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25 Years of Taking Action for Peace and Justice

by Melinda St. Louis, Executive Director

Witness for Peace has been a leader in the movement for progressive policy change since 1983, when a small, brave group of U.S. citizens put their bodies on the Nicaraguan-Honduran border to literally stand between Contra fighters funded by the U.S. government and Nicaraguan civilians.  Later, they would bring their experiences home to their communities and policymakers, to work tirelessly to bring an end to the Contra War, giving birth to the movement and organization known today as Witness for Peace.

Twenty-five years later, their courage has inspired thousands more progressive and passionate change-makers and created a ripple effect of grassroots action for U.S. policy change towards Latin America.  To date, Witness for Peace has brought more than 13,000 U.S. citizens on transformational travel delegations to Latin America, infusing the global justice movement with the critical analysis, grassroots activism, and passionate energy of our return delegates.  At home, we have organized hundreds of  speaker tours for Latin American leaders that reach an estimated 5,000 people annually, bringing new information to critical U.S. policy debates and widening the scope of policy-making conversations.

Our work is rooted in our long-term relationships with the people in Latin America most affected by U.S. policy – and the stories that they share with us.  In Nicaragua in the 1980s, WFP volunteers went to the sites of Contra attacks, mourning with families who lost their loved ones, and carefully documenting the atrocities so that the truth would be known in the U.S. Congress.  In part due to this consistent witness from thousands of U.S. citizens who traveled with us to Nicaragua, eventually the U.S. Congress cut off funding to the brutal Contra forces.

In 1996, WFP was the first to bring the story of the massacre preceding the World Bank-funded Chixoy Dam project in Guatemala to the international stage.  Our publication, A People Dammed,prompted the World Bank to investigate the project and recognize the compensation owed to displaced families.

Economic Violence and the New Struggle for Justice

In the wake of the Central American wars, we were taught by our partners in Central America and Mexico about the damaging impacts of structural adjustment policies and unfair trade agreements, such as NAFTA and CAFTA.  Unlike the Contra war, these economic policies did not make headlines in the U.S., but we witnessed their deadliness all the same.

As NAFTA and CAFTA ravaged the economies of Latin America, we witnessed mothers who had lost children to preventable diseases such as diarrhea due to lack of potable water and sufficient medicines.  We met with factory workers who toiled for starvation wages making the clothes we buy at
our local retailer.  We grieved along with small farmers who had been forced off their land because they no longer had access to credit and could not compete with U.S. subsidized agri-business. 

Armed with these experiences, we became leaders in the grassroots movements to cancel external debt for poor countries, transform the World Bank and IMF, and to stop unfair trade agreements.  Thanks in part to our leadership in organizing the first nonviolent public protest in front of the World Bank in Washington, DC in 1995, these institutions, which previously functioned without public scrutiny, became household names in the U.S.  Along with our partners in Latin America, we helped to kill the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a hemisphere-wide free trade initiative, in 2003.

After the U.S. passed its multi-billion dollar military aid package to Colombia in 2000, Witness for Peace mobilized a historic 100-person delegation to the war-torn country to stand with Colombians seeking peace.  We witnessed the devastation wrought the failed U.S. “war on drugs,” were moved by the courage of Colombians who organize for peace in the midst of unthinkable violence, and returned home with the clear message that military aid to Colombia would only fuel the violence and human rights atrocities there.  Those 100 people - together with hundreds more who traveled on subsequent WFP delegations to Colombia and thousands who heard the stories of Colombians on WFP speaker tours - formed the base of a grassroots movement that last year achieved the first shift in U.S. policy away from military aid and toward humanitarian aid.

In addition to these actions, WFP answered the call for an international presence in Haiti at the height of the illegal regime that ousted President Aristide.  We brought thousands of U.S. citizens to Cuba to witness the impact of the inhumane embargo.  We responded to our government’s hostility to the elected governments of Venezuela and Bolivia by taking U.S. citizens to see the realities for themselves.

We commemorate our 25th anniversary year with a proven track record and a bold vision for the future.  Just a few recent examples of our determined activism and policy victories include:

  • contributing vital efforts to an important change in U.S.-Colombia policy in 2008, whereby the U.S. Congress approved a shift away from military aid and toward humanitarian and social aid;
  • stalling the passage of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement so far, despite intense lobbying by corporate interests and the Colombian government;
  • leading an innovative delegation of Minnesotan educators who work with Mexican immigrant children to Morelos, Mexico, where one-third of the community’s 30,000 residents now live in Minnesota – two years in a row;
  • organizing an emergency response delegation to Colombia and a letter signed by 36 U.S. members of Congress to Colombian President Uribe immediately after our partner organizations were the victims of politically-motivated attacks;

It is only through the generous support of our members that we have been able to accomplish these important acts of hope and change.  And there is still more to do.  In this 2008 election year, the U.S-Colombia Free Trade Agreement still looms on the horizon, our neighbors in Mexico face the alarming prospect of a multi-billion dollar U.S. counter-drug and terrorism package called Plan Mexico, and U.S. military funding for the brutal Colombian military continues.  Given the frighteningly-narrow “immigration debate” taking place along the campaign trail and the devastating impacts of U.S. trade policies that lead to increased displacement and migration, we must work harder now than ever to move the immigration “debate” beyond talk of border fences and deportation proceedings to the failed global trade policies which are at the root of migration.

Be a force for positive change. Take a trip with us to Latin America and see for yourself what is happening in our world and then join our vibrant movement for policy change!