Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Back from the Campo

This week students from the College of New Jersey's Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement are in Nicaragua with a Witness for Peace delegation. This is a direct account from those students.

I can not believe that this trip is already coming to an end. It seems like just yesterday I was packing up the car to head to Newark airport. I know I have not written too much since the beginning of the trip, but that is not to say that what I have been experiencing has not impacted me. On Monday we got back from the campo (the country side) where we each stayed with different families. After experiencing a glimpse of what it is like to live in Ramon Garcia, an impoverished agricultural-based village, I have come to realize on a more personal level how macro-level policies and decisions have negatively impacted the lower-class of a society. On the other hand, I was exposed to the hard working and persistent mentality of the Ramon Garcia peoples who are determined to do better for themselves, but have limited resources to do so. Although Daniel Ortega seems to be making an effort to help and advocate for the poor, I can not help but be skeptical about the work he is doing. Overall, I left the community with mixed feelings of both anger and frustration. Mainly because of the fact that the children have to pay to go to secondary school and college is not even an option for most if not, all of them. To think it only takes $300 per year to send a child through college. In the back of my mind I feel I can not help but want to just pull that money out of my savings account to give those children a chance to get out, but at the same time, I feel it is more important to address the root causes of the problems.

This post was originally published here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"I came home with a sense of hope, love, energy, happiness, and peace, knowing that I could take a stand and create positive change in my life."

By Cecilia Gregg

Last summer I had the opportunity to travel to Colombia on a delegation with Witness for Peace (WFP), a politically independent, grassroots organization of people committed to nonviolence, peace, justice, sustainable economies, and policy changes in the Americas. Currently, there are hundreds of displaced farmers in the communities of Pueblo Nuevo, Alto Guayabal, Las Camelias, Caracoli, and Llano Rico who have lost their livelihood, dignity, and basic human rights when their lands were taken by the paramilitaries, mining companies, and agri-businesses. On the delegation, we met with these northern Colombian communities, and then shared our concern with regional Colombian representatives, including the 17th Brigade, U.S. Embassy Officials in Bogota, and with other NGOs. We met with these groups in hopes of bringing change to the region.

The delegation changed my life! Seeing the situation first-hand, I was moved to anger, sadness, outrage, helplessness, and frustration. Though there is much pain in the region, I came home with a greater sense of hope, love, energy, happiness, and peace, knowing that I could take a stand and create positive change in my life and in the lives of others. Seeing the poverty and harsh conditions in Colombia, I realized the waste in my own life and I recognized that I take so much for granted. In this country, we are blessed beyond belief and I realized that we can each do more to support each other and our global comrades in the pursuit of peace and aid.

When I returned from Colombia, my son and I downsized, getting rid of a house that was too costly and space that was never used. We moved to an apartment, half the size of our house. This fresh start freed up time, energy, and money. We’ve been able to use these extra resources to fund charitable endeavors and travel, getting to know the people of the world.

My renewed commitment to charitable causes prompted me to write this letter to tell you all the details about my trip and to ask you to get involved too. Whether you get involved with Witness for Peace or another organization, get out there and get passionate about a cause. Giving time, money, energy, or spreading the word, we can all make a difference in the important causes that we stand behind!

I leave you with these sentiments from Henry David Thoreau, “Be not simply good, be good for something.” I hope you are well and in good health and spirit.

Peace, Love, and Blessings.

Cecilia Gregg traveled to Uruba, Colombia in 2010 with a Witness for Peace delegation.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Nicaragua: "There is so much the world can learn from you. There is so much I have learned from you."

This week students from the College of New Jersey's Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement are in Nicaragua with a Witness for Peace delegation. This is a direct account from those students.

Today I found a little bit of peace… in a place with a very uncertain future, filled with big hearts and hopeful spirits. Nicaragua. I came to visit you with no expectations, with no idea, but with the intention to become inspired and to let your history, your story, your beauty influence me… to allow you to bear motherhood over me for a few days… to feel your love, to feel your pain, even if it’s just for a little while. I came here with the idea that I could stop it all. Or at least do something to induce change. But after learning that you’ve become victim to unfair policies, unjust political figures, ignorance and corrupt authority, pesticides, homicide, false and unkept promises… that your children live in garbage dumpsters, that your children are being exploited by foreign companies, that your daughters carry on their backs the blame of all the misfortunes of their families, and your sons have lost themselves in their anger and disillusionment… I’ve become hopeless… soaked in guilt and despair. Yet somehow, magically, you have not. You still remain. You have been sucked dry of your milk by sons you did not bear, and still, you continue to produce nutrients for your children and a surplus. You have been covered by pollution and masked with the discards of the world, but you bloom, no matter the season, providing a corner of shade for any tired soul seeking relief from the sun above you. Your children have found a way to grow with their devastations, and not be consumed by them. They have learned how to move in a world that has no path for them. Chameleons of time and circumstance. You parade your scars of battle and revolution with grace and humility. You know the true definition of beauty. Blessed are you because you know what the true definition of honor is. You practice nobility, honesty, and you labor every single moment of the day in hopes to teach your children the joy in true and just work ethic. Most amazingly, you have forgiven all offenses made against you. You hold no grudge. You walk with love. There is so much the world can learn from you. There is so much I have learned from you. And today, as I was drowning in my guilt, exasperated by the sufferings I am witnessing, you sent one of your children to sing to my colleagues and I… and I heard your song of peace. You rescued me from my doubts, from my thoughts. You told me that you have not lost hope, nor have your children, and in turn, I cannot either.


