Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hope and Strength in the Face of Violence, Grief, and Despair

By Claudia Ana Rodriguez, WFP Mexico

This past weekend, my fellow team member Carlin Christy, and I went to Cuernavaca, a small city in the Mexican state of Morelos. Known by many tourists as the place of the eternal spring, it is also the birth place of the Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad (Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity).

Check out a slideshow from Claudia and Carlin's trip:

Just a little over a year ago, Juan Francisco Sicilia Ortega, son of Javier Sicilia, a well known poet and author in Mexico, was killed by drug traffickers along with six other people, Julio Cesar Romero Jaime, Luis Antonio Romero Jaime, Jaime Gabriel Alejos Cadena, Jesus Chavez Vazquez, Alvaro Jaime Avelar, and Maria del Socorro Estrada Hernandez.

Refusing to let his son turn into another statistic among the over 60,000 deaths in Mexico as a result of the U.S. backed militarized strategy to fight the drug cartels, Javier Sicilia called for a movement to give victims of violence and their families a chance to share their stories, and demand an end to the war on drugs in Mexico.

As covered by the Mexico Team last year, several marches and caravans were led throughout the country, raising awareness in Mexico and abroad about the realities of the consequences of the war against organized crime (see here, here, here and here). Many similar demonstrations happened across the world in solidarity with the marches that occurred last year.

From April 20-22, people who have participated in the movement, including victims, victim’s families, civil society organizations, and international organizations, gathered for a strategizing meeting in Cuernavaca. Nineteen different Mexican states were represented, as well as a handful of U.S. organizations, including Witness for Peace.

The agenda for the weekend gave people a chance to share their stories and talk about the current situation and realities found in different states across the country. During the gathering, the movement’s members discussed and debated the identity, organization, goals and strategy, for the movement, in both the short term and long term.

Below is a brief summary of the testimonies, both written and oral, that were shared at the gathering concerning the current national and local contexts:

Analysis of the Current Situation
While every state has their local context and situation, there were similarities between what was happening in the different states and analysis of the larger national context. Some important points to highlight include:

State level Analysis:
  • Closing of both private and public schools due to insecurity
  • Femicides, suicides, orphans, and forced displacement
  • Increasing human rights violations by police forces and/or military
  • Increased level of homicides related to organized crime (2 murders a day in the state of Morelos; 500 people killed in Nuevo Leon so far this year)
  • Increased kidnappings and disappearances (2,270 in Jalisco through June of 2011)
  • Murder and persecutions of activists and journalists
  • Increased number of visible and invisible victims, due to aforementioned increases in homicides, armed robberies, kidnappings, extortions, displacement
  • High indexes of impunity (in San Luis Potosi, 93.47% in 2010)
  • Criminalization and threats against victims of crime and their families
  • Corruption and criminal control over police forces
  • Wide spread fear of reporting crime to authorities
  • Negligence, inefficiency, and disinterest by part of the state attorney generals
  • High unemployment and insufficient salaries
  • Rising extortions by cartels on local businesses and street vendors, and many small and medium businesses closing as a result
  • Territorial disputes
  • Human rights violations including right to water, education, freedom, food security
  • Parts of the cities are known as residences of cartels: areas where they launder money, a high concentration of their businesses and properties
  • Destruction of social fabric
National level Analysis:
  • Many different wars going on at the same time such as war against hunger and war against unemployment
  • Majority of the population living in fear and uncertainty
  • Structural violence of the capitalist system
  • Kidnappings, forced disappearances, femicides, torture
  • Violence directed towards vulnerable groups: indigenous women, poor, children
  • Criminalization of social protest and movements
  • Lack of strategy and coordination between authorities at the municipal, state, and federal levels
  • The war as part of an international agreement with the U.S.
Some personal accounts discussed include:
  • Normalization of violence in Mexico City and an increased presence of polices forces and armed forces in the metro, dressed and armed as if part of the military
  • Street vendors and business owners extorted at high rates in the State of Mexico
  • In the State of Mexico, drug use is also widespread among youth, many stores are well known as fronts for the sale and consumption of drugs and police do nothing about it
  • Increased violence due to turf battles in the state of Durango. Schools will be closed due to rumors, for example, during an intense stage of battle between cartels, it was rumored that one cartel threaten to kill 30 students at every school of if the other cartel refused to secede territory
  • Also in the state of Durango, many people are forced into joining ranks with cartels because the cartel threatens to kill members of their family if they do not join. People from all levels of society impacted, does not matter socio-economic status or education level
  • One young man from Acapulco, Guerrero noted the increased military presence and also unemployment in the tourism industry. His own father, who used to work in a hotel, was unemployed. 144 people were killed in Acapulco in March of 2012
  • One woman from Xalapa, Veracruz, noted the increased military and army on the streets, and shootouts are coming occurrences. Women are being targeted and dying at higher rates; the majority of the homicide victims at the morgue are women
Despite the grief felt by victims who have lost parents, children, friends, the despair of those who are looking for disappeared loved ones, the daily struggles of those displaced by violence, and the anger and fear felt by many others because of the daily realities they live in, there was an incredible feeling of strength and empowerment felt throughout the weekend.

