Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fleeing the Guns of Big Business

by the Colombia International Team

Daira recalls her beloved village El Por Venir as a tight-knit community where people once moved freely and sang and danced into the late night. They had complete food sovereignty--growing traditional food crops and medicinal plants. However, today, Tumaco, the region where her village is located, is known for the large-scale cultivation of palm oil used for bio-fuels and for the devastating effects of Colombia’s internal conflict. In Tumaco, Nariño, 28,531 people have been forcibly displaced from their homes since 2002, the year that Alvaro Uribe Velez was elected president of Colombia.

In 1999, after helping her community gain legal access to 182 hectares of land, land that was and continues to be of interest to the palm oil industry, Daira began receiving death threats. Painfully aware of the links between big business and the paramilitaries hired to protect corporate interest at any cost, Daira recalls, “I knew that one day it would become too dangerous and that I would have to flee. I received threats like, ‘Shut up or we will cut off your tongue and gouge out your eyes.’” Tensions escalated and the situation became unbearable when the president of the community council and 6 others were violently murdered.

In 2001, Daira left behind the only life she ever knew—her loved ones, community, house and garden—and fled to Bogotá “alone, horrified, hopeless, desperate, and penniless.” Having cried every day for the first two years, Daira says, “I still have a deep pain in my heart, but I have learned to swallow the tears most days.”

Although Daira dreams of some day being able to return to her hometown El Por Venir, she knows it is still too dangerous to go back. With the December 2009 murder of her sister in Tumaco still fresh on her mind, she says, “It is like they are still telling me to shut up or else.” Refuting claims that Colombia is safer for all Colombians, Daira explains,

“We, the civilian population, are caught in the middle of a violent struggle between the military, the guerrilla and the paramilitaries---the illegal dark body of the government. The government wants everyone to believe that the conflict is over and there is only violence because of the guerrilla, but that is not true. We are being massacred for all of the richness that this country has—the oil, the emeralds, the minerals—even the water and the air.

We have lost thousands and thousands of good, brave people, but the truth of what is happening is being hidden. Everyday there is more and more impunity in this country. There is no truth, justice and reparations for the victims…that is the reason that I work to increase the social consciousness of people in Colombia. People do not realize that as soon as you leave Bogotá the conflict is very much alive.”

With her experience as a displaced community organizer, Diara helped found FUNDARTECP (Foundation for Art and Culture of the Pacific). Through FUNDARTECP, Diara works with other displaced people who arrive in Bogotá without “a place to live, food to eat or health insurance. They are scared, disorientated and desperate.” FUNDARTECP provides a myriad of services helping with everything from people’s basic material needs to workshops on dance, music, identity and human rights. “My mom taught me to sing,” says Daira with tears in her eyes as she remembers her mother who was violently murdered in Tumaco several years ago.

"Singing makes me happy and it is a means of resistance. Music helps us understand things that war cannot take away from us. It is an opportunity to move people, people who are tired and not interested in many things can still be moved by music—it motivates them and strengthens their spirit."

The work of FUNDARTECP focuses largely on Afro-Colombian women. According to Colombia’s Constitutional Court, Afro and Indigenous women are more vulnerable because they confront “triple discrimination for being women, displaced and an ethnic minority.”

Through FUNDARTECP, Daira and 280 women work with other displaced people, as well as with communities in Tumaco, to recuperate their culture, memory, identity and to revive hope and inspire new dreams. “When people are so violently murdered it affects the dreams and the hopes of the entire community—everyone is affected. I know that I, that we, must keep dreaming. When we stop dreaming then everything ends.”

When asked what message she would send to President Obama and the people of the United States, Daira answered,

“I would say that the people in Colombia are suffering. We do not need weapons or bases or more of these war policies being imposed on us. We need our children to be educated. We need people to have their land, to have houses and to have options. We need opportunities for a better country. When all the young people are sent to the army, how are we supposed to be able to escape this war and the war mentality? What are they going to learn there? They are going to learn to kill—kill their own countrymen, their brothers and their sisters.

You have already done enough. We need to be able to rise up from the ashes and construct our own history and our own process.”

Take Daira's story to your community and President Obama. Join the National Days of Action for Colombia:

Host a “Face the Displaced” gathering in March. Ask your school club, congregation, or peace and justice group to help frame the faces of courageous displaced Colombians like Daira (see above). Thousands of these poignant portraits will later be unveiled in eye-catching displays and delivered to representatives of the Obama Administration. Email ben@witnessforpeace.org for an organizing packet.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Honoring Colombians: Why Did Dolls Work?

Chicago church members prayed for peace in Colombia last year while adorned in dolls representing displaced Colombians.

by Anne Barstow, Rutgers Presbyterian Church of NYC

Having tried a number of ways to make the Colombian displaced persons crisis real to our congregation, I thought I was open to any approach. But when I was told last year that we should honor Colombians by making paper dolls, I said no way. I thought the idea was silly and inappropriate and that it denigrated a very serious crisis in the lives of millions of people.