This post was originally published here.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Celebrating Justice with the Guzman family

By Kelly Miller
Witness for Peace Intern

Pedro, Emily and Logan Guzman have reason to celebrate today. And all the Witness for Peace supporters from across the country that have stood up for the Guzman family should celebrate as well.

After over a year and a half spent in Lumpkin, Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center, Pedro is home. On May 16, after three tense hours of testimony and deliberation in Pedro’s final court hearing, the judge ruled in Pedro’s favor. Yesterday Pedro finally drove home to North Carolina and walked in his front door.

The last 20 months have not been easy for the Guzman family. When Pedro was detained by ICE in September 2009 because he failed to appear in immigration court (immigration officials had sent the notice to the wrong address), the family had no idea what a rocky journey awaited them: physical separation, immense legal fees and psychological trauma have all been painful realities of the family’s struggle with the U.S. immigration system. To read more about the Guzman’s story, click here.

However, this week the journey reached its end. According to Pedro’s wife Emily, the judge granted Pedro relief on two grounds—deportation would result in “extreme hardship” for the family and evidence proved Pedro’s “good moral character.” In an email to friends, family and supporters Emily wrote that, “we sobbed” when hearing the judge pass down the verdict.

“Justice has finally been served. PEDRO IS FREE!!!!!!” wrote Emily.

The ruling is a victory for Logan, Emily and Pedro as well as for all proponents of U.S. immigration reform. However, there are still tens of thousands of immigrants detained throughout the U.S. that more likely to end up being deported, rather than reunited with their families.

"There’s so much money they make from us, but they’re not investing any money in detainees," said Pedro Guzman of conditions in the for-profit detention center that held him for 20 months. "The treatment you get is like you’re an animal. I have two dogs, and I treat my dogs much better than the detainees are treated in there."

To read more about the Guzman’s story as well as the reality of life in corporate detention centers, read our article in Witness for Peace’s Winter 2011 newsletter Solidaridad.

We will not rest until unjust detentions and inhumane conditions in detentions centers stop. We will continue to work for comprehensive immigration reform. However, for the moment, we all have reason to rejoice.

“It is so incredibly amazing to be [home] with [Pedro] right now and to see him with Logan,” says Emily. “Logan is the happiest boy on the planet and keeps saying, ‘I am so happy you are home! I feel like I'm dreaming!’

For this reunited family and for the renewed dedication they inspire in us, we are grateful.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Environmental Lessons from a Witness for Peace Delegation to Nicaragua

Last year a University of Portland student said that before joining a Witness for Peace delegation, "I was not politically aware, but going on this trip has opened my eyes. It has motivated me to be more aware and keep updated on what's going on in the world."

Now you can follow the experiences of 2011 University of Portland delegates to Nicaragua live.

It's Madie P. and Colton! We thought that this would be a good time to grab the computer while we had the chance and write a little something. Since we are the only ones with science majors (Environmental Science and Environmental Engineering), we want to reflect a little bit more on the environmental issues and impacts happening in Nicaragua. Last Saturday (May 14th) we had a speaker come to us at CEPAD. The speakers name was Julio Sanchez and he is an environmentalist that works with an organization called Humboldt Center. He came and talked to us about the environmental issues that are facing Nicaragua. So we are just going to lay out some facts first:

Nicaragua’s main source of revenue is from its natural resources. According to Julio, 75% of all Nicaragua’s income comes from the environment, but only 0.13% of the GDP goes toward preserving their land. Julio raised a point that if they did increase the amount of money for investment in the environment, it would reduce the amount of money for medical attention and would increase ecotourism. Nicaragua has 5% of the world’s biodiversity and if Nicaragua would invest more in preservation, this would boost the GDP dramatically. This extra money essentially could start a movement to create a stronger infrastructure.

