Monday, June 23, 2014

Tales of Migration and Detention

by James Hutter,
Tales of Migration & Detention
(This blog entry is part of a series. Click these links for Part 1, Part 2 & Part3)
Our visit to San Francisco Tetlanohcan had been a powerful experience for many varied reasons. We saw first hand the effects that migration has had on the community – the loss of family members and the economic impact on the town. We also learned about the
group CAFAMI (Centro deAtencion a la Familia Migrante Indigena) and their efforts to share the tales of migrant families and to reverse the trend of migration. Yet, one particular event still stands out in my mind. One afternoon we had a few moments to meet with residents of Tetlanohcan to hear their personal tales of migration and their thoughts on immigration policy as a whole...
“I am the mother of 7 children in the U.S. My first went in 1990 and I have not seen him since.”
This was the first statement we heard as we gathered in a group to share stories of migration and detainment. The experience quickly turned into a highly emotional session in which residents of San Francisco Tetlanohcan tearfully told us their deeply personal tales. So impactful were these stories that many of us simply sat agasp. While we listened to tales of loved ones that had left home to migrate to the United States, it became clear to the delegation that some of the people in attendance had personally attempted to cross the Mexico-United States Border. It also became clear that a few of them had not had papers to do so.

“I tried to visit my family in the caravan through many states and the desert. I remember seeing all the crosses and thought about all of those that died and how they may have died.”
“One man on the caravan had the sad job of finding bodies. He looked for families or family members that were missing.”

The migration is not easy and it venturesthrough remote areas often in the vast desert. While the people leading the caravan may take different routes to avoid Mexican or U.S. Border Patrol, it is hard for migrants not to notice the sad markers from past travelers.
Travelers that survive the desert still have a high probability of being captured at the border. And while they all surely realize that they have broken the law in attempting to cross the border, almost none of them are prepared for the treatment they receive from U.S. Border Patrol agents if captured.
One woman told us that she was detained and never given any real information about her status or what Border Patrol had in mind for her. Would she be sent back quickly? Would she be imprisoned? Would something even worse happen to her? It was only after being detained for several days that Border Patrol informed her that the car she was traveling in had no license plates (hence their suspicion) and that she would be forced to testify against the smuggler who had brought her across the border. This was unsettling since many of the “Coyotes” (smugglers) now have Mexican drug cartel affiliations; testifying against a cartel member could be a death sentence. Her last hopes of safety faded even further as her Border Patrol captor told her and fellow captives that they were...
“Bitches. Fucking Mexican pieces of shit.”

A few other tales were shared and it became clear that many detained migrants are treated as less than human.
Our obvious questions were “Why are people are leaving in droves, and why would they would risk taking a potentially deadly journey?” One person responded,
“Both Governments are responsible for this... What good is educating people when there are no jobs?”

            While many felt that the U.S. has an unfair immigration policy for neighboring Mexico, there was a sense among some in the audience that the Mexican government is also responsible and has let their own people down. Both governments have failed to modify trade policies that have negatively impacted farmers in rural areas, and have depressed these regions. It's no wonder that people want to leave and look for work in new areas. And once people in the town have hit the lowest point of desperation and bravely decide to go elsewhere, their families are left to think...
“'We've lost them. We don't know if they are alive or dead. We don't know if border patrol has left them to die.”

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Questions from Cuba--guest post by Emma Tai

Witness for Peace is grateful to Emma Tai for contributing this post to the WFP blog. Emma lives in Chicago, where she works as a community organizer and researcher. She participated in the Sustainable Communities delegation to Cuba with Witness for Peace in May 2014.

In Cuba, perhaps more than any place I've ever been, I felt acutely the tensions between the different versions of history. Each version has its own agenda (although the official version of the U.S. government has exponentially more money and power behind it), and each leads to its own interpretations of what’s happening in the present moment.

Our hosts in Cuba acknowledged this upfront, cautioning us that, “in Cuba, there are two answers to every question.” So instead of authoritatively summarizing the top three lessons learned from the Witness for Peace delegation in which I participated, I’ll be writing a series here about the key questions—and the many possible answers—that I’m still grappling with.

Question #1: The Blockade
In one of our first exchanges, our Cuban hosts told us that it is possible to tell United States history without mentioning Cuba, but that it’s not possible to tell Cuban history without talking about the U.S. My first question in this occasional series keeps the focus on the main policy that defines U.S.-Cuba relations today: the U.S. trade embargo. What is the impact of the U.S. embargo, and what would happen if it ended?

