Rebirth of solidarity

IssueDecember 2002 - February 2003
Feature by Sean Donohue

There is a diverse and rapidly growing movement to end US military involvement in Colombia. The US has backed the Colombian military in that country's brutal civil war since the 1960s, and groups like the Colombia Support Network and the Colombia Human Rights Network have worked for years to draw attention to the suffering of the Colombian people and inspire solidarity with the courageous struggles of Colombia's nonviolent popular movements. That movement has grown dramatically in response to the expansion of US military aid to Colombia, justified first as part of the “war on drugs” and then as part of the “war on terrorism”.

The movement's traditional base of veterans of the Latin America solidarity movements of the 1980s and progressive Colombian exiles has expanded to include a new generation of activists from the anti-globalisation movement and the drug policy reform movement. The connections for these activists are obvious. Activists who have been fighting against the widespread imprisonment of poor people and people of colour for nonviolent crimes in the USA, under the guise of fighting a “war on drugs”, recognise that when the USA expands that war to Colombia it is expanding a war on the poor by targeting the campesinos who grow coca and poppies while leaving the major drug traffickers free to do their business. Activists challenging growing corporate control over public policy recognise the role that oil and other economic interests play in driving US policy in Colombia.

Experience counts

The growth of the movement has also been greatly aided by the large number of human rights delegations - groups like Witness for Peace, the Colombia Support Network, and Christian Peacemaker Teams have sent to Colombia. Activists who meet people living under death threat and witness the effects of crop fumigation first hand come back to the States deeply committed to the struggle for peace and human rights in Colombia. Their personal testimonies inspire others to get involved.

The movement showed its strength in Washington DC last April when the National Mobilisation on Colombia - a broad coalition of peace, human rights, religious, labour, and environmental groups spearheaded by Witness for Peace, School of the Americas Watch, and the United Church of Christ - brought thousands of activists from around the country for four days of lobbying, teach-ins, demonstrations, and nonviolent direct action. The weekend culminated in a dramatic demonstration on Capitol Hill in which over 3,000 people risked arrest by marching through the streets, blocking morning traffic. Police surrounded the demonstrators in a park near the Capitol building in a tense stand-off. Many speculate that the police intended to make a mass arrest, but changed their plans when faced with the prospect of having to arrest a nonviolent crowd that included children and senior citizens with national media present. Thirty-seven people were arrested in simultaneous actions blocking entrances to the Capitol - a few paid small fines and most saw their charges dismissed.

Human rights violations

The movement has scored limited legislative victories within Congress as well. Inrecent years the Senate has passed provisions linking continued military aid to Colombia to improvement's in the country's human rights record, blocking Colombian military units that have committed gross human rights violations from directly receiving US aid, and requiring the State Department to certify that crop fumigations don't pose any significant health or environmental risks before continuing with the crop eradication programme.

The State Department and the Pentagon have found ways to circumvent these provisions, however. While Colombian military units are not eligible to receive US military training, they still end up sharing US military intelligence and using weapons supplied by the USA. This in turn strengthens the outlawed right wing paramilitary groups these units collaborate with.

The Bush administration certified that the Colombian military met the human rights standards set forth in the legislation Congress passed just days after the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and several leading human rights groups criticised president Uribe's suspension of many civil liberties and escalation of the war. This despite the fact that the State Department's own human rights report cited widespread collaboration between the Colombian military and paramilitary death squads. And the State Department's fumigation report has been dismissed as a complete white-wash by environmentalists. It's increasingly clear that the only way activists can hope to improve conditions on the ground in Colombia is to demand a total end to US military aid to the country's armed forces.

Militant tactics?

The militancy of that demand squares well with the increasing militancy of the movement's tactics. The past two years have seen a blockade of the Sikorsky plant that manufactures the Blackhawk helicopters being used in Colombia, a lock-down that disrupted a conference for Sikorsky subcontractors at a posh Washington DC hotel, civil disobedience actions focussed on the role of the US Army's School of the Americas' role in training Colombian human rights abusers, and sit-ins in Congressional offices in Ohio and Illinois.

In March 2003, the National Mobilisation on Colombia is planning on organising simultaneous civil disobedience actions at the headquarters of four major corporations implicated in the war in Colombia: Sikorsky; Monstanto, which manufactures the herbicides used in crop fumigations in Colombia; Coca Cola which is currently being sued by US labour unions for collaborating with paramilitaries to break up unions at its bottling plants in Colombia; and Occidental Petroleum, an oil company with major investments in Colombia, that is the beneficiary of a US government programme to create a new battalion of the Colombian army to protect an oil pipeline.

Iraqi distraction?

While the impending war with Iraq might, at first glance, seem likely to distract public attention from Colombia, many organisers see an excellent opportunity to draw connections. According to Carol Richardson, Grassroots Outreach Coordinator for Witness for Peace:

”Basically the underlying question [in US foreign policy debates] is why do people hate us? This is a way to connect people with the war in Iraq which is more of the same. The Latin American situation gives people a window to understand the connections. It's mobilising people to see the larger implications of the policy.”

The same is true in reverse - as the war in Iraq forces people to question the motives behind US foreign policy, they will be more ready to hear the movement's critique of US involvement in Colombia.

The movement to end US military aid to Colombia is well positioned to continue to grow stronger. The only question is can it grow faster than the escalation of violence and suffering in that war torn country?