Witness for Peace Midwest works at the grassroots level to promote awareness and activism regarding U.S. policies in Latin America through delegations, speaker tours, and local events and actions. We work in Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, and Wisconsin. With our partners in Latin America, we seek to build peace, justice, and sustainable economies for all people.
History and Mission of Witness for Peace Midwest
Witness for Peace-Midwest is a politically independent network of individuals, organizations, and faith groups concerned about the impacts of U.S. and corporate policy on the people of the Americas. Motivated by current and historical realities, we are people of faith and conscience who are committed to transforming the world through nonviolent and organized activism. As a grass-roots movement, WFP-Midwest seeks to raise awareness of and give testimony to violations of human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean and to advocate for change is U.S. economic and social policies to better support these basic rights.
WFP-Midwest sponsors speaker tours, conferences, and retreats, publishes newsletters, participates in nonviolent direct actions, and offers short-term delegations to Latin American and Caribbean countries. Delegates traveling to Latin America with WFP-Midwest experience first-hand the realities of Third World debt, sweatshop employment, violence by military forces and other armed groups, the plight of displaced people, and extreme economic hardship and suffering.
Informed by these experiences, WFP-Midwest works with people in their local communities to develop skills and strategies that transform destructive U.S. policies to those of life, opportunity and hope. We are committed to working together to change unjust, unethical, and inhumane practices and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Latin America.
The Midwest Region of Witness for Peace includes North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri
Get involved today! Another world is possible!
Contact Regional Organizer Elise Roberts for more information on how to get involved at email@example.com,
Meet your Regional Organizer
My name is Elise Roberts, and I have been the regional director in the midwest region since early 2011.
My interest and passion in international justice and human rights is rooted in my time at Macalester College, and my study abroad experience in Bolivia. During the summer after my first year at Macalester College, I traveled by myself to Bolivia to study Spanish. I soon found myself blockaded into Sucre, in the midst of massive protests (which were directly tied to the relationship between United States aid money and Bolivian coca policies). Over the next six weeks, as I learned about the history of United States intervention in Bolivia, I was struck by how much of the poverty, injustice, corruption, and violence in Bolivia was somehow rooted in the policies and actions of my government. When I returned from Bolivia, I began researching ways to fight unjust US policies in Latin America. I began following the work of Witness for Peace, and I attended my first protest at the School of the Americas in Georgia.
After college I spent two years volunteering, studying, and working abroad, and I began to lead programs in international service education. Since then, my travels and work have brought me to more than sixty countries, and I have taught seven programs abroad in both South and Central America, the South Pacific, India, and eastern Africa. While I continue to love to travel and work abroad, my journey has continuously led me back to root problems in my home country. I eventually could not ignore that change had to happen back home and that my role in fighting for international justice was based in building awareness and changing destructive policies and practices in the United States.
So, I returned to the States, and I spent a year as an AmeriCorp VISTA Volunteer. In 2009, I graduated with a Master’s in Social Work Administration from Columbia University, with a focus in International Social Welfare. During and after graduate school, I interned as an NGO advocate at the United Nations through International Movement ATD, a human rights-based NGO composed of volunteers and supporters around the world.
I recently returned to the Midwest, and I am excited to connect with and learn from all the Witness for Peace supporters around the Upper Midwest region! I would love to hear from you— please e-mail or call to introduce yourself or to learn about upcoming plans for WFP-UMW. To support our work, please click here. Thank you!
Board of Directors
John Clark Pegg (Emeritus), Treas.
Lyn Clark Pegg (Board Chair)
Thomas W. Haines
Cuba: A Recent Delegate Shares her Story
Very early on Monday, April 9, 2012 a dozen “pilgrims” with Plymouth connections boarded the first of three flights on our way to Havana, Cuba. We were a delegation of Witness for Peace, a 25 year old organization that works to foster positive relations in Latin America. Some of us knew each other and some of us knew no one else in the group, so building relationships within our group was part of the journey. That proved to be a wonderful part of our trip! We were met by Diego, Alex and Rita who would be our companions during our stay. We had prepared for our trip by reading a number of articles provided by WFP about relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Cuban health care and education systems, social issues, politics and coming changes, the Cuban Five and Alan Gross, sustainable agriculture and the Arts and Culture of Cuba.
We soon found ourselves immersed in the city of Habana (the Cuban spelling!) as we traveled to the Old City, agricultural sites, health care facilities, artistic enclaves and offices. We heard and absorbed everything we could from pastors, historians, publishers, doctors, health care administrators, “dreamers”, our American “Special Interests” personnel, small farmers, coop leaders, billboards and observation as we traveled on our school bus with “U.S. end the embargo with Cuba” and “U.S. Cuba Friendshipment” on its sides. We enjoyed the gracious hospitality of the staff at the MartinLuther King Center, the Presbyterian Church of Los Palos, a town of 2,000, and the Social Services Educational Center in Veredaro, a tourist area with a lovely beach.
