In the Presence of the Disappeared
Introduction: My Vacation in Colombia
I went to Colombia to visit my long-lost relatives. On my planet, all the people are one family, so it was easy to spot them when I arrived. Communication was another matter; I speak almost no Spanish at all.
Going to Colombia was not a plan I made. I went because the opportunity came along, and I have always believed in accepting invitations.
The opportunity came because Colombia’s half-century of civil war has given it the highest rates of murder and abduction in the world, fueled on one hand by cocaine exports to the United States, and on the other by the import of billions in U.S. military aid. As in other Latin American countries, in Colombia a wealthy minority is working with the U.S. government, multinational corporations, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization to consolidate ownership and control. Over the past 20 years, thirty million peasants have been displaced from their lands, which have been added to the holdings of the wealthiest landowners. Thousands have been massacred or “disappeared.” This is why Christian Peacemaker Teams maintains a presence in Colombia, and sponsors delegations like the one I joined four times a year.
If you mention to someone in the States that you’re going to Colombia, you’ll get a certain look, followed by a shaking of the head. In Colombia, you get exactly the same response if you say you’re going to the city of Barrancabermeja, north of Bogota. So that is where we went.
C.P.T., an initiative of the Quakers, the Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren, also has teams in Iraq, Palestine and Canada. I am not a Christian myself, but it was a privilege to meet real Christians, both Colombian and North American, who do honor to their founder. I pray none of them are offended by my ruminations on Christianity in this poem.
Our group of 12 spent two days in Bogota, then flew to Barrancabermeja for two days, took a three-day boat ride upriver, spent two more days in Barranca, and two final days in Bogota. We met with church groups, women’s groups, union groups, human rights groups, villagers in the countryside, and a U.S. Embassy official. After the rest of the group departed, a Colombian friend accompanied me to the city of Pereira for a visit with two old friends, brothers whom I had met during their studies in Atlanta years before.
I found the people of Colombia to be warm and hospitable, even when I left my translators behind and couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Their daily courage in the face of terrorism will inspire me for a long time. More information about Colombia is offered below, with specific ways you can help.
read the poem
You Can Help Colombia . . .
— by buying Fair Trade coffee. Help farmers get a decent
price for their coffee, so they don’t have to grow coca. More info: www.globalexchange
— by boycotting Coca-Cola products. Colombia is aggressively shutting down its unions. Half of all labor organizers killed around the world are Colombian. A boycott of Coca-Cola products has been called by SINAL-TRAINAL, the union at Coca-Cola and Nestlé plants, which has been directly targeted with violence. Coca-Cola claims it has no control over its Colombian bottler, as it owns only 41%— but who controls the famous secret formula? Coke’s market share has dramatically dropped in Colombia, and the boycott has spread to Europe. More info: www.CokeWatch.org.
— by helping to shut down the School of the Americas. Colombia is the largest customer of the U.S. Army School of the Americas— recently
re-named, but still training Latin American military personnel in counter-insurgency tactics. Human rights is supposedly part of the curriculum, but SOA graduates commit a disgracefully high proportion of the total human rights violations in Colombia and Latin America. Write to Congress; protest at Fort Benning every November. More info: www.SOAW.org.
— by signing up your congregation as a “sister church.” The Sister Sanctuary Church Commission of JustaPaz and the Restoration, Life & Peace Commission are matching Colombian churches with congregations in North America— not so much for material support as for spiritual accompaniment. More info: firstname.lastname@example.org.
— by supporting the CPT and other international accompaniment activists. Christian Peacemaker Teams welcomes support on many levels, including tax-deductible donations, membership, reserve supporters, and participation in delegations, short-term and permanent teams. More info: www.cpt.org.
— by lobbying Congress for better oversight of Plan Colombia. Poverty is the real enemy in Colombia. Request that U.S. aid money be spent on real job-creating development projects, not military training and equipment. Demand a full investigation of all human rights violations and full prosecution of those responsible, especially if they are military personnel, supported by U.S. aid.