From Colombia to Venezuela:
Otra Mundo esta en Marcha (Another World is on the March)
by Jessica Maxwell

Ann Tiffany (Syracuse), Dana Brown (Ithaca), John Laun (Madison, WI) and I rattled around inside a small bus over narrow dirt roads through the Andes for an hour and a half to arrive at a community gathering in La Floresta, in the municipio of Cajibío. An agricultural region in the southwestern department of Cauca, Colombia, the steep terrain is planted with coffee, potatoes, yuca (cassava), corn and sugar cane. We traveled with two community organizers from the Cajibío Small Farmer's Movement, John Henry Gonzalez and Marylen Serna Salinas, and a dozen members of a local youth group working to reclaim their culture.
This talented group of 12-18 year-olds traveled with us from Popayán to La Floresta where they performed during the community gathering. Photo: Ann Tiffany

The bus pulled off the road near a cluster of simple buildings with concrete or dirt floors. The largest - built by the state to serve as a medical clinic - has been used as a community center since no one ever came to staff the clinic. A loudspeaker, the community "radio station," sits atop a tall pole on the roof. Nearby is the "kitchen," a semi-enclosed structure with a large adobe oven, and a small store that is stocked daily from the nearby city of Popayán. The tidy shelves boast diverse foods and supplies - I even noticed bicycle tires hanging on the wall. There is a small latrine, its open entrance facing away from the other buildings. A burlap bag hangs from one side and can be drawn across as a curtain.

About 100 people of diverse ages traveled for miles (many by foot) from surrounding communities to meet with us about the CNY-Cajibío hermanamiento (sister community partnership). Our relationship began in 2003, after a small group from CNY traveled to Cauca with Witness for Peace. Marylen met with the delegation and spoke about Cajibío, a municipality of several rural communities. Impressed with their organization and hearing their desire for a US sister community, a coalition of Syracuse, Cortland and Ithaca groups pursued the project with support from the Wisconsin-based Colombia Support Network. John Henry and Marylen have traveled to CNY to further this relationship.

"They Fund the War"
Everyone introduced themselves, their communities, projects and goals. Sustainable economic development and empowerment of marginalized groups are often combined. One project supplies panela bricks (a sugar cane product similar to maple sugar candy) to a group of displaced youth in Cali to sell in the city markets.

John Henry skillfully engaged the communities in a discussion of our partnership. He began by asking what they knew of the US. "They fund the war…they bring GMOs…they fumigate us like cucarachas." The nervous laughter and sincere faces conveyed a mixture of openness, frustration and conviction. Who in the US creates and enforces these policies? Who is responsible? "Los ricos…el gobierno." ("The rich…the government"). Honest and direct. There is no time here for pretending. All eyes turned to us - who were these gringos? Were we the rich who supported US government policies in Colombia? And if not, if we were not the rich or powerful, what could we possibly do to help them? "What can the poor do working with the poor?"

Patient silence anticipated our response. We hesitated, surprised by the directness and intimidated by the complexity of the issues. Instinctively, we responded by sharing our experiences and perspectives. We then worked together to identify concrete goals and actions for our partnership. We affirmed that our governments do not act in the interest of the majority of their people. We need direct relationships between people and community organizations to represent our needs. What does a relationship of mutual support look like between communities situated in vastly different positions in this context of globalized inequality? How do we establish a model of solidarity rather than exploitation or charity? We're not the first to struggle with these issues, but the process of answering these questions together seems at least as important as the result. Among the ideas expressed for shared projects were simultaneous demonstrations, sharing training information and results, cultural and material exchanges and an efficient alert system to facilitate quick responses to repression.

We met Debora (2nd from left) in Colombia and then met several members of her family at the WSF. Indigenous Wayuu, their entire village was forced to flee La Guajira, Colombia into Venezuela after a paramilitary massacre. They are gathering international support to return to their community lands. Photo: Ann Tiffany

Truth, Justice, Reparations
Our visit coincided with the five-year anniversary of the Rejoya massacre that occurred on January 15, 2001. Shortly after the massacre, Carlos Castaño, infamous former leader of the United Self-Defense (AUC) paramilitary organization, declared on national TV that the AUC was responsible for the killings. It was the last of four massacres in Cajibío between November 2000-January 2001. After attending a mass and ceremony held in the middle of the road where the massacre had occurred, we interviewed several community members who lost relatives at La Rejoya and met with a major at the military battalion in Popayán. Even with legal support from a national human rights group, there has been no accountability. Impunity and official corruption are so pervasive in Colombia that seeking justice is a dangerous and elusive challenge.