Their voices are being heard. There was also a great sense of hope and the strong conviction that the reality Mexico is living in today is not the only option. And the justice they demand, not that they ask for but they demand, is their right and they refuse to let impunity reign. I felt inspired by the weekend’s events . I am grateful for the stories people shared with me, and recommitted to advocate for change in my own government’s policies helping to fuel the situation in Mexico today.

It is important to remember that the increased insecurity and violence started five years ago, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon began a militarized campaign against drug cartels in his country. Soon after, the United States began sending military aid in the form of equipment and training to support the Mexican government’s militarized strategy, through the Merida Initiative. Over five years later, the situation continues to deteriorate and the impacts are felt all across Mexico by all levels of society. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to send aid via the Merida Initiative, not make any significant domestic policy changes to curb the demand of drugs or arms trafficking to Mexico from U.S. gun shops.

This fall, the Moviemiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad will make their first international caravan, coming to the United States. As stated in an open letter by Movimiento founder, Javier Sicilia:
This initiative seeks to promote dialogue with American civil society and its government regarding the following themes: the need to stop gun trafficking; the need to debate alternatives to drug prohibition; the need for better tools to combat money laundering; and the need to promote bilateral cooperation in human rights and human security in two priority areas: promotion of civil society and safety, as well as protection and safety for migrants.
This caravan which will begin on August 12 at the Tijuana and San Diego border is also part of a larger initiative of the movement to bring more international awareness to their work, the realities in Mexico, and to build international solidarity.

Keep checking back to the blog to see and hear the interviews we did in Cuernavaca, view more photos, and find out more about the U.S. Caravan to learn how you can stand in solidarity with Mexico.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Drug Policy and its Consequences: Summit of the Americas

By Claudia Rodriguez

During the Summit of the Americas this month, leaders from the Americas came together to discuss pressing issues in the region. One of the major topics of discussion already highly talked about before the meeting was security in the region and its links to drug policy. Many former and sitting presidents in Latin America are demanding that President Obama and his administration recognize the role of the U.S. in the drug problems that are causing so much damage to Latin America. Specifically, these leaders call for a debate to consider alternative drug policies in their own countries and in the hemisphere because the current system of prohibition is not working. Grassroots and civil society organizations have called for these debates for years, and for these former and current heads of state to join them in this call. The Obama administration stated its willingness to discuss this but refuses to consider alternatives that include the decriminalization of drugs. The Obama administration recently came out with the 2012 National Drug Control Strategy report which focuses more on demand and treatment for drug users, but it still remains to be seen what impacts or results the policy will have domestically and abroad.

