• Economic growth that will not disappear with the next market change
• A city budget created by consulting the people who live there
• Federal planning with serious input from local community organizations
These are dreams worthy of any society, including our own, and I was watching them become realities in a small city called Pasto in the south of Colombia. Around a table in a simple conference room, 12 or so representatives of nongovernmental organizations, educational and church groups and representatives of the national government discussed the successes they have had in sustainable development, citizen participation and government accountability. They also explored possibilities for deeper collaboration to build on already significant accomplishments in these areas. As a transient visitor on my fifth visit to Colombia, I was impressed.
But I was perhaps more impressed, as well as pained, when Ithought of the context for all this good work—namely, the uninterrupted armed conflict that for 40 years has torn apart a people rich in human and natural resources. Because of that conflict, I could not visit the very people who are the focus of this work and my visit—the campesinos who live and work on the land. I could not leave the city, ironically enough, because the days I was there were election days. Such days should be celebrations of popular participation and of government working with civil society, but these were also times of threats and counterthreats—some carried out—of violence.
So my experience was not what I had hoped for: the sight of a variety of communities and groups working together for suyusama, the word in the Quetchua language for peace and development. My experience was all the more true to the reality, however, because it included the frustration, fear and danger amid which and despite which the remarkable work of community-building is being carried on with hope and energy. I was consequently once again impressed, and pained, by the reality of Colombia, a reality in which we North Americans play a major role.
Most Americans know Colombia as a land of drugs and violence, Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. Perhaps slightly less well known is the armed conflict that predates the drug lords, a bitter 40-year-old battle between guerillas and the Army, with the addition later of privately hired vigilantes who became their own army, the paramilitary groups. The vast amounts of money generated by drug smuggling fed the growth of all the armed actors and, as so often tragically happens, made war an end in itself and the armed groups self-sustaining realities.
But there is something deeper that underlies both of these tragedies: the longstanding inequality and marginalization to be found in this rich society. It is the desperate and frustrating story of the grinding poverty of upwards of 60 percent of the population alongside and closely related to great wealth. (This year two Colombians showed up on the Forbes list of billionaires.) Powerlessness and exploitation are the underpinnings of a world of power held by the few. And to make matters worse, those few are themselves divided into splinter groups.
As in so many places in the world, the maldistribution is of the earth itself: land owned by a few, worked by many, with the small pieces of land owned by the many producing only enough for survival. To put it perhaps too simply, the current armed groups grew out of violent political conflicts among the elite, one set of which (the various guerilla groups that have come and gone) became focused on changing the marginalization they found in their society, following the revolutionary movements after World War II. The attacks on the maldistribution of wealth led to attacks on the wealthy. The government of the time was unable to defeat the guerilla groups, and in response, private armies were allowed to develop that were not limited by legal restraints or oversight. The government has over the years strengthened its position, and Colombia now finds itself with three armed groups: the guerillas, the Army and the paramilitary groups. They are at one another’s throats with all the resources of that other tragedy, drug smuggling, at their disposal.
But whatever the ebb and flow of these groups might be, the underlying conflict is the division of life’s possibilities among the people of Colombia. The conflict that division engenders will ultimately be solved only by a resolution of that division: by participation replacing marginalization, by government truly representing its people and by development that is sustainable and equitable. Efforts to control the violence, typically by the use of more violence, will only cover over this underlying conflict and likely escalate it.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what the recent policy of the United States has done. The United States began by seeking to control the drug trade militarily and then moved to supporting the Colombian Army in its competition with the other armed actors. At best, this policy mistakes the symptom for the disease, putting the lid on the boiling kettle instead of turning off the flame. More perniciously, U.S. policy supports and continues the class structure whose inhumanity is that flame. Whatever the motivation, U.S. involvement has only minimally supported the social, economic and cultural changes that would resolve the conflict. In terms of dollars, only 20 percent of U.S. aid has this focus.
Colombia’s Current Reality
What does this longstanding struggle look like today?
First, for good but also for ill, the current government of Colombia is stronger than in the past. This is in large part because the newly re-elected President álvaro Uribe has been able to provide more security for the major urban areas of Colombia than was the case over the past 10 years or so. Obviously Colombians are tired of war, and limiting its effects in the cities has been hugely popular. His government has been less successful, however, in bringing peace to rural areas, where the poor live. Worse still, in those areas the government military has been involved in human rights abuses on the same scale as the other armed actors, while at the same time the Uribe government claims there is no armed conflict in the country, only scattered terrorist groups that are being dealt with by the Army. The victims of much of the continuing violence are thereby made invisible, ignored by their own government.
Kidnapping, terrorism, rape and murder by any group, left, right or center, must be condemned. But the U.S. government’s support of the Colombian military makes us particularly responsible for monitoring their activity. Unfortunately, documented cases of such abuses were so serious last year that the U.S. State Department had to hold up its own human rights certification of Colombia for months, despite the strong support of the Bush administration.
This means that the most striking contemporary fact, though hard to believe, is that many have been driven from even the small amounts of land they once held. Colombia is a land of displaced persons and refugees. The shifting flows of armed power back and forth has driven campesinos, Afro-Colombians, indigenous people and other people of the land from their livelihoods. Over three million have been displaced in Colombia in the past decade. They have often fled to cities and towns already overflowing with victims of the conflict, without resources to begin a new life. However the battles end, one thing is certain: those people will not be the winners. The underlying conflict, the flame under the kettle, is stronger today than ever.