I have never been immersed in such a way before—in a culture which was/is still a mystery, where I do not speak the language, but where I felt the warmth of the people in encounters deep and shallow. That was an unforgettable experience!
It is hard to distill what I learned, but several things stand out at this still very close in point:
If human rights mean education, health care, food and shelter then Cuba is not guilty of human rights violations.
The Cuban people are very inventive and self-reliant. When faced with a shortage of food and lacking the ability to import food or the fuel for ag machines, they turned to organic farming techniques and oxen to supply what they needed. They keep 1960s era vehicles running, including buses.
Despite limited (by our standards) medical supplies and facilities, life expectancy equals ours and infant mortality rate is lower than ours. They rely on education, vaccinations, and local clinics to prevent many medical problems, and use alternative medical techniques such as acupuncture, massage and herbal medicines to supplement more traditional medicine. Doctors do transplants and provide training and outreach programs to poorer countries.
The people want the embargo (they call it a blockade) to end; I can’t figure out what good outcome (for either nation) can come from keeping it in place. Any ship stopping in Cuba cannot come to theU.S. for six months—our rule. There are many more like that. After 53 years, what do we fear fromCuba?
The “small” changes made by the Obama administration (allowing Cuban-Americans to send money to family in Cuba and making more visits to family possible) have made a tremendous difference to families in Cuba.
On the refrigerator of the Pastor in Los Palos was a 4×6 magnet photo of President Obama and the word “HOPE.”
Imagine, if you can, what life would be like in Iowa if we were cordoned off from the rest of the U.S.and much of the rest of the world by another entity who disapproves of our way of governing. And that entity keeps us isolated for 53 years, continuing to do so until we agree to a governing style of their design. We have no oil or gasoline with which to run our big farm equipment and our cars so they would soon be parked. We do not manufacture medicines. Let your imagination go and you will understand better how Cubans live. Add to that limited access to information via the press, internet, Facebook and TV. Add limited access to your family in Minnesota or Nebraska. Would you be praying for a change of heart on part of the interfering body? Would you be asking others to work for that change? That is what I believe we are called to do as we return with hearts filled with the joy and hospitality of our brothers and sisters in Cuba!
Now that we are several months past our trip, the journey continues as we explore how we can direct our knowledge, our energy and our commitment to positive outcomes. We struggle with advocacy (public support for or recommendation of a particular change of policy such as allowing use of credit to obtain food or medicine and medical equipment) versus direct, short-term action (such as contributions of clothing, medicine, bringing Cuban youth here for World Food Prize events) as our focus. We have not yet made a decision about this, but we are committed to encouraging other groups to visit Cuba and to try to get permission for Cuban groups to come here. We are committed to work toward the easing of embargo restrictions, if not the total lifting of the embargo itself. We are inspired by the “We are in this together” spirit of the Cuban people and chafe at the divisiveness in our country. And we celebrate the life-widening experience we share because of our “trip-become-journey.”
My Colombia Experience: Beth DuMez, a recent delegate to Colombia, shares her story
Colombia: entirely new to me and I had very limited time to become prepared.
Witness for Peace: an NGO, about which I knew nothing. I came to define it as a human rights monitoring and advocacy organization.
The delegation: Women leading, learning, investigating, strategizing, taking action, committing to trying to bring change.
The reality: Colombia is rich in resources; infused with military and paramilitary power groups; peopled by a gracious, generous populace; plagued by other nations’ exploitations AND assistance; punctuated by both indigenous and slave-descendent peoples; and embraced by a gloriously beautiful Andean environment.
We learned some startling realities:
• The country has endured 5 decades of conflict and violence.
• Agriculture is very diverse, including the coca crop, relentlessly eradicated or attempted to be by U.S.-sponsored aerial spraying, which directly and disastrously affects some farming communities and ancestral settlements.
• Peoples (primarily indigenous and Afro Colombian) are regularly displaced from their homelands, some settlements of 400-years duration, by federal or commercial interests, such as the expansion of the huge port (Buenaventura), accession to mega-agriculture such as sugar cane and palm oil, or exploitation of minerals, oil and coal.
• Indigenous groups are trying to regain/retain their land rights and preserve their cultural traditions.
• 73% of the displaced people are women and children; often the husbands-fathers are conscripted or voluntarily join the military and illegal armed groups, or work away from their homes.
