On April 28th, 2021, a strike against a tax reform started in Colombia, and almost two months later it is still ongoing. As of June 21st, official reports confirm that at least 72 people have been killed by the police or paramilitary groups and the number is growing every day. On June 8th, the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights visited the country to clarify the situation, and a formal statement is expected soon.
In this context of extreme violence, it is important to analyze alternatives for resolving the current crisis. Since the first day of the strike, the presence of the Indigenous movement has been salient. The Misak and the Nasa from the Cauca region, one of the most violent provinces of Colombia, have been particularly visible because of their approach to strike using non-violent actions. This article analyses the strategies of these two Indigenous groups and why their participation in the strike is key for the short- and long-term resolution of the crisis.
History of indigenous groups in Colombia
Indigenous groups in Latin America resisted a bloody process of conquest by the Spanish. After independence, Indigenous people were officially recognized as citizens in many countries, yet the expansion of agrarian capitalism and the modernization of the economy did not bring benefits for them. Numerous Indigenous communities lost their land and were forced to perform dependent jobs on large haciendas.
In Colombia, during the colonial period, native groups were congregated, located in specific territories and paid their taxes together. They were discriminated against, and considered inferior, but that at least implied the recognition of their existence and their differences. In contrast, the new republic of Colombia was constituted under liberal ideas, in the name of progress and equality and based on individual citizens. There was no place for collective lands; hence, Indigenous people were excluded from equal economic, social and political participation. Moreover, the Indigenous population was relatively low compared with other countries, and the mestizaje process was very strong. In the new republic, all people should be “civilized,” a homogenous group of individual citizens, free and mestizo. Therefore, equality implied the suppression of differences.
The 1991 constitution recognized the multicultural reality of the country and grants special rights for Indigenous and afro descent ancestral territories and authorities. These groups could finally live under their own customs and authorities, as long as they do so in their own assigned territories. The implementation of these rights, however, has been eclipsed by the constant violence and conflicts in the country. Consequently, the lack of a real integration and interaction with the broader society. Furthermore, the violence in the country puts Indigenous communities at a big risk of stigmatization, racism, and genocide.
Misak people re-signifying history during the strike
Sebastián de Belalcázar arrived in Cauca in 1537, claimed the territory for the Spanish crown and founded the city of Popayán, as he did with other cities in Colombia, like Cali. These settlements implied the subjugation of the Indigenous population and were essential for the Spanish to establish control over newly conquered territories. In 1937, the mayor of Popayán commissioned the construction of the Belalcázar monument in commemoration of the quadricentennial anniversary of the founding of Popayán. The monument was placed at the Morro de Tulcán, a ceremonial center of the Pubeneses, a confederation of Indigenous groups that inhabited the territory when the Spanish arrived. During the inauguration of the statue, the poet Rafael Maya claimed that the statue symbolized Popayán’s best “a heroic race, wisdom, beauty, holiness, poetry and song.” Therefore, it is considered that the statue symbolizes the Hispanidad, an Iberian and Catholic identity.
In September 2020, the Indigenous authorities of the Misak from the southwest of Colombia (AISO) knocked down the statue of Sebastian de Belalcázar from the Morro de Tulcán. Prior to this, the Misak conducted a trial using a range of legal tools from the Special Indigenous Jurisdiction and the 169 ILO Convention. The official communication stated:
Today, September 16th, 2020, the year in which 55 massacres have accumulated in Colombia and when terror, lies, deception and power deepen their fascist and racist war from the Wall Mapu to Chiapas and beyond. Today, finally, from the hand of the daughters and sons of the Misak people, that is, of the earth; today Sebastián the murderer has fallen and with him, right now, those who have exercised the power of terror for more than 500 years are also coming down.
Belalcázar was accused of genocide, dispossession, land grabbing as well as physical and cultural disappearance of the peoples that were part of the Pubense Confederation (from which the Misak are considered the direct descendants). The punishment was that Belalcázar should be remembered as a murderer and the genocide, instead of being remembered as a “hero.”
By the sunrise of the 28th of April, 2021, the city of Cali in the southwestern part of the country woke up without one of its most iconic statues: Sebastian de Belalcázar. The statue was knocked down by the AISO in a continuation of the trial of 2020.