Popular sentiment against the U.S. blockade is strong in Cuba (photo: David Zucchino)

The impact of the U.S. embargo, or the “bloqueo” (blockade), as it’s referred to in Cuba, depends on who you ask. Below, I've paraphrased just a sample of the analyses that we heard or read while on our delegation:

  • “The blockade has cut us off from access to life-saving medical technologies, and innocent people have suffered and died as a result.” – Cuban senior
  • “Medications are exempted from the embargo. If regular Cubans don’t have access to medical technology, it’s because the government is too poor to buy them, because socialism doesn't work.”  - U.S. government official
  • “The U.S. embargo is a failed human rights policy, because it targets the whole population’s access to basic rights like food, clean water, and health care, and gives the Castros an excuse to crack down on dissidents.” – Cuban scholar
  • “Sanctions work against dictatorships. Just look at South Africa and Iraq.” – U.S. government official
  • “As a result of the embargo, Cuba has created the world’s largest working model of organic, diversified, local agriculture that doesn't rely on global agribusiness for oil and chemicals.” – U.S. environmental studies scholar 
  • “The U.S. blockade is driven by the Castros’ political opponents, who have largely emigrated to Miami. That is why their overwhelming interest is in undermining Cuban sovereignty with regime change. But the regime has not changed even as our political and economic systems have, and now President Obama has a historic opportunity to change a counterproductive policy.” – Cuban journalist

The people I spoke with had grim memories of the “Special Period,” the years following the fall of the Soviet Union and the tightening of the U.S. blockade through the 1992 Torricelli Act, which cut off food and medicine imports, and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which effectively created international sanctions by penalizing foreign companies for trade with Cuba. In the early years of the Special Period, Cuba lost 98% of their oil imports and 75% of their food imports.

The country has made a remarkable recovery since then; the resourcefulness of the many responses to the Special Period consistently inspired me. From improving access to food through diversified local growing to defending coastal communities from tropical storms through community-based evacuation plans to the development of a universal primary health care system that emphasizes prevention and early treatment, the Cubans have done much with very little. We have a lot to learn from these successes.

Backyard permaculture projects are part of a strategy to offset the loss of food imports due to the U.S. blockade (photo: David Zucchino)

But I don’t want to understate the effects of the U.S. blockade. Our interpreter, Alberto, reminded me that most people in Cuba were “very, very poor.” The effects of economic isolation—high consumer prices, low salaries, shortages of important goods—have been felt for over twenty years now. I met a young man whose day job was a government engineer, but who drove a cab at night to make ends meet. Ariel, our guide, chose not to study engineering because that job would only pay him 120 pesos (about $6) a month. He skipped college and went straight into the higher-paying, semi-privatized tourist sector. His son is now entering medical school; Ariel told us that he just hopes that the economy improves by the time his son finishes in 2020.

Opening up trade with and through the U.S. is seen as a necessary first step to gaining access to life-saving medical technologies, lowering consumer prices, and increasing salaries and incomes. And yet, as economist Gladys Hernandez shared with us, there is a very real concern that the intrusion of private economic interests will erode the “social gains of the Cuban revolution”: the elimination of illiteracy and homelessness, excellent universal health care, an extensive social support network (including youth programming and senior care), and basic income parity.

Income inequality is already on the rise in Cuba, thanks to increasing levels of privatization under the Raul Castro administration. Recent reforms allow the sale of homes and the formation of private restaurants to cater to tourists and higher-income locals. The higher-paying jobs in these new private sectors, particularly in tourism, tend to accrue to young, light-skinned, English-speaking Cubans. The Obama administration’s allowance of remittances has also contributed to rising income inequality; Cubans who have family sending them remittances from abroad tend to be better off than those who do not.

Permaculture in action (photo: Jordan Goldsmith)

Despite these concerns, every single Cuban I met wanted the blockade to end. One senior told me of the children she knew who had died of cancer because of Cuba’s limited access to medical technology. She then said that her greatest fear for the future of Cuba was that the blockade would not be lifted. Cuban journalist Alfredo Prieto believes that the Cubans can grow the economy on their own terms once trade is opened. “We have replicated the mistakes of the U.S. and we have replicated the mistakes of the Soviets,” he told us. “We want to make our own mistakes.”

