Saturday, March 6, 2010

U.S. Military Bases and Colombia's Displacement Crisis

Marino Cordoba and his family a long way from home

by Jess Hunter-Bowman, WFP Associate Director

Snow and ice crunched under Marino Cordoba’s feet as he walked home last week. He pulled his collar tight to his neck to keep out the frigid air. He is a long way from his native tropical jungles of Colombia. Marino’s journey from the rainforest of Chocó to the mountains of Bogotá and finally to the snow-covered streets of Washington, D.C. is one of pain, loss and ultimately renewal.

On a December morning over a decade ago, Marino’s hometown of Rio Sucio was ravaged in a joint attack by the U.S.-backed Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary death squads. Even today no one truly knows how many innocent civilians were kidnapped, tortured and killed in the assault. Analysts believe the attack came in response to Marino’s and others’ efforts to access constitutional land rights for marginalized Afro-Colombian communities.

Escaping Death in Colombia

Marino and his family escaped with their lives, but only by hiding in the jungle for days before fleeing their would-be killers, making their way first to the provincial capital of Quibdó before finally settling in Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’” Marino says as he recalls those first days after fleeing. “Will I make it? Will they catch me and kill me?”

Ever the community organizer, in Bogotá Marino founded AFRODES to support other displaced Afro-Colombians, bringing attention to the killing, kidnapping, and displacement of Afro-Colombian communities.

Gunmen soon tracked Marino down and he was forced to escape to the United States to save his life. “I really didn’t want to leave Colombia,” Marino says. “My family was in Colombia. But my life was at risk and I had no other option but to leave.”

Colombia's Crisis and a U.S. Military Response

Sadly, Marino’s horrific story of loss due to Colombia’s war is not unique. Colombia’s humanitarian crisis is second only to Sudan’s worldwide. Since 1985, over 4.3 million people have been internally displaced in Colombia. Hundreds of thousands more have fled as refugees to neighboring countries.

Soon after Marino and his family fled their native Rio Sucio, policymakers in Washington and Bogotá began to argue that, with Colombia’s drug trade and armed conflict spiraling out of control, only billions in U.S. military assistance and U.S. troops on the ground could save the country.

Nearly $6 billion in military aid since 2000 have secured oil pipelines, government buildings and even improved security in some cities and towns. Yet millions of Colombia’s community organizers, farmers and Afro-Colombians dispute claims that military gains against the guerrillas have translated into improved lives for them. In fact, the U.S.-backed Colombian military has reportedly killed an estimated 2,000 innocent civilians just during President Alvaro Uribe’s time in office. Meanwhile in 2008, over 380,000 people were forced to flee their homes due to Colombia’s war, more than double the number displaced when Marino and his family fled Rio Sucio.

Expanded U.S. Military Presence in Colombia

Yet despite this alarming situation, rather than heed the calls of people like Marino to de-escalate military aid to the brutal Colombian military, the Obama Administration recently signed a 10-year deal with Colombia allowing U.S. troops to operate out of seven Colombian military bases to fight what the U.S. Air Force called “narcotics funded terrorist insurgencies” and “anti-U.S. governments” in the region.

In part, the U.S. bases in Colombia will replace the U.S.’s Forward Operating Location in Manta, Ecuador. When a 10-year lease expired on the Manta base last year, Ecuador asked the U.S. military to leave the country.

While some were hopeful President Obama would reverse the U.S. disastrous course in Colombia, this deal is a strong indication otherwise. Major aspects of Plan Colombia that were once subject to annual congressional approval are now seemingly locked in for another decade. The U.S. military can now carry out joint operations with the hemisphere’s worst human rights violators; engage in lethal counterinsurgency training; and provide real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities with little to no congressional oversight.

Military Bases Lead to Regional Tensions

Yet this deal is not only controversial within Colombia. As the U.S. Air Force itself stated in a May 2009 statement to Congress, these bases in Colombia will be a jumping off point for U.S. military escapades across Latin America to combat “anti-U.S. governments”.

Such revelations have led Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez to put his troops on war alert. The demands of major South American powers, including Brazil and Argentina, for explicit guarantees that the U.S. bases will not be used to attack neighboring countries have fallen on deaf ears in Washington.

Back in bone-chilling Washington, Marino continues his work for peace, justice and Afro-Colombians’ rights. He is working tirelessly to block the U.S. military bases deal. “These U.S. bases in Colombia will worsen the conflict,” reports Marino. “They will not resolve the problems that we have in Colombia. What we need is respect for life in Colombia.”

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