Report By: Kristin Yarris
From June 12-20, I traveled to Colombia along with a delegation of 20 people from all over the U.S. to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Witness for Peace. After traveling to Colombia separately, we all met in Bogotá for two days of orientation. This was my first trip to Colombia, and I loved the capital city, its mixture of colonial and modern architecture, busy streets, urban parks, and great vegetarian restaurants! On a walking tour of downtown, we passed the central government offices and Plaza Bolívar, which were heavily guarded by military police and where only a few weeks early thousands had protested a visit by George W. Bush. Despite a bombing a few days earlier, most residents of the capital report feeling that security has increased under the Uribe administration. However, during our trip, we learned how increased security in some major cities has come at the cost of increased repression for the majority of Colombians living in rural areas. After a group “discernment” process – where we conscientiously made a collective decision to travel to potentially-risky rural areas – our group headed south by plane to the Caúca region. We stayed in the charming Hotel Colonial in Popayán, but our days were packed full with visits to human rights, indigenous, and campesino groups, and trips to rural communities. We learned about the on-the-ground realities of military repression and economic insecurity in Colombia and the struggles of local groups working to develop sustainable and just economic and social alternatives. The groups we visited with made it clear that U.S. policy towards Colombia, particularly Plan Colombia and the proposed Free Trade Agreement, have fostered a neoliberal model of privatization and the reduction of social programs, dismantling the public health care system, and contributing to the repression of indigenous leaders and unionists (85 of every 100 trade unionists assassinated worldwide are Colombian). Currently, Colombia has among the highest income inequality in the hemisphere, with 25 million of a total population of 43 million living on less than $1 US dollar per day. In addition, military violence and economic insecurity have led to the displacement of 3.5 million people (Colombia is second in the world only to Sudan in the numbers of internally displaced peoples). Despite these grim statistics, the work of Witness for Peace in solidarity with Colombian partners working for human rights and social justice is encouraging: our delegation was constantly reminded of the importance of U.S. citizens visiting the country, witnessing the effects of U.S. policy first-hand, and giving voice to the struggles for peace and justice in Colombia by telling our elected officials, friends, and neighbors that Plan Colombia and the proposed FTA will only worsen the economic, social, and security situation for the majority of Colombians. We brought this message home during our final days in Bogotá, when we protested alongside our Colombian partners in front of the U.S. Embassy, shouting “No Al TLC!” (No to the FTA!) as we were cheered on by passersby on a main highway and watched suspiciously by Embassy staff. Our delegation closed with a dinner party honoring the 25th anniversary of WFP, where many Colombian partners joined us to share in a delicious meal and in recognition of the important work of Witness for Peace in solidarity with groups working for justice and peace in Colombia.