I share the hope of our Cuban hosts when envisioning a future without the blockade. But unlike the people I met in Cuba, I can put pressure on the legislators who control this policy. I will be contacting them to let them know why the trade embargo is a failed and inhumane policy and to encourage them to lift it. I encourage you to do the same.

Look up your legislators here.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

On 2 year anniversary of FTA, a Report-Back on Multinationals in Colombia

By Nikki Drake

The Witness for Peace Colombia International Team recently accompanied the eleven-day Global Caravan for Peace and Democracy in Colombia, organized by Sinaltrainal, the Colombian Food Industry Workers Union. The purpose of the event was to bring together an international presence to monitor what is happening in Colombia, and along with several meetings in Bogotá, groups were sent out to different regions of the country to meet with union affiliates, workers, organizations, associations, and community members. The Caravan started on April 22nd, and culminated with the May Day March for International Workers in Bogotá and a final meeting with the Ombudsman´s Office on May 2nd, during which Sintaltrainal representatives and the international participants presented their findings and concerns.

Back in their home countries, the international guests of the Caravan are sharing information and photos from their trip with the hope that by spreading awareness of the crimes and corruption occurring in Colombia, people across the globe will pressure their elected officials and governments to change international policies, monetary aid, and trade agreements that continue to have such damaging effects and ignore the unspeakable violations by the Colombian government. In addition, one week after the Caravan, Sinaltrainal presented their official findings to Vice President Angelino Garzón and his four legal advisors, accompanied by members of the Witness for Peace team. He committed to sending the union’s official report to President Santos and various government agencies, and recommended that follow-up and demands for responses be made to those agencies and to the multinational corporations.  

Colombia IT Natalie Southwick and Julia Duranti accompanied the Caravan across Valle de Cauca, hearing testimony from workers at well-known multinationals like Coca-Cola, Nestle and Sodexo, as well community organizers working with displaced families and human rights defenders standing up to paramilitary violence in Cali and Buenaventura. Margaret Boehme and Nikki Drake traveled to the North Coast, visiting workers and fishing, indigenous, and displaced communities in the provinces of La Guajira, Magdalena, and Atlántico, all of whom have been greatly affected by the coal-mining industry. In meeting after meeting, we heard similar stories from each group; poor work conditions and lack of worker rights, extreme poverty, lack of potable water, violence and forced displacements of communities, environmental contamination and devastation, and the link between multinational corporations and paramilitaries. They very clearly conveyed their frustration, anger, and desperation after being repeatedly mistreated and abandoned by their own government, which, they report, makes foreign corporations and investors rich while its own people suffer. But despite year after year without seeing changes, these same Colombians continue sharing their stories, organizing, and fighting for better living and working conditions.

Continue reading below for descriptions and photos of some of the unions and community groups we met with throughout the week.

Affiliates of Sinaltrainal, including workers from coal mines such as Cerrejón and Glencore, and other multinational corporations such as Coca Cola and Nestle

One Coca Cola employee shares his
frustration with the group: "The Coca
Cola slogan says it brings happiness,
but what it brings is misery."
Workers and union affiliates shared about poor work conditions and the systematic violation of worker rights in Colombia. Companies commonly fail to provide obligatory overtime or vacation pay, and workers often go for weeks without days off. Reports were even made of working several years without a vacation for fear of being fired. Injury and illness on the job are extremely common, and workers are sent to company physicians who consistently rule that the injuries were sustained at home or out in the street. The affected worker is usually then fired, receiving no health services or benefits. Threats toward union members and leaders by paramilitaries are common, and some have even been displaced from their cities due to severe, repeated threats.  

People listen intently as a Wayuu leader
shares his most recent threat - he was
attacked and injured just a week prior to 
the meeting.
One way in which multinational corporations limit worker rights is through a system of subcontracting and third-party employment, in which a large company creates several smaller companies within (all owned and controlled by the main company) as a way to keep employees fractured into small groups, making it more difficult to organize and unionize. Of Coca Cola’s 10,000 workers, only 10% have direct contracts, and only 400 are union members.

The global giant also uses a Contract of Availability as another method to control its workforce and limit organizing, under which workers are sent home and told to wait for a phone call to come in to work. Because employees only get paid for days worked, after several days with no call, they must often seek out temporary day jobs. However, if they are not home when the call does finally come, they are terminated immediately.       

