I am hoping to get a post up soon to tell you all more about the People's Summit, but until then, I wanted to share a story from one of our supporting churches, First United Church of Oak Park. They have been an amazing partner for Colombia in terms of advocacy, accompaniment, financial support, education, and more. Thanks y'all. You are indeed an inspiration. **** "You are an inspiration to me." Those words were about the last thing I expected to hear when a group of us from First United Church met with Joseph, a legislative aid to U.S. Rep. Danny Davis in Washington, DC. We were there for Ecumenical Advocacy Days, and we had 30 minutes in the Congressman's office to talk about issues related to a fair federal budget and human rights issues in Latin America. I began by saying we were there to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, who proclaimed liberation for those who are oppressed and poor. Secondly, we were there as constituents who VOTE and citizens of the republic. Thirdly, we were there as friends and companions to our partners in the Presbyterian Church of Colombia. Joseph's eyes got kind of wide when I started talking about Jesus. Maybe people in Washington aren't used to that kind of talk . . . at least when it is connected to justice and love for people in other countries. And he really paid attention when Mahala and Laurand, two of our youth delegates, began to articulate the issues. Five million people in Colombia have been displaced. Their rights to restitution are difficult to claim. Labor leaders are subject to harassment and assassination. U.S. military and police presence contributes to violence. We asked the Congressman to use his power to influence American involvement in Colombia, to support development aid rather than weapons. We asked for enforcement of labor protections prior to the implementation of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. We asked for the U.S. to monitor treatment of those who have been displaced from their homes and lands. And by the end of our visit, he turned to us and said, "You all are an inspiration to me!" Rep. Davis signed a Dear Colleague letter that we asked him to endorse. Sometimes God's work happens in surprising ways. I was glad our presence made Joseph's day. May he -- and all public servants -- be inspired to continue working for liberty and justice for all. Rev. Dr. Julie R. Harley
So right down the road from us in Cartagena this weekend, most of this hemisphere's leaders are gathering for the Cumbre de los Americas - or Summit of the Americas. Obama is there, and the Castros are not - there have been no shortages of tempests in the lead up to this event. Mamie is in Cartagena at another event - the Cumbre de los Pueblos - or Summit of the Peoples. It is an alternative voice to the meeting of heads of state, a place for people's organizations, churches, unions, and academics to lift up the true concerns of the people, over and above the political niceties and formal yet flimsy statements the official Cumbre will likely result in. Below are several good reflections on some of the most important issues to be discussed at the Summit. Take a moment to read and think about these issues - our whole hemisphere is in this together... From the Washington Office on Latin America "Obama Poised To Give Presidential Seal of Approval To Gross Labor Rights Violations in Colombia" It is now widely expected that Obama will certify that the Colombia - US Free Trade Agreement is ready to be implemented at the Cumbre. This is in spite of a clear set benchmarks that have not been met. The real news here is the same as it has always been - this free trade deal favors the powerful at the expense of those without voice. And in Colombia, those without voice are often at risk of death. Here's a positive perspective on what this hemisphere's leaders could be addressing - the spate of human rights abuses throughout the region. "What Should be on the Agenda at the Summit: Protect Human Rights Defenders." (From the Latin American Working Group) And finally, here is a poem from a Colombian, reflecting on the pain of not being believed about grave human rights abuses in your own community "They Don't Believe Us." An excerpt:
Yesterday we said that they are murdering us,
cutting us into pieces, disappearing us, displacing us, torturing us, mistreating us. And they don’t believe us. That we are victims of the state. And they don’t believe us. That the army, police and paramilitaries are the same. And they don’t believe us. That many children are sobbing, for their parents are disappeared.
And they don’t believe us.
