In January 2012 I toured Colombia as part of a Witness for Peace delegation of Americans from all over the U.S. Our purpose was to witness the effects of U.S. policy in Colombia, particularly concerning the War on Drugs. I expected to see some draconian anti-drug programs, but I wasn't at all prepared to hear and see about what is really going on in Colombia and why the U.S. is so involved.
Colombia is incredible. It’s the 2nd most bio-diverse country in the world (after Brazil), which means it's a paradise of lush rainforest, majestic mountains, rolling hills and beaches of sparkling white sand. It's also the 2nd most unequal country in the Western Hemisphere (behind Haiti) and one of the top 10 most unequal country in the world, which means its vast supply of resources are controlled by a tiny percentage of extremely wealthy, while the rest of the country lives in poverty. In addition to extreme inequality, Colombia has other unique issues to deal with, notably a continuing war between left-wing insurgency groups and right-wing paramilitaries, and as we all know, a narcotrafficking problem.
To give you a bit of history, during the Clinton administration in the early 90s, the U.S. starting pushing Free Trade Agreements, such as NAFTA, that allowed foreign multinational companies (MNCs) to conduct business in other countries and to export goods without paying tariffs, among other things. (Though the U.S. continues to subsidize our agricultural businesses, which makes these agreements very unfair). These agreements send American jobs overseas and allow MNCs to set up factories in countries where they can pay extremely low wages and have few, if any, government or environmental regulations. The MNCs operate much like Walmart - they are so huge and can produce goods at such a low cost that small businesses can't compete, and are forced to shut down. Often, to rub salt in the wound, the former business owners or small farmers have to work for the same MNC that took away their livelihood because there are no other jobs in the area. Wages are driven way down by competition between workers. This is why Mexican illegal immigration to the United States has increased exponentially since NAFTA was signed by Clinton almost 20 years ago.
Of course, these agreements are awesome for MNCs, who are the most powerful lobby in the U.S. government, so they have been able to sign more Free Trade Agreements with other countries.The U.S. has especially had its eye on Colombia which, as I mentioned, is a literal gold mine - oil, gold, coal and incredible fertile soil for large agro-businesses. Being located between the Panama canal and Venezuela, Colombia is also a place of strategic interest for our government.
So the U.S. government comes up with an awesome plan, Plan Colombia, under the Clinton administration and implemented by Bush in 2001. Plan Colombia was advertised as a plan to scale up the "war on drugs" by eradicating coca production (the plant used to make cocaine) and also to combat left-wing guerrilla groups. (To provide a very brief synopsis of a long and complex problem, Colombia is a country in the middle of a violent and bloody conflict between left-wing guerrilla insurgents and right-wing paramilitaries. The guerrillas started decades ago to take back the country from powerful interests and the elite, and the wealthy retaliated by paying mercenary soldiers, paramilitary, to fight back. Decades later, civilians are still caught in the crossfire of two brutal military groups.) The third, and I would argue, the real, goal of Plan Colombia was to free up land for MNCs to scoop up.
In order to 1) eradicate coca, 2) combat leftist insurgents and 3) free up land for MNCs, the U.S. and the Colombian government cooperated on a fumigation plan. This means that for the past 10 years in Colombia, the U.S. has financed planes to fly over coca (the plant used to make cocaine) production areas and dump thousands of gallons of poison onto the people. When I was in Colombia we heard about some of these areas that were recently hit. They looked like an atomic bomb had gone off. Everything was dead, not just coca, but all food crops withered and brown, livestock dead, rivers and drinking water poisoned, people with chemical rashes all over their bodies, children extremely sick, even mother's breast milk is poisoned from fumigation. The people can't live in poisoned land and they flee to large cities where huge, dangerous slums are springing up around the edges, full of displaced people with no education, no income, no job prospects. Five million people have lost their homes and jobs because of fumigation in Colombia. Those who refuse to leave their land are systematically tortured and killed by armed actors. Not surprisingly, many of these people fleeing to the cities turn to the drug trade, the guerrilla or the paramilitary to make a living.
