Voice from Colombia

By Ricardo Esquivia Ballestas

The country

You may not know much about Colombia. You may only hear the information and disinformation given by the media presenting Colombia as a drug cartel and a country of violence. Let me tell you a bit about Colombia, a country in the Andes with 45 million inhabitants, an interesting mixture of peoples. One percent are indigenous people, 30-35% are of African descent, 40 % is a mixture, and the rest are Europeans and Arabs and Chinese. These people constitute the richness of the country: they struggle, they advance, they create hope. Colombia is a rich country like most countries, but has been mismanaged and finds itself in a difficult situation. We have been in a war situation for some 50 years. We have the oldest and biggest guerrilla movement in Latin America, the FARC, and various other groups. In Colombia 68% of the people live in absolute poverty of which 25 % in miserable circumstances. Unemployment goes from 20% in some villages and cities to 95% in the country side. People loose faith in government; and because they don't trust the government, they don't denounce, and if they don't denounce, the impunity is high. People start to take justice in their own hands, first in the autodefensas campesinas; later a liberal guerrilla, and then the Marxist guerrilla FARC, which now is a real army. These groups need money to finance their wars. They turn to wealthy people, and if these don't pay they kidnap them en even eliminate them. That makes that these wealthy industrials and cattle farmers organize their own army, because they think that the national army is unable to defend them. They create autodefensas who unite with the army and in this manner appear the paramilitary. Add to that the national army and other groups, and you have a country in war. This war completely affects the civil society. An African proverb says: When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. In our case we have some 3,5 million displaced persons. Colombia is the second country in the world in this respect. The vast majority of these people are from the country side who flee to the cities. As there is nothing to eat in the cities, they turn into living dead. The youths turn to prostitution, gangs, and begging. In this ways the cities become impossible to live in, and grow. E.g. Bogotá had 1,2 million inhabitants 35 years ago; today 8 million. In addition to the displaced persons, there are 30.000 dead per year. According to UN figures Colombia is one of the most violent countries in the world. In addition there is the economic situation with the opening of the borders: US and Canadian agricultural products invade our market and have ruined our farmers, because the Colombian agriculture cannot compete with the USA or Canada.. Furthermore the Colombian agriculture is not subsidized like the one in the USA. All this has led to a lot uncertainty. Then people start cultivating something that cannot be cultivated in the USA: coca. The international mafia transferred their production of coca from  Bolivia and Peru to Colombia, taking advantage of the social disorder and war. In this way the narcotraffic becomes part of the Colombian conflict. It finances the guerrilla. That's why the government could not destroy the guerrilla: it finances itself. In the same way narcotraffic corrupts the army, the autodefensas, the government, and society. It also gave the government of the  USA a pretext to intervene in the name of the fight against drugs. Leaving aside Iraq and Afghanistan Colombia is the third country after Israel en Egypt in receiving military assistance from the USA. Through the CP (Colombia Plan) the USA gave 3,7 billion dollars to Colombian government for its fight against the guerrilla. They don't give it in money but in armaments and personnel. They try to eradicate the drug traffic and the coca, but they don't see it as a social problem but as a criminal activity of the farmers. That's why the fumigate the crops permanently from the air thereby also fumigating the people, the water, and the Amazon forest (which constitutes 66% of Colombia). All this affects the country. Last year 47 ministers of our Mennonite church were killed, 300 churches closed by the army prohibiting worship. Other groups are even more severely affected by the whole situation. The government thinks that by more pressure they can terminate the guerrilla.

Peace work

Many people feel hopeless. But, as I said in the beginning, the Colombian people are also very creative, with their intelligence, like most of the peoples. They have faith and hope. In several ways they are creating peace. In those groups there is the social peace movement: various church and non-church groups that have united to create peace in Colombia. I belong to the Mennonite church and to do this work we have to believe in something. We work from this perspective. After analysis we see various elements we have to deal with.

For one, we have to take away the ideology of war;

that means: we have to make the people (inside and outside the army) stop believing in the army as a means of conflict resolution, as a factor of social change. That's why we work a lot in education for non-violence and human rights. That works enables us to build bridges between different groups in the country. We help the government in negotiations. Personally I sit at the negotiation table with the army and paramilitary. It is big education movement in high schools and universities. We work with groups that leave the guerrilla, with some interested military groups.

Another element is that we have to get the people away from the war,

we have to stop them being used as canon fodder. For that we work on human rights, nonviolence, and conscientious objection to compulsory military service. Fifteen years ago this was a small enterprise of the Mennonite church, but now it is a much wider movement throughout the country. Many young people are interested, because many of the 30.000 dead a year are youngsters who are attracted by a job in the military, paramilitary, guerrilla, or drugs. To be successful we have to do more than work on ideology or give workshops: we work for an integrated and sustainable human development based on social justice. Peace is not a pact, peace is development and education and a flourishing human life. We want our people to stop begging; we want to be independent from the market of charity of the North. We want to work for our own development and be conscious of our dignity..

We also have to take the money away form the war.

We are talking about a lot of money. Particularly the present government is spending huge amounts, saying they can beat the guerrilla; they are convincing the people that security is offered by a good army. That's why we have developed a strong campaign of objeción fiscal; we call it: No more taxes for war and investment in peace. It is a bit difficult because in Latin America many people don't pay taxes. In Colombia the government obtains money through indirect taxes (VAT: value added tax). Only the rich have to pay taxes, but they are tax evaders. We pay when we make an international phone call, when we buy a drink, when we go to see football. We are searching how to find a way to tackle that fiscal objection. For that reason I feel very blessed for being here with you asking you to help us think on how to work something out to make that those taxes are not used for war. An additional problem is that our taxes are very limited, but the taxes of the North-Americans are huge. With their tax money they are sending us 3500 billion dollars. They don't pay cash because that wouldn't help us, but through business deals they send arms. Therefore we unite, because the North is invading the South with their taxes for our death. It is very important to have this meeting place here with you in the North, to inspire and help us, to find allies in this society. Our campaign started three years ago, we organized some forums, and worked on this. How can we strengthen human solidarity? We insist on spirituality, not only religion, but more than that, on spirituality. In this way we work for an education that changes human beings and, through them, impregnates society. We understand that it is a political and social, and we make progress.

Cooperation on war tax

I have been thinking of a conference like this in Colombia, but I see that that would be a mistake, not only because few people would go to Colombia, but mainly because we are not being killed by Colombian taxes but by the taxes paid in the North and therefore you have to hold your conferences in the North. I could make a different proposal. A small committee could follow up this question, explore the situation, go to Colombia, integrate the knowledge, wisdom, and possibilities you have. Then we can have a dialogue of cultures. This gives you something to do between two conferences. You could visit us, not all of you, but a small group, and we would have an occasion to organize a conference on war tax resistance in Colombia. Your presence in Colombia would allow us to invite the press. Because your are important, they would come and listen. Our campaign would have a greater repercussion.

So, you organize your next conference in the North and you connect with the South through that reflection and coordinating committee that we could form.

I would like to thank you again. You are very important for us in Colombia and in the South. In our struggle against powers we need allies within those powers. The imperial citizenship you have is fundamental. Sometimes you despise it, but it is fundamental for our work: we need allies in the North, not to give us money. Let us stop thinking Those poor people, we have to give them money. Give us dignity, give us political support. Translate your documents in Spanish, French, and other languages and send them. That's a way to liberate us. Thank you, brothers and sisters. God bless you.

(transcribed, translated and edited from a tape recording by Dirk Panhuis)