Invisible Struggles in Colombia

If you had the chance to see ‘Traffic’, you know the War on Drugs is a sham. There’s a good chance you know that its domestic effects are to imprison thousands and thousands of non-violent offenders who aren’t dangerous, cut them off from their families and friends, destroy their life chances, destroy social bonds and devastate their communities, and lock them up in brutal places which are training grounds for crime. You probably know that the money and arms the US sends to countries like Colombia to ‘fight’ drugs ends up in the hands of paramilitaries who use it to produce drugs and kill civilians.

Perhaps you know about Plan Colombia, the violence of which is beginning to take effect. The Plan that sends $5 billion in military aid to the Colombian government to fight drugs, which translates to sending the Colombian military and paramilitaries $5 billion in advanced weapons to fight guerrillas and progressive social movements. Perhaps you know about the impunity with which trade unionists and human rights workers, journalists and legal workers are murdered in places like Barrancabermeja. Maybe you’ve read about the familiar process: small farmers, or indigenous people, or afro-colombians, on resource rich lands. Local elites and politicians cut a deal with multinational corporations to split the resources on the lands– to build an oil well, or a hydroelectric dam. The only obstacle? The people who live there. So make refugees of them, and if they resist, murder them.

But if you’re like me, you probably haven’t had the chance to hear directly from the social organizations who are resisting this kind of development. You probably haven’t had a chance to see the courage, intelligence, and resilience with which they resist and persist in pressing for a negotiated solution to the conflict between the government and the guerrillas. You probably haven’t had a chance to see the diversity of the types of organizations, their strength, and their attempts to construct real alternatives to the destruction being meted out to them.

The Canada-Colombia Campaign made it possible for some of us to have that chance. It brought six activists from six different organizations in Colombia to Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa to discuss the situation in Colombia, the connections with North America, and what genuine solidarity between activists here and there could mean.

The mainstream press tells us that North American opposition to the FTAA and corporate globalization is self-interested and guaranteed to deny the third world its opportunity. We selfish, greedy north americans don’t want the FTAA because we don’t want to lose our jobs to the southern countries when companies relocate there. But as Patricia Buritica, a trade union leader with the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores said, company relocations from northern countries causes misery– company relocations to the southern countries cause deaths. It is to please those same companies that paramilitaries have created a refugee population of around 2 million in Colombia. To please those companies, paramilitaries and the army make Colombia one of the most lethal places in the world for trade unionists– 50% of all trade unionists who are killed, are killed in Colombia. In other words, the less mobile corporations are, the better– for everyone.

Maria del Pilar Cordoba, a feminist and peace activist with the Ruta Pacifica de Mujeres (Women’s Path for Peace), asked North Americans who want to build solidarity with Colombia to leave their fear behind. “Everyone I’ve talked to here, when I tell them what I do in Colombia, says ‘oh how frightening’. I would rather they not be so frightened. I would rather they turn that fear into something else. We all live with the fear of death, and we have to keep working, and we want you to do the same.” Dora Guzman, a leader of the Popular Feminist Front, (Organizacion Feminina Popular), extended the discussion of fear further: “There is not one of us who doesn’t face several threats a day on our lives from the paramilitaries. What we’ve done is to collect all these fears into one big fear, and then get rid of that, so we can continue with our work.”

They talked about the small victories that solidarity has helped bring about, and the potential for greater victories. Agustin Reyes, a peasant leader with the Peace Communities and Territories (Comunidades y Territorios de Paz), told a story of how his organization took a denunciation of a paramilitary threat against his community to the Attorney General. Shortly afterwards, his organization began to face threats and harassment from paramilitaries. They then took a denunciation of this to the Attorney General, and also to the international human rights network. A letter writing campaign followed, inundating the Attorney General with mail, forcing him to take steps to guarantee their safety. Maria del Pilar Cordoba told a story of a mother who used an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign to force authorities to disclose the location of the remains of her disappeared and murdered son. Ezequiel Vitonas Talanga, an indigenous leader with the Indigenous Autonomous and Peaceful Co-Existence Movement (Proyecto Nasa) told another story of how letter-writing campaigns have saved lives.

The presence of international observers has also done much to deter impunity. While activists from Colombia face murder, international observers there are relatively safe. The six activists and their organizations extended an invitation to North Americans to go to Colombia and see what’s going on, and help chip away at the impunity there.

I asked the Colombian leaders what we could demand of our own governments in order to complement their struggles. They told me to oppose the FTAA, and Plan Colombia, and the investments and aid projects that displace and destroy people. Someone in the audience told them about North American governments’ repression of the American Indian Movement, the dispossession and destruction of indigenous people here. Agustin Reyes noted how this showed that we were fighting the same enemy, and that our struggles really could be complementary.

As the discussion wound up, I wondered about that $5 billion figure. I wondered how much progress could be made against drug addiction with that amount of money. Or how far $5 billion would go in rebuilding communities devastated by the War on Drugs, or in rebuilding social services destroyed by globalization. Or how small a fraction of that money it would take for Peace Brigades International or the Christian Peacemaker Teams to establish a large, permanent international observer presence in places in Colombia where it could save many lives. It was probably idle dreaming, but after listening to these activists, I didn’t feel I had the right to give up hope.

Mexico’s New President Vicente Fox and the Zapatistas

I was talking to a Mexican friend who voted for Vicente Fox in the July elections, and told her I was a Zapatista supporter. She was appalled. “You’re not Mexican, you don’t know what’s going on there. You can’t know from spending a few months there. I’m from there and the decisions made by the government affect me and my family. And I’m against the Zapatistas.”

“Okay fine,” I said. “Now give me a real reason.”

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Elections in Chiapas

August 20, 2000 saw eyes from all over the world watching Chiapas, as the most closely observed elections in the state’s history took place under the shadow of a continuing low intensity war. Pablo Salazar, the candidate of the Alliance for Chiapas, won the election by a margin of nearly 10 points. His party was a coalition of left and right parties, whose platform includes complying with the San Andres peace accords with the Zapatistas and reversing the militarization of the state. The electoral victory is cause for cautious optimism for people sympathetic to the Zapatistas.
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Political Prisoners on Hunger Strike in Chiapas

Today a hunger strike in Chiapas’ prisons has expanded. It started in the state’s Comitan prison on July 3. Four days ago, on July 14, the original group of 23 hunger strikers stopped taking honey and since then have been drinking only water. Today the strike has expanded to prisoners in Cerro Hueco prison.

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