracking down on the injustices carried out for years by the AUC. The top AUC leaders had turned themselves in to serve reduced sentences in Colombia under the supposed demobilization plan, but were eventually extradited to the United States in May 2008. The government, in justifying the extradition of these top criminals, argued that the jailed paramilitaries had not lived up to their commitment to compensate victims of their years of terror, and had failed to sever links to the vast crime networks that they controlled.

In defense of their extradition, the US Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, said that the narco-terrorist, paramilitary leaders would face more years in jail in the United States, if convicted of their drug-trafficking charges, than they would have in Colombia under the faulty Peace and Justice Law. It was a bizarre acknowledgement that in Uribe’s Colombia, massacres, torture, forced disappearance, extortion and displacement, are not as morally repugnant as participating in the illegal narcotics trade.

Regardless, one would hope that Gaviria’s words resonated strongly within the corridors of power in Washington, considering the ongoing debates about the future of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, the final approval of which has been among President Uribe’s primary obsessions since taking office in 2002. The US Congress’ widespread apprehension towards the trade deal should have gone up a few notches after listening to Gaviria’s distorted representation of the contemporary Colombian reality. Indeed, now, more than ever, the alarm bells should be sounding, because we are seeing further evidence that, notwithstanding Gaviria’s rosy picture, the conflict in Colombia is far from over, particularly for Colombia’s indigenous, Afro-Colombian and peasant population.

On August 11, the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) received disturbing threats against their leadership that remind us of the terror campaign waged for years by paramilitaries in the countryside, particularly against the popular movement. The threatening email message received by ACIN was signed by the previously unknown Campesinos Embejucados del Cauca (Furious Peasants of Cauca, CEC). The seven page missive denounced the indigenous movement’s ongoing land recuperation campaign in the department, claiming that the effort was being spearheaded by “former CRIC leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.” This charge is consistent with the unfounded declarations of General Jaime Esquerra, which linked members of the indigenous mayor’s office in Toribio with the Sixth Front of FARC.

The troubling content of the letter has put the entire indigenous movement in Cauca and around the country in a state of high alert. For one, it specifically announced the assassinations of certain members of 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 lair and greatest concentration 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.

The ACIN and CRIC leadership say this latest threat is part of a growing pattern of intimidation that has been directed against the broader indigenous movement as they continue to confront the economic development and military-security program of President Uribe. They also do not believe the letter actually comes from traditional peasants in the area, who have been mobilizing with the indigenous communities to protest against the US-Colombia FTA. CRIC points to the way the letter was written, which indicates that its authors are most likely paramilitaries working alongside the large landowners in Cauca who have always resisted land reform efforts in the department and see the indigenous movement as a direct threat to their interests.

What we are seeing unfold in Cauca and throughout Colombia is a return to the strategies carried out by the state in the 1970s and early 1980s when the indigenous land seizures were getting under the skin of large landowners, the Catholic Church, and the military and political establishment. Today, as in the past, the fight remains focused on the issue of land and territory. It is what some analysts describe as the “de-territorialization” of the indigenous movement, intended to permanently alter the dynamics within indigenous territory by displacing and expelling them from their ancestral lands. In this regard, the paramilitary expansion of the previous two decades can indeed be described as a kind of ethnocide, one in which the State itself is complicit in many ways. The spiritual, cultural, social and political components of the indigenous cosmo-visión, or worldview, are nourished by their organic connection to the land, la tierra. Severing that connection means destroying their existence as a people.

On August 10, the day after the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that between 10,000 and 20,000 indigenous people are registered every year by the Colombian government after being forcibly displaced from their lands. The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) says the number is probably much higher because many displaced indigenous people do not have access to government registries and many of the communities affected do not speak Spanish, making it even more difficult to access the government registries.

According to UNHCR, these statistics only reflect part of the tragedy, if one understands how the cultural, economic, and social survival of the communities depend on their direct connection to their ancestral territories. In most cases, displacement forces indigenous communities to move into totally unrecognizable contexts, like the shantytowns of large cities, where they are discriminated against and marginalized even further, their cultural unity gradually disintegrating in the process. In other instances, these internally displaced indigenous communities have been directly targeted by violent actors, resulting in a second wave of displacement caused by the standard practices of terror.

One clear example of this terror happened two years ago, on August 9, 2006, ironically, the same day the UNHCR and ONIC put out its annual report on the human rights crisis facing indigenous people. That day five members of the Awa community of the southwestern department of Nariño, were killed in the early morning hours in an area that had seen some of the worst combat between government forces, right-wing paramilitaries and the FARC. The victims of the early morning massacre included a tribal elder and former indigenous governor, a teacher and their family members. They were among the roughly 1,700 Awa Indians temporarily living in makeshift shelters since being displaced in July 2006, forced to flee their resguardo (reserve) during some of the most intense fighting between the army and the FARC. The vast majority of the internal refugees were women and children.

The August 2006 massacre occurred in an area with a large army and police presence, which includes a police station two blocks from where the killings took place. Eyewitnesses at the time said there were nine armed men involved in the attack, which makes it unlikely that they were able to do what they did without having some kind of an official stamp of approval in the area. Indigenous activists said that the displaced Awa Indians were seen as under “high risk” of threats, so one would assume there would have been some kind of legal, official, state protection branded to the communities. In other words, “democratic security.” Obviously, this did not occur.