Still, having nothing better to offer, I took the project to our congregation’s Peace and Justice Committee. To my surprise they took to the idea and even carried it further. They argued that since the crisis is so urgent - the second worst internal displacement crisis in the world - we must dignify it by making the paper dolls during the Sunday morning worship service. I was aghast. I figured that people would walk out! But the Committee was enthusiastic about the idea, so I was stuck with it.

On the appointed morning I gave the usual Moment for Mission, full of my personal witness of having been in the displaced persons' communities, explaining why, although Colombia is a rich country, thousands are hungry and homeless there. Then I dropped the bomb: "We are going to cut out as many paper dolls as we can. Each one will stand for 1,000 displaced persons. Make them young and old, black and white, but make them all painfully poor. We will send them to the White House
, asking for a more humanitarian policy towards Colombia." Ushers passed out scissors and paper, and the congregation got to work.

A deep hush fell over the sanctuary; people were focused on writing messages on the back of the dolls. I remember seeing business men in pin-striped suits jostling to get their turn with the scissors. Maybe eight or ten minutes passed; it didn't matter, no one wanted to hurry. Finally the organ broke into a Latin American hymn, ushers collected the dolls and brought them to the communion table, we offered prayers of dedication
that these gifts of ours would
speak to the powers in Washington who can affect the fate of the displaced. A small miracle had occurred - our well-heeled congregation had heard the message of the dispossessed, had reached out and touched them, as it were.

Next day one of the Elders told me that the service "rocked," that it was one of the most memorable worship experiences he had ever had. I am still pondering why it "worked." Of course "doing something" always makes us feel a bit better. But some projects seem like a Mickey Mouse waste of time, whereas this exercise had moved people right out of their comfort zone. Was it that we had held a Day of Prayer for Colombia twice before, with the opportunity for petition signing, and that this had prepared us for a deeper experience? I'm still not sure. But I am now convinced that everyday activities, even the children's game of cutting out dolls, belongs in worship, even in our sanctuaries, when we are rightly prepared for it.

I am looking forward to this year's assignment,
constructing displays of photos of the displaced themselves. Their faces will speak to us, I am sure.

From Dolls to Faces

Help your faith community take a stand for Colombia in this year’s Days of Prayer and Action:

1. Hold a Colombia-focused worship service in April. Click here for a packet of sample sermons, prayers, scriptures, and other helpful materials. Email ben@witnessforpeace.org if interested.

2. Host a “Face the Displaced” gathering in March. Get your adult education class, peace and justice committee, or university club together to frame the faces of those currently displaced in Colombia. Thousands of the poignant portraits will later be unveiled in eye-catching displays and delivered to representatives of the Obama Administration. Email ben@witnessforpeace.org for an organizing packet.

For more information, visit witnessforpeace.org/peaceincolombia.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Courageous and Organized People

by Gail Phares, WFP Southeast Regional Organizer

On January 22nd, I returned from a ten-day visit to Colombia. Our Witness for Peace delegation visited an Afro-Colombian community called La Toma as well as two indigenous communities, Honduras Reserve and Cerro Tijeras. They asked us to come and listen to their stories. All of these communities live high in the Andes Mountains and have been threatened by paramilitary death squads that are closely tied to multi-national corporations. Their land contains gold, emeralds and other metals.

We met courageous and organized people, many of whom live under death threat. In the Cerro Tijeras community ten indigenous leaders were assassinated in December and January. A number of indigenous leaders in the Reserve Honduras have been killed in recent months and many more live under threat. Jose Goyes - former Governor of the Honduras Reserve survived an attempt on his life and now lives with his family on the edge of Bogotá. The paramilitaries burned down his home. The people told us that they believe that large multi-national corporations want both the Afro-Colombian and indigenous lands for mining. They told us powerful stories and asked us to return home to tell our members of Congress of the threats they are enduring. We were told that there is total impunity in Colombia.

The Indigenous Guard who protects their communities through nonviolent tactics carrying a staff accompanied us. We had 30 indigenous guards accompany us up to Cerro Tijeras as a means of offering us protection.

We met with a number of women who are victims of State Sponsored Violence. Their husbands or brothers were taken by the military, killed and then dressed in guerrilla uniforms. They call these cases false/positive. There is almost total impunity for both Colombian military and paramilitary accused of serious crimes. Our last day in Cali, we attended a trial of one of the officers accused of state sponsored murder in order to show solidarity and support to these women. Dozens of soldiers armed with Uzi’s streamed out of the courthouse while we stood there. Witnesses in these trials are often threatened with death.

