I just returned from a 10-day human rights delegation to Colombia sponsored by Witness for Peace. While we were in the midst of our intensive meetings in Valle del Cauca, Northern Cauca, and Bogota, we discovered that a high profile-American delegation had just arrived in the capital for its own two-day tour. The U.S. Congressional Ways and Means Committee had sent a bipartisan fact-finding mission to Colombia, co-sponsored by Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer. What an amazing coincidence: two American delegations were gathering facts about Colombia at the same time.
Regrettably, the similarity between our two groups ended there. The congressional delegation's April 20th news release — with its rousing endorsement of the pending United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (otherwise known as FTA) — makes it clear that they must have visited a different country than the one I had just seen with my own eyes.
Could it be that they were less concerned about finding facts and more concerned with the time-honored political arts of airbrushing, white-washing, and rubber stamping? It seems that they only took the time to talk to the primary beneficiaries of all free trade agreements — the privileged elite: President Juan Manuel Santos and his advisors, wealthy businessmen and certain labor leaders. These congressmen have announced that "Colombia has made significant progress in addressing worker rights and violence against workers." They add that they are "confident in Colombia's ability to carry out its commitment." Unfortunately, the people we met on our trip do not share this confidence.
Our all-women delegation went out into towns and hamlets, urban slums and indigenous reserves. We met with grassroots activists, women's groups, indigenous and Afro-Colombian representatives, human rights defenders and organizations representing the victims of state violence. A frightening vision of the political and social landscape of Colombia emerged: the decades-long civil war isn't really over — it's just that the powerful interests have become more skilled at cloaking the abuses.
The people we met showed us compelling evidence that indigenous and Afro-Colombian rights are regularly violated, small farmers are threatened with forced evictions by transnational corporations, workers suffer from a variety of violations, and the state is complicit at every level. Without exception, our hosts agreed that the United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement would represent a grave threat to their already vulnerable communities.
In La Toma, an Afro-Colombian artisanal mining area in Northern Cauca, leaders told us that they are suffering under a well-coordinated attack to evict people from ancestral lands to make way for multinational mining corporations. The people fear that the FTA will strengthen the hand of these powerful corporations and that they will be permanently displaced.
Representatives of the Nasa indigenous communities told us the Colombian military continues to occupy and make regular incursions into their autonomous reserves with impunity, in contravention of Colombian law. They described an atmosphere of permanent coercion, and are terrified that the free trade agreement will allow big agro-business to continue to rob them of their land — something that is already happening in their communities and all over the country.
In Cali, a city of two million inhabitants in Valle del Cauca, we met with women whose innocent family members — husbands, sons, nephews, fathers — were murdered by the state and by paramilitary forces. The perpetrators of these crimes enjoy near total impunity. The vast majority of the killers remain at large, free to wreak more havoc on defenseless communities. One woman described the so-called demobilization of the paramilitaries as "a farce."
In Trujillo, the site of a well-known massacre between 1988 and 1992 where people were tortured and assassinated in ways that are too gruesome to recount, only one of the many criminals has yet to be held accountable. This case is significant because it is the first time that the government admitted responsibility. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the perpetrators have not been jailed, and reparations have yet to be made.
Over the course of our ten days, we learned that women all over the country who are victims of domestic violence, rape, sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace are habitually silenced, threatened, ignored. Why does the FTA not address the needs of more than half the Colombian population?
In case any reader might suspect that these community organizers are exaggerating, a U.S. embassy official openly admitted to us that legal impunity wasn't "a problem" in Colombia, it was "the problem" in Colombia. So the question remains: If everyone recognizes that outrageous human rights abuses are business as usual Colombia, then why is the U.S. Congress tacitly sanctioning these violations by signing a free trade agreement with the government? How can the U.S. Congressional delegation speak with any confidence about the Colombian government's ability to protect the rights of its citizens?
The wide range of people we met in Colombia do not believe that the agreement serves their interests at all. They have well-founded fears that the FTA will disrupt their sovereignty and autonomy and deepen their poverty. They feel isolated and excluded from the negotiation process.
These courageous activists and leaders have struggled, suffered and remained steadfast in a country where grassroots organizers have been systematically and brutally eliminated for years. If they can continue to speak out, we should too. If they can remain vocally united in their opposition to the FTA, Americans should educate themselves and unite in opposition as well. The United States-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement should be stopped in its tracks now, before it's too late.