Alto Cinco to Colombia

by Rae Kramer

No, I did not bring any drugs back from Colombia.

That I keep being asked this speaks to the effectiveness of mainstream US media: Colombia = drugs.

Sadly, I am not able to connect you to the video in my head, where a travelogue of great complexity shows a very different picture. What follows are seeds that I hope will take root and blossom into a desire to learn more.

This past August I traveled to Colombia on a 10-person delegation sponsored by the Colombia Support Network. Based in Madison, Wisconsin, CSN is a grassroots organization whose mission is to change US foreign policy on Colombia. Its work is based on four principles:

1. peace with social justice
Members of the Alto Naya community in northern Cauca. Giovanni Guli, an indigenous leader, carries a “baston de mano” (authority stick), used when speaking and recognized by the government to identify guards in the nonviolent campaign for indigenous resistance. Photo: Julienne Oldfield

2. a negotiated solution to the protracted civil war

3. strengthening civil society

4. no alliance with armed groups.

As we visited the countryside and the capital, Bogotá, the power of these principles was often evident. The situation in Colombia is complex, confusing, and ever-changing. Guided by our media, we are hard pressed to know who are the “good guys”…at least for this week. Keeping the four principles ever in mind helped keep us grounded in nonviolence and democracy, standards we could use to examine what we were learning.

Our 7-day trip was part of a CSN initiative to develop sister community relationships between US and Colombian communities. The delegation represented two such relationships: Central New York (Ithaca, Cortland, and Syracuse) and Cajibió, and New York City and Alta Nayo, both in the Department (state) of Cauca in southwestern Colombia. We first visited our respective sister communities and then together met with a variety of governmental and NGO representatives in Bogotá.

Colombia Ripe for the Picking

Colombia is richly endowed with natural resources and they are being exploited with high-tech 21st century vigor. This is a country of magnificent natural beauty, the only country in South America with coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Location, plentiful natural resources, a climate that allows for at least three growing seasons, and a history of exploitation, make Colombia a plum to pluck.

But who will do the plucking?

Nurturing the fear of drugs in our schoolyards, US foreign policy has created Plan Colombia, a combination of political, diplomatic, and military initiatives aimed at strengthening the status quo of exclusion. This is exclusion of the majority from access to meaningful governance, a continuation of power vested in the wealthy minority, propped up by the contrived righteousness of the US war on drugs.

Besides this government-to-government manipulation of Colombian sovereignty, Colombia is tempting fruit for multi-national corporations. These, under the guise of development assistance, follow the plundering conquistadors of the past. If only those pesky poor people out in the countryside would stop agitating….

The Two Colombias

Colombia suffers from schizophrenia. While Bogotá is a cosmopolitan center of seven million people, we heard little conversation about life in the countryside – which for over 40 years has been in a state of war. These two realities co-exist seemingly with little mutual impact.

Our itinerary was purposeful; we would have our powerful time with the campesinos of Cajibió in our minds as we made our official visits in Bogotá. Our group from Central New York met with people from three communities in the Cajibió area, all members of the Movimiento Campesino de Cajibió. Our contact person and guide was Marylen Serna-Salinas, one of the leaders of the campesino movement in Cauca.* The three communities, Guangubio, La Viuda, and Casas Bajas, are in the Andes mountains. Their farms, small stores, and schools are off unpaved rock-strewn roads traveled by foot, horse, motorbike, and old trucks whose tires are continually being patched.

At each community we gathered for a prepared program. There was dancing, singing, skits (Colombianos are big theatre lovers and often use skits to express serious concerns), praying and speeches. We were introduced and each of us briefly explained why we had come. (I did not know this was going to happen and was taken aback the first time as more than 50 people of all ages looked on attentively while my words were translated into Spanish.) Community leaders talked about the campesino movement as the means for democracy, education and a sustainable economy.

We spent many hours at each place. As those of you who know me could expect, I was drawn to the children. My usual approach is with words, sometimes silly, to engage kids. What to do when I don’t speak much of the language? Out of the blue, I did a gentle “high five” that was received with a big smile. So alto cinco became one way for me to connect. I also learned many other words and counted on the patience of the listeners and the endless help of fellow delegates and others to translate.

Wise Beyond Their Years

The children and young people are old beyond their years in their awareness of the struggles to make a living, to get an education, to be safe from predators – official or not. It is not unusual for them to know of someone who has disappeared or died as a result of the presence of guerillas or paramilitaries or even the army. What they also know is the determination of their families and their community to make a life of peace and justice and dignity.

I must repeat some of the lessons described many times in reports of other international delegations: In Columbia material possessions are few but there is no poverty of spirit; living in rural areas does not equate with lack of understanding of complicated political, social and economic realities; despite the imperialistic policies of the US government, the people we met were open and eager to connect with us; the power of mainstream media concentrated in a few hands, in the US or Colombia, must be addressed if we want other sides of the story to be heard.

Space constraints limit description here of our visits to officials in Bogotá. We were insufficiently prepared for our time with Milton Drucker, the second in command at the US Embassy. We heard little, therefore, beyond his fervent belief in Plan Colombia, as demonstrated by his frequent use of the word “we” when he spoke about President Uribe’s plans to make Colombia safe for economic growth and international commerce. In turn, he was not able to hear our statement that Plan Colombia, in fact, is making life less safe and less democratic for those already excluded.

What struck me about many of our Bogotá visits was the frequent reference to human rights guarantees in the constitution and the bureaus and departments responsible for protecting those rights…a big contrast to the ongoing violations we learned about in Cajibió. Doth the lady protest too much?

So when will I have a chance to say alto cinco again? And will you come too?

*See the SPC website for the May 2004 PNL interview with Marylen and for other information about Colombia.

Rae,a member of the SPC steering committee,is working on her Spanish. To learn more about our sister community link with Cajibió, contact Rae at 445-2840.