From what we learned in the past couple days, countries are being encouraged to come and use these resources to increase jobs and create a flow of money to the economy. However, these companies are not being penalized for their overwhelming destruction to the environment. Luckily, this is recently changing. The Humboldt Center is making movements towards working with the government to making stronger policies, as well as increasing the actual enforcement of the policies.

What makes us the most upset is that even though in U.S. we have our environmental movements towards making a smaller carbon footprint, we are still creating pollution and deforestation in other countries. It’s basically canceling out all of our efforts that we make back at home. These companies need to be held responsible for their destruction to the environment in and outside the United States. Nicaragua has some truly unique wildlife and BEAUTIFUL landscapes. It deserves to be preserved so that our grandchildren will have the opportunity to see this biodiversity and beauty.

Overall, Julio’s talk definitely tied all of the issues we have been learning about together. In the midst of focusing and seeing all of the social and economical issues, Julio brought up a powerful point that nature is the basic foundation of these issues. Nature is the one that gives values to social, economic, and cultural to each and every country. It gives people an identity and life to communities. This alone should be a strong motivation to preserve something that gives us all life.

Woooh. Alright. A little longer than expected but hopefully you made it through. We just got back from the campo today (countryside for all those nonspanish speakers) and are pretty pooped. Dinner was delicious from the restaurant across the street and ended it with an ice cream run. On our way to “The Igloo”, we discovered some break dancing. Of course, our Witness for Peace leader, Riahl, joined and surprised all of the locals. Now some chitchat and cards are being played, but the night is wrapping up.

-Madie P. and Colton

This post was originally published here.

The Campo Homestay: "It's outside our comfort zone but stepping out for 3 days and embracing it is the way to go!"

This week students from the College of New Jersey's Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement are in Nicaragua with a Witness for Peace delegation. This is a direct account from those students.

It's day 3 in Nicaragua and everything is so far so good. Nicaragua this year has been great thus far. When I arrived here I wondered if I was going to have a similar experience then the last time I was here.. and so I concluded that I did not want to compare one Nica trip to the other. I want to take this second trip as a second chance. Today I realized that I have not done enough to help Nicaragua last year and this coming year I need scream to the top of my lungs and raise awareness about the social injustices that Nica is going through every single day.

Today I had the opportunity to talk to some people that are staying at CEPAD (the name of the place we are staying) as well.. and I really want to know what they personally think about the current president and what they thought about the fact that he is going to run for the third time for office. Something that was against the law but he personally made sure to change that just so he can run again. They really were opinionated about the president and what they expected from him.. The people in Nica especially college students are iffy about the president, he has done good things but he has not been to transparent with the things he is doing. So I guess what worries many people here is if he is changing the law and running again to just become another Fidel Castro? or Chavez? Which by the way they are all buddies along with my very own Ecuadorian president.. So the college students expressed concern about all these relationships and hope that only good comes out of these relationships and they also hope that all these presidents are working for the people and not to get richer or steal from the country. However, if we look at Chavez case.. I am sure he is praying (like one of the speakers today mentioned) that the "petrolio" cost gets higher so that Venezuela gets richer.. Something to think about

Before I engaged in conversation with the Nicaraguense college students, Witness for Peace allowed us to talk to 3 speakers today. We first learned about Neo-liberalism.. which was actually good because it was a refresher and definitely helped me understand everything else that happened through out the day. After breakfast at 7am.. may i mention. We took a trip with Yamilette Perez who helps her community by having her very own small clinic. This clinic is a free clinic so many people that have flu or any type of sickness come to her for help and she is there! Her story however is very interesting she lived in a dump for a big chunk of her life and she worked there as well, collecting bronze, plastic and basically sorting out the garbage that all of Managua (the capital city of Nicaragua) dumps daily. She had her only daughter in the dump and she showed us pictures of her daughter very un-healthy because of her economic status. She did not have money so she often had to eat meat that was thrown away by other people. She told us that she would rub these guava leaves on the meat so that the smell of the meat is canceled out and help her eat it better. She would often not eat breakfast or lunch so that she would be really hungry at night.. enough to allow her self to eat the passed away meat. It was hard to her her story but I realized how strong of a woman she is. She is now helping others, no longer working in the dump but instead has a house in a community next to the dump. This allows her to still have the opportunity to help her community. Its amazing to see people go though some really tough times in their lives and they still have time to think of others or still have that burning passion to help others even though your very own life still needs help too. She is a great example of a strong woman.. she got though it all and she is still standing tall and with a smile on her face. She is a very happy person and not many people in the USA can even imagine going through what she did and not be mad at God or at the world. Life can be tough for me.. finals, personal problems but once you hear her story my problems become so small compared to hers. It just makes you appreciate everything you have.. but that's it? Do you appreciate and walk away? NO! You take action.. you do something about all this! This leads me to mention the reflection we had with the whole group about what we are going to do when we get back from Nica. We obviously realized that "this is not ok!" like my roomie Jenn would say.. In our reflection and through out this whole trip I want to brainstorm ideas with others on this trip.. and see what we can do.. Last year we had a Nica forum and that was it.. YES! its hard to balance school and Bonner and other activities on campus and still try to organize an event.. but its not impossible.. So I have challenged myself .. to do more then what I did last year for Nica this year. Actually, this new Nica group silently challenged me to do something more for Nica then a simple Nica forum..Which I do not down talk it because I think last years forum was great.. it took a lot of planning and everyone who spoke did a great job.. but this is just a motivation to do more.. to basically improve and build upon the other ideas that have already been implemented by other delegations to help raise awareness for Nica. I just don't want to get carried away by "life" once I get back to the USA and not remember the things I have experienced here.. and so I hope that everyone in this years delegation from TCNJ can push each other and nudge each other when we go back to the U.S. and remind each other that we need to take action! Its been REAL.. I can not wait until we go to Ramon Garcia which is el campo.. and see my host family from last year.. I hope she remembers me because I sure do! I also hope that everyone that is on this trip gets excited for it too.. its hard to get excited because everyone is a but anxious about what to expect in el campo.. Bears, tigers, BUGS.. ha ha.. I hope that everyone worries do not get in the way of learning from their families and really listening to what they have to say about their own economic issue. Its natural though to be nervous about el campo.. heck I was when I first went.. its outside our comfort zone but stepping out for 3 days and embracing it is the way to gooo! I am excited for the following days.. i hope to meet more Nicaraguenses..and talk to more people about politics which I really think is interesting right now.. hot topic..


