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Indigenous Colombians Begin 10,000-Strong March Against Uribe Government

StoryOctober 23, 2008
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More than 10,000 indigenous Colombians have begun a protest march against President Alvaro Uribe. Marchers are protesting the militarization of their territories, the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and the failure of Uribe’s administration to fulfill various accords with the indigenous communities. We speak to Rafael Coicué, an indigenous leader who lost sight in his left eye when he was assaulted by masked gunmen in his home, and Mario Murillo, a US journalist and professor currently in Colombia. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Colombia, more than 10,000 indigenous Colombians have begun a protest march against President Alvaro Uribe. The march comes one week after three people were killed and dozens were injured at the outset of a national mobilization for indigenous rights. The activists are protesting the militarization of their territories, the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and the failure of President Uribe’s administration to fulfill various accords with the indigenous communities. Uribe has responded by calling for the investigation of indigenous leaders, including Daniel Piñacue.

    PRESIDENT ALVARO URIBE: [translated] The Colombian government asks for the prosecution of those who are violent. The Colombian government asks the judges to investigate the behavior of people like Daniel Piñacue, which is a behavior that incites violence and deserves to be studied by Colombian prosecutors and judges.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Colombian government has accused indigenous groups of being infiltrated by FARC rebels. Daniel Piñacue denied the allegations.

    DANIEL PINACUE: [translated] I am very surprised, and I consider it very unfortunate. I do not cover my face to take action in this walk. My actions are clear, and I face the Colombian people. And this is why President Uribe has to face us, the indigenous farmers and the people here at this protest walk.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Washington, D.C., to be joined by Rafael Coicué. He is an indigenous leader in Colombia from Northern Cauca. His brother was killed in the ’91 Nilo massacre. In July, he lost sight in his left eye when he was assaulted by masked gunmen in his home. Rafael Coicué is in Washington to testify before the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

And we’re also joined in Colombia by Mario Murillo. He’s a professor of communications at Hofstra University, Pacifica Radio producer at WBAI in New York, author of Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism and Destabilization, completing a book on the indigenous movement in Colombia and its use of popular media in community organizing, currently living in Colombia and blogging at mamaradio.blogspot.com. He joins us via video stream from Colombia.

First, let’s go to Mario in Colombia. Mario, tell us what’s happening there.

MARIO MURILLO: Well, first of all, the march, the indigenous march that began on the 12th of October, it was actually a mobilization. Today, they started — they continued marching along the Pan-American Highway in a peaceful protest. The idea is that the entire indigenous movement from southern Colombia and other parts of the region are going to be merging on the weekend in the third largest city of Colombia, Cali. And that mobilization has already started.

And it comes just a day after — last night, late last night, President Uribe made an announcement, an official announcement, accepting responsibility for misinformation, basically saying that after days and days of denying that any gunfire was being shot at or directed at indigenous communities that were mobilized in La Maria. He actually accepted last night that indeed one police official was caught on videotape by CNN, and that was presented to him yesterday, and accepted responsibility for that gunfire.

But at the same time, he was denying the fact that anybody who was killed or any of the wounded were shot by national police or army officials that went to confront the indigenous protesters over the last week. So even though he admitted it, because it was caught on videotape, I was just speaking to members of the ACIN, Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, and they told me this morning that, no, the march continues and that the information put out yesterday by the president continues to [inaudible] address [inaudible] principal issues that the communities are putting forth in this mobilization.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Mario, obviously, the protests, you said, started on October 12th, which is the anniversary of el Dia de la Raza, or of Columbus Day, as it’s called here in the United States. What is the — in terms of the condition of the indigenous under the Uribe government, what is it like right now?

MARIO MURILLO: That’s a great point, and this is interesting that finally, after over almost two weeks of mobilizing and weeks before the mobilization began, the indigenous communities were putting out communiqués consistently on their websites and holding press conferences to draw attention to five key points that the communities are trying to address and to get the government to address, but it hasn’t gotten any coverage whatsoever. Only the last couple of days, because the government has been forced to respond to the specific points, are the media now here in Colombia actually addressing them.