What we do know is that while the U.S. domestic drug policy continues to insignificantly curb the demand for drugs in the U.S., the government continues to train and finance militaries and police in Latin America to fight the drug war abroad. As a result, these countries suffer the consequences. Through the Merida Initiative, the United States has sent military aid and provided training to the Mexican security forces since the initiative was signed in 2007, shortly after Mexican President Felipe Calderon started his term and declared war on the drug trafficking organizations. Since then, over 50,000 people have been killed, thousands disappeared, and thousands more have been displaced. Human rights violations committed by U.S. trained and armed Mexican forces have skyrocketed. Some of the most vulnerable populations include journalists, women, human rights defenders, and indigenous communities. Many times, the same forces that are supposed to be protecting and providing security for the population commit massive human rights abuses, and the rampant impunity that exists means they are not held accountable for their actions.

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the states where the greatest number of attacks against human rights defenders occur include Chihuahua, Chiapas, Oaxaca, and Guerrero. According to the IACHR’s recent publication Second Report on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders in the Americas (2012):

The attacks reportedly come from non state actors that belong to organized crime, as well as from sectors opposed to the causes led by the defenders, and the authorities have not prevented the attacks; to the contrary, according to the information received, there have reportedly been occasions in which the authorities themselves asked organized crime to do the ‘dirty work’ a way to evade responsibility (p.13)
Living with this insecurity has become a daily reality for many human rights defenders from the states listed above, who are not unfamiliar with death threats. Most recently Alba Cruz, a human rights defender and lawyer that works at a human rights organization in Oaxaca City called Comité de Defensa Integral de Derechos Humanos Gobixha (CodigoDH), received death threats on her phone. She has received them since 2007, due to her work defending political prisoners and other human rights advocates. She has received precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The most recent threats she received are due to her work defending trade unionist, former political prisoner and victim of torture, Marcelino Coache. He and his family have also been recipients of precautionary measures from the Inter-American Comission on Human Rights. His wife received a threatening message the same day Alba Cruz received her death threats.

The consequences of the U.S. refusing to reevaluate and consider drug policy alternatives and the continued exportation of a militarized drug war to other countries in Latin America is costing thousands of lives, while leaving many more to live in insecure and dangerous situations. It is important that U.S. citizens stand in solidarity and advocate for changes not only in foreign policy, but domestic drug policy as well.

To learn more about the impacts of the Merida Initiative, consider joining the Mexico Team on a delegation this September to learn about the impacts of the Merida Initiative. The delegation, organized by Keri Zehm is titled “Mexico: Understanding the Drug War through the Impact of the Merida Initiative and Judicial Reform”, for more information, click here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Voices from the People's Summit

By WFP Colombia Team

As Presidents from across the Americas were getting set to gather for the Summit of the Americas April 14-15, social movements from across the hemisphere gathered in Cartagena at the People's Summit.

In the video below, co-produced by Witness for Peace and Fellowship of Reconciliation, human rights defenders, labor leaders and indigenous people discuss their vision of U.S. policy. Check it out.

Monday, April 16, 2012

An Open Letter to Secretary Solis from a Union Member

This is an open letter to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis from union member and Witness for Peace board member John Walsh. It comes after President Obama and Colombian President Santos announced this weekend that the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement will be implemented next month, despite serious concerns over labor rights and violence against workers in Colombia. Secretary Solis said Colombia had made "remarkable progress" on labor rights issues.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis:

As a human being, as a union member who has twice gone to Colombia, and as a citizen of the United States I am dismayed that the administration of which you are part deems the murder of 30 unionists and 49 human rights defenders during 2011 in Colombia as acceptable, such that the bilateral free trade agreement will take effect May 15th. Making matters worse, the vast majority of these murders have been committed with impunity, calling into serious doubt the attitude of Colombian authorities toward protecting the basic right to life of the people of that country.

