A New Direction for Colombia Policy?
A Letter to John Kerry
Santander de Quilichao, Cauca, Colombia, 2009-05-11
Senator John Kerry
Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee
Dear Senator Kerry/Chris Wyman:
I would like to express my gratitude for your hospitality at your Boston office last March, when the Colombia Vive! Collective arranged our meeting. Mr. Wyman´s reception was warm and frank. His understanding and concern for the issues we brought to his attention was most encouraging. Our exchange was lively and I remain hopeful that it can lead to beneficial and much needed concerted action. This letter is a follow-up to our meeting and a memo to outline the concerns and issues addressed and a follow-up proposal to these.
As a way of introduction, I remind you that I am a Colombian practicing general and colorectal surgeon. I hold both a Canadian and Colombian citizenship and I have lived and practiced in both countries. I have held several consulting and academic posts in Canada, Colombia and elsewhere. For a while I was based in Washington where I trained and later worked with the Pan American Health Organization of the WHO. Most recently, I was appointed Adjunct Research Professor at the Department of Community Economic and Social Development of Algoma University in Ontario, Canada. Lately, I have been living in Colombia, where I am an elected member of the National Directorate of "Polo Democrático Alternativo", the main democratic opposition party. I am also a member of an advisory group to the Secretariat of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, based in Bogotá (http://www.asc-hsa.org/).
Last March, when I went to your office, I was in Boston attending a Mingas-FTA meeting (http://www.mingas.info/). Mingas-FTA is a collective formed about two and a half years ago involving Canadian, US and Colombian citizens dedicated to a critical approach to "Free Trade" and its impacts. Mingas-FTA is an expanding community of citizens from diverse sectors including academics, researchers, unions and many others who have decided to look closely at the content, purpose and impact of free trade agreements. Those of us who are part of Mingas-FTA do not oppose trade agreements in principle, but question and reject the "Free Trade" that is negotiated behind closed doors against the interests and well-being of most peoples of the countries involved. In practice, these agreements are structured for the benefit of private interests, instead of the promotion of public interest.
Beyond medical practice, I have been committed to working with social movements and organizations in Canada, Colombia and other Latin American countries, finally settling from the indigenous territories of Northern Cauca, as a member of the Association of Indigenous Councils of that territory (ACIN).
Together with the national indigenous movement in Colombia, ACIN has gained national and international recognition and respect, for its efforts in the midst of the Colombian armed conflict. ACIN explicitly rejects the armed conflict and all armed actors for ethical and strategic reasons. Among thousands of projects from around the world, ACIN´s Nasa Project won the UNDP´s Equatorial Initiative award in 2004, an award for the best local development project in harmony with nature. This is not ACIN's only award. Among others, ACIN has also received the National Peace award in Colombia twice. ACIN's "Life Plan" is a model of development in harmony with "Mother Earth" rooted in ancestral culture and autonomy. Together with the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, ACIN was also nominated for a Nobel Peace award in 2007. (http://www.afsc.org/ht/display/ContentDetails/i/5334/pid/449).
Over the past 5 years, I helped to establish and consolidate the communication and foreign relations network of ACIN (www.nasaacin.org), a process that combines ancestral practice with modern media to gather and share relevant and appropriate information, to reflect and discuss its implications, make collective decisions, and act consistently with ACIN's principles. Our network was recognized as Colombia´s best alternative communication media in 2008 (http://www.nasaacin.org/premio_tejido_comunicacion.htm).
Because our position on the autonomy of indigenous peoples conflicts with that of the armed actors, we have been victims of all forms of persecution, including violence from FARC, the paramilitary death squads, and the Colombian armed forces.
In-spite of my open and well documented rejection of all forms of violence, terror and armed action by insurgency groups in Colombia; I have been recurrently targeted by those whose power and vested interests are threatened by my defense of democratic freedoms and of the dignity and right to self determination and sovereignty that should be granted to all peoples and countries. Examples of these kinds of unsupported attacks have been well documented by independent writers. For the purpose of this letter, links to articles by Naomi Klein (http://www.thenation.com/doc/20051121/klein) and Justin Podur (http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/20810) should suffice as examples.
As you could see from the evidence gathered in these articles, I have been threatened and falsely accused of being part of all armed factions, from the Colombian insurgency to the CIA. Most recently, as Justin Podur illustrates in his article, I was mentioned in Cambio, a Colombian magazine similar to Time or Newsweek, within an article that targeted Hollman Morris, a friend and a well-known Colombian journalist. This time, the article stated that I was helping the ELN insurgency against FARC in Northern Cauca.