• People who resist displacement and want to stay on their lands are identified as “insurgents.”
• During the first week that we were present in the country, the number of bombings and murders escalated, targeting union organizers and civilians.
Very quickly our delegation of women got to know each other: 2 social workers, 1 psychologist, 1 labor organizer, 1 teacher/radio commentator, 1 student, 1 PhD student/university lecturer, 1 mental health system administrator, 1 Native American/teacher. Almost all have moderate or excellent Spanish. I, alone, have zero. Others tolerated me graciously.
We engaged in some get-acquainted exercises; we learn of the purposes, schedule, and security considerations necessary. The delegates are greatly considerate of each other: our interests, energy, comfort issues, emotional states. We challenge and support each other. Our gifts are complementary.
First, let me try to define the concept of “accompaniment,” which was the essence of several of our connections with groups or people.
“Accompany” is a concept suggesting safety, recognition, and respect for individuals. This may entail being present at rallies, walking in tandem with people from one village to another–awareness, listening to their stories, providing moral support, giving visibility to serious injustices.
This is Colombia’s principal port. There are plans for expansion, which was a main reason that the nearby populace of Afro Colombians and indigenous people were displaced to towns and cities unknown to them. Again we drove to a park at the ocean’s edge. We met with dock workers, who want to organize a union. Their issues include: not having lunch breaks, getting paid only for the hours worked (sometimes as little as one or two hours), women never named to supervisory positions, not being aided nor rehired if injured on the job, fees required to work (e.g., $25 for one month’s work).
• Indigenous, Afro Colombian, and displaced peoples
The government statistics indicate there are at least 100 massacres and 100 “disappearances” occur each year. The river basin surrounding Buenaventura was victimized by paramilitary actions in 2002. Again in 2010, paramilitary groups displaced people who fled to neighboring cities. The new highway (a multi-year project, stimulated by the Free Trade Agreement) between Cali and Buenaventura, has displaced villages. A great portion of these lands is planned as a secondary port but the rich minerals in the area are also desirable. Some villagers were removed but their people have returned; thus they are seen as residing “illegally” on their ancestral lands. Law 70 allegedly protects Afro Colombian communities but is violated; land is confiscated; children are recruited to armed groups; families are left behind when men leave to work or join military groups.
The Nonam people of the Calima River were forcibly displaced for a year, taken to reside in a warehouse type building in Buenaventura. The Nonam have made a return and have resumed their fishing and farming, yet adjacent land is being sprayed via the coca fumigation project and their jungle farming sites are not respected. This coca eradication policy has been pushed by U.S. anti-narcotics policy that has not stopped the production of coca and affects the food security of communities like the Nonam.
We traveled down a glorious river with jungle on both banks in speedy boat (yes there were life-preservers) with a single “skipper,” who zipped around treacherous curves and over shallow waters of a rocky river bed. On our return trip we had the added challenge of a torrential rain. Other NGO representatives had joined us; a lot of food was delivered. It was a beautiful journey on
While there, the community members (perhaps 30 among 200 residents) told us of their history as we sat in a large circle with them, translated twice—from their language to Spanish, and from Spanish to English. We watched them make traditional baskets and beaded bracelets and earrings. The visibly oldest person present—a woman with naked breasts sinking to her waist and wearing a beautiful necklace—had greeted me when I first staggered out of the boat and up the muddy and rocky bank to flat ground. Perhaps she recognized me as a co-elder! It was she who wove the basket as we sat in a circle and I was able to purchase it when it was completed (a lovely treasure with a graphic history).
We ate fresh-caught fish and rice for lunch; we enjoyed a good deal of twice-translated information about their life and fears and were blessed by the village medicine man, who stroked our forearms with branches dipped in holy water. Suddenly it was time to leave as rain was arriving and darkness looming. Our return trip was just as rapid, a bit more wild, and punctuated by heavy rain.
• Collective advocacy groups
La Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres (The Peaceful Route of Women) is an umbrella collective of women’s peace organizations, whose purpose is “to visualize the effects of war and propose solutions to conflicts as well as developing mobilizations.” An example is a march of 3000 women to protest armed groups. One complaint is that women were forcibly brought to those sites in order to cook and do laundry for the paramilitary recruits. The group also represents indigenous women, who are subject to rape and violence because of their status. La Ruta’s opinion is that the state not only takes no protective action, but also “promotes and tolerates violence.” “The government knows how to talk about war, but not about peace.”
