The Colombia-United States Connection
Through the story in my last blog, I illustrated a point that the social justice leaders here have been telling me: that all the groups involved in Colombia—guerrillas (FARC, etc.), Paramilitary, and government—contribute to the human rights violations. In addition, the social justice leaders here say that the poor are caught in a battle over land that has great economic potential. What does this have to do with the United States?
While you may not agree with her politics or her affiliations, Madeline Albright offer poignant advice in her new book, Memo to the President Elect. She writes as if speaking to the actual next President Elect, “Reducing poverty should be a central theme of your administration. This is smart politically, right morally, and makes sense economically. With this goal in mind, you should reevaluate our policies on trade, aid, farm subsidies, the environment, and women’s rights. To dramatize your commitment, you might visit some of the poorest countries early in your term and, while there, draw attention to the linkages that exist among disease, hunger, corruption, and conflict.”
She continues, “Twenty years ago, Hernando de Soto developed an economic strategy for Peru based on the extension of legal rights to participants in his country’s informal economy—that is, farmers without deeds, businesspeople without certificates of incorporation, and families without title to the houses in which they lived. Backed by the government, de Soto’s program gave new legal standing to people in areas preyed upon by a violent guerrilla group.”
According to Albright, “As de Soto’s research reflects, families living in poverty already have assets many times greater than the amounts received through foreign aid…The catch is that many of these assets exist outside the formal legal economy, and thus cannot be leveraged into capital, investments, or loans…Mr. de Soto’s team found that months, even years, can be required in some countries to establish legal title to a house or to register a new business.
She concludes, “This leaves millions of small entrepreneurs—such as cabdrivers, jitney runners, street-side venders, laundresses, small farmers—without enforceable rights at home or on the job. Many don’t even have birth certificates or proof of identity. Lacking power, they are vulnerable to those with power, including criminals, predatory government officials, and single-minded developers, who may, for one reason or another want to move poor people out of the way.”
These are the kind of discussions I’ve had while here in Colombia. The stories and the leaders talk about the way each armed group violates the rights of the poor to move them out of the way.
One thing I’ve learned while volunteering at the Freedom Museum it’s that freedom is something we have to work at and struggle at protecting. It is not a guarantee. It is certainly not a guarantee in Colombia. One of the social justice leaders here asked the question, “If we try to raise people’s level of conscious on these issues, our government tries to make us disappear.” Yet, in the United States, we have the freedom to discuss these questions and opinions. We can have a discussion that questions our government and the rights of people. But this is not simply a question to be relegated just to the Freedom Museum. It’s a question that infiltrates other areas of life, including faith.
The Washington Office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recently sent an email about U.S.-Colombia International Policy. It seriously questions the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) and highlights some of the same concerns I have been hearing from the people here. The email goes into detail about each consequence, but I’ll just mention them: “If passed the U.S.-Colombia FTA will: Undermine human rights and fuel the fires of conflict….Destroy small farmers…Increase drug trafficking...Harm Indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians...Hinder access to life-saving medicines...Harm workers and environment…Increase the burden on women, children, and the poor…Undermine U.S. and Colombian sovereignty…Threaten the Amazon and wildlife…Pirate traditional knowledge.”
It continues, “People of faith all over the world are calling for international trade and investment systems that respect and promote the dignity of the human person, ensure the development and well-being of people in all nations, foster gender and racial equity and lead to environmental sustainability.”
Does the United States international policy support a country that fails in basic human rights protection? Can a government have an economic policy that doesn’t just care for the bottom line, but also takes into account how that policy affects basic freedoms like freedom of speech, freedom of petition, freedom of the press, freedom of religion? Can we use our economic power to demand that the assassinations, the corruption, and the injustice stop?
In one of my first blog entries, “Can religion and Politics Mix?” I explored the relationship of government and faith. A reader responded by saying, “The question is not can religion and politics mix…They mix all the time. I think it is inevitable. One will inform the other, unless these beliefs are not as deeply held as we are led to believe. Maybe the question is how should they mix?”
In my experience here in Colombia, it has been interesting to see the Presbyterian Church, the Catholic Church, and the Mennonite churches leading the way on human rights. I admit my bias, that I’m here through a Presbyterian program, and that there may be other groups involved that I’m not aware of. I know of lawyers, university professors, and other human rights organizers which are involved. But it seems the religious community has deeply committed themselves to the cause that—as I said in an early blog—is greater than any denomination, group, or political party.