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"We are not asking to be given rights, we are demanding them"

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

We interviewed the social leader Andrés Maíz to learn more about his long fight for land rights and his work with Lxs Sin Techo in Popayán (Cauca).

By Jessica García

Andrés Maíz is a social leader, a movement builder, a fighter who struggles for his people despite the great risk, for nothing more and nothing less than the struggle in defense of the right to land and dignified housing in a country with the highest levels of land concentration in Latin America.

In Andrés' long history of deep organizing and defense of human rights they have led and been integral to the building of several popular/people's neighborhoods in the city of Popayán (Cauca). These neighborhoods were born out of the community's joint demand for the full respect of their collective rights. Linked to this fight for a life with dignity and power, Andrés has been an active organizer of the LGBTIQ+ community in Popayán.

Today, we interviewed him to learn more about his long fight for land rights and his work with Lxs Sin Techo in Popayán.

Jessica: Can you tell us about yourself?

Andrés: I am Andrés Maíz, I am a human rights defender, I am an activist of the trans-marica collective Las Mariposas Negras, I am a cook and member of the Mesa Larga network of traditional cooks and artisans, and I am part of the effort in unified and consolidated action alongside the families that make up the popular and community movement of Lxs Sin Techo, from the ecovillage La Estrella Roja.

Jessica: You mentioned La Estrella Roja and Lxs Sin Techo. You have also shared that your role in the fight for housing and land is part of your longer movement history, can you tell us a little more about that history and about La Estrella Roja?

Andrés: I am an Indigenous community member, a Nasa Indigenous person. I live in the ancestral territory of Julumito, of the Julumito Resguardo. My ancestors come from the geographical triangle known as Quintana Novirao and Polintara. In this way, I descend from a long line of those who fight for the land.

Jessica: How did this process of struggle for the right to decent housing begin, here in Popayán, with La Estrella Roja and Lxs Sin Techo?

Andrés: In 2008 in Colombia one of the many great robberies and dispossesions of the Colombian people took place. These actions were actively promoted by the government, in this year, the Álvaro Uribe administration. The theft was led by the holding company DMG, owned by David Murcia Guzmán and others. There were about 5 illegal multi-level marketing companies that swindled Colombians. The University of Cauca made a study at the Faculty of Economics to evaluate the economic impact of the embezzlement of these illegal money collectors in Popayán. This study showed that [these scams] had dealt a very strong blow to the economy of the city; they calculated that it would take at least 6 years for the city to recover from this economic theft, alone.

And while this financial disaster persisted, the Duque government came into power. That administration was disastrous not only in terms of Colombia's international relations with the world, but also in the management of the economy. By not resolving the Havana Peace Accords, the hopes of millions of Colombians in the countryside and in the city were troubled.

Finally, the pandemic war exacerbates the misery facing the Colombian people- and in many other places across the planet- but Colombia is the one I live in. The DANE statistics for the year 2021 indicate that in a city like Popayán of 400,000 inhabitants, 3 out of 10 people go to bed hungry, that is to say, that they only have one or two meals a day.

Jessica: What has this meant in the struggle of Lxs Sin Techo? How has the State reacted to your demand for the right to decent housing?

Andrés: In 2020, that forced us to march and motivated us to place the discussion of land in the perspective of the struggle for fundamental rights: such as land and decent housing. So we decided to go and occupy. We chose a piece of land that is on a wetland, which is owned by a Caucano company called CEDELCA, but which has been concessioned to one of the richest men in Colombia, Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo.

In order to generate political discussion, it was necessary to identify the interests of powerful people. If you do not touch the keys here, they will not listen to you. As the great writer from the south of the continent, who wrote the Open Veins of Latin America, said, well, the open veins of Colombia are in the cocoa trees. They are the broken vein, that is where all of our sweat goes. [As poor people, our taking over this land] obviously unleashed the violent defense of Don Luis Carlos' concentrated legacy. But once the first spark had exploded, we could not let it go out.

Jessica: So, what happened?

Andres: There was a constant onslaught, that onslaught has taken place at several moments, over time. On August 1, 2020, a police colonel, the commander of the Metropolitan Police here, with the last name Falla, claimed in a statement to W Radio, that they had found propaganda from a guerrilla organization in our organization's shacks. The human rights defenders who were in that space, with the accompaniment of the Public Prosecutor's Office, at no time could prove those claims true.

Jessica: Currently, what is the situation of the comrades in Lxs Sin Techo and of La Estrella Roja in particular?