Coal is loaded onto cargo ships at a port in Santa Marta, a touristy beach
town with sands stained black from contamination. As one worker puts it:
"How ironic that these natural resources belong to the Colombian people,
yet foreign companies come in and take it all, gifting the people a meager 
 wage, gifting them what is already theirs!"
Another tactic of subcontracting is that the smaller companies often close suddenly, laying off all employees, and then re-open under different names, hiring new, non-union workers at lower pay. According to workers, Cerrejón often hires new workers at lower pay than prior years, consistently reducing costs while extraction and production increase unregulated by the Colombian government. Colombia receives $8 per ton extracted, the same rate it has received during the company’s 30 years in operation, even though the selling price abroad has increased exponentially over the years.

Representatives from Wayuu indigenous communities, department of La Guajira
A woman living in a Wayuu community tearfully describes the
extreme poverty: "There is no water, no food, no land! I have
seen children die of hunger in the arms of their parents."
Wayuu indigenous communities throughout La Guajira are greatly affected by mining. Rivers and ground water are being depleted by the extraction process, leaving communities with little to no water. According to community members, contamination caused by coal-mining, as well as the lack of water, are greatly diminishing crop production. There has been little government presence to provide assistance, and most areas have very limited access to health centers or schools. Organizing of the various communities has been slow and difficult, as people live in small independent clans and have very limited contact. 

"These mining companies come in and lie to the Wayuu, telling 
the people that they will improve the quality of life for the comm-
unities. In 30 years of Cerrejón...people have been displaced from 
their own land so their resources can be sent to other countries." 

Don Jaca, Urban Neighborhood of Santa Marta, department of Magdalena

Railroad tracks cut through the small 
community, where people are very clear 
about what they want. "We don't want 
money from the companies. We just 
want to be able to work...We want our
kids to have a good education and 
access to health care."
This fishing village lies on the coast, surrounded by three large coal ports. According to local fishermen, the ocean´s fish stocks have been greatly reduced by contamination, making it difficult for them to earn a livelihood. Train tracks run directly through the small town, and up until six months ago open-air trains transporting coal from the mines to the ports passed through daily every five minutes between 4:45am and 10:45pm. Structures were repeatedly damaged or completely collapsed due to the vibrations caused by the trains. According to community leaders, contamination by coal dust has killed food crops and dried up trees,and respiratory and skin problems are common throughout the community.

One of the three large coal ports that surround the community
can be seen in the distance. "Even after all of this, we're not
against coal. We're against companies discriminating against us
and ruining our livelihood...They are exterminating a culture [of 
fishermen] and a people."

There is no health post, and the school only provides classes through the 4th grade. Most families cannot afford the round-trip bus fare for their children to continue at other distant schools. According to Dan Jaca residents, the mines do not employ members of their community, who cannot afford the necessary schooling and certifications, and instead bring in qualified workers from bigger cities.

Palmira, Municipality of Old Town, Ciénaga, department of Magdalena

Built on top of a coastal dump along a highway outside of Ciénaga, this is a community made up of several displaced people and families.  Its inhabitants fill the inland waters with garbage and then cover it with sand, dirt, and rocks to make foundations for their houses.  There is no running water of any kind, so the community must purchase water sold out of a a truck tank that a local man fills from a river, which they then store in plastic barrels to use for everything from washing to drinking. There are no public services, no garbage pick-up, and the health clinic that was built over 10 years ago was never staffed and is now used as just another house.    

The ocean waters have been contaminated by mining and palm oil and banana plantations, greatly decreasing fish populations. The water along the coastline has also been privatized, with systems of nets spread along the immediate coastline so that community members must go out in boats to try and catch fish and seafood. The area often floods, with water reaching as high as the chest and carrying garbage inside the houses.

ASOTRACAMPO – Association of the Displaced and Farmers of Tamarindo, outskirts of Barranquilla, department of Atlántico

Community members talk about the  threats and displacement.
Many who live in this community have been displaced by violence multiple times. Some come from other areas along the coast, while others are from the interior of the country. The community lies along the edges of one of Colombia’s many duty-free zones, and its members are consistently being threatened and kicked off these very lands by national police, military,and paramilitaries for expansion of the nearby zone. Their houses, crops, and animals are being knocked down and killed, with paramilitaries monitoring the area to prevent anyone from returning to their land or rebuilding. The association has sent a formal request to the Colombian government for protection and for a relocation of the entire community, but as of yet has not received any response.  

Remnants of where a house once stood, knocked down by 
machines to force the inhabitants to leave.