COLOMBIA: Where Dialogue Seems Impossible

BOGOTA, Oct 28 (IPS) - Dialogue – or, more accurately, the lack thereof – was the common denominator in two high-profile events Sunday in the western Colombian city of Cali, demonstrating to what extent this vehicle of mutual understanding is missing in this civil war-torn South American country.

Former congressman Óscar Tulio Lizcano escaped from his captors, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), after being held hostage for eight years in the jungle, and appeared Sunday, thin, exhausted and muddy, before the television cameras in Cali.

After fleeing through the rainforest for three days with a guerrilla deserter, the 62-year-old Lizcano, who completed his eighth year as a hostage in August, was flown by the Defence Ministry from the jungle province of Chocó to Cali, where he met with President Álvaro Uribe.

"You must comprehend my incoherence, because I haven’t talked much, I wasn’t allowed to communicate with the guerrillas who were guarding me," he told reporters.

To fight the silence and pass the time, Lizcano, who once taught at the university, stuck three sticks in the ground, named them, and gave them classes.

Lizcano was the last parliamentarian in the hands of the rebel group, which hoped to swap him for imprisoned insurgents. (The highest-profile FARC hostage, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, along with three U.S. military contractors and 11 other hostages, were rescued in a successful operation carried out by the Colombian army in July, in which not a single shot was fired.)

Two civilians and 26 members of the military and police are still being held hostage in the jungle.

But a negotiated humanitarian hostage-prisoner exchange seems increasingly unlikely, due to the strong public reaction against kidnapping and the sustained and increasingly effective military action.

One of the soldiers held by the FARC is Pablo Emilio Moncayo, the son of high school teacher Gustavo Moncayo, dubbed the "peace walker" for his lengthy cross-country treks, one of which even took him to the capital of Venezuela, calling for negotiations for the hostages’ release. Pablo has spent over 10 years as a captive in the jungle.

Moncayo was one of the facilitators who unsuccessfully attempted in Cali to bring about a face-to-face dialogue between President Uribe and thousands of Indigenous demonstrators who marched to that city demanding fulfillment of agreements signed by previous administrations and never implemented.

The talks were to be moderated Sunday by Inspector General Edgardo Maya, as proposed by the 45,000 people taking part in the march, known as the "Minga" (a Quechua term for collective work for the common good) of Indigenous and Popular Resistance.

The Minga began on Oct. 12 as a protest against the four-decade civil war, in which Indigenous people are caught in the crossfire, with one member of Colombia’s native groups dying every 53 hours.

Colombia’s 102 different Indigenous groups represent 1.6 million people in this country of 44.6 million. According to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), 18 of the communities are at imminent risk of disappearing.

The Minga reached Cali on Saturday, after a 100-km trek from the La María Indigenous reservation in the southwestern department (province) of Cauca.

In the first week of the protest, the anti-riot police were sent in to disperse the demonstrators, and opened fire on them with live ammunition, as the president himself later admitted. Three Indians were killed and around 170 people were injured, including 39 members of the security forces.

The protesters are demanding an end to attacks on Indigenous communities and occupations of their land, the adoption by Colombia of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the repeal of legislation – rural, forestry, water and mining laws – that threaten Indigenous reservations and the survival of native cultures, and compliance with a number of agreements with Indigenous and social movements signed by previous governments.

But at the top of their agenda now is the demand that their names be cleared, after the president labeled the Minga participants as "terrorists."

In what was seen as a first victory for the Indigenous marchers, the president agreed to meet with them Sunday in Cali.

Present to broker the talks were Moncayo, United Nations resident coordinator in Colombia Bruno Moro, Catholic priest Darío Echeverri, who is head of the National Conciliation Commission created by the Catholic Church, Jesuit priest and human rights advocate Francisco de Roux, Blanca Chancoso of the powerful Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), and Pedro Núñez, vice president of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia, among others.

But the facilitators were unable to arrange an agreement between the Minga and the president on where to meet.