Yesterday was International Land Mine Awareness Day. Let that sink in a minute... Did you even know there was a Land Mine Awareness Day? To be honest, I really didn't. Other than Heather Mills' brief stint on Dancing with the Stars several years ago, land mines are something I did not ever really have to think about - before moving to Colombia. This February on a Presbyterian Peace Fellowship delegation, we visited a home in Bogotá that takes in land mine victims while they are being treated. While the 2012 campaign to raise awareness of land mines focuses on rolling up your pant legs, the most difficult moment for us was meeting a 2-year old who was in the capital for eye surgery from the shrapnel that had blown up in her face. Nothing could stop me from seeing Peanut in shoes. According to El Espectador, a newspaper here, as of 2009 Colombia had the second largest number of land mines in the world (second only to Afghanistan). Of the nearly ten thousand victims of the past 22 years, more than 10% were children. Mines are a tool primarily used by the country's primary guerrilla groups (FARC and ELN), and because they are usually placed in rural locations, it is often poor farmers and their families who are casualties. It is believed that up to 100,000 mines still remain in the Colombian countryside. The United Nations says this day is meant to call for continued efforts by states, with assistance from the UN and relevant organizations, to help establish and develop national mine-action capacities in countries where mines and explosive war remnants constitute a serious threat to the safety, health and lives of people, or hinders social and economic development at the national and local levels. "Mine action" refers to a range of efforts to clear landmines and explosive remnants of war and to mark and fence off dangerous areas. It also includes assisting victims, teaching people how to remain safe in a mine-affected environment, advocating for universal participation in international treaties related to landmines, explosive remnants of war and their victims, and destroying landmines stockpiled by governments and non-state armed groups. This day has only been officially observed since 2006. Wouldn't it be great to be able to give this day away to some other cause in just 10 years? We have to start somewhere, so roll-em up people, roll-em up.
Yesterday we posted information about the Days of Prayer and Action. One additional project for these days that our Colombian church partners are offering is a sign on letter to Colombian President Santos urging him to engage in peace talks to end Colombia's armed conflict. If you, your congregation, or any other groups are interested in joining this effort, please do two things: a) Print and sign the letter and send it to the Colombian Embassy in your country and b) send your name and organization in to me (rawillia13 (a) gmail punto com) so we can collect all signatures and deliver them to the President's office here in Colombia The full text of the letter is here: Carta Santos Paz - Ingles (pdf) Carta Santos Paz - Ingles (.doc) The address of the Colombian Embassy in the United States: Embassy of Colombia in United States 2118 Leroy Place NW Washington DC 20008 From the letter:
The signers of this letter are Christians from different churches and Christian organizations in Colombia and countries throughout the region who, sensing a call from God to work for peace, have been involved in programs and initiatives that seek to contribute non-violently to create peace and overcome the violence that Colombia has suffered for almost 50 years. We write to you because we are motivated by the Spirit of God who encourages us to keep hope that peace will be possible in Colombia despite the news that we see in which one day the media euphorically announces the death of guerrillas and the next the death of soldiers at the hands of the guerrillas. Both stories cause us sadness and pain since brothers and sisters in Christ killing one another is a sign that the social and spiritual order created by God in Genesis is not on a good path. Accordingly, these murderous acts among brothers and sisters produces a curse between those who kill one another and the land they inhabit and work (Genesis 4:8-14). The Spirit of God, which animates our work for peace in Colombia, today pushes us to write to you to help overcome this cycle of fratricidal violence that we in Colombia have lived for the past 50 years...Also - here is another activity for the Days of Prayer and Action - a 24 hour prayer from our partners at Christian Peacemaker Teams. Visit here to find out more, and to sign up.
April 13-16 :: A Place to Call HomeBe a voice for peace and justice in Colombia by joining thousands of people of faith for the 7th Annual National Days of Action for Colombia. With more than five million people forced off their land, Colombia is home to the world's greatest displacement crisis. More and more people are driven from their homes every day. Help us flood Congress with our message of peace and justice for Colombia. During the National Days of Action for Colombia we will call on our government to pursue policies that protect small-scale farmers, Colombian human rights advocates, and communities at risk for displacement. For sustainable peace in Colombia, the U.S. must stop funding the Colombian military and pushing the unfair trade and failed drug policies. Here is the organizer packet with all the information to help plan some events. We'll be praying and acting here in Colombia. Why don't you join us?