A small number of already wealthy people will benefit from the free trade agreement, while a large number of working class Colombians – and North Americans – will suffer the loss of their livelihoods, their homes, and perhaps their lives. In the case of Guatemala, killings abated while CAFTA was under consideration, but then soared after it was in place. We have reason to fear the same in Colombia.

I implore you to do your utmost to safeguard the lives of working class Colombians – not only to stop the killings, but to seek justice in the workplaces, not mere words on paper. President Obama’s administration needs to find a moral compass, and to refuse to countenance the murder of our sisters and brothers.

Please help,

John Walsh
Portland, OR

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

General Motors in Colombia: the Free Trade Agreement, the Abuses, the Corruption and the Resistance

by Carlos Cruz, WFP Colombia

The Association of Sick and Fired Workers of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL)

Jorge Parra, the President of the Association of Sick and Fired Workers Of General Motors Colombia (ASOTRECOL in Spanish), started his makeshift tent city with fellow fired General Motors workers right across the street from the United Sates Embassy on August 1, 2011. Their reasoning was very clear: Since the U.S. government bailed out General Motors in 2008, the government and U.S. taxpayers became major stakeholders of this multinational corporation and assumed responsibility for its behavior in other countries, including Colombia.

From their tent city, they have launched a strong grassroots campaign that has attracted the attention of U.S. Congresspeople, Colombian trade union federations, nongovernmental organizations, opposition senators and hopefully the GM CEO.

These fired workers have shown incredible endurance, sleeping out in the cold and rainy Bogotá weather with metal rods in their spinal columns as a result of the surgeries they’ve undergone due to injuries acquired at the GM plant. Their endurance shows their determination to attain labor practices and standards that are fair and comply with the law.

Colombian Workers and the Free Trade Agreement

What they ask is for the U.S. government and General Motors in Colombia to comply with safety and labor standards supposedly guaranteed by Colombian laws and the 2011 Labor Action Plan between the Colombian and the U.S. governments.

The Labor Action Plan was geared to address the grave human rights abuses in Colombia in order to ratify the notoriously debated Free Trade Agreement proposed in 2006. There was fierce opposition from many sectors of Colombian society, including indigenous and afro-Colombian communities and U.S. trade unions and confederations, which stalled the FTA’s ratification for 5 years, and with good reason.

Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to exercise labor organizing and unionizing rights. According to the AFL-CIO, 2,850 Colombian trade unionists have been killed in the last 25 years with almost complete impunity.

Colombian labor leaders face life and death situations and find abuse in almost all aspect of labor. Approximately three million Colombian workers are employed by subcontracting mechanisms that give a type of temporary worker status in order to break up unions, limit medical care, deny extra pay for over-time, weekends and holidays, and limit the right to a fixed contract. An estimated 300 to 400 workers in the GM plant in Colombia are hired under these exploitative schemes.

These and many more abuses resulting from subcontracting schemes are specifically addressed in the Labor Action Plan, but remain intact in Colombia when they shouldn’t.

In an environment of impunity, corruption and weak institutions, the newly-created Ministry of Labor and its labor inspectors, which have received $2 million U.S. taxpayer dollars in order to implement the Labor Action Plan, are working against the rights of workers.

The Abuses

Jorge and many more workers in Colombia, specifically in this case, endure precarious safety standards, long working hours, and don’t have adequate access to mechanisms to address these issues. Instead, workers are simply fired once they get injured or start working to address these labor violations. This is what happened to about 164 workers at the GM plant.

The fast pace, the heavy equipment and the lack of proper medical attention led to several injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, spinal injuries and hernias. Instead of taking care of its workers, GM management obtained their medical records and fired them, listing false claims so the firing wouldn’t be related to their injuries.

What is even more troubling is that these fired GM workers have been targets of persecution and harassment by private security firms contracted in secrecy. Members of the association have reported being fallowed and photographed outside their homes and their children’s schools. Even more alarming is that the Labor Action Plan’s protective measures for labor leaders are not being fulfilled; 51 trade unionists were murdered in 2011 alone, and 5 have been killed to date in 2012.