Impunity for Human Rights Abusers
This increasing marginalization of more and more rural Colombians is a wound into which salt is being poured by a recent government policy of demobilizing certain paramilitary groups. In principle, the removal of any armed actors from conflict is a positive step. Certainly the fact that 30,000 or so members of paramilitary groups have turned in weapons and returned to civilian life should be cause for celebration. Unfortunately there are many, many flaws in this process. These include apparent impunity for major crimes committed while acting as paramilitaries, questions about whether the arms and even the soldiers being demobilized are truly paramilitary, and lack of resources for serious judicial processes and oversight and for adequate programs to reintegrate those who have been demobilized. But perhaps worst of all, the demobilization leaves the paramilitary groups largely in control of land “conquered” during the war, land from which the ordinary people of Colombia were driven. Thus the division among Colombians, the root cause of this conflict, is made doubly bad. First, people of the land are driven from their homes by conflict; and then that condition is made permanent by the peace accord to which the government agreed.
Another highly questionable government activity in Colombia is the effort to eradicate coca, from which cocaine is made, by aerial fumigation. In principle, the eradication of addictive, life-destroying drugs is a positive step. But fumigation, as described to me by several Colombians, is the worst possible approach. First, while it does destroy some coca fields, alternative places and plantings are so easily found that the total amount of coca grown in Colombia during the years of fumigation has actually grown. Second, fumigation destroys other crops at the same time, often crops like cocoa, which campesinos have tried to raise as alternatives to coca. Third and most important is the human cost, the poisoning of people either directly or through their water, food and land, which most affects, again, the powerless of the country. And this whole process is largely funded by the United States’ so-called Plan Colombia.
This policy, which destroys land and crops, is the direct opposite of the processes supported by the Jesuits and many other groups that seek peace in Colombia, like those I met in Pasto: sustainable economic development, people controlling their own communities by participation in the decisions that control their lives and a government responsive to their needs. All over Colombia the link between peace and development is guiding civil society, because it is a major part of addressing the root causes of the conflict. Here are some examples.
• Local development. Equipping people with the resources to sustain themselves is key. From the replacement of coca with cocoa, to the creation of fish farms, to the gathering of previously competing street vendors in baking cooperatives—all these provide hopeful alternatives, not only in economic terms but also in peace-building. One Jesuit described this as “stealing” young men from the armed groups by giving them something more worthwhile to do with their lives.
• Programs for reconciliation. Learning nonviolent methods of conflict resolution is at the heart of many peace communities that seek to reject violence as a solution. These communities have often paid a high price for protecting those at risk and for defending their right to hold themselves apart from all armed competitors.
• Empowerment of local people exercising more and more effectively their right to self-determination, especially at the local level. Town and city councils with real support from citizens provide the infrastructure on which local initiatives can be built, control by outsiders—whether by arms or economic means—can be resisted, and positive assistance can be received.
Jesuits and many others work in these ways all over Colombia: in the Magdalena Medio valley in the center of the country; in the Institute for Campesino Education in the mid-south; in Madre Monte on the coast; in Suyusama in the south; with the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service all over the country, much of it coordinated with the Jesuit Program for Peace and the Center for Research and Action in Bogotá. Efforts like these will address the causes of conflict in Colombia. The hope and energy behind them are a wonder to behold.
What Has This to Do With the United States?
Unfortunately, this is not the kind of activity on which the U.S. government and its foreign policy have focused over the last six years or so. More than 80 percent of U.S. aid has gone to support the military and fumigation-based anti-drug campaigns. In addition to this financial assistance, the United States provides significant political support for Mr. Uribe’s government in a changing and challenging Latin America. Thus the United States has great influence in Colombia, which it could use to support the development of the Colombian people. As a Colombian Jesuit recently said, “Imagine what we could do with the money now being spent on fumigation alone.” But the U.S. government has chosen another course.
There are many who are working to change this, including the Jesuit Conference in the United States. A part of changing the choice involves understanding what is at stake, and that is an invitation to learn more about Colombia. In the midst of so many needs and challenges that demand our solidarity, from Iraq to the Mexican border, Colombia has slipped off the screen for many of us. Perhaps we can make space in our hearts and consciousness once again for these people. In addition, the conflicted reality that we need to understand in Colombia keeps many of us from the kind of exchange of visits, study and the like that have been so effective in building solidarity with other regions, such as Central America. While we need to be prudent, we might also listen to the invitation of numerous Colombians, who deeply desire to be able to show us their tierra bonita, a land that is truly lovely not only physically, but in all that its inhabitants are seeking to overcome and create. Visits, of course, go both ways. Inviting Colombians to visit schools, parishes and communities in the United States brings home this reality as no article can do.
A very concrete way to bring the Colombian reality into our daily lives is to participate in and support the sustainable development that is their hope and dream. “Fair trade” Colombian coffee is available from the Oregon Province Jesuits, who have a special relationship with the Jesuits of Colombia. Tasting Colombian coffee cannot help but draw you to that tierra bonita and its people.
The more we experience and understand the people of Colombia, the more we will be drawn to them and the better able we will be to shape the choices our nation makes regarding them. May we make that choice heard and effective as citizens and voters, the choice for life that overcomes violence and fear. Perhaps on the next election day in Colombia, armed guards will no longer be needed, and visits to friends in the countryside will be a celebration of a better life.