There are absolutely no grounds for these allegations against me. The false statements made in this article have turned me into a legitimate target for all armed groups. A death threat hangs on my life now. I have committed no crime, but if I were to be killed, a justification for my elimination would have been provided through these published intentional fabrications.
My case is not exceptional. Many well known Colombians have been murdered or forced into exile based on these defamatory public strategies aimed at silencing uncomfortable voices. There have been threats against four members of our communication network, the transmitting equipment of our radio station (Radio Payumat) was destroyed last December through an act of sabotage and our website was blocked last October during a peaceful National mobilization against the Free Trade Agreement; a mobilization that was itself violently attacked by counter insurgency forces of the Colombian Government (http://edition.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/americas/10/15/colombia.clashes/index.html#cnnSTCVideo). The sabotage against Radio Payumat took place just 2 days before the army assassinated Edwin Legarda (http://www.amnesty.org/en/for-media/press-releases/colombia-positive-first-steps-finding-killers-husband-indigenous-leader-) in a failed attempt to murder Aida Quilcué, the Chief Councilor of CRIC and the leader of a National indigenous mobilization. Payumat is the main voice of communication for the indigenous communities of our territory. Through the voice of Payumat, our communities have been able to peacefully abort armed attacks and rescue people kidnapped by the armed insurgency. To date, we have been unable to gather the funds to put Payumat back on the air and protect our process and communities.
We have every reason to believe that there is a clear intent to silence us. We have become a threat to both the Colombian Regime and the armed insurgency.
Our issues with the "Free Trade Agreements", the threats against our communities and the themes taken by Mingas-FTA are of concern to the Foreign Relations Committee that you chair. Beyond calling your attention on the specific threats against ACIN and me, the purpose of my visit and of this letter is to underscore these connections invite you to take action on these matters.
On the 17th of April 2008, the ACIN wrote an Open Letter to House leader Nancy Pelosi and the US Congress (http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/1224/61/). The letter was a reaction to the April 10th 2008 vote at the US Congress, where the House of Representatives decided to freeze giving further consideration to the US-Colombia FTA. Three years before, we had carried out a transparent and internationally monitored democratic consultation on this matter. 98% of the people who took part in this consultation said NO to the US-Colombia FTA. The reasons were explained and can be summarized in the following two points:
Terror and the systematic violations of Human Rights with almost absolute impunity continue to be prevalent in Colombia. Union activists, women, indigenous peoples, opposition party leaders, journalists, peasants and social movements and organizations are systematically targeted in an ongoing terror campaign with clear and obvious links to the Colombian Government, the Colombian Armed Forces and also transnational and US corporate interests under legal investigation. Colombia is undergoing a massive humanitarian crisis. Four million people have been displaced through brutal violence, mostly from the state-backed paramilitaries. On the lands they used to live on, extractive industry and plantation agriculture is expanding. Drug trafficking and terror appear to be means to these extractive ends, regardless of which specific armed group commits these crimes. Territories with resources of interest to extractive industries are systematically cleared through terror. The Colombian Government at its highest levels, as well as the ruling coalitions in Congress, are facing investigations, criminal charges or jail sentences because of their direct and comprehensive links to death squads, human rights violations and crimes against humanity. A growing number of high ranking officials of the Colombian armed forces, including its commanders, have been linked with "false positives" or the assassination of innocent civilians by the armed forces that are dressed in guerrilla uniforms, transferred to remote areas and presented as dead in combat or as members of the armed insurgency. There are more than 3000 cases under investigation, while it is presumed that more than 100.000 people are buried in mass graves throughout the country, most of them killed by Government or Government linked paramilitary forces. Until and unless justice, truth and full reparation of the victims and their relatives has been achieved so that terror can no longer be used to achieve corporate interests and when all those involved in planning, funding and executing these acts of terror are brought to justice at the highest level within and beyond Colombia, it would be unwise to sign a "free trade agreement" with Colombia. Such an agreement would constitute an endorsement for past and ongoing crimes against humanity. Under these circumstances, the actions of armed insurgency often provide further justification for a war against Colombian people that benefits private interests.
