The Challenges of Popular Movements

by Micheál Ó Tuathail and Manuel Rozental, Upside Down World

Indigenous guard of the Minga, 2008. Photo: UDW
Last fall, Colombia’s social and popular movements captured the world’s attention. Emerging initially from the indigenous territories in Northern Cauca and expanding to unite diverse sectors, the Social and Community Minga burst onto the national and international scene with a popular agenda for radical change, a “country of the peoples without owners.” The collective cry of the indigenous movement, Afro-Colombian communities, women’s, worker, student and other social organizations across the country reached a fever pitch, garnering much attention from abroad. A year later, the Minga appears to have arrived at a crossroads, where a once powerful popular agenda risks being manipulated in favor of a narrow and domesticating one. While its capacity to mobilize remains strong, the Minga’s direction is increasingly contested.

The one-year anniversary of the Minga featured renewed spaces of convergence in three regional pre-congresses held in Cali, Cartagena and Bogotá in mid-October. Marches and other acts of solidarity took place in other parts of the continent.

In Cali, roughly 30,000 people from eight of the country’s southwest departments came together to discuss the Minga’s next steps. Some loaded into colorfully painted “chivas” and buses. Others chose to “walk the word,” in scorching sun and torrential rain, for days from the towns of Villa Rica and Jamundí through the concrete maze of Cali to the Coliseo del Pueblo, camping there for three days of discussion and debate.

Advancing occupation and the urgency of a common agenda
The Minga did not come out of nowhere. Its agenda and spirit reflect a deep analysis and understanding of the context of the communities and individuals that gave the mobilization its force and the urgency of a popular and collective agenda.

The spirit of the Minga sought to name and expose a dynamic regime of occupation, one that extends beyond the administration of the country’s current president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez. In the analysis of the indigenous of Northern Cauca, an “integral plan of aggression” is at play in Colombia. It involves three broad strategies:

First is the use of war and terror to displace people from their land and hand over nature and people (land and labor) to transnational capital. Armed actors (left and right, illegal and official) use war and terror to advance and legitimize their existence, interests and actions. In a community assembly in Corinto, Cauca, last year, one leader explained the situation this way: “Here, there’s a group called the National Army, and another called the People’s Army. But neither one of them respects us. They won’t let us live in peace.”

The second strategy involves legislation and laws of eviction to privatize public services and collective territories and goods. Providing legal frameworks favorable to investors over communities and peoples, these laws are locked in permanently through so-called “free trade agreements.”

Finally, there is the constant and strategic use of propaganda and the mass media to attack the regime’s opponents, obscure reality and make invisible the misery lived by millions. Communities are alienated from one another through a mass media that entertains and saturates public opinion with an obsessive focus on the despicable actions of the FARC over all else. By not addressing other issues with similar effect—such as the re-emergence of paramilitary groups and their deepening infiltration of the state, scandals over constitutional reforms, illegal wire-tapping and drug-trafficking by state agencies and officials—propaganda is turned into a tool of aggression, debilitating the people’s ability to confront it.

At the Pre-Congress in Cali last week, indigenous communicators from the Tejido de Comunicación of Northern Cauca held a series of video-forums, spaces where they show documentaries and hold discussions with the communities. It is a form of communication aimed at raising consciousness and constructing collective analyses of local realities in a global context.

“Last night, we showed a documentary on Plan Puebla-Panama,” the massive infrastructure project in Central America, said a member of the Tejido. “During the discussion, an old man from Tierradentro stood up and said, ‘that’s exactly what they’re trying to do in our territories. They’re trying to build a bridge there, but it’s not for us. It’s for the multinationals. They’re going to throw us out so they can build that bridge.”

Faced with the advancing occupation through an integral plan of aggression, the urgency of the Minga evolved into a need to recognize and name the threats faced by diverse communities across Colombia and beyond, threats of a transnational regime that goes beyond the tyrannical leaders at its service. The challenge of the Minga was in confronting an aggression lived in Colombia but also projected from Colombia and intended for the region. The first task was to recognize it.

The Hope of the Social and Community Minga
Across Latin America, social and popular movements have returned, awakening a new era of social and political change that, in varying degrees, confronts an economic model imposed from abroad and accepted by a powerful few from within Latin American societies.

The Minga has the potential to expose the contemporary confrontation of two incompatible paradigms that are also present beyond Colombia. One is hegemonic, premised on the principle of transforming life and labor into tools for accumulation, where anything or anyone not at the service of greed is perceived and treated as an obstacle to progress. This paradigm is in crisis, as the planet, its creatures and cultures face the risk of extinction. Colombia’s indigenous peoples have named this the “death project.”

The other paradigm is ancestral in origin as the essence of indigenous peoples throughout the planet. It is fragmented and now being woven together, promoting the sacredness of life and demanding that the economy serve the wellbeing of people in harmony with nature, rather than life being exploited for the insatiable greed of an all-powerful minority. In contrast with the “death project,” this paradigm encompasses the “life plans” of indigenous peoples.

