Thirty years after the Continental Campaign 500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance, Osvaldo León, who participated in the coordination of information on behalf of the Latin American Information Agency (ALAI), recalls that historic day and its importance for the articulation of the social movements of the container.

By Osvaldo León

Between October 1989 and October 1992, the Americas were the scene of a unique and unprecedented social manifestation that would mark organisational processes and the struggle of the oppressed until the present day: the Continental Campaign 500 Years of Indigenous, Black and Popular Resistance, promoted within the framework of the half millennium since the beginning of the European invasion of our lands.

Apart from having been promoted by indigenous and peasant organisations with strong national roots, but without any international affiliation (i.e., newcomers in this ambit), the novelty of this campaign lay in its conception, whose central premise was: “unity in diversity”, which managed to open spaces of confluence – both at national and continental level – of different social sectors. And this, at a time of reflux, dispersion and confusion due to the disintegrating impact of neoliberal policies on organisational processes, and when the feeling of helplessness had begun to spread in many organisations after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Campaign was initially promoted by indigenous and peasant organisations from the Andean region and the Brazilian Landless Movement (MST), which had begun a process of rapprochement following a regional workshop on education and communication in 1987,1 in which, among other resolutions, it was agreed to promote a regional coordination mechanism and to convene a second meeting in Colombia, but at the Latin American level. In the course of the preparations, when weighing up the implications of the call to celebrate the “Meeting of Two Worlds” on the occasion of the V Centenary formulated by the governments of Ibero-America at the time, it was agreed to turn the event into a platform for launching a continental campaign around the 500 Years. Its purpose: to turn “the V Centenary of the Spanish conquest… into the beginning of the self-discovery of our America and a motive for strengthening the unity of the oppressed”.

The start was not easy. When the campaign was launched in Bogotá, for most of the organisations present, it was the first time that they had sat at the same table to share criteria, proposals, approaches, etc. Therefore, it did not take long for differences to emerge and with them doubts, fears, mistrust and, of course, tensions. After all, beyond all voluntarism, everyone had their own particular traditions of struggle, organisational forms, methodologies and styles of work, platforms of demands, approaches, etc. However, one compromise agreement prevailed: “making the road as we go along”.

Its purpose: to turn “the V Centenary of the Spanish conquest… into the beginning of the self-discovery of our America and a reason to strengthen the unity of the oppressed”.

By encouraging a broad debate and mobilisations of diverse forms and scope, this walk succeeded in overturning the festive character that the Spanish government and its peers on the container wanted to give to the 5th Centenary. Moreover, due to its dynamics, it managed to transcend the campaign itself and become a crucible for the emergence of sectoral coordination and articulations, opening gaps towards the future, as it later unfolded into coordination bodies for indigenous peoples, the convergence of Afro-American organisations, the formation of the Latin American Coordination of Rural Organisations (CLOC-Via Campesina) and the Assembly of the People of God, the reactivation of the Continental Front of Communal Organisations (FCOC), among others.

It should be borne in mind that the most dynamic sectors were the most excluded: indigenous peoples, Afro-Americans, peasants, settlers, women, etc., who not only demonstrated new forms and methods of organisation and expression, but also put forward new demands, with a common denominator: the aspiration for a participatory and deliberative democracy – both in the internal life of the organisations and in society as a whole – as the antithesis to the social exclusion generated by the neoliberal model. And in this perspective, the challenge of articulating a “broad, pluralist, multi-ethnic, plurinational, pluricultural, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist, solidarity-based, self-managing, democratic movement against all forms of exploitation, oppression, racism and discrimination” was also raised.

Unity in diversity

The reason for the 500 Years Campaign to assume the premise of “unity in diversity” was the presence of indigenous organisations and their concerns about the meaning and character of alliances, insofar as their problems demanded going beyond an exclusively class-based interpretation to incorporate the ethnic dimension. And, obviously, this premise was also enriched along the way.

In practical terms, this translated into the way the operational process was orchestrated: broad national committees, articulated regionally to nominate their delegates to the continental coordination, having an operational secretariat as a liaison point and facilitator of information exchange. Behind this configuration was the criterion that the Campaign should be above all a space of confluence of the various sectors involved, and that each of these could promote the initiatives they wished.

This was an affirmation of the autonomy of each sector and organisation, since for it to make something it was not necessary to ask permission from The Nobodies, the only thing that arose was the need to coordinate efforts in order to have greater influence. Moreover, it was not considered to be the only campaign; on the contrary, it was assumed that the important thing was for the greatest number of sectors to take a stand on the 500 years, either its interior or outside of it, as in this way indifference to the problems it posed would be broken.

“There was the criterion that the Campaign should be first and foremost a space for the various sectors involved to come together and that each of them could promote the initiatives they wished”.

