Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Barack and Radio Payumat Winners on Election Day!

Greetings from Santander de Quilichao, Cauca, in the heart of Indian country in southwest Colombia!

On this, the day after one of the most historic events in the history of U.S. politics, some people are still in shock over the victory of Barack Obama in the presidential elections. For me, it has been a somewhat surreal experience, seeing it from the standpoint of the indigenous communities in Colombia, with whom I´ve been spending a lot of time with over the past few weeks.

Last night, several members of the Tejido de Comunicación, or communication team of the ACIN watched returns of the elections on Caracol TV here in the offices of Radio Payumat, the award-winning community radio station licensed to the Association of Indgenous Councils of Northern Cauca. As we watched over the course of the night, I could not help but be amazed at how much the Colombian corporate news media tries to emulate their North American counterparts with wall to wall, team coverage of the election returns, tied together nicely with high tech info-graphics and superficial - and at times highly misinformed - analysis by pundits describing the political significance of the vote. Imagine, the former president of Colombia and former general secretary of the OAS Cesar Gaviria playing the role of Wolf Blitzer! What a shame. For much of the Colombian media yesterday, the top story was the conclusion of the US presidential campaign, making it seem that even within Colombia, Colombia did not exist!

The funny thing is that yesterday was a very big day of local and national news, especially for the program staff of Radio Payumat here in Cauca. The radio station and its website continue providing in-depth coverage of the ongoing Popular and Indgenous Minga, which began on October 12th in La Maria Piendamó, and will continue next week in a march to Bogotá, where the indigenous and popular movement will converge in what is being called a Constituent Congress of the Peoples. So yesterday on the air, Emilio Basto, the Nasa host of the popular morning show, as well as Nancy Guerrero, who conducts the news and public affairs program at noon, interviewed a number of representatives of the local cabildos throughout the region, who discussed how they were organizing within their communities for the continuation of the Minga. This unfolding story continues to be the top story for the community.

But there was another big story that unfolded on a national level in Colombia. Indeed, it´s the kind of story that one cannot help but imagine had deliberately occurred on a day when so many people in the news media were distracted by the historic elections up north. The resignation of General Mario Montoya as Commander of the Colombian Army, in the midst of the growing scandal involving the Army's horrendous use of "False Positives," is a major development that presents more contradictions than it was supposed to resolve. While presented in some news reports as the continuation of the so-called purge of army officers that began last week as a result of the startling revelations of the murders of innocent civilians by the Army and passed off as guerilla combat deaths, Monotoya's resigantion actually serves as a convenient cover for President Uribe. The president is made to look like the good guy, who will not tolerate this kind of behavior by his men in uniform. However, over the last several months, it has become ever more clearer that these security policies come from the top, with an administration that reserves as its primary objective the liquidation of the FARC, regardless of the cost. In essence, as long as there are scapegoats available, the president will be fine.

The bigger issue is whether or not Montoya will ever be brought to justice, not only for his connection to the false positives, which some reports say may have resulted in over 1,000 deaths of innocent civilians, but also to a long history of nefarious links with state-sponsored terror in Colombia? There is good reason to doubt that he will.

This important story was indeed covered on Radio Payumat with the diligence the staff has shown over the years in reporting with the community mission in mind. They do this in the midst of a profound crisis facing indigenous and peasant communities in northern Cauca. And they continue to report on the Montoya resignation today, so as not to let it slide by and fall into the archives of collective amnesia that has become the standard for these types of stories in Colombia.

But back to the elections. This was also being covered on Radio Payumat. Nancy Guerrero interviewed a few folks back in New York via Skype to talk about how things were going on the day of the vote. Among her guests were Latino trade union activists who worked on the Obama campaign as well as on the grassroots anti-FTA work that has stalled one of President Uribe's biggest obsessions in the U.S. Congress; a Colombian journalist living in NYC, who described the mood of Latinos in places like Queens; and our friend and colleague Jesus Avirama, a Kokonuco Indian and veteran activist from Cauca who has been living in New York City for the past six years. Needless to say, Nancy and Jesus made the important links between the elections and the Minga, with "Chucho" reminding the audience of Payumat that : "The Minga must continue and reach the U.S., Washington, New York, because here is where all these policies emanate from. With a new president and a new Congress, we cannot let up the pressure to make sure real change actually comes with respect to US policy in Colombia."

It was comprehensive election coverage in a local context! I was loving it.

So last night, just after 11pm local time, we were sitting in the station following the coverage, when suddenly, we heard a burst of car horns flooding the empty and darkened streets just outside the studios. What could that have been, was the national soccer team playing a crucial game in the elimination rounds of the World Cup?

Obvioulsy no. The horns were an expression of the excitement and enthusiasm that some residents of this mostly Afro-Colombian and Indigenous municipality felt when hearing the news that Barack Obama had won the elections and would become the first Black president of the USA. The same energy and excitement that was emanating from Garnt Park in Chicago, or the streets of Harlem in the heart of Black America, trickled its way here to Santander de Quilichao! While it may be a stretch to say that Obama is the first truly global president, as one Kenyan woman was quoted today in CNN as saying, there is no doubt that people around the world, and here in Cauca, breathed a collective sigh of relief with the news last night. As I walked this morning to the radio station, I could not help but smile as three black middle schoolers waiting to enter their school were joking around with eachother, calling themselves "Obama, Obama."

Watching the victory speech on TV (with a Spanish language translation), Robledo, the station's night watchman, commented with surprise the incredible racial diversity of the faces that were passing across the screen as the camera panned across the crowds that had gathered in Chicago - black, white, Latino, Asian.

"Imagine when we'll be able to do that here, when all of us will be celebrating together one of our own getting elected to the Presidency?" he asked.

Is it a new era?

The folks down here in Cauca are not naive to think it'll make that much of a difference in their lives. Afterall, it was a Democrat that pushed through the Plan Colombia package that they are currently protesting against.

Indeed, they have a lot to be concerned about. But from Colombia's standpoint, we hope that Obama will remain true to the issue of human rights. And not only from the perspective of the impunity relating to murders of trade unionists, but to all the examples of hypocrisy that has characterized the perverse relationship between President Uribe and the outgoing President Bush.

Will Obama play hardball vis a vis the false positives, and its connection to US Plan Colombia aid money? Will he open up the files of the CIA, the DEA, the FBI, and all the other U.S. agencies that must have detailed accounts of the complicity of the Uribe administration in the growth and criminality of the paramilitary project? Will he stand strong against the FTA, opposed by a broad cross section of the Colombian public? And will he hear the call of the Popular Minga, whch is the voice of the millions of people in Colombia who have been targeted, marginalized and persecuted by a security strategy that is finally becoming exposed for what it is?

One would only hope so, lest the excitement and hope that has been generated, not only in the US, but around the planet, with this momentous victory be squelched sooner than we can say "Gano el Negro!"

In any event, there was another reason to celebrate this week. The entire communication team of ACIN was recognized by the weekly national news magazine Cambio as one of the 25 "Most important persons" in Colombia who are trying to make the country a better place for everybody.

Here is the link to this important achievement.

Congrats to The Tejido...and Congrats to Barack. Just keep it real!
Members of the Tejido covering Sunday's debate with President Uribe