*********Here is a video of the ecumenical event held here in Barranquilla two years ago to get you excited...
How do you speak out when you are fearful for your life? What does democracy look like when people cannot show their faces? How do we seek justice when it can cost so much? Last week I was at a protest with people clamoring for justice in a place where there is very little of it. The protest was in Montería, a small city on the North Coast that has been one of the epicenters of Colombia's paramilitary rule. It is known the country over as one of the most dangerous areas - a region not mentioned when Colombia's recent 'makeover' is discussed. Montería, Cordoba is still in the grips of paramilitaries, large landowners, and narco-traffickers. So what happens when people show up for a good old-fashioned protest? The protest was about land, as is often the case in Colombia. Millions of acres of land have been stolen, mostly from small campesinos. Efforts to reclaim that land are very slow, often unfruitful, and always carry great risk. The government of Colombia has recently passed a law known as the Law of Victims and Land Restitution, which aims to provide some form of restitution to those who have been displaced. But as in all cases of good intentions, the devil is in the details, and the track record of this type of restitution is mighty slim here in Colombia. This law and its implementation is a complex process, one that our partners here in the IPC will be following closely in the months to come. But this post is not about the complexities of a law, or its relative pros and cons. It is about people gathering in the street, fearful for their lives, but exuding courage. It is about putting on a brave face, when for some that meant needing to put a mask on over it (see photo on left). (Videos of protests, funerals, and even meetings with government officials have ended up in the hands of paramilitaries and formed the basis for the many death lists that circulate.) Protesting the stealing of land and the collusion of the government in that process is a dangerous task. Doing it in Montería seemed nigh on crazy - but for the symbolic victory this represented for many. If there are people who are willing to plant a flag for justice and truth there, in Montería, then maybe more will follow in other parts of the country. In the areas where the violence has not hit as hard, or seems more distant, maybe others will speak out. If people are willing to protest in Montería, then surely people the world over will listen to their cries. I asked one woman who was marching, carrying a photo of her son who had been killed in Colombia's violence, why she had come. She said that she had been silent before her son's death, wishing the violence away. But after his death, she vowed to take every opportunity to speak out for justice where there is none and truth where there are lies. And so she came, with nerves and fears and hopes and memories, to say no more to the killing and stealing; no more silence in the face of injustice. In the city of Montería, there is a statue that pays homage to the paramilitary and military of the Colombian state. It shows them arm in arm, backed by an angel ascending, carrying up an open Bible. In the background is a wall with military weapons mounted throughout. The statue stands as a public tribute to the paramilitary - those who are responsible for the majority of grave human rights violations in this conflicted country. Because that statue stands, in plain sight of all, there is a need to protest. And until it comes down, and all that it signifies is dismantled, I pray there will be people brave enough to make that protest and others willing enough to hear it. Here is news article from Semana (Spanish) and a more parred down report from Colombia Reports (English). How flat things can seem in a reporters notebook...
Quick - what is the most violent country in the world? Hmmm... not sure, but it would have to be a war zone, right? Afghanistan? Maybe Iraq? What if I told you it was Honduras? Followed quickly by El Salvador and then Venezuela. Honduras' murder rate, expressed as the number of murders reported per 100,000 in population, ranks at 86 / 100,000. El Salvador and Venezuela's rates are 75 and 65 / 100,000. In fact, Latin America as a whole, and Central America in particular, virtually owns the title of the world's most violent countries, with a regional average four times the worldwide average. (from Bloggings by Boz) Here are the numbers for 2011:
- Honduras 86 / 100,000 (increase of 15%)
- El Salvador 75
- Venezuela 65
- Guatemala 36
- Colombia 30 (lowest in 35 years)
- Brazil 26
*********I find these numbers illuminating for several reasons. First, I think that most average readers of the news in the US would assume that the majority of violent deaths in the world occur 'over there', i.e. in far away places, rather than in the countries and cities of our shared border and continent. Second, following the US media's focus on the increasing drug violence in Mexico, I imagine no one would guess that Mexico is far behind the levels of violence in much of neighboring Central America. Certainly the violence in the high trafficking zones is real and critical, but it only matches the larger and wider problems of systemically astounding and morally disastrous levels of violence throughout the region. I do not believe it is only a casual association that these same high-violence countries are among the most unequal in distribution of wealth, nor that they are susceptible to the corrosion that the US drug trade brings with it. And while these damning statistics represent very complex underlying problems in these countries, it is the task of every thinking and faithful person to look at how we can be a part of changing these realities. US policy, through trade, drug and military relations, are very real parts of this story. In the coming months, I hope we can connect how these elements of US policy and society directly relate to the levels of regularized violence that permeate the region.