Two human rights workers we met, Alberto Bejarano and Juan Pablo Ochoa, are being accused of sabotage and conspiracy even though there is no evidence against them. They supported sugar cane workers during a 2008 strike in Valle de Cauca. They told us,” To accompany workers in their struggle is not a crime." In late January they were scheduled to go on trial.

Finally, on our last day in Colombia, we had a powerful meeting at the US Embassy in Bogotá. We told the human rights officer and a U.S. AID worker of the human rights violations we had observed and of the threats that both Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders are enduring.

People in Colombia are alarmed at the announcement that the US will be building seven military bases there. We were told that this violates Colombia's sovereignty and is seen as a threat to Colombia's neighbors. At the U.S. Embassy we said that we had hoped the Obama Administration would refocus U.S. Latin American policy. We stated that even before President Obama named an Ambassador or Assistant Secretary of State for Western Affairs, the ten-year contract for seven bases was announced. What a disappointment! It is time to change US policy toward Latin America.

I do not know when I felt that our presence as Witnesses for Peace was more needed and appreciated. I hope that our voice will be heard and that we will be able to provide solidarity and support to these courageous people. I left Colombia - inspired by these brave and organized people but worried about the future and troubled by current US Colombian policy. I believe that we should support the victims not the warriors in Colombia. The people told us, “Tell President Obama that we have social problems. We need development programs not support for Colombia’s military."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Memory as Resistance: Part 3

by Colette Cosner, WFP Northwest Regional Organizer

Last week Obama announced the 2011 aid request for Latin America, with a proposal for an 11% decrease in aid to Colombia. Most of the aid cut comes from the State Department-managed International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement account, which funds the U.S. access to seven military bases in Colombia.

Despite U.S.-backed repression, I saw a pacifist resistance in Colombia growing stronger-- communities taking up culture instead of arms in defense of their territories. The sugar cane cutters strike against “modern day slavery.” Women in the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, denounce the injustice of their loved one’s murders. Human rights defenders go to work in bulletproof offices. Human rights defenders go to work in bullet-flying fields. Young people learn how to re-grow crops that a generation of genetically modified seeds tried to kill. Students march. Teachers share the history those in power want forgotten. The internally displaced organize. And we…?

Our group dances with the community Local musicians play for us

Monday, February 8, 2010

Memory as Resistance: Part 2

by Colette Cosner, WFP Northwest Regional Organizer

I remember watching one night as human rights defenders from NOMADESC - an organization playing a key role in the investigation of human rights violations in Valle de Cauca - chain-smoked against the skyline. The next day one of them showed me his bullet scars after I had fallen behind the group. We were walking around the militarized perimeter of a hydroelectric dam responsible for displacing 15,000 people. As if cities on a map, he oriented me to the wounds of his body and the risk of supporting land rights for people over multi-national corporations and mega-projects.

Our group listens beside the lake created by the hydroelectric dam project that displaced 15,000 Colombians

I am losing my balance on a rickety suspension bridge in Triana. The bridge connects this small Afro-Colombian community to a highway mega-project. It wasn’t until I was safe on the other side that I remembered why we had crossed. “We were dancing when a tinted truck pulled up outside. Hooded men with guns got out. People were so scarred they contemplated jumping off the bridge,” said a young woman whose father was a victim of an extra-judicial killing—the assassination of innocent civilians by military or paramilitary actors, who then dress victims up in guerilla clothing. Raising “the body count” often results in rewards for the perpetrator.

We went to the river above Triana because that’s where the bodies were found, all eight of them. “There were eight because he liked the number eight,” another woman explained. (Residents of Triana share their experiences of fear and violence.)

I wondered if black birds spray-painted on houses were a cultural symbol of the indigenous reserve we visited. I learned later they were death threats from the paramilitary group Las Aguilas Negras (The black eagles). An indigenous youth leader from the Honduras reserve told us: “Assassinations in Colombia are not about killing people, but about killing ideas.”

Despite this he goes on to explain to us a vision. There are many people who believe the indigenous people of Colombia don’t want development and trade, but what we heard articulated was quite different. “What we want is a trade agreement between communities, not corporations. What we want is development that sustains our dignity and relationship to mother earth. What we don’t want are agro-industrial projects imposed on us by terror."

Friday, February 5, 2010

Memory as Resistance in Colombia: Part 1

by Colette Cosner

I was in Colombia when the earthquake hit Haiti. I was also in Colombia when the news coverage of the tragic event turned rapidly into a barrage of congratulatory human interests pieces. While the international community, and in particular the U.S., applauded itself for the rapid humanitarian crisis response, I took down testimonies of massacres, sifted through notes about the crisis we don’t talk about and for which there will be no outcry.

