How can U.S. policymakers and taxpayers know the truth if Colombia’s victims aren’t allowed to speak to them?
Dany is a 28-year-old husband, father, and banana vendor from San Onofre, a poor, rural municipality along the Caribbean coast. In the past seven years more than 3,000 people have been killed there. Many of them were buried in the 300-plus mass graves identified in the municipal limits. Leftist guerillas are responsible for much political violence and heartache, but right-wing paramilitaries are responsible for filling these graves. In 2000, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries began their territorial dispute. Unarmed civilians dared to live where armies fought for power and control, and paid the costs. Mass displacements punctuated 2001-2003; at the end of 2003 the “paras” won and established control of this strategic corridor for drug trafficking. Dany lived through it all.
The detailed accounts that flow from his lips clash with his easygoing coastal demeanor and sunny smile: He describes cruel and calculated harm. Obvious and systematic collaboration between the government state-armed forces and the paramilitary. Government leaders from his area are in jail and under investigation because of this cozy, blood-letting relationship. Witnesses to the facts are being killed.
He was to go to the U.S. to tell you about this first hand.
The U.S. Office on Colombia, Mennonite Central Committee, Lutheran World Relief, and Justapaz teamed up for a speaker’s tour of Washington, D.C., and the East Coast. Along with two active volunteers from our documentation program and Oliva – a journalist and member of an urban Pentecostal church – Dany was slated to visit congressional offices, churches, and schools to share his personal experiences and findings of the documentation program in general.
We pulled out all the stops that supposedly “guarantee” a tourist visa for an official visit: letters of invitation from the sponsoring organization outlining purpose, schedule, assurances that all costs are covered, and airplane ticket information to demonstrate their full intention to return. The human rights division of the U.S. Embassy wrote a letter of recommendation asking that they be granted the visas. This usually works.
Oliva was granted her visa. Dany was denied. He says they didn’t even look at his papers. Was it because he was poor? Because he was black? Because he was from San Onofre?
How are taxpayers, even those who care enough to listen, going to know the truth if the victims are not allowed to speak? How are U.S. policymakers – yes, the ones who are currently swooning over Colombian President Uribe in Washington – going to make informed decisions when they only hear convincing half-truths?
There are structural, rational reasons why Dany was denied a visa. The same is said for the need to “pacify” San Onofre through paramilitary domination.
Now for my second, shorter, related complaint: Too many U.S. elected officials are misinformed and don’t know what they are talking about – and that is seriously irresponsible.
For example, Rep. Meeks (D – NY) used to be an ally in Congress. But he sold out. He was quoted in El Tiempo, as saying that “People in the streets [of Colombia] feel good. [Colombian President] Uribe has improved the quality of life. And this is the best thermometer to know that things are going well.”
It just so happens that I was in the streets of Colombia today. While in the line at the bank two middle-aged men in suits were reading the paper over my shoulder and then hesitantly struck up a conversation on the article. They consider Colombia’s situation “tragic and complex” and think that instead of more money to boost the war effort, the government would do well to stop diverting funds from health care and education and invest international support in social programs.
That’s not to say that Uribe doesn’t have support. He certainly does, but it was nowhere near full and now it’s waning. And this is not to say that all U.S. members of Congress lack clarity. Actually, the critical contingent is growing. There are some, like Sen. Leahy, who are championing the cause and appear(ed) to be making meaningful strides with the new Congress. We need him to write a letter on Dany’s behalf. But back to my theme…
I allow myself to indulge in sharing this second complaint because, in theory, it could be addressed if the first was rectified. The holy work of transformation happens through sharing truth (good news) and human connection.
At moments like this, I recite as a mantra the wise words of my mentor and friend, deceased Goshen College anthropology professor Ron Stutzman: “Janna, none of us knows enough to be cynical.”
I commit to addressing this constructively tomorrow morning.
You can help too! How about going to hear Oliva speak? She’s going to be excellent. See the itinerary and press release. How many of us are going to participate in Days of Prayer and Action? It’s coming right up, May 20 and 21. We’ve done all the work for you: prayers, glossy bulletin inserts, and talking points for your members of Congress at your fingertips! It’s all here.
Janna Hunter-Bowman is the Coordinator the Documentation and Advocacy Program of Justapaz, the peace and justice ministry of the Colombian Mennonite Church. She works with regional teams to register the impact of the armed conflict on Colombia’s Protestant churches. Learn more about their work in their recent report: A Prophetic Call: Colombian Protestant Churches Document Their Suffering and Their Hope.