One of them, you pointed out in the introduction. They’re really concerned about the free trade agreement that was signed by the Colombian government, and they’re waiting for approval in the US Congress. It hasn’t been approved by the Congress. And so, the Colombian indigenous movement and the popular movement in general are saying that this free trade agreement has to be reconsidered, because the communities were not consulted.

Another major issue, which addresses specifically your question about the conditions, is the human rights violations that have been carried out against the communities. The indigenous movements are saying no to the democratic security strategy, the so-called democratic security strategy of the Uribe government, because it hasn’t brought security, and it is by no means democratic, as far as they’re concerned, given the fact that over the last month alone, since early September, over twenty-four indigenous members of the different communities throughout the country have been assassinated, eight of which were attributed to public security forces in different parts of the country, and particularly in northern Cauca. So they’re saying that these human rights violations continue. The displacement of indigenous communities, 400,000 displaced under the six-year administration of Uribe. They’re saying that this all has to stop, and these are the issues that have to be addressed. Unfortunately, the Colombian government continues to kind of whitewash it all and say that, OK, we’re going to talk about lands, territories, that we’re going to buy from large landowners in the south and give some of those lands back to the indigenous communities. But they’re not addressing the fundamental points that the communities are putting forward in this mobilization.

AMY GOODMAN: Mario, thank you so much for joining us from Cauca. Also, as we said, we’re joined in Washington, D.C. by Rafael Coicué, a former mayor of the indigenous city of Corinto in Cauca, in northern Colombia, shot on July 3rd during an indigenous mobilization when he was confronted by heavily armed special forces commandos dispatched to disperse the indigenous activists. Explain what happened to you, Rafael, and what you think needs to be understood by Americans today.

RAFAEL COICUÉ: [translated] Very well. First of all, good morning, everyone who’s listening this morning.

I am here in Washington representing the indigenous communities of the Cauca in Colombia before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to follow up on and to clarify the facts in all the human rights violations that the Colombian state, in administration after administration, has committed against the indigenous communities, Afro-Colombians, trade unionists and students in Colombia.

And it’s true, as you were saying, I am a victim of this state and the different administrations, first because the demands of the indigenous communities are fair and just, and the response of the government has been just repression. And so, on July 3rd, when I was traveling along the road between Caloto and Corinto, the indigenous peoples were mobilizing to free the land, and the anti-riot police was there. And there, I was hit by BBs that they were shooting at us and took my left eye, and I’ve lost the sight in the left eye.

Well, I continue fighting. I continue calling on the government to listen and to understand our just demands and that they respect our right to mobilize. We are peaceful peoples. We are peoples who only have the force of our sticks, the force of our conscience, the force of our word. This is what leads us to mobilize.

And as Mario Murillo was saying, the situation in Colombia today is very critical, very critical in terms of the policies that this government has been promoting. For example, the free trade agreement is very harmful to us, because it means handing over natural resources to the multinational corporations. It’s pillaging our natural resources. It also means exploiting cheap labor that one finds in Colombia, setting up companies that would not have to pay taxes, as well as cultural issues, intellectual property rights issues. The rights of the indigenous people will be decimated, will be destroyed, will simply be relegated to museums and paintings.

And in the face of that, we, the communities, engaged in a consultation in 2005, and we said we are not in agreement with the free trade agreement. Six, this was followed by communities, by students, by rice growers, wheat growers and potato growers in the central part of the country, trade unionists from the national federation CUT, the teachers’ unions. There have been consultations. And most of the poor in Colombia today are rejecting that kind of a treaty. Instead, a treaty needs to respect and recognize Colombia’s sovereignty. There needs to be a fair, balanced economic policy, and all of us peoples should be able to have access to the benefits, not just the industrialists or Mr. Ardila-Lulle, who is the owner of the largest companies in Colombia. All of us Colombians should have opportunities in —- under a fair and egalitarian treaty. [inaudible] to the other issue -—

AMY GOODMAN: Rafael Coicué, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Unfortunately, we’ve run out of time, former mayor from Corinto. I will say he will be speaking in New York on Sunday. We’ll list where it is on our website at democracynow.org. Special thanks to Charlie Roberts for translation.

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