CUT (Confederation of Unified Workers) is an umbrella organization for workers’ unions. The focus of this presentation by Ligia Azate, a director of the labor organization, was on gender violence and the state of women’s self-esteem. Their economic dependency impedes progress toward self-sufficiency. When women are in the workforce, there is a 28% discrepancy in earning power vis a vis men. In Colombia, there are 19 million male workers, 7 million female. And 59% of the working women are in the “informal economy:” taxi drivers, cleaners, sales, restaurant workers. Many tolerate sexual harassment so as not to be fired. Women subjugate themselves by living with dominant males because of their economic dependency. In rural areas, women are usually the heads of households with no male partner. While protective laws have been enacted, they are typically not enforced: women who bring complaints are sometimes killed; “reparations” are typically too meager for recovery and often forgotten or delayed; statistics regarding outcomes of complaints are unreliable.
AMDAE is an organization that advocates for displaced Afro Colombians. Daira Quiñones, the founder, works to combat violence, develop sustainable work, and help people reclaim their land. The organization describes the invisibility of Afro Colombian women; from 1991-2004 the Colombia census documents these women, but the government denies the numbers. The government only recognizes direct physical attacks as “violence” but many other forms of violence affect women. Medical problems are prevalent such as greater than statistically normal incidence of breast and uterine cancers, no access to medical care (e.g., their medical card may be found as invalid, necessary medication is “not available,” their documentation as displaced persons is not recognized.
Among these collective advocacy groups, these are some of their testimonials:
• We work to improve social policies and give voice to the issues of certain neighborhoods of displaced people (e.g., a 31-year-old woman died last week after NO treatment for her cancer because she was not “eligible” for treatment until age 35).
• Very few handicapped children receive help or medical care… again, laws exist but are not enforced.
• Incidents of violence against women is high in certain neighborhoods, especially as women become “leaders.”
• Prosecutors overlook cases of violence against women, police torture certain detainees, there is no follow-up or investigations of death threats against women.
• Sometimes children cannot go to school because of “security” concerns.
• Children as young as 8 are being given drugs and are forced to give them to other children.
• Representatives of human rights organizations are given “protected” status only if they are actively receiving death threats (and they have to report their whereabouts, which could endanger them further.)
• Human rights workers have been given phones as “a protective measure” but, in fact, this was a way that security could monitor their phone contacts.
• Ancestral ways of treating medical problems are disrespected, even though there is no incidence of breast and uterine cancer in most indigenous communities.
On the first full day of actions, we departed Cali at 4 am for the central plaza in this town in order to accompany the sugarcane cutters, as they gathered to meet and later departed via buses to the fields for their day of labor. Hmm: sugar. How much do I consume?! As the new day dawned, the crowd of cutters—men ready to go to work, some with their machetes hanging from their belts—began to gather. Alberto, a labor organizer, gave a spirited and challenging talk; all of our Spanish-speaking delegates spoke over the portable loud-speaking system to encourage, to explain a bit about American labor unions, and to honor the workers and recognize their plight.
On that beautiful morning a sea of men – an crowd of nearly 400—gathered before us as we stood on an elevated ledge, all listening intently to the amplified discourse. A scene never to be forgotten. Each man would have a story to tell, each a struggle to make a living within the realities of inadequate pay and unfair labor practices. I tried to imagine their families, their meager resources, their hunger for information and advancement, opportunity. The sun kept rising. The workers needed to board buses that would take each to the field of his labors for the day. We departed…perhaps transformed in some way.
The floraculture workers and organizers had just completed their Valentine’s Day labors when we met with them on February 12. We were accompanied by CACTUS, an organization formed to address health and safety conditions of the overwhelmingly female flower workers. These women make up about 65% of the workforce. They often begin their work as young teen-agers. Most are hired on short-term contracts of a few months, which are not renewed for workers who become pregnant or ill–often with job-related illnesses. Chemicals used in the cultivation of flowers are proven to lead to various cancers. They often must arrive at the workplace at 4am and work shifts of 12 hours or double shifts, such as 2 eight-hour shifts in a 24-hour period. Another person will be hired to replace a worker if she is too ill to show up on a given day.
Ironically, while we were on a walk-about (no flowers in sight, no access to the processing sheds) to get a sense of the rural environment, a truck with amplified sound proceeded very slowly along the road we were on: The electronic announcement stated that there would be no fresh water available in the community for two days upcoming. We deduced that this was the outcome of extreme water consumption by the flower plantation for the Valentine’s Day exports. The announcement had ambient sound of cheerful music and trickling water!
The U.S. consumes 76% of the production. Children of the workers tend to live in the streets without supervision at home. Temporary agencies serve as contractors, resulting in unstable employment without union representation.