This post was originally published here.

Monday, May 16, 2011

"We Were Given $2 to Spend on Food for a Family of Six"

This week students from the College of New Jersey's Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement are in Nicaragua with a Witness for Peace delegation. This is a direct account from those students.

Today was a very interesting day. Each day of our delegation we will be doing a quick reflection or check in on how everyone is feeling. This exercise allows us to speak without interference from others. It’s a self reflection which makes you vocalize your internal thoughts. We then spoke quickly about our initial feelings in the difference of culture in Nicaragua compared to our own. Things that were brought up included clothing (it’s a lot tighter and fancier), everyone is wearing heals, and there is a lot of PDA. Other cultural differences included seeing young children left unattended and working on the streets.

We soon after left our first hostel to come to CEPAD, which we will stay for the majority of time. Once at CEPAD we did an exercise on power vs. privilege, where we discussed what the American dream. Which we described as the typical owning a house, white picket fence, college education and other aspects of identity to what determines your success in America. We then did the line activity, which we realized our group, as small as it is, is very diverse. From that activity we named systems of oppression like racism, sexism, ageism, etc. These systems determine your power and privilege in American society.

Soon after lunch we went to the local market, where we were given $2 US (the amount an average Nicaraguan makes in a day) to spend on food for a family of six. We quickly noticed how difficult this feat is. We were able to buy some rice and beans but that was about it. We also realized that if that was all we can spend on food, how do we pay to cook the food or buy other necessities? After spending our money in the local market we went a more tourist centered affluent mall, which featured big names stores like Nike and Guess. There were a lot less people and the prices were hiked up. The workers, although they got paid more, were still only living on $6US a day. They also were expected to look nicer and pay to get to work.

Our next activity took us to a part in Managua that consisted of government funded houses for the victims of DDT or pesticides sprayed on bananas produced by transnational companies like Dole or Chiquita. These people have been in a struggle with the companies and report that their physical and mental health has been affected by the chemicals. 1000s of people have gotten sick, become sterile, and even died because of the spray. We came back to the hostile to watch the documentary “Banana” which portrayed one of the many court cases about the struggle. Our group then reflected on both the movie and our interaction with Guillermo, one of the directive bodies of the FSLN.

Overall, it was a very intense day where we did and learned a lot of Nicaragua, especially in terms of how the United States companies use their power and privilege to take advantage of the impoverished working class.

-Maria, Megan and Kristina

This post was originally published here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Traveling to Nicaragua Tomorrow!

This week students from the College of New Jersey's Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement are in Nicaragua with a Witness for Peace delegation. This is a direct account from those students.

Right now, it is May 14th at 10:30PM in NJ and I am sitting in the TCNJ Bonner Center writing this blog post. You might think it is a bit unusual for me to be in the Bonner Center at such an obscure time on Saturday Night, but there is a very special reason why I am here tonight. Tomorrow morning at 2:45AM I will embark on my long journey to Managua, Nicaragua.

