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
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.
Some interesting links from around the web on some of the '30,000 feet subject's' that are often neglected when we think about our work in this world...
- One of my favorite development bloggers takes a look at where religion and development work intersect. It shows how far our sides have drifted apart - he seems to be writing about making the first tentative steps toward an alien race - but historically and on the ground, Development NGO's, people's organizations, and religious bodies have long been steadfast partners.
- What? The world's largest escalator in one of our favorite cities? Medellin rocks! (like the MetroCables, this escalator serves some of the cities most isolated and impoverished neighborhoods. Medellin has a world-class system of public voting on development projects, and this escalator is a prime example of how people want to improve their neighborhoods.)
- There's more to development than ending absolute poverty | Jonathan Glennie | Global development | guardian.co.uk
- [caption id="attachment_2457" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="from brandspankingnew.net"][/caption] What is the population problem? by Claire Melamed. This is from the slew of articles came out when the world's 7th billion person was both last year. A good look at the deeper questions of justice and equity that are raised when one considers the current state of how we use our world's resources instead of only thinking of population numbers.
- A great look at the impacts, both positive and negative, of short-term mission trips, from our friend and Co-Worker in Guatemala Amanda Craft.
Warehouse shopping has arrived in Colombia. On Saturday Peanut and I went with some friends to see the newest store in town - PriceSmart. I had never heard of it before, but it has evidently been around since the 1990s. At one point it was Price Costco, but Price Enterprises spun off and now we have this little piece of the USA right here in Colombia. According to their first annual report in 1998, PriceSmart says:
"Our business strategy is simple. Grow the international membership merchandising business in markets that (i) are receptive to U.S. quality goods and services and (ii) permit majority foreign ownership in the retail sector. It is our belief that an equity model, where PriceSmart employees control the management of the stores, will provide more long-term, substantial earnings to our stockholders."So far these receptive markets are basically in Latin America with stores in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Aruba, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Trinidad, and the Virgin Islands. Their first store in Colombia is right here in Barranquilla (don't know how we managed that), but with the passage of the Free Trade Agreement, I bet more will be coming. My commentary on the arrival of this store is really just a personal one. It is weird. In some ways it is nice to have something so very familiar right in your town. I know how warehouse stores work. I know that I will never buy ketchup or mayonnaise there because I would not be able to eat it in such quantity in three years. I know you have to have a membership or be accompanied by a member. I know there will be fresh food, clothing, office supplies, electronics, and patio furniture all under one roof. Still, seeing little frozen eclairs or (huge) bottles of relish - neither of which my friend could even identify as food - was just odd. I was thrilled to see Cheddar Cheese (at $14 a pop we will indeed just be looking at it), and there were rumors of Reeses Cups (though we did not find them), but so many of the products had all English labeling that I had to explain a number of times what an item was and what one might use it for. Having lived in the United States for a brief time, another friend commented that she thought it even smelled like the US in the store, and while I didn't have such a reaction, upon leaving it was like coming out of a movie and remembering "Oh right, I am in Colombia." I think that just as "big box stores" have made every place in the United States feel familiar in ways that are good and disturbing, this is that feeling on an international scale. There is bulk Postobon (a Colombian soft drink), but it is still not the same as when you get it at the tienda. I get excited about things like pecans or goldfish crackers, but I also walk away with the grime of empire trailed by the smell of conspicuous consumption. So like I said, it was weird. If I figure out how to say that better, I'll get back to you.
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
[caption id="attachment_2135" align="alignright" width="258" caption="Banner from Colegio Nazareth for Days of Prayer and Action for Colombia, 2011"][/caption] Sunday was the last day for the ayuno, or fast, that Mamie and I participated in last week. We joined people in the United States and Colombia for this fast - an ancient tradition in the Jewish and Christian traditions - as a sign of protest, lament, and hope. So how does a week of fasting bring about protest, lament, and hope? The Hebrew prophet Isaiah wrote of the type of fast that God chooses in a time of crisis for the Hebrew people, and it is a clear call to us today:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?Just preceding that passage, there are clear warnings about what type of sanctified religious displays are the opposite of God's desires, and a warning for all of us fasting this past week:
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? (Isaiah 58)So do I feel like we loosed the bonds of injustice this past week? Undid the thongs of the yoke? Let the oppressed go free? Shared bread or clothed the naked? Or instead, did we serve our individual interests, continue in the oppression of others, or fail to be humble in this fast... If the measure of a fast is to have stopped the Colombia/US Free Trade agreement, or to have taken the reigns of the debate in Congress, then we certainly did not accomplish that. Yet, I also think those goals would fall more in line with the second text from above, the ways that we humans can misinterpret sacred actions like fasting. Instead, I pray and hope this fast had a different but deeper impact; I am changed for it, and changed for good. After a week of sunup to sundown fasting, I can say that it is very much an exercise of patience and deliberateness. For me there were no revelations, no in-breakings of the Spirit - only the constancy of my hunger. The dull ache of lack that I so often literally quench. But not this past week. This past week that hunger, that lack, was a holy symbol of God's hunger. God's hunger for justice and dignity for all of God's beloved creations. Fasting is not an exercise to force something outside to happen as much as it is to steel your resolve, to examine deeply your commitments, and to fuel the simmering fire for justice that is somewhere in all of us. Many of our readers joined us in fasting, and even more joined us in calling into the White House to voice opposition to the harmful elements of this agreement (and it is not too late for you to call...). I am hopeful about the political impact of this witness. It is important for people who know some of the deeper impacts of these trade agreements to raise their voice in opposition. And thanks be to God, there are times when the political leaders in the US listen to this kind of witness. Raising our voice about this one policy is just the beginning of working for the much broader transformation of our political order, towards a world where the dignity and value of all of God's people, and creation, is the common goal. But in the end, I am also hopeful about a deeper change. A change deeper than the many give and takes that this trade agreement is going through. A change deeper than the hope promised by politicians. I am hopeful for a deeper change in me, and in you. A change that we can truly join in the fast that God chooses. A change to align our whole lives in the work of God. Then we truly change this world.