When the Social and Community Minga arrived in Bogotá in November of last year—in a 60,000-person march from the ancestral territory for Peace, Dialogue and Reconciliation, located at the La María-Piendamó reservation, to the capital—a five-point popular agenda was presented to the country:

1. No to the Free Trade Agreements and the so-called “free trade” economic model.

2. No to terror, an instrument of the global system to dispossess peoples of their territories, rights and freedoms and deliver these to corporate interests through all the armed actors, each of whose presence reinforces that of the others and threatens the permanence of people in their communities, as well as the survival of democratic opposition and unions.

3. No to laws and constitutional reforms which are the backbone of a political agenda designed to evict people from their lands, deny basic and essential rights and freedoms and deliver the country to the interests of transnational capital and accumulation.

4. Yes to the Colombian state honoring its previous agreements and obligations, regardless of who heads the government, with all Colombians, including indigenous, Afro-Colombian and other communities and sectors.

5. Yes to the weaving of a common agenda of the peoples. All causes are our own.

In essence, these points denounce the global transnational regime of corporate capital and its “free trade” model as responsible for the economic and ecological crises leading to the imminent risk of collapse for the reproduction of societies, cultures and life itself throughout the planet; they call upon peoples to weave a collective agenda, and they demand that state obligations achieved through struggle be respected.

The power of these five points is that they represent the dignity of peoples with an agenda of their own, illuminating a path for peoples in resistance. Recognition of the aggression was the first step towards rejection of a model through which few have benefited, and the collective construction of alternatives where life can no longer be owned.

The Minga sought a space from which to construct a new country, where everyone is included and conscious of the project’s urgency and possibilities. It was not a strategy or platform for one group over others but an inclusive and shared process, bringing together the collective pain, struggles and hopes of all sectors. Rather than making demands of or trying to reform the system (comprised of legal and illegal armed actors, the state and the multinationals), the Minga called for an autonomous agenda of the peoples to be woven, for the construction of an entirely new country.

“The Minga is such a beautiful idea,” said an elder outside the Coliseo in Cali. “It has moved from here and around the world, and the reason is because of the spirit of these people. Many of them don’t understand the opportunity, the immense power of what they’re doing.”

He also noted that the current challenge of the Minga is not only in confronting external powers but also the contradictions of powerful interests internal to the process itself.

This was echoed by Ricardo, a teacher from a rural community in Cauca: “This Minga means so much to people. They walk because they have so much hope in the process. The Minga is projected to the world in a certain way, but it’s like no one pays attention to what’s going on internally.”

“Authorized” Resistance? The changing word of the Minga
Since last year, the Minga has garnered much attention from within Colombia and abroad, attention that has left an impact on the process as an autonomous political possibility.

The spirit of the Minga is such that it has the capacity to mobilize thousands in an instant. The image of resistance and hope is thus projected outwards, collecting sympathy and support, some genuine and some opportunistic.

A number of leaders have risen to prominent positions, and diverse organizations have latched on to the Minga, in some cases modifying its agenda for narrow interests. This has occurred in a number of ways.

Little more than a month after the Minga’s five-point agenda was proclaimed in Bogotá in November 2008, the Regional Indigenous Councils of Cauca (CRIC) presented a document to a meeting of the Indigenous Social Alliance (ASI), an indigenous-led political party. That document outlined what was claimed to be “the five points defended by the Social and Community Minga of Resistance”:

1. Respect for human rights and the “good name” of the indigenous movement;

2. Respect for international declarations, agreements and conventions, in particular the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples;

3. The halt and reversal of legislation of eviction, where “the national debate on the FTA is a fundamental requirement” (emphasis added);

4. Compliance with pending agreements between the government and “processes of social mobilization”; and

5. “The construction of a country where differences are understood and included within the national territory and a state that responds to the dreams of the popular majority.”

These five points differ substantially from those presented to the world a month earlier. First, they focus on issues faced by indigenous peoples in particular, though the Minga was intended to be a process that spoke to the issues faced by all sectors. Second, the emphasis on opposing the FTAs was downgraded from outright rejection to a call for “a national debate,” as just another law of eviction. This allowed the first point to focus on human rights and the “good name” of the indigenous movement. The issue of human rights is included out of context from the social and economic rights that the original agenda defended and insisted upon. Moreover, the demands are for “respect,” not transformation. In sum, the changes proposed by the CRIC do not seek to challenge the current situation in Colombia fundamentally. While the original spirit of the Minga sought to engage Colombia “from below,” the agenda of the CRIC seeks to demand a response from the state “from above” and within the hierarchies of the leading organizations.

Moreover, there is a fundamental problem in how the modified agenda has come about: through the organizations and among their leaderships, without the input of the communities that have continually breathed life into the Minga as a process from the grassroots. In the current discourse of the Minga, the original five points appear to have survived attempts to change them. But these attempts are dangerous signs for any popular process.

Referring to the varieties of the five-point agenda that have arisen since November 2008, one Minga participant exclaimed, “The only word being walked here is ‘confusion.'” This has undoubtedly had an impact on the coherence of the Minga.

