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I Never Had a Better Cup

by John KotulaThe Providence Journal
July 25th, 2008

EARLY ON MONDAY MORNING, June 23, I was lying flat on my back on the sidewalk in front of the Cannon House Office Building, in Washington, D.C. For the most part I was keeping my eyes closed, but occasionally I peeked to see the legs of office workers hurrying by on their way to federal jobs. I was trying not to think about how many pigeon droppings might have landed on the patch of sidewalk where I was lying.

There was a sign around my neck that read, “Victim of Plan Colombia, Slain Colombian Union Organizer.” Near me there was a man in a business suit clutching a fistful of dollars. His sign read, “American Companies profit from the Free Trade Agreement, Colombian Farmers Starve.” Other figures represented landless Colombian farmers, the Colombian military grown fat on U.S. military aid, and the Spirit of Colombia crying for the fate of the country.

Witness for Peace, a nonprofit organization that seeks to influence U.S. Latin American policy, organized this tableau. Members of the organization gave out free coffee and leaflets to the busy office workers hurrying by.

In the eight days before stretching out on the sidewalk, I had traveled to Colombia with a delegation also organized by Witness for Peace. The 21-member delegation met with Colombians with a broad range of political and human-rights involvements, including educators, health-care workers, community organizers, lawyers, researchers, union representatives, peace advocates, farmer cooperatives, coffee growers and the military. There was also a meeting with the chief human-rights officer from the U.S. Embassy.

I am a 63-year-old artist from Peace Dale. During the trip I drew a sketch in my notebook of a skull sitting in the middle of a plate of spaghetti. I titled this cartoon “Spaghetti Colombiano.” There are many strands to unravel if you want to understand the situation in Colombia. You start following one and discover that it is intertwined with all the others.

For example, I attended a meeting with a group of farmers who have formed a coffee-growing cooperative named COSURCA. Many of the men in the room had previously grown coca, the leafy green plant that is the basis of cocaine. The men were smart and articulate, but they defied the image of the narco-trafficker. They were just poor farmers with families to support. They hoped that by growing organic coffee for export to the United States they could avoid the illegal but highly profitable route of coca cultivation. However, they were fearful and frustrated because they found themselves in the cross-hairs of two U.S. policies; the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and Plan Colombia.

The FTA is in trouble in Congress. It seeks to implement in Colombia the same policies that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) brought to Mexico. There is a growing agreement among economists, labor leaders and human-rights advocates that NAFTA has been bad for Mexico and has not brought the promised benefits to the United States. Senators and representatives are hesitant to expand this model. If it were to become law, the FTA would open Colombia to investment and this investment would favor big business. The members of the coffee cooperative fear that they will not be able to compete and that their lands would become tempting targets for the big companies. They are well aware that the Colombian government, the military and right-wing paramilitary groups have a long history of forcing people off their lands, especially poor, indigenous and black people, displacing them to make way for large-scale production for export.

While the trade pact is pending, there is a more immediate threat to COSURCA. That is fumigation. Plan Colombia contains massive funding, going to the Colombian military and North American contractors, to spray coca fields with chemicals — industrial grade Roundup — from Monsanto. There are strong reasons to be afraid of the health risks associated with long-term exposure to these chemicals. On top of this, researchers who have studied this intervention see little sign that it is reducing cocaine production in Colombia or the availability of cocaine on the streets of the United States.

Nonetheless, U.S. officials and the Colombian government are wedded to trying to spray their way out of narco-trafficking. The coffee growers who spoke to my delegation no longer grow coca, but their farms have been fumigated several times in the last few years. They have protested and an investigation is pending. In the meantime, the fumigation represents a huge setback to a fledgling business. Trees have been destroyed and the cooperative lost its organic certification for some of its beans. They are incredulous that this “mistake” keeps happening. It is easy to become suspicious that there is an ulterior motive behind the spraying. Could it be that someone with power does not want this little company to succeed? Is there someone waiting to take over the land?

While hearing this story in the offices of COSURCA, I sipped a cup of coffee brewed from the cooperative’s organic beans. I never had a better cup of coffee.

During the week leading up to the Fourth of July, John McCain traveled to Colombia. McCain went to show support for the president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, the Free Trade Agreement and Plan Colombia. McCain’s 20-hour visit was mainly a photo-op and a chance to contrast his positions on Latin America with those of Barack Obama.

There is in fact a sharp contrast between where these two candidates stand on policy toward Colombia. This is one more area where a McCain presidency would mean a continuation of President Bush’s policies that take care of the powerful at the expense of ordinary people. Obama is at least willing to question and renegotiate the FTA and Plan Colombia. Without exception, the Colombians I spoke to thought the FTA, while making a few rich Colombians even richer, would hurt working people. They also thought that aid to Colombia would be better spent if it supported humanitarian efforts rather than military ones. As U.S. citizens, we need to listen to this advice.

John Kotula is an artist living in Peace Dale