I am going to Nicaragua as a junior Bonner Community Scholar at The College of New Jersey. Instead of simply going to the country to relax, sit by the pool, and sip on a few drinks, I will be going to witness and live first hand what life is really like in a 3rd world country. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Americas and the Caribbean, behind Haiti. This is all part of the mission of the Bonner Program at TCNJ. Our mission is to help and make better the community and world we live in. Going to Nicaragua will help me to gain a better understanding of what life is like outside the comfort of a rich country and the socio-economic bubble I live in.

While I am sure I will gain much pleasure from the trip, that is not my main purpose. I am going to Nicaragua to "witness" the culture, lifestyle, political atmosphere, and life of the people of this country. I hope to be humbled by the luxuries I am afforded that I never even knew existed.

I am nervous about many things regarding my trip. I have heard many negative reports by others that have gone before me. Sickness, uncleanliness, dangerous situations, etc. have all been described to me by the people who have gone before me. Instead of looking at the worried faces I see on others I tell about my trip, I look at this as a learning experience and an attempt to see first hand what they mean when others portray such worries.

I have a ton more to say but this must suffice for now. I need some rest before my long trip early tomorrow morning. I hope to update everyone following me on this blog as soon as I get a chance! Check back to learn more about my experience.

-Adam S.

This post was originally published here.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"These past two days have undoubtedly changed the way that I see the world, and I can't wait to see what the next few days hold."

Last year a University of Portland student said that before joining a Witness for Peace delegation, "I was not politically aware, but going on this trip has opened my eyes. It has motivated me to be more aware and keep updated on what's going on in the world."

Now you can follow the experiences of 2011 University of Portland delegates to Nicaragua live.

Hi all, I (Drew) am updating for today.

It's been a tumultuous two days, to say the least. As I sit here listening to the heavy tropical rain falling on the concrete a few feet away from me, it's difficult to internalize everything I've learned about today and yesterday, much less break it down to a short blog entry. But alas, I'll try my best.

We visited a few different places yesterday, examining models of medical assistance for the poor. First, we visited a public hospital which specifically focused on young women, which was incredibly eye-opening concerning the state of teen pregnancy and the high prevalence of Sexually Transmitted Infections in Nicaragua. A doctor we spoke with described her efforts to educate young people about sexual health and prevention issues. Perhaps strangest about this experience was how similar the problem of spreading education and awareness in Nicaragua is to that which exists in the U.S. Both countries have high rates of teen pregnancy, and both desperately need a greater awareness. But medical health professionals in both countries are trying very hard to improve upon these issues, and if there are more people like the doctor we spoke with, then I have little doubt concerning what great things could be accomplished.

Second, we visited the home of a woman named Maria, who is not a medical professional, but runs a Jesuit-sponsored medical aid office right out of her home, in a small, poor community just outside of Managua. The needs are many in this village, and children have difficulty overcoming diseases which we in the States consider routine. But Maria, with the help of a Priest who began the organization and visits often, has begun to address these needs with whatever medicine that she can obtain, helping as many children as she can. Remarkably, she does this work free of charge, which greatly complicates her life in that she cannot work to help support her family. Luckily, she has a husband to help provide, but there are many mothers with children, both in her village and others, that do not have such luxuries. But her resilience and determination to help the children in her community was incredible to see, and seemed like something that could well be implemented in locales throughout Central America, providing medical aid to families in areas wherein doctors are largely unavailable.

Finally, and most awe-inquiringly, we met an incredible woman named Yamileth Perez at the very end of our day, just as the sun was setting. She met us at our Hostel, after which we drove to the Chureca (the city dump). As we drove, Yamileth told us her story of growing up desperately poor, and eventually having no choice but to live off of the dump, as hundreds of families are forced to currently. Looking for aluminum and plastic to give to the recyclers, individuals can earn about 20 cordoba (less than $1) a day. With such meager wages, these families are often forced to find food in the dump itself, causing massive levels of gastrointestinal failure among them. She showed us pictures she had taken of families literally eating the leftover parts from local meat packing plants, and told us of her family (Yamileth, her husband, and her daughters) being forced to eat fumigated rice which even the pigs at the dump would not eat. Perhaps even more than her heartbreaking story, I believe that the image which will stick with me for the rest of my life is the image which was the most brief; as we drove into the village of squatters living next to the dump, e did not enter the dump itself, but through the haze of the sunset, we could all make out the figures of people sifting through the massive mounds of garbage. People; human beings living off of garbage, being forced to eat things that even pigs won't eat. Not something that is forgotten easily, nor should it be. No one deserves to live such a life, much less children. But Yamileth, being the beautiful spirit that she was (and is), decided to do something about it. Working with the other people in the village, she brought them together to decide upon what the group needed. First, she began to bring in medicine from the local public hospital in order to treat the common gastrointestinal issues faced by many of the families living there. Second, she created peace in a place of violence, by bringing together the youth gangs (through simply providing a soccer field, no less!). Truly, Yamileth's story is as heart-breaking as it is inspiring, and speaking with her, in my opinion, has been the greatest blessing of this trip so far. She is an incredible woman who has done much with her life, and given her drive and beautiful spirit, I have no doubt that she will do much more to improve the conditions to those relegated to living in that community, and inspire others to do the same. Just walking through the village, it was clear the sense of community that these people have, and the beauty of their closeness against such a backdrop was truly an experience, the likes of which will never fail to inspire me.