We are often asked - so things are better in Colombia, right? It is always a hard question to answer - see Which Story? from Tuesday - but in the past two months, it has been even more complicated. After entering office with high hopes, and with some very positive steps toward seeking some form of justice for the millions of Colombians who have suffered in this country's violent conflict, recent steps by the Santos administration have called much of that progress into sharp question. Adam Isacson has an excellent analysis here. It is a comprehensive look at events from the past year. It begins with an analysis of a major change the Colombian government is considering in its military justice system - a change that is widely considered to significantly weaken Colombia's fledgling attempts to hold some form of civilian control and accountability over the armed forces. On top of that, the Colombian government has taken several public positions against human rights workers and the persons they represent. The first was a case being investigated about a famous massacre in the small town of Mapiripán, and following that was a case against a group of displaced persons in Las Pavas. Both cases are complicated, as these cases always are, but in both cases the government has gone out of its way to condemn and question the whole of the human rights community and of displaced persons working for restitution. Together they paint a very troubling picture. Isacson concludes that "the human rights counteroffensive appears to be an ill-advised attempt to appease radicalized sectors of the military." He also notes that the timing of these efforts is notable - coming just off the heels of the US Congress' approval of the Colombia - US Free Trade Agreement. In other words, the world's attention is now off of Colombia, so efforts here on human rights protection, even if it only seemed a window dressing, can now be put by the wayside. These questions of the government's support of human rights is of critical concern in Colombia in these days, especially considering the importance of a recent law to restore land to the millions of displaced persons here. A major obstacle to this process is the violence leaders of persons returning to their land have faced, and will continue to face, without the government strongly guaranteeing their safety. What is our response as people of faith? Our partners in the IPC have been watching and discussing these events with great concern. The issue of land restoration and the safety of those involved are the top priorities for the IPC in the coming year. In the face of these growing storm clouds, our partners in the IPC offer two responses. The first is not to lose heart. While the hope that their government may have turned a corner and could be actively working to protect and defend the majority of the Colombian people may be badly battered and flickering, it is not extinguished. Because our hope is not in any government's action or inaction, but in the movement of the Spirit which is always seeking ways to instigate peace and foster new life and nurture wholeness. The second response is to get busy. Through years of working on the issues of justice and full life for all people, the IPC knows that it takes all of us - both here in Colombia and the thousands of partners and accompaniers and readers in the United States to affect the change needed here. We can let our representatives know that the eyes of the world do still indeed care about the state of human rights in Colombia. We can still write to the State Department to stop its human rights certifications that will be hollowed out by this change in Colombia's justice system. We can continue in our solidarity and accompaniment of the people of the IPC and all displaced Colombians, showing that they are not alone, that their sisters and brothers in faith are alongside them as a tangible sign of the living God's presence with them. So we pray. And hope. And act.
********Other related news reports are here: The first is an example of the government's good steps at addressing land reform in cooperation with civil society groups. The second is a report of how those very government officials manage to subvert any positive steps and corrupt the system further. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, a partner also working in Colombia, has a further analysis of the case of one of the groups of displaced peoples the government is calling into question.
We've talked a lot about the Free Trade Agreement here on the blog. And yes, we know the risks of being a one note band. And yes, we have often thought the vote was just around the corner. But we have not changed our minds - this is still a bad deal. Bad for our partners here; bad for the majority of Colombians in rural areas. But more than that, these types of trade agreements - which will serve to further advance the huge inequities in wealth and power - are bad for everyone in the long run. We all prosper when growth is shared and expanded rather than saved and hoarded. The US will benefit from a more democratic and more just Colombia, just as Colombia will benefit from US lawmakers looking at the long term costs and weaknesses this trade agreement will amplify. And tomorrow, Wednesday, this trade agreement will come up for vote. It is a part of a package of three deals - Colombia, Panama and South Korea - and a program to provide aid to US workers who lose their jobs due to the shifts brought on by these trade deals. While all of the trade deals have their issues, the deal with Colombia is what we know, and so we ask that you too raise your voice against this deal. Below are links to ways to call, email, or fax your representative and senators. There are also other links - closing arguments, if you will, on the case of what kind of future we want to create. Time is of the essence. We encourage you to speak out now. Call Congress. Email Congress. Resources for Presbyterians. Colombia FTA letter - RW & MB Lisa Haugaard has a summary of the problems with the Colombia deal - well worth a read, but here are some highlights: (from Huffington Post)
First, the slaughter of trade unionists in Colombia is far from over. More trade unionists were killed last year in Colombia than in the rest of the world combined -- see this chart, if the words alone do not resonate... Something is deeply wrong when a country leads the world in murders of people who exercise their freedom to organize. Second, the trade agreement will devastate poor farmers who have borne the brunt of the country's brutal conflict. These farm families who have lost husbands, sons and daughters -- and barely eke out a living as it is -- will lose even more... We should care about these families because they have suffered so much already. But we should also care because undercutting their livelihoods would push farmers back into coca production, the raw material for cocaine. U.S. taxpayers have already paid the tab on some $8 billion in aid to Colombia, supposedly with the aim of fighting illegal drugs. Third, the trade agreement will escalate the kinds of investment that are most associated with violence. You may have heard about the campaign against conflict diamonds. Colombia has conflict gold, conflict coal, conflict oil, conflict cattle ranching, conflict ports, conflict dams and conflict African palm plantations for biofuel... Unless paramilitary and other criminal networks are dismantled before the deal is sealed, the FTA will escalate the violence.We have a brief moment to stop this step in the wrong direction. May we all act.
