Monday, August 23, 2010

Building Popular Power: CISCA's regional assembly Part 2

My memory of assemblies are of day after day sat cross-legged
on school hall floors singing hymns from the Come and Praise hymn book and listening to fables and school news. Here in Latin America assemblies have a very different collective historical meaning.

Lets re-imagine the school assembly. Gone is the lifeless out of tune sound of childrens voices repeating kumbayah. Instead the space is alive with groups of teachers and students discussing the governments policy on education. Each group feeds back to the plenary and people listen eagerly for consensus from which school policy will be built. Others listen for unresolved questions and makes suggestions for how each class can work on exploring further the question so that for the next assembly the ideas will have been matured and advanced. This is the type of assembly I wish was in our collective memory.

As I try to bridge different cultures I will continue with the metaphor a little longer.... the Come and Praise hymn book where each song carried the same message of thanks to god is like the Colombian daily news which presents lots of different news but that all converges to the same idea: Democratic Security is good and necessary and anyone that opposes it is the enemy.

In CISCA's assembly the hymn book is replaced by presentations on topics related to the reality of the participants, the prayers replaced by group discussions, and the lecture by the head teacher replaced by large group discussions to make decisions and decide the ongoing strategy.

Some notes
No.1: National Current Situation

National, international and mafia capital mixed together in most investment projects. Free Trade Agreements with the EU and the US give more space for mafia profits to be “lost”. Huge accumulation of all three capital continues through three strategies:

  1. Over-exploitation of workers achieved through violating human rights. For example the majority of those lucky enough to find work in the formal sector will only have work for three months and then can now legally sacked so that the company can avoid all social security costs Companies have saved 75% in labour costs.

  2. Exploitation of Natural Resources and Peasant, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian Territories

  3. Financial Speculation

Colombia has been condemned to fulfil three roles in the global economy.

  1. Provider of fossil fuels

  2. Provide non strategic primary agricultural materials (fruits, rubber, cocoa)

  3. Transport Infrastructure so that global capital can circulate more quickly.

Santos, as the new president and part of Colombia's oligarchy, may decide to prioritise legal capital over mafia capital. Most worrying for the assembly of CISCA is his call for 'National Unity'.

The so called National Unity is an effort to remove all oppostion from the map and build an empty consensus through the power of the media that gives him complete freedom to advance however he wants without debate or even justification” [1]

In groups people discussed how this would mean a continuation of the State strategy of criminalising oppostion and expressed worries that the next four or eight years would be the same if not worse than what they have already lived through under the ex-President Uribe.

We are against the politics of the Santos government because they go against our Planes de Vida - our Community Development Plans” declared the assembly.

No.2: Mining in Colombia

Mining is a reality and I am not going to oppose it” stated the new Environmental Minister. “Well at least we know we can count on no support there, then” said Aramides. While the Environment Ministry bans the Bari indigenous people from entering the national park within their reserve to collect wood in the name of conservation, they are not going to put any obstacles in the way of plans for a 20,000 hectare open cast coal mine in the same park. After listening to a presentation about the negative and supposed positive impacts of mining we returned to groups again to discuss what CISCA's position on mining should be.

As peasant farmers we aren't trained to work in mines, the jobs will go to people from outside the region. We are skilled at getting a good crop. We should oppose the mine and increase food production to combat poverty.”

After much discussion, which began in 2007 and has been ongoing in CISCA's consultivas, the assembly reafirmed its commitment to oppose all extractive mining in its territory as part of the defense of their own community development plans.

No.3 Impacts of US Southern Command 2018 Strategy for Integrated Action

The USSOUTHCOM is implementing a military-civil strategy in 9 regions of Colombia, one of them being Catatumbo in order to win full territorial control. This included control of the economy, the physical area, the social organisations, the peoples mind. According to their Strategic Document 2018 “the region will not win the war against poverty increasing their participation in the reduced global agricultural sector. They should use their energy in producing more sophisticated exports.” This means that in Catatumbo the economic model that is already being imposed is production of non-basic food crops for export, such as palm, cocoa, tropical fruits. So where does the food come from? The so called unsophisticated exports, that is basic staples such as wheat, rice and maise, is now being exported to Colombia from.....the USA.

In practice, the doctrine of integrated action may mean that brigades of soliders begin to provide basic health cover or play the role of teachers in the region. Leaders expressed disgust that the USSOUTHCOM, with the full support of the Colombian State, is taking advantage of the overwhelming need for better health care and education to coopt and control the region through the use of government handouts, and is going against international humanitarian law to not involve the civilian population in the armed conflict.

In my group, men spoke about the hard work needed to convince their communities of the long term strategy behind these handouts which goes against the needs of the people in the region and to take a dignified position. They spoke about the need to not allow these programs to enter their communities in the first place. They reminded each other that it is the Colombian State that has a legal obligation to provide these human rights. The different groups later converged and there was a shared view in the assembly that they need to be more organised and mobilise to confront these programmes. Concrete proposals were put forward to reclaim community spaces such as schools, health centres from military occupation by marking them as 'peace spaces' (eg signs banning the entrance of arms, organising on mass to ask them to leave.) The need for this was marked by the (un)timely illegal arrival of the army to the assembly. They were politely but firmly asked to leave and reminded that we have the right to assembly without interference by the armed forces.

This is a just a snippet of the four days of discussion and decision making, a taste of a collective way to analyise what is going on and a way to come up with huge amounts of concrete actions to confront this (though I do fear they came up with way too many proposals and the collective decision making should have narrowed these down).

As we are leaving the assembly we hear news on the radio from the community of El Tarra, who are also particpating in the assembly. The army had been shot at in their barracks and in response, according to witnesses, they had shot at all young lads they found in the street at that moment, killing one and injuring three others. They had tried to place a gun by the side of the dead una joven aprendiendo como grabar
16 year old which caused indignation by those who saw and people
spontaenously rose up to oppose this injustice. Three army vehicles were burnt, the mayor's office and bank, and with sticks and stones the army was forced to retreat to their base admist shouts accusing them of murdering over 5000 people in the region.

Militry check point at entrance to El Tarra (2009)

While the assembly demanded the demilitrisation of the region and of civil life, the people of El Tarra were expressing with their bodies the urgent need to demilitrise their territory. And winning.

Thanks to J for the photos

[1] 'A dragon dressed as a dove', Editorial Periferia (in spanish)

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