The Indigenous leaders wanted Uribe to meet with the entire movement in the public square in front of city hall, as they had already agreed with Cali Mayor Jorge Iván Ospina.

But the government wanted the meeting to be held at the Telepacífico TV station’s Imbanaco theatre, and to include just 200 delegates of the movement, "for security reasons."

"The Minga took an increasingly radicalised position, insisting that if the meeting wasn’t held in the square, it wouldn’t take place at all," ONIC president Luis Evelis Andrade told IPS.

"And meanwhile he (Uribe) was arguing that it should be in Telepacífico and that he couldn’t go to the square because of security questions. Then nightfall came and neither option was possible anymore. Compromise sites were proposed, but nothing worked out," said Andrade.

"And in the end, Uribe showed up at the square – when the Indigenous people were already leaving – to talk about Indigenous issues, even though they weren’t there anymore. It was quite strange," he said.

For their part, the marchers met first in the square and later at the public University del Valle. And although they drew attention to their concerns at both the national and international levels, they were unable to express their grievances to Uribe himself.

The rightwing Uribe, along with ministers and deputy ministers, decided to outline the government’s position on the state TV channel. But the Minga participants were unaware of that, as they were meeting at that time in the University del Valle, where they were camping out.

So, just as the FARC guerrillas wasted their opportunity to talk with their hostage, an opportunity for dialogue between the government and the Indigenous community was also wasted in Cali, although talks could still happen.

Uribe announced that next Sunday, he would make space in his busy schedule for the Indigenous protesters. But so far no agreement has been reached on where the meeting would take place, or on how many Indigenous leaders would take part – details that could once again turn into hurdles.

Since the FARC and the much smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) took up arms in 1964, peace talks have been between governments and armed groups, at times with the participation of commissions made up of prominent civilian personalities.

But the Minga is proposing a major change: a group of mainly Indigenous civilians is calling on the government to sit down and negotiate on aspects that touch on causes of the civil war.

Perhaps their proposal is such a novelty in Colombian political life that the president was unsure as to how to respond.

What happens over the next few days will show whether the government sees this novel scenario as a minor, relatively unimportant development and will once again dodge talks, or whether it will sit down to engage in dialogue.

LOGISTICAL CHALLENGES

Providing space and facilities for 45,000 Indigenous demonstrators was a huge challenge for the University del Valle, which since Saturday allowed them to camp out on 35 of the campus’s 100 hectares.

Classes and administrative activities at the university, with the exception of those revolving around the Minga, were suspended as of Friday.

To meet the requirements of such a large group of people, who were initially expected to number around 20,000, the university authorities named a committee headed by vice rector Edgar Arenas.

Arenas worked with the university’s Indigenous students, who are organised in their own council. The students set up a brigade of 280 people: 140 cleaners, 80 "guards" or watchpersons, 30 maintenance and infrastructure employees, and 40 members of the university’s emergency and medical staff.

They were also joined by members of the student council and other student associations, members of the union of university workers, and several professors.

The university also had the support of the Cali mayor’s office and local delegations of the Ombudsman’s office, the office of the inspector general (Procuraduría General de la Nación), and the child welfare institute.

To the university’s infrastructure was added "the support of the Cali municipal utilities, which provided water for free at the various hydrants on campus," Arenas told IPS.

In addition, the showers were supplied with water by the city’s fire fighters.

The city government provided 60 portable toilets. But "some people from the more remote Indigenous communities didn’t know how to flush, so part of the work brigade took on the job of explaining how to do that," said Arenas.

The rector of the University del Valle, Iván Enrique Ramos, said "this Minga is a historic event."

"It’s the first time in many years that such a large Indigenous movement has mobilised to defend their rights and draw attention to their concerns," and "we have to recognise how well-organised the Indigenous movement is in Cauca," said Ramos.

The Minga participants, who belong to a number of native groups from 20 of Colombia’s 32 departments, began to head back to their reservations Monday, after promising to leave the campus as clean as they found it.

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