The Corruption

The far reach of multinationals and their deep political and economic ties more often than not sabotage, stall and hinder judicial processes in their favor.

Labor inspectors, called for by the Labor Action Plan, signed off on these illegal firings, protecting the companies instead of the workers. In a legal motion and investigation filed by ASOTRECOL, one corrupt labor inspector was actually sanctioned. The remaining concern is that the Labor Action Plan calls for roughly 400 of these officials.

The Resistance

The GM case is one of several in Colombia relating to labor abuses, exploitation, persecution and anti-union organizing. To highlight these issues, in early May, Jorge and other Colombian workers from the most exploited sectors of the Colombian workforce, who are specifically mentioned in the Labor Action Plan, will be going to Washington, DC, to express the ground-level reality of the Labor Action Plan. Their objective is to renegotiate the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement until the plan becomes a reality and not just an unenforced document signed over to the U.S. in order to implement the FTA.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Cuba Rambler

by Diego Benitez

I have spent a lot of time in Cuba the past five months now and I’m not sure where to begin this first blog. Maybe I’ll start by rambling about my experiences through my research and work with our licensed delegations and hope to grab on to something somewhere along the way. I thought things would be different here. For some reason I thought this would be a place where basic human rights were deprived, where big bother watched my every move, where my toes would hurt from walking on their tips…I thought I would lose weight. I thought I would smoke a lot more cigars, drink a lot more rum, dance a lot more salsa and swim more often at the beach. It turns out I was a victim of the mass misinformation campaigns that have been feeding our senses for over fifty years. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was one of those; I think most of us are. Ultimately the truth changes everything. It turns out that I was right about things being different here, just not in the way I had assumed.

Every Cuban family has a ration card to supplement their needs. The Cuban government offers its citizens a social safety net that includes free education, health care, housing, basic foodstuff and a lot more goodies that sound too good to be true. Monthly rations are not the only way of surviving. This is merely a basket of goods meant to satisfy basic needs. They must work to supplement the rest. Each month a member of the family heads to a local bodega to pick up the monthly ration of rice, beans, sugar, oil, coffee, pasta, eggs, a small portion of meat/poultry and a few other basic nutritional goods. If there are young children in the household they receive yogurt and milk. Bread is rationed daily. It isn’t enough to survive on, but something is better than nothing. The rest of their needs are found through the daily lucha, the everyday struggle. Everyone finds a way to survive here. In fact, Cubans pride themselves on being survivors. Sometimes things are done through the black market but the overwhelming amount of success comes from their creativity, hard work and solidarity. They suffer and succeed together which, is something I am still trying to understand.

One Friday night last November after a full day of meetings with our first People to People licensed delegation I went to a downtown bar to see a well-known Cuban rock band perform. The bar is called Stairway to Heaven. On Friday nights it operates as a gay establishment. Normally it plays pop and rock music from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Pictures of Madonna and the Beatles adorn the walls with neon paint that glimmers under glowing blue lights. I wasn’t prepared for what I experienced that night. First, I realized that maybe I should have washed my white shirt with a bit more care the day before…blue light can be cruel to clothing with stains. Second, I slowly came to understand that I was at a gay bar and the realization struck me with awe. I didn’t think that the gay community could gather as freely as it did that night. Now, don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot of discrimination and social stigma, but not to the degree I had expected. When I lived in Burkina Faso things were much more difficult, flat out dangerous for gay men. Colombia also had/has its challenges. As a straight man I wondered if I would be welcomed or chastised. I felt nervous. Like an underage kid sneaking in to his first bar with a fake ID; I wasn’t sure if I’d get kicked out or not. But, things turned out well in the end and I chatted up a storm with a gregarious physician and his partner, an accountant, who visit the bar at the end of each week to enjoy live music, fine rum and be around friends for a while. By the end of the night I found myself dancing salsa music with newly made friends while questioning the traditional leadership roles. At no point did I feel threatened, confused or fearful of an unwarranted advance. In fact, I felt flattered if someone thought me handsome. I had such a blast that I go back every now and then with our delegations after a full day of educational activities and introduce them to a side of Cuba they wouldn’t otherwise get to know. The gay community has seen several changes in the past two decades. At one point in history they were sent to re-education camps by the powers in charge. Ignorance spread easily in a traditionally macho culture and being gay didn’t help. Funny enough though, CENESEX, the Cuban National Center for Sex Education is directed by Mariela Castro Espin, niece of Fidel Castro and daughter of Raul Castro, the current president of Cuba. It struggles for gay rights and social inclusion. Even more interesting is that in 2008 a law was passed allowing free sex-change operations for individuals who qualify! How wild is that? While the LGBTQ community isn’t proclaiming they’ve founds solutions to every problem, they do recognize that they have come a long way since the camps.