There are over 4 million people in Colombia who are refugees in their own country--the world’s second largest internal-displacement crisis (after Sudan), stemming from two generations of war and systemic economic violence. My time in Colombia was spent trying to untangle the interplay of theses forces of war and exploitation from each other and from U.S. foreign policy. Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in Latin America and a key component of our free trade ambitions in Latin America. But I fear that disentangling these problems does its own damage. By disconnecting the trigger puller from the gun maker, do we absolve ourselves from the shot?

A woman from the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes shares with us the story of her nephew's assassination.

In witness work we learn that memory is a tool of resistance, that first person accounts of those affected by conflict are key tools in understanding and advocating against injustice. But what I remember was being jealous of a poet and fellow delegate, how he wrote with a fever and made sense of Colombia through art. I have 80 pages of massacre testimonies, assassination stories, and documentations of threats. Yet when I try to explain to people what’s happening in Colombia, my notes fail me.

There are many statistics I could share with you: how Colombia has the worst human rights record in the western hemisphere, how despite the $6 billion dollars the U.S. gave Colombia to fight the War on Drugs, coca production has slightly increased. I could share with you statistics linking multi-national corporations to paramilitary violence, or denounce the pending Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Colombia for relying on those links. I could denounce the number of assassinations of union leaders, of human rights defenders, and community activists. But I won’t do that here.

Don’t get me wrong; the battle of statistics has its place. But I’ve also seen how it dehumanizes the lives of the very people we are trying to know. The passing of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement hinges on an improved human rights record in Colombia. So while Congress may have to decide if 34 union leaders killed this year (as opposed to last year’s 46) is good enough reason to pass an ostensibly anti-union trade agreement, we, as U.S. citizens, must decide to look beyond marginal improvements and listen. Facts can be used to create distance between us and a memory, resistance in its purest form.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tempered Excitement over Obama's Budget Request

by Jess Hunter-Bowman, WFP Associate Director

Unless you live on the moon (or aren’t a political junkie like me), you probably heard that yesterday President Obama released his federal budget request for 2011. We’ve taken a peek (and studied our friend Adam Isacson’s cheat sheet) and so far we like what we’re seeing. Especially when it comes to what has been the pretext for providing military aid to brutal armies across the hemisphere since the 1990s - the Drug War.

As you well know, we’ve been pumping billions in military aid into Colombia since kicking off Plan Colombia in 2000. $5.6 billion in military aid to the worst human-rights-abusing military in the hemisphere to be exact.

The vast majority of those funds have gone to fight the Drug War, but the percentage destined to fight Colombia’s war has grown larger in recent years.

You know as well as I do what this has meant for Colombia. While coca production has remained basically unchanged since 1999, tens of thousands of farmers have watched their food crops be destroyed by Dyncorp-piloted spray planes. The untested chemical has killed livestock, native species and rainforests. People have gotten sick. Meanwhile, the brutal Colombian military has not stopped killing innocent civilians. Just during President Alvaro Uribe’s time in office, human rights groups report an estimated 2,000 innocent civilians have been killed at the hands of the Colombian security forces. Millions have been displaced since 2000, including an additional 286,389 people just in 2009.

When the Democrats took over Congress in 2007, they cut about $150 million in military aid from Plan Colombia. Now President Obama has taken another positive step. In his budget, he would further cut military aid to Colombia. In fact, his request would put military aid almost 50% under the 2007 levels (the last year of a Republican stamp on the program). Initial reports indicate we may see a significant portion of the fumigation program cut.

Now for Mexico the news may not be as heartening, but it is still positive. The Obama Administration inherited the Merida Initiative from the Bush Administration. Last year Washington sent over $700 million in military aid to Mexico in a quixotic effort to fight drug cartels.

Not surprisingly, drug-related violence is still rampant and Amnesty International has reported a six fold increase in complaints against the military since 2006.

In Obama’s budget, Merida Initiative funds to Mexico would fall by about 30% from the peak levels of the last three years. According to the Bush plan, Merida should have ended this year. So we shouldn’t have seen any Merida military aid in Obama’s budget. But you can imagine how hard the drug warriors were fighting for military aid levels similar to Bush’s plan given the continued levels of violence.

And while military funding for dangerous and useless military adventures to fight the Drug War in Latin America are slowly on the way out, the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s budget for domestic drug treatment and prevention is up $341 million. Since Plan Colombia began, we’ve called for shifting counter-narcotics funding away from military aid to Latin America and toward these under-funded domestic programs.

Yes, we are concerned about the slight increases in military aid to Central America. And the new “Caribbean Basin Security Initiative”. In a couple of months, when the funding bills start moving through Congress, we’ll be calling for more definitive reductions in military aid. You and I both know that we cannot stop working until not one dollar is going to Latin American militaries targeting farmers, organizers and human rights activists.

But for now let’s celebrate this small, but significant victory. This would never have been possible without the work of WFP members, our coalition partners and most of all, the tireless work of our partners in Mexico and Colombia. We’re on the right track. Let’s keep up the momentum!