In country: Witness to Colombia's plight
Written by Andrea Cano
The emergency peace delegation stages a vigil in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia's capital. Andrea Cano photo.
From March 11 to 23, a 100-person emergency peace delegation, including 18 UCC and three Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) members, traveled to Colombia. Their goal: to investigate human right violations, the effect of the $1.3 billion of U.S. military aid and the refugee situation as a result of that country's ongoing internal conflict. Journalist Andrea Cano, a member of Ainsworth UCC in Portland, Ore., accompanied the group and provided daily bilingual first-hand accounts of the delegation's findings on the Global Ministries
website in English and Spanish.
"Essentially we want the readers to see, feel and perceive the experience as the delegation investigates human rights violations and the effects of $1.3 billion of U.S. military aid, and to understand from Colombians what is needed to resolve the situation," Cano said as she prepared for the trip.
Colombia is the third largest recipient of military assistance, even as the United Nations, the U.S. Department of State and independent human rights organizations report that the Colombian security and paramilitary forces account for over 70 percent of the human rights violations in the region.
There are reports that nearly 2 million Colombians have been displaced and 300,000 killed due to the 40-year-old conflict. It has produced 1.6 million internal displaced persons, with an increasing number of refugees fleeing to Panama and Venezuela.
Sunday, March 18
By Andrea Cano
This is our last day in Bogota. We have spent the last three days hearing the testimonies of the people of this country coping with poverty, violence, a deteriorating social and political structure, an out-of-control armed conflict between the paramilitary and guerrilla groups, and an illicit drug production industry.
We have met with a variety of civil society sectors and received a range of perspectives about the crisis, Plan Colombia and our country's role in all of this, including our policy towards Colombia and the presence of almost 1,500 U.S. companies.
There is an extraordinarily complex layer of issues that has its roots in Colombia's colonial times, decades of political violence and the exploitation of people.
Since 1963, the displacement of people has been the mechanism to clear the land for foreign investors. It has become a country whose economic model has failed. Its infrastructure has not been able to keep pace with the globalization of financial and trade markets in the last 10 years. Juan Valdez now has to take a back seat to the coffee production in Viet Nam.
In the midst of their reports, comprehensive analysis, and quiet comments, we recognized the resilience of the national organizations, peace and justice workers, churches and communities of faith, campesinos, women, Afro-Colombians, the indigenous community, the union leadership, the environmentalists, in their intention to choose life. They also conveyed some hope to overcome this crisis, though many people believe it will get worse before it gets better.
There are very few redeeming elements in the $1.3 billion aid package the U.S. government granted Colombia last year, because the majority of funds is designated for arms and retooling the Colombian military. Given the precariousness of Colombia's military administration, funds will likely find themselves in the hands of the paramilitary groups.
So here we are as U.S. citizens, hard-pressed to answer the oft-repeated question by Colombians:
Why did the U.S. Congress approve this amount of money and for what reasons?
Where were we when the lobbying was in full force in Washington, D.C., prior to the vote?
Where will we be when the aid package comes up for renewal for an increase for funds?
Can we help influence how our tax dollars are being designated for Colombia?
And later for the Andean region?
We are learning that it is not the drug war that is the basis of the conflict but a land war.
There is speculation that land is being cleared in certain regions for the construction of a new canal to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Mega-projects, run by the government and foreign companies, will continue to absorb arable land for agribusiness and take historic indigenous territories for oil and natural gas. Millions of people have been internally displaced from their homes and lands, with little chance to return and no resources to help them start over if and when they can. Their homes have been burned and titles taken away.
On the Ecopetrol website you will find a color-coded map of recent agreements between Colombia and U.S. and European oil and natural gas companies. It is no accident that the most vicious massacres have occurred where the oil drilling and development are expanding. That is also where paramilitary has surfaced.
Our speaker this morning, Hector Mondragon, a Mennonite who can't even go to church on Sunday because of the death threats he receives constantly, concretized all of the information we have received all week. He described Colombia as a country in the throes of a holocaust and social genocide, engineered by a strategy that began with Plan Colombia but is evolving into Plan Andina—opening up U.S. military response and presence in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. The United States has no friends nor enemies, only interests.
According to Mondragon, the United States is undercutting the democratic process of popular movements and the efforts of indigenous communities to protect their historic lands. In the words of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, we are witnessing the rise of the democradura, the appearance of a democracy, when in fact it is a social and political construct dictated by the elite and not by the people—essentially a new spin on the concept of dictatorship. We now understand how certain countries can fly under the U.S. radar of human rights certification when, in fact, violations are ignored. If they are not officially registered, they did not occur.
Over two million displaced Colombians from the country have arrived in the larger towns and cities where social services are disintegrating, unemployment is 25 percent, and the underemployment rate is about 45 percent. When people are hungry, they do desperate things. In the cities, they rob. In the campo, they join paid paramilitary units or guerrilla groups. In the cities, deaths caused by common crime runs about 80 percent and those attributed to the armed conflict about 20 percent. In the campo, the percentages reverse.
There are other important factors to consider in the future:
An equitable land reform proposal created by a coalition of national organizations is competing with a government version that favors the ruling class and foreign investors.
A critical brain drain has occurred in the last five years. The exiled community of two million people includes a significant professional, political, and academic class, many of whom left because of death threats, kidnapings, and a basic instinct for survival.
It is not only the peace that needs to be achieved here in Colombia. There must be a comprehensive reconstruction that strengthens the central government, involves the civil society and allows the country to support social and economic policies that benefit all civil sectors. This post-crisis plan should also reinforce Colombia's ability to negotiate on its own terms within its own borders its agreements with foreign companies in the global market.