Thus, by calling for diversity (refusing to impose a single perspective), the aim was also to prevent the 500 years mobilisation from becoming dispersed and inconsequential. If you like, the implicit approach was: valuing diversity, fortifying unity. However, the formula had a prerequisite: respect for difference. And this is undoubtedly one of the most important challenges that the Campaign posed to its protagonists.

It should be borne in mind that a large part of the social movements had been schooled in a certain left-wing tradition marked by intolerance of difference, under whose parameters difference was seen as a tragedy. For this reason, to speak of “unity in diversity” is in itself a break with that tradition.

It is also worth remembering that in many social organisations the “indigenous issue” was taboo and even stigmatised, as it was seen as an issue manipulated by imperialism to divide the popular sectors. And indeed, many examples served to corroborate this assessment, such as the way Ronald Reagan’s government used the Miskitos in Nicaragua to put pressure on Sandinismo, only to leave them to their fate when they lost their instrumental meaning. And there is no doubt that the campaign contributed to the recognition and legitimacy of the indigenous peoples’ demands, which by then were beginning to emerge with force in various countries.

Protagonism and social reunion

Unlike other initiatives of a continental nature that were underway at the time, such as those against the foreign debt, for example, what allowed the Campaign to gain strength, beyond its historical motivation, among other factors, was the fact that it was born with a social protagonism (generally in the face of the indifference, if not suspicion, of the parties) and took root in national processes, hand in hand with the indigenous awakening that took place in several countries in the region, as in the case of the Indigenous Uprising in Ecuador in June 1990.

Thus, the continental and regional aspects were more an expression of the dynamics and convergences (in many cases unprecedented) that the national committees had managed to articulate, and not the other way around. It could be said that it was a pioneering response from the popular camp to the phenomenon of globalisation, as it allowed local actions to be intertwined with global ones, counteracting the localism that neoliberalism sought to impose on social demands; at the same time, it generated a significant movement of international solidarity, etc. And this at a time when the means of distance communication were precarious and very expensive, with the exception of postal mail. Although the Campaign was also a pioneer in the use of digital communication, which in some countries was still in its infancy, the days of the Internet would come years afterwards.

But in addition to the actions deployed, the important thing is that this process made it possible to largely lift the barriers that had stood in the way, both between sectors and between countries. In other words, it created a space where different movements came together to exchange initiatives and experiences, to make denunciations, to present their points of view, to generate solidarity, and at the same time to define common axes that would allow for joint struggles. In other words, it was not a proposal to centralise organisations, but to unify axes of struggle.

If you like, it was an initiative that sought to respond to the need to break the isolation and dispersion in which social movements debate; to the need to overcome the fleeting and precarious relations that exist between organisations at regional and continental level; to the need for effective solidarity with specific struggles; to the need to have a voice of its own in international affairs and spaces; and to this end it placed emphasis on dynamics and mechanisms, rather than on schemes and structures.

During the three years that the conference lasted, there were countless meetings, a series of events, visits, exchanges of experiences and points of view, etc. at national, regional and continental level, which allowed new bonds of solidarity to be forged, not only in terms of greater support and active accompaniment of their respective struggles, but also as participants in a common struggle. It could be said that at the I Encuentro in Bogotá there was a meeting of acronyms that almost nobody knew or could decipher, but two years afterwards in Xelaju (Guatemala) we were already facing basic identities and with results achieved with this common action, so that at the III Encuentro in Managua we will be proposing perspectives for a continental movement.

In short, this Campaign became a kind of great trench that made it possible to resist and to try to move forward with organisational processes, not only within national parameters, but also on a continental and even global level, as evidenced by the fact that in the meantime it won the 1991 Alternative Nobel Prize for the Landless Movement (MST) of Brazil and the 1992 Nobel Prize for the indigenous Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchú Tum.

On the other hand, the organisational scheme (decentralised, liaison – not leadership – body, recognition and respect for the autonomy of its members, search for consensus as the norm for decision-making, etc.) became the reference point in the processes of articulation that were woven in the heat of the Campaign, as in the case of the CLOC-Vía Campesina, which even adopted the symbolism. And the same has happened with subsequent campaigns, such as the Continental Campaign against the FTAA, and other popular initiatives currently underway.

All of this, in essence, demonstrates the capacity that the Campaign achieved in terms of connections to act globally, starting from local initiatives. In other words, something that is not seen at first glance, nor necessarily duly valued, came to light: the articulation of a communication network, of information networks, of spaces for interaction, etc., which are basic requirements for coordination.

1. Workshop convened by FENOCI, Ecuarunari-CONAIE and ALAI, held in Quito, Ecuador, from 7 to 11 October 1987.