Many small farmers in Colombia grow coca because they have been driven out of farming legal crops by MNCs who are producing them much more cheaply. Coca is light and easy to transport over poor roads, and also fetches a much higher price than regular goods because it is illegal. Coca itself is not a dangerous or hallucinagenic plant. In fact, the plant is very medicinal. While I was there, I ate cookies and breads made of coca, drank coca tea, and chewed dried coca leaves. It was just like eating regular food, except that it did help my sore throat go away. Coca only becomes dangerous when mixed with the other ingredients that make cocaine - cement, gasoline and battery acid (no joke, look it up). I'd love to meet the genius who decided to mix those lovely ingredients and snort them up his nose :)
Small farmers suffer most from fumigation, as large-scale producers can easily bribe pilots to skip their lands. Also, if one looks at a map of coca production and a map of what areas are being fumigated, it becomes obvious that the planes are not poisoning the areas with the largest coca production, but areas where gold, oil and coal can be found. So what happens to the vacated land? The Colombian government usually sells it to the U.S. MNCs (mostly mining companies and large-scale agro-businesses) who lobbied for fumigation in the first place.
This was shocking to me. Can you imagine if China came up with an "anti-tobacco" campaign to dump tons of poison on American small-scale tobacco farmers, displace them, and scoop up the land to build Chinese-owned sweatshops paying dismal wages to unemployed Americans? We'd start World War Three. And yet we do it to Colombia and no one even knows about it.
The MNCs also use paramilitary groups to displace Colombians and create violence, and therefore, cheap labor. The U.S. didn't start the war between guerillas and paramilitary in Colombia, but we have certainly taken advantage of it. In Colombia I met with leaders of indigenous people, small farmers and Afro-Colombian port workers on the coast who had been displaced from their homes as a result of fumigation or the military. The most dangerous thing you can be in Colombia is a human rights leader or union leader. These people are regularly threatened, murdered and "disappeared," which means kidnapped and killed, but their families never know what happened to them. In the communities I visited, everyone, I mean everyone, has had a family member tortured or killed. And the methods of murder are not simple shootings. I fear for the lives of the incredible men and women I met who, despite the regular disappearances of human rights leaders, continue to fight (pacifically) for the return of their land and freedom from violence. I only wish I were so brave.
As part of the Witness for Peace delegation, I plan to become actively involved in pressuring the U.S. to end our involvement in Colombia. Whether you are a liberal upset about the murder of union leaders, human rights leaders and environmental destruction in Colombia, or a conservative concerned about the U.S. wasting billions of dollars on an ineffective campaign that benefits government elite at the expense of small businesses and small farmers, we can all rally to end U.S. involvement in Colombia. Here's what you can do:
1. Please stop purchasing products from:
Coca-Cola (and its subsidiaries, Dasani water, Minute Maid juice, Sprite, Powerade, VitaminWater, Fanta and Nestea).
BP and Exxonmobil gasoline.
2. Write a letter to your Congressmen and Senators telling them to stop wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on a campaign that hurts American jobs and increases violence and poverty in Colombia.
3. Join a Witness for Peace delegation so you can see for yourself what is happening. WFP has delegations all over Latin America, including Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico to study U.S. foreign policy. The next delegation this year goes to Mexico to see the impact of MNCs on the job market, then goes to Alabama to meet with immigrants affected by recent anti-immigrant laws. Visit Witness for info on upcoming trips.
I was really moved by what is going on in Colombia and I hope that more of you can learn what is going on and how to help. We might not make a huge difference, especially fighting against massively powerful companies and the government, but we can't just sit by and do nothing while all this is being funded with our taxpayer dollars.
BlueNC is dedicated to freedom and fairness for the people of North Carolina. If you share that vision, welcome. If your intention is to disrupt our efforts, please find somewhere else to express your opinions.
Dumbed Down Politicos
Exile on Jones Street
Pam's House Blend
Public Policy Polling
Talking About Politics
Turn NC Blue