By Anita Kline, WFP delegate to Colombia in December 2016
“Tell me about your trip to Colombia!” The leaders of our Witness for Peace delegation had prepared me for this moment. I understood that uncovering connections across international borders is a critical aspect of the work of WFP. But only after coming home, did I understand that this task has taken on new urgency since the curtain went up on the xenophobic and militaristic tragic opera currently playing in Washington. And only after witnessing the resurgence of progressive political action in the U.S. did I see that, paradoxically, the barrage of cruelty we face from Donald Trump and his cast of supporting characters presents an opportunity to do this work in a new and promising context.
Our fellow citizens are waking up. They’re getting involved in civic life, marching in the streets, running for office on progressive platforms. They’re coalescing into a movement of movements through which newly politicized citizens are learning through their own experience about exploitation and resistance. Activists working to promote peace and justice internationally have an opportunity to expand and deepen this education. As millions suddenly see what’s happening in Washington, they can also broaden their perspective to connect the dots between Washington and the rest of the world, including Latin America.
I signed up to go to Colombia with Witness for Peace early in 2016, months before the election of Donald Trump and the more or less simultaneous signing of Peace Accords with the FARC in Colombia. A year later, the Trump administration is well on the way to undoing democratic institutions and protections won over decades of mass struggle in the U.S. and around the world. In Colombia, first steps are being taken toward implementing the terms of the Peace Accords, while reactionary violence—directed especially at human rights workers, Afro-Colombians and indigenous and women activists—continues unabated, threatening to turn the possibility of peace into a genocide.
During our delegation’s 10 days (Dec. 1-10, 2016) in Medellin, Urabá, and Bogotá, we were privileged to listen to many stories—of people standing up for human rights, of women striving for peace, of campesinos fighting for land rights. These stories of repression and resistance in Colombia are reflected in our own stories here at home and can serve to inspire and strengthen our movement. Here are a few examples, witnessed by our delegation “Women-Led and Survivor-Centered Movements for Healing, Peace and Justice.”
1. The Peace Accords between the Colombian government and the FARC are a big step forward. But as has already been shown by the increased killings of human rights workers, it is only the beginning of real peace with justice. As Amnesty International recently reported: “In large swathes of Colombia, the armed conflict is far from over. Unless the authorities offer urgent protection to these communities, many lives could be lost.”
In formal and informal encounters with WFP’s Colombian partners, we learned that international support is crucial during this implementation process. Special attention must be paid to monitoring the provisions under which the most vulnerable—indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, women and LGBT people—are guaranteed protection and equal treatment under the law. Under Obama, the U.S. Congress reached bi-partisan agreement to support the peace plan. The Trump administration’s stated intentions, however, are to “review the details. . .and determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support [the Accord].”
Trump has already shown a clear preference for military “solutions” while putting diplomacy and respect for human rights on the back burner of U.S. foreign policy. These are ominous signs that “Making America Great Again” could mean going back to the days of U.S.-backed dictatorships in Latin America, when WFP delegations were first organized to bear witness to violent attacks of right-wing governments against their own people.
The eyes of the world are focused on presidents Trump and Santos and Colombia’s historic opportunity to make peace in a world embroiled in wars. Our resistance here must include demands that the U.S. government continue to back the Peace Accords in word and deed—providing promised monetary aid for implementation of the agreement and opposing any plans to increase support for the military
2. Land restitution is at the heart of the struggle for justice in Colombia where 52% of farms are in the hands of just 1.15% of landowners. This is, according to Oxfam, the most unequal land distribution in all Latin America and one of the most unequal in the world.
Our delegation traveled to the remote area of Urabá in the provinces of Antioquia and Chocó, a hot, humid, rainy region of plantain growing and cattle ranching. We met with people living in four Humanitarian and Biodiversity Zones, where Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, and mestizos work their land in common and live in legally-sanctioned safe communities, no arms allowed.
From these generous and welcoming people, we heard moving stories, all variations on the theme of displacement, a country-wide phenomenon that has resulted in Colombia having one of the largest displaced populations in the world. Afro-Colombian communities and indigenous people account for 10% and 3% respectively of the 7.4 million internally displaced persons in Colombia. These communities have fought for and won legal recognition as special victims of “el conflicto,” as the 50+ years of war is known. Yet, despite various law guaranteeing their safety and land rights, and despite the new peace agreement, people in the countryside continue to face violence, threats, and abuse of judicial power from landowner “elites,” including those tied to U.S. corporations such as Chiquita Banana. Indeed, their very survival is threatened.