I could spend many more pages writing about the life changing experience with the people at the Chureca, I fear that you may tired of reading soon, so I must press on. Today, we visited to clothing manufacturing plants, both located in Nicaragua's "Free Trade Zones," wherein the government allows businesses to not pay for export tariffs and other taxes, compliance with the Dominican Republic - Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). Walking into the first manufacturing plant (also called a "Maquina"), the first thing I couldn't help but to notice was the fact that it was HOT. I mean REALLY HOT. I had to ask myself "how could someone spend hours a day working here?" But they do. All 1600 of them do. It is difficult to describe in words what it looks like to see over 1,000 people working furiously at sewing machines, trying desperately to make as many sweaters as they can in order to make slightly above their minimum wage. All I can tell you is that it was a surreal thing to see. More over, they were all working furiously to make North Face Fleece jackets; a common sight in my hometown. Emilio, our tour guide at the plant, tried very persuasively to convince us that this was one of the better manufacturing plants, and that such poor conditions exist for workers because there exists no other way. Regardless of one's opinion on the necessity of such materials to come at a low cost to the consumer, it is clear that these workers have been stripped of much of their human dignity. There were no smiles, no pride in their work; only sweltering heat, cramped spaces, and sweltering heat. This lead me to ask myself; at what cost comes efficiency?

After this experience, we got to see the opposite end of the spectrum; a woman named Maria and her small clothing company, called "Nueva Vida" ("New Life"). While it was still searingly hot (as it tends to be around here) in the maquina, words cannot fully describe the contrast.Workers were smiling, chatting as they went about their work, and seemingly took great pride in what they were doing. Maria and many of the other women were displaced after the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and after months spent living in government emergency camps, she was finally able to borrow a small amount of money to start her own clothing company, using only organic cotton. While it is clearly a much smaller operation than the one we saw earlier in the day, the comparison is simply indescribable. After purchasing a few shirts of our own and saying our goodbyes, we board the bus to head back to our hostel, just as the warm tropical rains began to fall.

I must apologize for writing so much, and thank you for reading this entire post. These past two days have undoubtedly changed the way that I see the world, and I can't wait to see what the next few days hold :)


This post was originally published here.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Live from Mexico City: the No + Sangre march

By Tony Macias
International Team - Mexico
Witness for Peace

For the past three days, thousands of Mexicans have been marching toward Mexico City to call for an end to the violence and impunity that have ravaged this country for several years. I could feel a collective sense of anticipation yesterday morning as we assembled in the southern end of Mexico City to complete the final leg of the historic march; groups of people from all over Mexico milled around, preparing banners, flags, and shirts that read “No + Sangre” (No More Blood). Others held up banners that bore images of loved ones lost or murdered in the past 5 years of escalated drug war violence- today is a day when the drug war's 40,000 victims will not remain nameless.

As marchers gathered in the early morning light , this idea of personhood is palpable: The idea is that everyone has value and belongs to one beloved community. Although it may appear like simple generosity, the seemingly endless free food and water that participants passed around yesterday morning is an affirmation of the new social contract that marchers want to create.

I met one young woman who stood by the march with her two children. She told me, “I'm here today because the war against the drug trade has left many dead and hasn't achieved anything. We in Mexican society are fed up that this is going on, and have seen that the government hasn't come up with any viable solutions.”

Another person I spoke with early that morning, a sociology student from Mexico City, hoped that this new movement would help create a society that's organized, unified, and educated. One that realizes that government power is determined by the will of its own people. The young mother I met continued in this vein: “The better world [we create] would be a place where everyone had what they needed to live in harmony.”

This nonviolent message stands in stark contrast to what we hear in the media and in government communiqués about the drug war, which use fear and bloody imagery to justify a violent and authoritarian approach to ending the drug war. This march is a flat-out rejection of the militarized war on drugs that has resulted in one death per hour over the past five years and over 10 thousand disappeared persons.

Javier Sicilia is a poet, journalist, and now a grieving father of a son murdered this past March. Certainly the most visible figure calling for this movement against violence, he is one of many marchers who have suffered directly and indirectly in this ongoing war. He recently said that the war on drugs is “turning Mexicans into people with mutilated souls, which is a form of death.”