After four days, we left Cajibío for meetings in Bogotá - the attorney general's office, the head of the UN Human Rights office, president of the Constitutional Court, lawyers and staff at various human rights organizations, political officials, and US ambassador William Wood. We discussed human rights, citing the example of La Rejoya, and pushed officials for information. Everyone, except the US ambassador, stressed the need for "truth, justice and reparations" to negotiate a settlement to the 40-year armed conflict. The US supports Colombian President Uribe's "Justice and Peace Law," a controversial process offering incentives for paramilitaries to demobilize. After interviewing demobilized paramilitaries, government officials, and others involved, Human Rights Watch concluded that this process is actually helping paramilitary commanders legitimize and maintain their illegally gained wealth and political power.

"Peace" at Any Price?
The US remains the largest source of foreign aid to Colombia, providing almost $800 million in 2005, mostly military and counter-narcotics aid (much of which actually returns to the US for weapons and training). Colombia receives more US aid than any other country except Israel and Egypt. A portion of the aid is contingent upon human rights conditions, but continues to be approved by Congress each year even though Colombia's military has the worst human rights record in Latin America. The Colombian military also has documented connections to paramilitary groups designated as terrorist organizations by the US State Department.

Colombia's problems did not begin with US intervention: they have roots in social inequality and struggles for land and resources that have existed since colonization. US policy exacerbates existing conflicts while failing to achieve its stated goals of drug eradication and disarming illegal armed actors. The guerillas and paramilitaries remain militarily and economically powerful. Colombia is still the world's leading producer of cocaine, which is readily available in the US. According to a 2005 Human Rights Watch report, Colombia has the world's largest internally displaced population after Sudan. In the last three years, more than three million people (almost 7% of the population) have been forcibly displaced due to the armed conflict - 50% of them under 18.

Overwhelmingly we were told that Colombia needs international pressure and resources to support human rights and a negotiated solution to the armed conflict. Cocaine production should be addressed through sustainable alternative development in Colombia and treatment programs in the US. Our task is twofold - move US policy in a less destructive direction and deepen connections between grassroots organizations and communities so that we are not dependent on our governments to shape our futures.


Security through Solidarity
Ann, Dana and I left Colombia and traveled to neighboring Venezuela for the sixth World Social Forum (WSF), a gathering of social movements and civil society organizations to share information, experiences and strategies within the vision "another world is possible." This year's WSF was held simultaneously January 24-29 in Caracas (Venezuela) and Bamako (Mali, Africa), with a third location, Karachi (Pakistan), postponed due to a devastating earthquake. A palpable sense of optimism dominated the recurring themes of US imperialism, environmental destruction and corporate domination.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has initiated a series of innovative and successful projects, including literacy programs, rural health services, participatory neighborhood assemblies, and deploying the military to support public needs. Despite being democratically elected twice, Chavez is denounced by the US government as a dangerous dictator. The true danger represented by Venezuela is the socialist experiment unfolding there - a threat to corporate interests and US political domination.

As a strong leftward trend prevails in Latin America, Colombia has become an even more strategic US ally, and a crucial target of Venezuelan solidarity. Venezuela assisted a number of Colombian activists to attend the WSF. This tactical solidarity was also extended to the US this winter when Venezuela offered discounted fuel (through Citgo) to benefit the poor in several large US cities. A similar approach has been adopted for internal threats. Rather than repress corporate controlled media outlets critical of the government, Chavez has supported public and alternative media. The Venezuelan strategy seems to focus on generating support by successfully meeting people's needs and hoping that those who benefit from this fragile new model will ultimately protect it.

 

A Better World is Possible: If We Make It
Alongside excitement for Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales' recent victory in Bolivia, there were many voices at the WSF reminding us that politicians always make compromises once elected. Political leaders must operate within the global capitalist system. The extent to which they can resist and implement alternatives is determined by the strength of our social movements. The Bolivian people's unprecedented recent victory over multinational corporation Bechtel could not have been secured by any political leader. Only through the sacrifice, vision, and tremendous organizing of the Bolivian people and the solidarity of the global justice movement were they able to prevent Bechtel from stealing their resources.

The worst environmental, economic, social and political problems that plague our globe continue unabated not for lack of resources, technology or ideas, but for lack of political will - and because corporate profits rule. As Venezuela leads a new movement towards radical democracy and economic justice, strong grassroots social movements are more crucial than ever to protect and shape this new world.


Jessica and Ann will speak Wed., March 8, 7 pm, at the Westcott Community Center on their recent trip to Colombia and Venezuela.

 

Jessica, Ann and Dana arrived back in the US exhausted and inspired after enjoying a final evening together in Venezuela sleeping on lawn chairs in the Caracas airport.