Colombian riot police surround thousands of indigenous and labor activists in Cauca, in southwest Colombia. The number of protestors remains around 10,000, and has been that high for a week, according to on-site reports. Most of the demonstrators are indigenous Nasa people from the region, struggling to stay on their land. Others are sugar cane-workers fighting for their rights. The riot police have attacked them repeatedly, injuring dozens with tear gas and killing several with live ammunition. Beyond the police killings and injuries there are those carried out by the paramilitaries, who supposedly don’t exist any more, but have nonetheless, in the past few weeks, murdered a women’s rights activist and her whole family, several indigenous leaders, several indigenous people who were not involved in any protest activities at all, and several protesters in live fire attacks.
The international environment is favorable to the Colombian state’s strategy of making its enemies invisible before physically attacking them. The US electoral spectacle is a black hole for attention, mainstream and alternative. The US Democrats have a slightly different position from the Republicans on free trade with Colombia, and the question of murdered union leaders even made it into a presidential debate (McCain ignored it, while Obama actually suggested that Colombia’s murdering union leaders was a bad thing). The policies of privatization, social service cuts, militarization, and the pillage of Colombia’s resources by multinationals have been bipartisan for decades. But so has the dispensability of individual Colombian leaders and contractors of dirty work. Perhaps Colombia’s President, Alvaro Uribe Velez, and his team, are worried that their heads could roll if there is a change of administration in Washington. Perhaps they are trying to accelerate their own program to destroy local opposition before this occurs. That may explain the particular brutality of the past few weeks.
The causes of the protest run deeper, however. The history of this part of Colombia mirrors much of Latin America. In the 1950s, hundreds of thousands of people were thrown off their lands through massacre, violence, and civil war (an event called “La Violencia”). Many of these people were then forced to come back to lands that had been theirs, and work as insecure laborers on massive sugar plantations owned by a wealthy elite. Some groups, like the indigenous Nasa of Northern Cauca, over decades of struggle, succeeded in winning back their lands and recovering much of their culture and traditional economy. Many others, including thousands of Afro-Colombian cane workers, struggled hard just to keep themselves and their families alive.
Today, the economics of sugar plantations are absurdly exploitative. In a full 14-hour day of work, a cane cutter can harvest some six tons of cane. That ton gets turned into 200 kg of refined sugar that sells for about $120. The cutter gets, before deductions, about $2.50. After deductions, it’s about $1.50.
The plan is for such plantations to expand massively. And, indeed, much of the land of the 3.5-4 million internally displaced people in Colombia (the majority of whom are Afro-Colombian and a huge disproportion of whom are indigenous) has been taken over by sugar plantation owners. The plan is not just for refined sugar, but also for biofuels. Long after Venezuela’s oil runs out, North Americans will still be able to pour the products of Colombia’s sugar plantations into their car engines.
The enemies of this plan are the indigenous and peasants who want to stay on their land and use it to grow food and a decent agricultural economy, and the laborers who want to be able to survive on their wages. Both are treated the same way: to false accusations, to arrested and murdered leaders, to tear gas, and to bullets. The cane workers have been on strike since September 15 and their demands are heart-breakingly minimalist. They want to have an actual contract, rather than the piecework system they have now; the right to unionize; and a decent salary and working conditions.
On October 19, the indigenous protesters held a press conference to outline their position. “We don’t have a government in Colombia”, said Nasa spokesperson Feliciano Valencia. The indigenous authorities announced their own agenda: “No to the economic model and the FTA’s with the US, Canada and Europe, removal of legislation that impoverishes peoples, destroys and denies rights and freedoms, delivers the wealth of the country to corporate interests and has not gone through consultation with those affected. No more war and terror as the main Government policy. Respect and application of international and national agreements and establishment of the conditions that will allow the people to construct a new, possible and necessary country.” Next Tuesday (Oct 21), they announced, they will march from the site where they are gathered, La Maria Piendamo, to Cali. They will be joined by other movements and organizations. They will accept a dialogue with the government but the military must cease fire and remove itself from the territories.
Colombia’s movements continue to shoulder more than their fair burden against one of the most brutal regimes in the hemisphere. The regime can’t be allowed to drown out their story.
* To read more about and to financially support the cane workers: visit here.