There is also the emergence of a political-electoral direction for the Minga. Last year, indigenous leader and Minga spokesperson Feliciano Valencia told the crowds in Bogotá, “This Minga must not end in an election, no sir. This Minga is not a trampoline for candidates that want to use discourses to get into those spaces, no way. This effort must not be betrayed by small-minded things. We have to care for this like a birth, like a seed that we are planting today, a process with a long life ahead.”

In Cali, one year later, the Pre-Congress’ introduction speeches included those introduced as “key promoters of the Minga,” two ASI political candidates, Aida Quilcué and Alcibiades Escué. Addressing an anxious crowd, Quilcué spoke of the Minga as a process that “is not individual but collective, one with a long history coming from the people.” As a senatorial candidate, she probably could not have avoided the spotlight, but the mass media covering the event still surrounded and followed her in swarms. It is what they do: identify protagonists and provide the means through which collective processes become reduced to individual trampolines for political-electoral campaigns.

Escué’s speech indicated much more explicitly an attempt at re-orienting the Minga. “I want to outline three important aspects for our work here,” he told the crowd: “1) Why are we here and for what? Human rights!… 2) What are we going to think about? Distributing land and pushing for education!… And 3) How do we get more people involved?”

Without mention of the five points of the people’s agenda, Escué appeared to be outlining a campaign platform, not a popular agenda. The opportunism of such statements is also evident in his calling for the expansion of mobilization in the absence of a clear direction.

As a number of interests swarm towards the action, the picture is further obscured. Marches become demonstrations of mobilization capacity and nothing more. The leaders walk at the front, and the people are confused and left behind, projecting the image of massive popular support for narrow interests. Meanwhile, the regime does not even flinch.

The Minga will continue. But if it loses its essence, it risks becoming a form of resistance that is considered acceptable to power. Charles Hale and Rosamel Millamán use the concept of “indio permitido” (“authorized Indian”) to categorize a subject that functions within the project of neoliberalism. In a similar vein, there is the emergence of forms of resistance that are authorized by power, toned down and accepted for their symbolic value. Rather than threatening power, an authorized resistance reinforces existing social relations by providing examples, however superficial, of tolerance and popular representation.

Nurturing the seed of the Minga
What is emerging is a dual system of power within the Minga itself. On the one hand, there are the leaders and representatives of organizations and NGOs, who have played an active role in re-orienting the Minga as a way of legitimizing themselves to funding agencies and colleagues. On the other hand, there are the participants, the marchers from the communities that believe so strongly in the Minga as a process that is of them. This confrontation is the primary challenge currently facing the Minga.

Evidence of the confrontation is emerging among some participants. One noted, “What really kills me is to see those people walking barefoot for miles in the march. Barefoot! To show how much they believe in this process. They have so much hope in the leaders without knowing what’s going on behind the scenes.”

Of the current direction of the leadership, one elder lamented, “They think of the here and now, of immediate things, and not all that came before this and could come after. That’s why they collect a little more here and there to satisfy the immediate needs of the organizations and lose sight of the process, the seed that this Minga has planted not just for Colombia but for the world.”

For now, burning questions stand out with respect to the health of that seed. How can the Minga be strengthened to avoid being susceptible to the narrow interests of a few prominent organizations and protagonists?

As in the past and across different contexts, cooptation has looked and felt like mobilization for change, yet rarely contesting the fundamentals of a brutal system. We need to ask why popular agendas are removed from the control of those barefooted walkers, and also how they allow them to slip away?

As the mingueros march, they walk the word. But which word? And for what?

As an indigenous Nasa proverb tells us: “The word without action is empty, action without the word is blind, and action and the word outside the spirit of the community is death.”

An annual march changes nothing. The necessity of critical self-reflection is urgent. It is one thing to find ways to defend the Minga by returning the action and word to the spirit of the communities. It is also important to be able to name the contradictions of our own processes without destroying their original spirit, embodied in the hopes of those barefooted walkers. That is how the seed of the Minga can be nurtured and cared for.

Recognizing these challenges is the first step in overcoming them, so that the Minga and other popular and collective initiatives can prepare to face them from the outset.

Thanks to the people in Minga, especially those who shared their stories and experiences. We are also grateful to two wonderful compas (they know who they are) for their comments on earlier drafts of this article and for their friendship, guidance and love.


This article first appeared Nov. 5 on Upside Down World.


“Minga” is the name given by indigenous people in the Andes to an ancestral practice that involves entire communities in efforts towards the achievement of a common goal. It is a collective process, and as such, cannot be owned.

Country of the Peoples without Owners” is the title of an excellent documentary produced by the Tejido de Comunicación on the Minga in 2008. For excellent coverage from the Minga last year, see also Mario Murillo’s blog, MamaRadio.

See also:

Indigenous Leader Assassinated on Massacre Anniversary
by Mario A. Murillo, MAMA Radio
World War 4 Report, January 2009

From our Daily Report:

Latin America: indigenous mark Oct. 12 with protests
World War 4 Report, Oct. 20, 2009

UN approves Indigenous Declaration
World War 4 Report, Sept. 17, 2007


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, December 1, 2009
Reprinting permissible with attribution