While much of what marchers had to say was directed at the Mexican government, some made a clear link to the role of the U.S. in the escalation of drug violence. The sociology student I met reminded me that the U.S. is one of the largest consumer of drugs, most of which come from Latin America. A friend he was standing with continued by saying that the U.S.-funded Mérida Initiative has all the hallmarks of Plan Colombia, but that the military strategy against drug cartels isn't the way to solve our consumption problem. The sociology student concluded by saying that the U.S. is a model for the rest of the world, and if we change our actions around the international drug trade, then more countries will follow suit.

A caravan of Central American migrants also participated in yesterday's march. In a chilling sign of just how vulnerable migrants and migrant advocates are in Mexico, the caravan received death threats on their way to the march just a couple of days ago. Luckily, they all made it safely to the march.

One migrant I spoke with said that kidnappings, rapes, robberies, attacks and murders are all suffered by migrants as they cross through Mexico. Carrying one end of a banner that read “Migrants have also had it up to here!” he said that reforms in U.S. and Mexican migration enforcement was an important component to the social changes that all of the marchers called for today.

As a U.S. citizen participating in today's peace march, I see constant reminders of all the root issues that lie beneath this unprecedented violence. Marchers reiterated that the need for reform in Mexico goes beyond drug cartels and state-sponsored violence: protesters today spoke out about a variety of social problems like the 7 million Mexican youth that do not have jobs or access to higher education, about the 80 million poor Mexicans without access to healthy affordable food, etc. I am reminded that U.S. security policies like the failed Merida Initiative are also just part of the problem, that unfair trade policies like NAFTA and dangerous economic changes promoted by U.S.-led international financial institutions play a major role in disrupting Mexico's social fabric.

The three-day march closed this afternoon in Mexico's largest city, and it remains to be seen what shape this nonviolent movement will take next. This week has been one of pilgrimage, a journey taken by Mexican society in the lineage of great peace marches of the 20th century- the Salt March led by Gandhi, the March of Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the many migrant marches headed by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Mexico itself has a long tradition of pilgrimages, where almost every small town boasts an annual religious journey to a sacred site. These collective acts of devotion and faith have remained strong over centuries, and I have hope that this long journey toward nonviolence is also one that Mexican society is prepared to walk until they reach their destination – and that U.S. citizens will do our part to act in solidarity with them.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Live from Oaxaca: Mass Mobilization against the Drug War

By Claudia Ana Rodriguez and Carlin Christy
International Team - Mexico
Witness for Peace

Queremos escuelas, queremos trabajos, queremos hospitales, no queremos militares! (We want schools, we want jobs, we want hospitals, we don’t want military!)

This chant was heard in the Oaxaca City zócalo on Sunday, May 8th. A local march was held in coordination with poet and journalist Javier Sicilia’s national call to action in demand of peace, justice and an end to impunity. The march began at the gates of the city’s military barracks, eventually ending at the zócalo. People from the march, other supporters, and bystanders curious to see what was happening gathered. They listened to members of civil society (including youth, members of the teacher’s union Sección 22, and relatives of a recently disappeared teacher) speak out against militarization in their country. All of them spoke with anger, frustration, and concern, because the U.S.-backed strategy of sending the military to fight the war on drugs absolutely cannot continue.

Alba Cruz, a human rights lawyer who has faced threats for her work to bring justice to victims of state repression and promote human rights in the state of Oaxaca spoke about the U.S.’s role in the drug war. “They should stop the war on drug trafficking. It seems to me that this is not the help that Mexico needs. It’s not arms that Mexico needs. Mexico needs other types of help.”

There is definitely a growing sense of fear and concern among people in Oaxaca. Many participants in the march mentioned the state of insecurity as something that has grown exponentially since Felipe Calderón began the war on drug trafficking over four years ago.

One element of insecurity is the growing incidence of forced disappearances. Carlos René Román Salazar, a well-respected teacher with 30 years of service in Oaxaca’s schools, disappeared on March 14. His wife, Marisol Ricárdez Contreras and sister Yolanda Leticia Ramirez Salazar addressed the crowd in the zócalo, lamenting the lack of progress in the case since the disappearance 55 days ago. They also described the pain of not knowing the whereabouts or state of wellbeing of their husband and brother. Calling upon the state government of Oaxaca, they demanded the return of their loved one, alive.

When asked to share her thoughts on the drug war, Yolanda stated: “All of this has been a farce, because they make it seem like they are combating this, but every day there is more violence, more impunity, more drug trafficking and more violence. I think the federal government is not doing a good job of stabilizing the country.”

Some talked about fear of a totalitarian military government state, especially due to possible reforms to the National Security Law which would allow for the military to repress any social movement that supposedly threatens state security.