At first glance, the struggle for land in a developing largely agrarian country like Colombia may seem remote from struggles in the highly industrialized United States. But here too, we see a growing awareness of land-use issues, food and water safety, and treaty rights. We too are fighting against desecration of the land by agribusiness and extractive industries and for the rights of workers in these industries. As part of the global movement for climate justice, we too are fighting to uphold treaties, and for equitable and sustainable practices, as shown most notably by the gathering of thousands at Standing Rock to protect water and native treaty rights against threats of the fossil fuel industry.
As educators and activists, we can make these connections explicit. We can demand that U.S. foreign aid to Colombia continue and that it be made contingent on the implementation of the rights of the poor and displaced in rural areas. We can point to our resistance as part of the world-wide struggle against those who care nothing for the earth except as a source of profit. We can link our own demands for a peaceful world to the demands for a peaceful Colombia
3. As in the U.S. and around the world, Colombian women are playing a leading role in the struggle for peace and against all forms of violence. Our delegation met with amazing women from two national organizations—La Red Feminista Antimilitarista (The Feminist Antimilitarist Network) and La Ruta Pacífica (Women’s Peace Route)—and with Pilar Rueda, who brought her expertise in the culture of sexual violence to educate delegates at the peace talks in Cuba. We also heard from women leaders in the countryside whose very lives illustrate the special role of women in transforming a society deeply scarred by war and a culture of unacknowledged violence against women and children. Because of their inspiring work, Colombian women were given a seat at peace negotiations in Cuba—alongside others representing special victims of the conflict—and their demands are reflected in the Accords.
In the U.S. too, women’s voices are growing ever stronger in the face of Trump and his misogynist, homophobic, racist agenda.Notable examples can be seen in the Black Lives Matter movement, the post-inauguration Women’s March on Washington, and the continuing community mobilizations against deportations and other state-sanctioned police attacks on people of color in communities from coast to coast. The Witness for Peace-sponsored speakers’ tours of Colombian women leaders in 2016 and 2017 are important opportunities to learn from each other, especially since our Colombian sisters have been fighting in the context of extreme violence and with the kind of long-term persistence and courage we are likely to need here going forward.
4. Finally, as elsewhere in the world, Colombians are not only saying “No” to violence, war and injustice. They are also saying “Yes” to new ways of living together in prosperous and peaceful community. Remarkably, Colombian law itself promotes the active participation of victims in the process of implementing the Peace Accords and building a more just society. Moreover, it recognizes that the people’s participation will inevitably build a stronger sense of power and confidence.
Along with community organizers, educators, and human rights workers, cultural workers play an important role in building these new relationships among the Colombian people. Everywhere we went, whether in the city or countryside, artists and artisans are telling stories in marvelous murals, posters, and art installations.Traditions are woven into cloth. Love is graffitied onto city walls. Representatives of Caño Manso, an Urabá community, proudly told us about their displacement and their ensuing resistance to land-owning elites and cattle ranchers. They amplified and spread their story when it became the lyrics to a ballad “El Vendaval” and recorded on a CD “Voces de Paz”.
On a visit to Medellin’s wonderful museum, Casa de la Memoria, I asked a university student about “la historia del conflicto.” He patiently corrected me, explaining that the museum was not about history but about memory. “History,” he said, “is the work of historians, academics. Our exhibits are based on how the people themselves, the victims with their different perspectives, experienced the years of violence and war.”Indeed the Casa’s carefully constructed exhibits ingeniously reveal the years of conflict in the victims’ own words and from their own experience. And perhaps most importantly for Colombia’s healing, revealed each person’s vision of a life of peace.
In the U.S. as well, people are working with renewed hope not only to make change, but to “be the change” as well. We embody peace as we work against war. We fly colorful banners demanding “Keep it in the Ground!” as we dance to protect the water and the earth. We are resurrecting the sanctuary movement as immigrants and asylum seekers are threatened by massive deportations. We strive, in the face of lies and bullying, to tell the truth in language that’s kind as well as strong.
We can look to Colombia for inspiration in this community-building work as well, envisioning ourselves as connected to our Colombian friends and people everywhere. Thanks to those who witness across borders, thanks to organizations like Witness for Peace, we can more easily imagine all of us as nodes in an interdependent web where we meet and work together for a better world.