Martyrs to the U'wa cause

Last night I was listening to the Pacifica network news for information on the killings in Colombia. Before the Internet came along, this progressive FM outlet was one of the few sources of uncensored news. They interviewed the leader of the Amazon Network, based here in NYC, which has done work in support of the U'wa. She knew and admired the 3 activists who were killed recently in Colombia.

She had little new information to add on the specifics of the kidnapping and the murder, but she did make one point that is worth considering in terms of U'wa-guerrilla relations. She said that the guerrillas considered the land upon which the U'wa lived as under their jurisdiction, while the Indians considered it their own. While most of the U'wa grief is related to oil company incursions, the guerrillas have also made things difficult by blowing up pipelines and consequently fouling the land and water that Indians regard as sacred.

All things considered, there are symptoms of the same sort of theoretical failure in Colombian Marxism that existed in the Sandinista movement, which did not take the Miskitu question into full account. Marxism has literally not developed a theory of the relationship of precapitalist societies to socialism. It began as a theory addressing the two major classes that absorbed Marx and Engels in the mid-19th century, the bourgeoisie and working class. The theory was updated to reflect the importance of the peasantry, indispensable to the success of the Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions.

However, the Mayan Indians of Guatemala and Mexico, the Quechua of Peru, the Miskitus of Nicaragua, the Yanomami of Brazil and the U'wa of Colombia all retain ties to precapitalist economic forms, even though they may participate in the capitalist economy as wage workers or farmers. Communal land ownership and indigenous political structures exist side by side with more modern socio-economic structures. Marxist guerrillas have tended to look at these peculiarly indigenous structures as awkward legacies of the past. As soon as the Sandinistas came out to the Atlantic Coast after their victory over Somoza, they behaved in an arrogant fashion. The racism of the Somoza era was repackaged in Marxist jargon, but it amounted to the same thing. The Indians were savages who needed to be civilized.

If you look at the web pages of the FARC and the ELN, you will find no references to the Indian question. The tiny U'wa tribe probably never commanded the attention of the guerrilla theorists. In Peru, Guatemala and Chiapas, there are far too many Indians to sweep under the rug, so the guerrilla movements have been forced to address their demands. In the case of Peru and the Shining Path, the response has been largely inadequate, but in Chiapas the movement has benefited from a skillful synthesis of indigenist and Marxist themes.

Despite the fact that the U'wa are small in number, they must demand an appropriate response from the guerrilla movement or else it will lose support internationally, which is as important as victories in the battlefield. The U'wa-numbering 5000 souls-have threatened to commit mass suicide unless the oil companies leave them alone. The Colombian guerrilla movement must champion their cause and become known as the fiercest defenders of Indian rights. It is to the credit of the indigenous activists that they have focused their fire on the oil companies and the American and Colombian governments, despite the less than inspiring record of the guerrilla movement on this question.

Last night the leader of the Amazon Network began sobbing in the middle of her interview. In some sense, the death of American citizens in a war zone has always caused more anguish because we can identify with the victims. When I think of the young environmentalist Terence Freitas born into a privileged family, I am reminded of Ben Linder who decided to work on a small-scale hydroelectric dam in northern Nicaragua and who was killed by US-backed contras for his efforts. If their martyrdom can serve to build resistance to the greed-driven, murderous policies of the oil companies, American and Colombian governments, then lives will not have been lost in vain. More than anything, this incident should act as a wake-up call to the Marxist guerrillas in Colombia to think more clearly about the primacy of indigenous demands. As Jesus Christ said, the last should be first.