Word on the wires is that the Colombia Free Trade Agreement may be submitted soon, as early as Monday, for Congressional approval. I thought it might be a good to time to post our letter outlining our particular reasons for opposition to this agreement. Perhaps you can share it with your Congress person.... (PDF version here Colombia FTA letter - RW & MB), IPC statement about the Agreement here (IPC - Letter against the FTA)
August 17, 2011Honorable Member of Congress: First, we want to thank you for your service to our country and its citizens, and indeed to your service to people everywhere who continue to look to the United States as a beacon of hope, justice, and freedom. We write to you from Barranquilla, Colombia, where we live and serve as Mission Co-Workers with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and our partner church here, the Iglesia Presbiteriana de Colombia. We want to share with you some of our observations from living and working here amongst a Presbyterian church that seeks to follow God's call to serve the good of all people, especially those far from the centers of power. We are writing to urge you to vote against the passage of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement as it is currently written. Our churches, here in Colombia and in the United States, have long worked for trade between countries that serves the good of all people, rather than only a select few. The proposed Colombia Free Trade Agreement, as it is currently written, falls short of the basic principle of fairness for all, and thus as a church we cannot support its passage. There are many reasons for this agreement's shortcomings: the destructive effects on the Colombian environment, the weak protections for Colombia's threatened indigenous peoples and Afro-descendent population, and the threats and violence against Colombian trade unionists. Conversely, there are other negative impacts for US workers and manufacturing. These weaknesses in the current agreement have been well covered by other groups. We want to focus, however, on the destructive effects that this agreement will have on the average Colombian small-scale farmer and how that will have negative consequences for the well-being of US citizens in your district. Small-scale farmers in Colombia make up the majority of the rural population, most existing at a subsistence level or just a step above. They usually farm small plots of land, often with few legal guarantees, harvesting staple crops such as corn, rice, sugar, and other native consumables. Their existence is precarious, depending greatly on market prices, weather, and other forces of nature, to say nothing of the myriad of violence and social conflicts that are particular to the Colombian context. The introduction of US agricultural staples such as corn, rice and sugar, which are all subsidized and produced at much lower costs in the United States than is possible in Colombia will have a highly detrimental effect on the majority of rural Colombians, effectively eliminating the livelihoods of many of these farmers. For that reason alone, this trade agreement is flawed. There are, however, much deeper implications to this drastic reduction of the Colombian rural economy. For years, the United States has worked to decrease the amount of coca that is grown in Colombia, mostly through the aid package of Plan Colombia. Particularly through the social aid in the package, which Congress has emphasized in recent years, the US government, through USAID, has striven to reduce the incentives to small scale farmers for growing coca. We have learned that the only effective programs to reduce coca is by offering small scale farmers other viable options to provide for their families. Through smart and targeted programs we are finally seeing results, and the amount of coca being grown in recent years has begun to decline. These gains are tentative, and the wide- scale introduction of US subsidized crops will obliterate them since the destruction of the rural economy here will effectively make the illicit coca trade the only viable alternative to thousands of small Colombian farmers. We will have worked for the past ten years only to reverse course overnight. Many members of our partner church are these small scale farmers. In our time living with and working among them, we know that they are not the ones who will turn to growing coca to provide for their families. But we also know that given that choice – to grow coca and feed your family, or watch them perish – thousands of other campesinos will turn to coca. That coca will bring with it many tremendous negative consequences as it travels to the United States. We are seeing the impacts on cocaine's trafficking in South and Central America. We know its impacts on the streets of the United States. Those consequences touch all of us through addiction, violence, and the destruction wrought by the drug trade. There are many parts to the drug problem, but it starts with a small, poor farmer deciding how to feed his family here in Colombia. We have a chance to change that decision. We urge you to consider these implications in your deliberations. We understand fully that trade agreements are complex instruments, with many benefits and costs. That is only amplified in Washington's current climate surrounding these trade deals. However, the high costs to the rural Colombians we know and work with form the moral case against this particular agreement; and the significant setback to US interests in working against the spread of the coca trade form the logical case against the agreement. We pray that together, you will find them compelling reasons to vote no to the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. Blessings, Rev. Richard Williams and Rev. Mamie Broadhurst Mission Co-Workers, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Barranquilla, Colombia