As stated in the letter to Congress, even if terror was not being used and if no human rights abuses were being committed in Colombia, the content of these agreements, the fact that negotiations do not involve nor require any form of democratic consultation with the citizenship, the lack of disclosure of their content and impacts and the cumulative experience with the damaging effects this model throughout the Continent and indeed, the world, leads us to conclude that this model has failed to provide benefits and wellbeing for most citizens in the countries involved. At most, these agreements could achieve some profits for a small number of large corporate interests, although even this outcome can be questioned today, as "free trade" seems to be at the heart of the ongoing global economic crisis. The benefits of "free trade" are accumulated at the expense of working and poor people and through the destruction of an already damaged environment.
On April 29th 2009, it was announced that Britain had ended bilateral military aid to Colombia because of the gross violations of human rights by the Colombian Armed Forces (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/apr/29/colombia-uk-military-aid). Before the British Government made this decision, in a statement dated March 5th 2009 (http://leahy.senate.gov/press/200903/030509e.html), Senator Patrick Leahy pointed out that:
"The Congress had no responsible alternative to withholding a portion of the military aid for Colombia. Whether or when those funds are released will depend, in part, on how thoroughly the government addresses the problem of false positives, whether the officers involved are held accountable, and whether those who had the courage to report these crimes continue to be the target of government attacks."
On November 10th 2008, ACIN wrote a letter to President elect Barack Obama (http://colombiareports.com/colombia-news/news/1979-indigenous-write-open-letter-to-obama.html), to congratulate him for his election. In that letter, after explaining the need for a profound change in policy and relationships between our countries, explaining how damaging "Free Trade" has been, the authors say: "We believe the very reason human beings and our societies exist is to create harmony between History and Mother Earth." In closing the letter there is an appeal from the core of the ancestral human spirit:
"Before we disappear with our collective Mother, we have decided to speak and to walk our words. In the name of life, of change, let us listen to one another and make the effort to find a way to create harmony between our peoples and life. Let us create the conditions for new History. One where the sacred ends of promotion and protection of Life and Beauty can never again be transformed into means for private accumulation of power at the service of greed."
Senator Kerry, Chris Wyman told us, at your office, in no uncertain terms, that we could expect a "new direction". The State Department was in a process of change. Policies would be examined and transformed. I did not go to see you to request anything for myself. I went there to exchange, to engage in a conversation with an open mind and carrying with me the struggle and the hopes for justice and freedom in harmony with Mother Earth of the people I live with and from whom I have learned so much.
I was encouraged to learn that you had been appointed to Chair the Foreign Relations Committee. Now, I finally decide to write to you. I beg you to consider that the decisions made by the UK and by the US Congress on military aid, and the decision not to pursue the FTA negotiations, call for a more profound historical and ethical understanding of the issues at stake. This is a crucial moment in history for humanity and for life in our planet as a whole. If war, exploitation and destruction are (failed) means to achieve wealth by the few for the few, then the threats against us, the massive displacements, the use of terror, are nothing more than destructive criminal acts that will deny our children any hope. Senator Kerry, I call on you respectfully to consider the content of this letter and of those previously mentioned, to address the issues presented on them and to engage from your position as Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, with Senator Patrick Leahy, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and with President Barack Obama in giving serious consideration to our motivations, our shared knowledge, the mounting supporting evidence, our collective experience and truths. We believe that it is time for us to join efforts in putting life and justice above greed and destruction.
Terror and a sophisticated propaganda strategy have been weaved together as tools to promote the interests of those behind the current "free trade agreements". We are aware of the strong lobbying power of those behind these initiatives.
Dismantling terror, transforming propaganda into communication for truth and life and replacing these agreements with others aimed at granting justice, bringing democracy and peace to all peoples in harmony with Mother Earth, will appear to go against the interests of the most powerful individuals and groups of the world. In fact, we know the opposite is the truth. No one can continue to benefit from the destruction of our planet. We are presenting practical proposals from pragmatic peoples. A "new direction" for the Foreign Policy of your country would entail engaging in a common global effort to transform what there is into what is needed. New winds are sweeping through the Americas. In peace, the poorest and most impoverished are proposing and weaving new ways, from recovered territories to new social relations into a new economy where wealth generation is at the service of life and justice. We invite you to listen, to talk to those weaving these new ways and, in the meantime, to stop the FTA with Colombia, to stop funding those who use terror and propaganda against their people and to help us resist war, wherever it may come from.
Another world is necessary and possible.