Others talked about the criminalization of social protest, remembering what happened in Oaxaca in 2006, when an annual teacher’s strike was met with attacks from police and military, resulting in disappearances, murders, and a host of other human rights violations.

Given the high levels of poverty in the state of Oaxaca, the low levels of education, and continued impunity and state repression, it is easy to see why Oaxacans are “hasta la madre” of a war that has only brought violence and destruction to an already fragile social fabric.

Too many people have died and too many families have been affected from all parts of society – but the poor have been hit the hardest. What makes this movement different than others in Mexico’s past is the wide spectrum of people involved. It is not just one sector of society - teachers, an indigenous group, a workers union, etc. – but all parts of society. It shows how far-reaching the drug war has been, and how many people have truly “had it up to here.” Despite all the anger and frustration, there still is hope that a movement built from the bottom up can make a change. That is why thousands of people around Mexico mobilized these last few days: to put their country on a new path away from the dangerous one President Felipe Calderón has led them down with the support of the U.S. government.

With thousands of Mexicans uniting in a national outcry against this war, those of us in the U.S. must recognize our government’s role in the devastation of these lives, these communities, and this country.

As the violence and instability cuts across Mexico’s various sectors and geographies, it is imperative that U.S. citizens learn about the high costs of the militarized approach to solving the war on drugs.

In the face of this challenge, march participant Elba Vazquez had this message for people in U.S.: "They should really inform themselves of what is happening. That Mexico is seeing too many dead people, too many people whose lives have been transformed by violence. They should think about how the lifestyle that they lead is costing other people. We can't be so indifferent in the face of people's suffering.”

It is not enough for the Mexican people to rise up and demand their government stop the violence against them. As long as the U.S. continues to send military aid to Mexico and refuses to accept our role and responsibility in the drug war, the violence and turmoil will never end. There will continue to be a strong demand and market for drugs, there will still be gun shops selling arms to drug trafficking organizations, and there will still be U.S. financial institutions laundering money and making a profit.

Part of the solution lies in Mexico, but the other part is in our hands – the hands of U.S. citizens. We can no longer stand idly by and allow the U.S. to insist that Mexican communities bear the entirety of the drug war burden.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Second Major Peace March in Mexico is Mobilizing

“Estamos hasta la madre!” ("We’ve had it up to here!")

By Claudia Ana Rodriguez
International Team - Mexico
Witness for Peace

The chant was heard throughout Mexico last month in a series of marches occurring all over the country, crying out for an end to the violence endured in Mexico due to the U.S.-backed Mexican military’s anti drug efforts. This attitude is apparent throughout the country today from the countryside to major cities, especially as the mobilization begin in Cuernavaca. Mexican citizens are gathering there today to initiate a silent march of peace, which will end in the Zócalo in Mexico City on May 8th.

Frustrated with the insecurity in the country, people are taking to the streets all over Mexico to participate in solidarity marches in their own towns. People who have never participated in marches or protests find themselves leaving their homes and joining their fellow citizens in the streets. They are demanding an end to the U.S.-backed drug war strategy in Mexico and a new social pact among the people to reconstruct aspects of Mexican society that have been destroyed by violence and war. Throughout the world, thousands of global citizens will stand up in solidarity with the Mexican people.

Since 2006, the United States government has supported Mexican President Calderon’s militarized drug war, resulting in close to 40,000 deaths. Now some Mexican government officials want to expand the power of the military even further by reforming the National Security Law. The law would give Calderon the power to deploy Mexico’s Armed Forces against broadly defined internal threats to Mexican national security – a dangerous prospect considering the risks already faced by journalists and human rights activists in the country.

This same military continues to receive aid from the U.S. government, even though the State Department’s own human rights report recognizes the inability of the Mexican military to uphold human rights standards.

Despite all this, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton met with Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa last week to reconfirm the United States’ commitment to sending military aid Mexico’s way to fight the drug war.

Civil society and many Mexicans are reaching a boiling point with opposition to the current strategy. Vulnerable communities hit hardest by free trade economic policies endure the direct consequences of this drug war– not the trafficking organizations. They are the families losing loved ones and any sense of security in their homes and their country.

Now more than ever U.S. citizens need to stand in solidarity with them and yell “que estamos hasta la madre!”

The current U.S. government strategy to throw more money and military training at Mexico is failing to curtail the violence or growing market of the drug trade. Rather then treat the drug war as something that can be “won” by dismantling drug trafficking organizations, we must demand that the U.S. change its policy focus and concentrate on its role in the crisis –domestic consumption and demand for drugs, U.S. financial institutions laundering drug money, and the government's failure to end illegal arms smuggling. Beyond this, we need to demand the reexamination of free trade policies that have left over half the country in poverty and without legal means of survival.