Since then, the list of statues that have fallen across the country has been increasing throughout the strike. Five more statues have fallen in different cities. Most of these statues were constructed by local governments after independence as icons of a postcolonial society that aimed to foster a sense of patriotism and strengthen the history of the nation.
On the 9th of June, they also tried to knock down the statues of Christopher Columbus and Isabella the Catholic in Bogotá, but the police stopped them. The next day, however, the Ministry of Culture removed the statues and a consultation table was established. This initiative seeks to listen to ethnic communities, historians and other actors about the meaning of monuments and to define whether these statues will be erected again or if they will be sent to a museum. This was celebrated by Misak people.
Indigenous Misak actions invite Colombian people to reflect on their colonial past and heroes. Misak people call for a broad historical perspective, which includes Indigenous history. Moreover, these actions show that Indigenous people and young protesters are tired of a ruling class that glorifies a bloody past and identifies with Spanish and European history more than its own.
This shows that at least part of the population is seeking new symbols and icons that represent them. A pluralistic perspective of history is becoming a necessity, as a nation based on one single history runs the risk of becoming a totalitarian society. As Hannah Arendt warns, totalitarian nations are based on the premise of a supposed law of history in which certain groups are on their way to extinction. This colonist perspective considers indigenous cultures as part of the past.
The Nasa people and their Guardia Indígena
The Nasa people from northern Cauca are part of the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council – CRIC, the biggest and oldest indigenous organization in the country. The Nasa are known around the world for their Guardia Indígena – GI (Indigenous Guard), a network for community protection of women, men, boys and girls who voluntarily and non-violently defend indigenous territories. The GI responds to a process of historical resignification of the ancient struggles and to a practical need for territorial control in Indigenous lands overwhelmed by armed conflict. The GI won the Front Line Defenders recognition in 2020 for their actions and contribution to peacebuilding. It is a non-violent initiative where its members are unarmed and use only symbolic weapons, such as a bastón (walking stick), symbolizing power bestowed on them by their community to claim territorial control.
On May 3rd, the Minga (an Indigenous political meeting) from Cauca arrived in Cali to join the national strike. The GI joined the barricades that were created in different marginalized neighborhoods and their presence inspired young people of the “Front Line.”
On May 9th, civilians armed with handguns attacked a group of guards that were on their way to provide food and supplies to the Minga in Cali. The videos easily remind us of the battles between the Indigenous and the Spanish, the former with darker skin and without weapons whereas the latter had whiter skin and sophisticated weapons. The attack against the Minga was carefully planned but the GI, completely unarmed, followed the gunmen to try to capture them. As a result, eight indigenous people were injured and two days later, on May 11th, the Minga went back to the indigenous territories in Cauca.
The GI has become a symbol of nonviolent resistance and it is a very attractive icon among the youth. The current strike has been led and carried by young people, who do not see any future for themselves, hence, initiatives like the GI provide an alternative for young individuals who are searching for their place in this country.
One of the main issues during the strike has been the excessive use of force by official security forces and hate speech used by many members of the government party, the Centro Democrático (CD). Mainly using social media, CD party members are pushing a narrative to justify the violation of human rights in Colombia by framing civil protesters as being part of terrorist organizations. In this context of violence and stigmatization, dialogues and negotiations are very difficult.
Both strategies, those of the Misak and the GI, and the reactions from some sectors of Colombian society, show us that colonialism continues to be a contemporary tension. A process that inhabits people in everyday life and, for this reason, what is at stake in the symbolic actions described above is not only Colombia’s past but also its present. The ultimate goal of the Indigenous people’s strategies is that their actions, knowledge, beliefs and struggles become part of the democratic conversation, so they can contribute to resolving the complex problems of the modern world, and their contribution can be recognized and acknowledged.
Nancy Paola Chaves has a Ph.D. in Social Sciences from Wageningen University in The Netherlands. She is currently a Lecturer of Political Studies at Universidad del Valle in Colombia and a Gender and Social Inclusion consultant. Learn more about her via: http://www.linkedin.com/in/paola-chaves-gender-social-inclusion-conflict.