These developments affecting displaced indigenous people are a far cry from what Gaviria describes as migrants moving into the cities like those who choose to relocate abroad. The displacement trends we have seen over the past two decades, coupled with the political and territorial consolidation of the right that has accompanied this displacement, should not be viewed in isolation. It is no coincidence that it has come in the wake of the Constitutional reforms of the early 1990s, reforms that by their nature were a direct threat to the entrenched interests that have dominated Colombian political culture for generations.

The need to confront this history head-on is essential, not only in order to adequately address the practical implications of land reform and the return of indigenous territories, but for the country as a whole to eventually construct the foundations for long-term national reconciliation based on truth, justice and the necessary reparations for the conflict’s countless victims. The false claims of people like José Obdulio Gaviria are deliberately designed to obfuscate the harsh conditions indigenous and peasant communities continue to face throughout Colombia, particularly in places like Cauca.

The constant drumbeat of the current government, the political and economic elite, and their echo chambers in the mainstream media point to the left-wing guerillas-“narco-terrorists” as they are now universally described-as the primary cause of all the horrors the country has been living through over the last several decades. From this perspective, Uribe’s military hard-line against FARC must be sustained relentlessly in order to achieve long-lasting stability, economic progress and eventual peace. For supporters of President Uribe, Colombia has finally found a leader who can stand up to the systematic violence of illegal armed actors, in the spirit of constructing a state capable of guaranteeing security for the Colombian nation as a whole.

After spending considerable periods of time in Colombia over the last 20 years, watching the conflict evolve gradually into the human tragedy it has become, it is not difficult for me to understand this basic reasoning. The country as a whole is, indeed, tired of war, and a lot of the people welcome an end to it sooner than later, even if it is only a superficial end that does not resolve the myriad problems still engulfing the vast majority of the population. However, this faulty reasoning accepts the inaccurate premise that the paramilitaries have been dismantled. People like Gaviria try to convince public opinion that the powers behind the paramilitaries actually accepted the conditions of surrender forced upon them by a no-nonsense president adapting an equally hard line against all violent, “undemocratic” actors. From this perspective, those sectors like the indigenous movement who are uncomfortable with the direction of the current regime are undoubtedly sympathetic, if not directly tied, to the guerrillas.

The problem with this uncritical analysis about President Uribe, an analysis that has been accepted as conventional wisdom in the current context and manifest in Gaviria’s recent comments, is that it is built on a false premise of democracy and security. Uribe’s political vision conceives of both democracy and security as objects that can be constructed unilaterally, forcibly, and by someone else, legitimized on the superficial foundations of narrowly focused public opinion polls that reverberate dramatically in the primary channels of mass communication.

In Uribe’s case, we see a strong, charismatic yet autocratic leader who has convinced a broad cross-section of the country that staged, pseudo-events are equivalent to truly participatory public consultations. The reduced levels of violence that have accompanied this approach are welcome, but in the long run is not sustainable because it is based primarily on the use of force. Furthermore, much of this “success” has been made possible because President Uribe has placed all his chips on his close relationship with the Bush White House, reaping tremendous benefits from this relationship, especially in terms of military support for his domestic program. In the process, he has surrendered the sovereignty of the country to the interests of the United States, banking on a free trade agreement that the majority of the Colombian public is opposed to, most visibly the country’s indigenous movement.

Uribe’s team does not take into account truly alternative perspectives, nor does it recognize the fundamental premise of the Constitutional language that describes Colombia as a pluri-ethnic, multi-cultural society. His vision is a reactionary vision that looks to take Colombia back to a period where indigenous people were seen as less than human, or at least not as important as the white, dominant culture. For Uribe, those sectors of society that are critical of his positions, or take a vocal and active stand to confront those positions, are labelled “enemies of the state.”

Uribe’s democratic security strategy, the “dismantling” of the AUC, and the direct confrontation with FARC, have been accompanied by a level of repression against popular sectors that is consistent with the last 25 years of Colombian history-a history recognized internationally for extreme levels of political intolerance and systematic exclusion. Much of the current backlash is directed at the indigenous movement, as we see with the recent threats sent directly to ACIN and CRIC. There is growing concern that the leadership will be targeted directly for assassination, forced disappearance, torture and detention, precisely to crush its potential to mobilize and resist Uribe’s policies in a peaceful, democratic fashion.

President Uribe’s closest aides and supporters, like Gaviria, will continue to systematically sweep these realities under the rug as they seek a third term for their leader. In the meantime, indigenous, Afro-Colombian and poor peasant communities like those in Cauca and around the country will continue to speak out, reminding the rest of us that the conflict is still an urgent component of the present reality facing Colombia.

Mario A. Murillo is associate professor of communication at Hofstra University. He is currently in Colombia on a Fulbright Research Grant, finishing a book about the indigenous movement and its uses of community media.
This article first appeared on Colombia Journal.

Categorised in:

This post was written by Mario A. Murillo

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *