The Threat of Hope in Latin America
by Naomi Klein
The Nation magazine, Nov 21, 2005
When Manuel Rozental got home one night
last month, friends told him two strange men had been asking questions
about him. In this close-knit indigenous community in southwestern
Colombia ringed by soldiers, right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing
guerrillas, strangers asking questions about you is never a good
The Association of Indigenous Councils
of Northern Cauca, which leads a political movement that is autonomous
from all those armed forces, held an emergency meeting. They decided
that Rozental, their communications coordinator, who had been
instrumental in campaigns for agrarian reform and against a Free
Trade Agreement with the United States, had to get out of the
They were certain that those strangers
had been sent to kill Rozental--the only question was, by whom?
The US-backed national government, which notoriously uses right-wing
paramilitaries to do its dirty work? Or was it the Fuerzas Armadas
Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), Latin America's oldest Marxist
guerrilla army, which does its dirty work all on its own? Oddly,
both were distinct possibilities. Despite being on opposing sides
of a forty-one-year civil war, the Uribe government and the FARC
wholeheartedly agree that life would be infinitely simpler without
Cauca's increasingly powerful indigenous movement.
Prominent indigenous leaders in northern
Cauca have been kidnapped or assassinated by the FARC, which seeks
to be the exclusive voice of Colombia's poor. And indigenous authorities
had been informed that the FARC wanted Rozental dead. For months
rumors had been circulated that he was the worst thing you can
be in the books of a left-wing guerrilla movement: a CIA agent.
But that doesn't mean the strangers were FARC assassins, because
there had been other rumors too, spread through the media by government
officials. They held that Rozental was the worst thing you can
be in the books of a right-wing, Bush-bankrolled politician: "an
On October 27 the Indigenous Council,
representing the roughly 110,000 Nasa Indians in the region, issued
an angry communiqué: "Manuel is no terrorist. He is
no paramilitary. He is no agent of the CIA. He is a part of our
community who must not be silenced by bullets." The Nasa
leaders say they know why Rozental, now living in exile in Canada,
has come under threat. It is the same reason that this past April
two peaceful indigenous villages in Northern Cauca were turned
into war zones after the FARC attacked police posts in the town
centers, giving the government an excuse for a full-scale occupation.
All of this is happening because the
indigenous movement is on a roll. In the past year the Nasa of
northern Cauca have held the largest antigovernment protests in
recent Colombian history and organized local referendums against
free trade that had a turnout of 70 percent, higher than any official
election (with a near unanimous "no" result). And in
September thousands took over two large haciendas, forcing the
government to make good on a long-promised land settlement. All
these actions unfolded under the protection of the Nasa's unique
Indigenous Guard, who patrol their territory armed only with sticks.
In a country ruled by M-16s, AK-47s,
pipe bombs and Black Hawk helicopters, this combination of militancy
and nonviolence is unheard of. And that is the quiet miracle the
Nasa have accomplished: They revived the hope killed when paramilitaries
systematically slaughtered left-wing politicians, including dozens
of elected officials and two Unión Patriótica presidential
candidates. At the end of that bloody campaign in the early nineties,
the FARC understandably concluded that engaging in open politics
was a suicide mission. The key to the Nasa's success, Rozental
says, is that they are not trying to take over state institutions,
which "have lost all legitimacy." They are instead "building
a new legitimacy based on an indigenous and popular mandate that
has grown out of participatory congresses, assemblies and elections.
Our process and our alternative institutions have put the official
democracy to shame. That's why the government is so angry."
The Nasa have shattered the illusion,
cherished by both sides, that Colombia's conflict can be reduced
to a binary war. Their free-trade referendums have been imitated
by nonindigenous unions, students, farmers and local politicians
nationwide; their land takeovers have inspired other indigenous
and peasant groups to do the same. A year ago 60,000 marched demanding
peace and autonomy; last month those same demands were echoed
by simultaneous marches in thirty-two of Colombia's thirty-three
provinces. Each action, explains Hector Mondragon, well-known
Colombian economist and activist, "has had a multiplier effect."
Across Latin America a similarly explosive
multiplier effect is under way, with indigenous movements redrawing
the continent's political map, demanding not just "rights"
but a reinvention of the state along deeply democratic lines.
In Bolivia and Ecuador, indigenous groups have shown they have
the power to topple governments. In Argentina, when mass protests
ousted five presidents in 2001 and '02, the words of Mexico's
Zapatistas were shouted on the streets of Buenos Aires. At this
writing, George W. Bush is on his way to Argentina, where he will
discover that the spirit of that revolt is alive and well.
As in northern Cauca, governments attempt
to brand these indigenous-inspired movements as terrorist. And
not surprisingly Washington is offering military and ideological
assistance: There has been a marked increase in US troop activity
near the Bolivian border in Paraguay, and a recent study by the
National Intelligence Council warned that indigenous movements,
although peaceful now, could "consider more drastic means"
in the future.
Indigenous movements are indeed a threat
to the exhausted free-trade policies Bush is currently hawking,
with ever fewer buyers, across Latin America. Their power comes
not from terror but from a new terror-resistant strain of hope,
one so sturdy it can take root in the midst of Colombia's seemingly
hopeless civil war. And if it can grow there, it can take root
Naomi Klein is the author of No Logo:
Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies (Picador) and, most recently,
Fences and Windows: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Globalization