Andrés: That matrix of opinion [a web of storied told about our work], created by Colonel Falla, persists. In the same week, the head of Security of the Popayan Police, Dario Daza, in a statement to W Radio made false claims that we were part of a criminal structure. This situation has been escalating. We are victims of threats. A week ago, an armed group of farmers offered to set us on fire.That's what they said. As a result of this context, threats against us increase. Today two of our compañeros, Andres Duque and Bremen Hinestroza, are still under arrest. This means that who is speaking to you now, is also in danger of being imprisoned.

Jessica: Bearing that in mind, can you tell us a little more about these compañeros arrested for defending the right to dignified housing, in what situation they face, to better understand the criminalization of social protest?

Andres: We are the victims of a set-up, so the set-ups, well, they put them together, like they put together empanadas or the tamales. What we know is that there is a montage around that web of stories created by the Police, that in the framework of the social uprisings they add an additional ingredient, and that is that they categorise all expressions of protest as Primera Linea (front line). So our community proposal is categorised as violent, all of it is subversive. And, well, our compañeros are in jail precisely because of that. They have been charged with six crimes. Now it is up to the lawyers to dismantle the "evidence" presented by the prosecutor, and from there, to continue our fight.

We are still celebrating this small victory for the Colombian people to bring Petro and Francia Marquez to the Presidency. But it is a small victory, in the face of a long history of the crushing our rights, so we do not know how the Prosecutor's Office or this judge will act. In the end, we hope that they do what is right. And that in law our compañeros can defend themselves, and that with this defense they can win their freedom again.

Jessica: waiting for this answer and going back to the meaning of this struggle, well I would like to ask you, what does this struggle for the defense of the right to dignified housing and land mean to you, with all the risks that we see that this implies, but you still continue to fight?

Andrés: I think that, throughout the history of humanity, there have always been women and men or queer people who have fought for the right to a dignified life, motivated by different needs. We have all taken on struggles. I know the pain of collecting the coins for the rent. And when I say pain, it is because it hurts to choose between paying the rent or eating. And as I know that there are thousands, millions of human beings in Colombia who are condemned to enslavement, to have access to a piece of land is to open the door, to break the chain and open the path to freedom. I understand that there are several different constructions of slavery. We live a type of slavery, in Colombia, that is related to the denial of the right to access to land. That is to say, the alarming level of our inequality is that people like Álvaro Uribe own 2000 hectares of land, he lives on a 2000 hectare farm and there are peasants who live on a 300 m2 plot of land, or there are people in the city who only have the severe burden of paying rent. So our struggle has to do with that, we cannot talk about the right to life, without food, without shelter, without peace. So, since all these rights have been violated, we have to take on the task of shouting and demanding them. We are not asking for rights, we are demanding them, and in order to demand them, we have to go to take back the land. It does not matter if the owner is a big landowner or the State.

Jessica: Who is part of this movement? For example, La Estrella Roja. Where do these communities come from?

Andrés: Most of the people are victims of political violence, they are victims of armed violence, they are victims of economic violence, and the impoverished are victims.They are the victims. For me, the Colombian people as a whole are victims, they have been violated in every possible way. The violence will be because they are Black because they are Indigenous because they are Campesinxs, because they are queer, because they are nowhere, they just are.

So, in La Estrella Roja are the victims, the victims of a failed state, the victims of a political hegemony that denies them, and robbs them of all their rights. When I understood what foreign debt meant, I understood that we had to fight against it now. Well, here in Colombia many generations have fought, but the responsibility lies with those who have governed, who have condemned us to this misery. So the meaning of our struggle is to be clear about that and for that, you don't need to be a communist, although I am one. But we do not train the community to be communists. We are not interested in that, we are interested that they become political, if they decide consciously, well, that will be another thing. But in principle, they should be clear that they are fighting for the right to land, and to life. If they have a piece of land, their minds will no longer be burdened with the desperation of having to pay the rent or eat. You were with me an hour ago in a conversation, in an interview with a man who said that he is now sleeping peacefully. That means his children can see the tranquility on his face. In other words, this fight makes sense. Yes, it does.

Jessica: Finally, what is the dream for La Estrella Roja, for this community, for Lxs Sin Techo?

Andrés: I think we still have a long way to go, but I think the dream is that our people really understand and assume that there is only a way out of this, if there is solidarity. If it is not based on solidarity, it is a failed project. We are going to make the greatest possible effort to deconstruct that gangsterish, mafia-like culture that has been imposed on us, that of “me and me and me and me”, to return us to that place of we are, all of us, all of us and all of us, we still have some way to go. We still have a little way to go, let's see!


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