Education here is what probably has astounded me the most. I have felt comfortable handing text to a rural farmer feeling relatively sure that they will be able to read it. In other countries I wouldn’t do it for fear of embarrassing situations. It turns out that the illiteracy rate here is almost 0%. Shortly after the revolution a campaign was launched to empower every Cuban with the skills to read and write. Young adults and students volunteered in droves to live and teach in the rural country side. The alphabetization campaigns came to be known as the Conrado Benitez campaign after a young man who was killed at the onset for carrying out such activities. The stories are inspirational; the young volunteering to teach the old, the illiterate, farmers and housewives basic reading and writing skills. It was a golden age for popular education. I often wonder what it would look like in the states, perhaps AmeriCorps?

I will end my first ramble by mentioning that the Pope was here recently. Historically the Catholic Church has had a strong presence in Cuba, however, after the revolution relationships became estranged and each establishment viewed the other with suspicion. Things have steadily been improving. The Pope’s visit points towards a continued warming of ties. This year marks the first time in Cuba’s history that Holy Friday is celebrated as a national holiday. As far as I can recall we have never celebrated Good Friday as a national holiday in the states. It makes me wonder if Santeria, a commonly practiced Afro-Cuban religion throughout Cuba, will also have a day in history where its holidays are celebrated nationwide. It’s only been a a few months that I’ve spent a lot of time here and as a foreigner I can hardly tell that there was ever a religious struggle. Things have changed. Everyone acknowledges the turning of a page when religion was viewed with suspicion and Christians concealed their faith. While Cubans aren’t necessarily rejoiced about being able to celebrate Good Friday, they do appreciate a day off. A day off from the daily struggle is always a welcomed treat. And I will end my ramble with that. Clearly there is a lot left to talk about, not least of which is an economic embargo initiated during the Kennedy administration and kept in place by every administration since. This country has suffered tremendously because of it. There is practically no trade happening between the U.S. and Cuba, and any foreign ships using U.S. ports are prohibited from travelling to Cuba for a period of 180 days. It is an archaic policy that we as Witness for Peace work hard to raise awareness on. Yet, despite all the hardships, Cubans forge ahead and steadily experiment with a Socialist system they have embraced and we have demonized. Most importantly it is done in solidarity. A word I wish we used more often back home.

As I start this Cuba rambling blog I would like for it to serve the purpose of raising awareness on issues that aren’t spoken about in the states. So please feel free to ask me any questions that on issues you’d like to know more about and I will do the best to do the research and respond. Internet is slow here, but with enough time I will get back to you.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Summit of the People

by the Witness for Peace Colombia team

In the video below, Witness for Peace gives a preview of the Summit of the People, a counter-summit to the official Summit of the Americas sponsored by the Organization of the American States in Cartagena, Colombia. In this space, social movements and civil society throughout the continent will manifest their discontent with the neoliberal economic model pushed by the United States in free trade agreements and the militarization of the hemisphere.