The U.S. embassy
We collaborated in teams to plan our presentation to the Embassy group, consisting five staff people, representing their human rights and legal departments. It was a courteous exchange; they explained some of their oversight duties and initiatives; we described our findings. There were some discrepancies, such as how dangerous (or not) the aerial fumigation of the coca fields is. They claimed scientific methods by which those results are measured; we shared testimonies of the diseases and disabilities incurred by affected people. We stressed the necessity for “verification” —directly from the people in the regions. The Embassy officials defend aerial fumigation; on the other hand, fumigation has been proven to be a bad policy in terms of community impacts and ineffectiveness in reducing coca supply.
Life in Between the Learning and Advocacy
Our meals were haphazard yet sufficient. We bought stuff, sometimes at local markets, at times through the van windows from side-of-the-road vendors. If a do-it-yourself kitchen was available, we all pitched in. Our guides/gurus, the local Witness for Peace staff, each invited all of us to their sparsely equipped apartments for—miraculously–homemade suppers. While in the hostel in Bogota, two of my cohorts prepared gorgeous oatmeal breakfasts each morning.
We became a temporary family, supporting-criticizing-rescuing-challenging each other. One of the Witness for Peace staff is strategically connected with people and issues, so plans changed or evolved responsively. Wearing our t-shirts and hanging tightly as a group somehow empowered and protected us. The Spanish fluency possessed by so many in our group expanded our knowledge via authentic conversation.
Informal Economies: Reflections from a recent delegation to Nicaragua.
Eduardo was a kindly, almost courtly, man who drove the van for our group in the Witness for Peace Delegation to Nicaragua in January of 2012. He was kindly enough to help me, a 67-year-old woman from Kansas, get in and out of the van, and more importantly, he also recognized and assisted his countrymen and women who eked out a living or supplemented their meager wages in the informal economy. Whenever we left our hostel and stopped at a nearby intersection, Eduardo paid a man to wash the van’s windshield and sometimes he also purchased a newspaper from another individual. There were coins in a cup holder in the front of the van apparently for that purpose. I was familiar with the informal economy although I did not know the term until I was introduced to it by Witness for Peace. In fact, I had some experience with the informal economy on a short trip to India in 2010. In India, I felt beleaguered, accosted, and pressured by people selling items on the street near tourist destinations, and in one instance, I was irritated by a young man who followed my friend and me for several blocks attempting to sell drums. I felt I was quite clear when I told him that I didn’t need or want a drum, that I had no way of getting a drum back to the US, but still he persisted. Finally, he gave up, but I wondered why this young man didn’t accept, “No thank you, I do not want a drum,” when he first approached us. At that point, I was operating under the developed country’s desires- of- the- consumer, rather than the needs- of -the -seller mentality, a hallmark of US consumerism characterized by its lack of concern for the people on the bottom rung of the economic ladders in the developing world. The young man needed to sell those drums and I should have purchased one and given it to a child. My purchase would have been part of my contribution to and participation in the informal economy of India. I was certainly contributing to the formal economy by staying in hotels, eating in restaurants, and paying entrance fees at tourist destinations.
In Nicaragua, I came to understand the reasons that poor people, sometimes accompanied by their children, sold newspapers, snacks, and washed windshields while standing in the swirl of traffic. I had visited a free trade zone, viewed a fair trade cooperative in a free trade zone, and observed the many ways that poor Nicaraguans struggled to support their families. I remembered a NY Times piece on ethical behavior in a developing country in which the writer suggested that ethical travelers might want to pay for services they would normally do for themselves. I wanted to be an ethical traveler, and as volunteer for Ten Thousand Villages, a fair trade retailer, I intellectually understood the organization’s mission for providing fair wages so that workers in developing countries could provide for their families. I knew that I was committed to social justice. Clearly in both India and Nicaragua there are not enough job opportunities with fair wages, and poor people are unable to provide for their families by working in the formal economy. While in India, I was not yet prepared to see my role in supporting the informal economy, but my experiences in Nicaragua changed my perspective. I hope to continue my travels in the developing world, and I want some of those travels to be with Witness for Peace. I know that when I travel, I will contribute to the country’s economy in both formally and informally– lessons I learned from Witness for Peace and Eduardo. Finally as an ethical traveler, I want to share that knowledge in the US in both formal and informal settings by encouraging my friends and neighbors to buy fair trade products, by incorporating my experiences into the community and school presentations which I make for Ten Thousand Villages, and by promoting Witness for Peace and its delegations. Those efforts represent my personal transformation from my ten-day trip.
Women Leading the Way to Justice and Peace
Amy Price on her recent delegation to Colombia, focused on “Women Leading the Way to Peace and Justice”