Cecilia Zarate-Laun of the Colombia Support Network speaking at a forum for the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR) on Tuesday, October 16, 2007. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe).
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
Latin American country is a major focus for US foreign policy
by Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire
ROYAL OAK, MI, 16 October, 2007 (PANW)--Cecilia Zarate-Laun started the Colombia Support Network in Madison, Wisconsin many years ago after recognizing the lack of information and misinformation about this very important nation in Latin America.
Eventually the Network became a national resource on political developments in Colombia. "We had one of the first web sites for progressive organizations," said Zarate-Laun during a meeting with several board members of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights (MCHR), who hosted her in Detroit on October 16.
With a population of 44 million people, it is the third largest nation behind Brazil and Mexico in Latin America. The country is rich in natural resources including oil, natural gas, coal, uranium as well as an excellent climate for agro-exports such as fruits and flowers.
What has been the public focus of successive United States administrations is the constant and abundant supply of coca, which is used to produce cocaine, one of the most controversial drugs distributed in the country.
Traditionally, the indigenous people of Colombia utilized the coca plant for medicinal and religious purposes. However, with the advent of Spanish colonialism in Latin America, Zarate-Laun said that "the coca plant was then utilized to exploit the indigenous people who were forced to work in the silver mines."
"Colombia became a major source for the export of coca due to the fact that the country has coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans," Zarate-Laun explained. Nonetheless, the Colombian activist maintains that the incentive for American military involvement in this country is not the elimination of the drug cartels.
"It has gone from the war on drugs to a war for resources," she said. "On average 30 people are killed daily in this war. The US wants to use the repression in Colombia as a model for what they seek to establish in Iraq."
According to Zarate-Laun, the Colombian armed forces are extremely brutal and work alongside the para-militaries units who defend the wealthy land owners and corporate bosses. The military officers from Colombia teach at the School of the Americas (SOA) located in Fort Benning, Georgia. This military school has become notorious for producing repressive military apparatuses throughout Latin America.
Zarate-Laun outlined the goals and objectives of the Colombia Support Network during a meeting with several MCHR board members prior to her speech later that evening in Royal Oak at the St. John's Episcopal Church. She stated that the CSN is designed to:
-Bring about a change in US foreign policy towards Colombia where prevailing efforts will promote peace with justice;
-To encourage a negotiated end to the conflict in the country between the peasant organizations, the trade unions, the guerrilla armies of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) as well as the para-military armies and the ruling governmental elites;
-To support non-violent resistance to the oppression of the Colombian state and military along with the national elites and the multi-national corporations;
-To maintain a position of non-alignment with the armed groups operating in the country.
"The United States is sending approximately $7.8 billion per year to the Colombian government and military. They are the third largest recepient of American foreign aid after Israel and Egypt," said Zarate-Laun. She also mentioned that the state of Israel has close ties with the government of President Uribe in Colombia, through supplying economic assistance and maintaining production facilities to manufacture Israeli armaments.
Many US-based multi-national corporations are heavily involved in Colombia. These include the Drummond Corporation based in Alabama. In addition, Coca-Cola has large-scale operations inside the country. Other companies include United Brand, Dole, Occidental-Petroleum and Dyncorp.
Public Meeting in Royal Oak
Later on Tuesday, October 16, Cecilia Zarate-Laun spoke at the St. John's Episcopal Church in Royal Oak, a suburb located outside the city of Detroit. The event hosted by the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, came just one week after the Detroit screening of the documentary film on the Colombian labor movement, "Who Shot My Brother," which presents a compelling account of the human rights violations taking place with the open assistance of the United States administration.
Bishop Thomas Gumbleton introduced Zarate-Laun pointing out how he has traveled with her as part of a delegation to examine human rights violations in Colombia. Gumbleton is a board member of the Colombia Support Network.
Zarate-Laun began her address by discussing the social dynamics involved in the ongoing war in Colombia. The factors revolve around class struggles, drug trafficking and the rapid escalation of globalization and so-called "free trade zones."
"Politically Colombia is a democracy," said Zarate-Laun, pointing out how it was the first country to break with Spanish colonialism and to establish an independent state. The country is a member of the Organization of American States (OAS), the United Nations, and the International Labor Organization (ILO). They have signed many international treaties and have the oldest political parties in Latin America: the Liberals and Conservatives.
Zarate-Laun described Colombia as an exclusionary society where the tremendous wealth of the nation is not equally distributed in the country. There are highly concentrated levels of wealth among the elites in the country. The profits from the emeralds, gold, oil, gas and flowers are not utilized to uplift the social status of the majority of people within the society.
"65% of the populaton lives below the poverty level, with an income of less than $3 per day. 70% of the land is owned by 2% of the population. You cannot have democracy when wealth is that concentrated. The violence is not caused by drugs but an unequal distribution of wealth and political power," the Colombian activist emphasized.
Zarate-Laun pointed out that armed insurrections started during the 1940s and 1950s after massive land grabs by the elites in Colombia and their American collaborators. She noted that the Cuban revolution, which triumphed in 1959, had a tremendous impact throughout Latin America.
During the 1970s, there were efforts to reach a peace agreement with the revolutionary guerrilla groups. Eventually the guerrillas disarmed and formed political parties. Many of them were elected to parliament and to local municipalities throughout the country. However, during later years, the left politicians were attacked, imprisoned, driven into exile and killed. The killing of these activists and politicians from the left has been taken to the Inter-American Court where it is still pending for a decision on human rights violations and genocide.
Zarate-Laun presented a table of statistics that provide estimates on the number of killings that took place in Colombia over the last twenty years. She estimated that at least 40,000 people have been killed over the last two decades for political reasons. During this same time period it is estimated that 2,500 trade unionists have been murdered by the Colombian army and the para-military groups.
She later stated that the FARC and the ELN have discredited themselves among the Colombian people. This is a result of the guerrillas invovlement in the drug trade, assassinations and kidnappings. However, she does point out clearly that the para-military groups that are trained by the United States and Israel occupy areas that are essential to carrying out globalization schemes. The para-militaries commit horrendous crimes including beheadings, rapes and mutilations.
According to Zarate-Laun, "Democracy is not elections. You must have vigilance. Capitalism and democracy are contradictory."
In closing her address, Zarate-Laun mentioned the recent peace initiative launched by President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela to open up dialogue between the FARC and the Colombian government of President Uribe. One of the major focal points in these discussions will be the issue of prisoner exchange between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas.
The Colombian Support Network has set up sister-city relations between communities in the United States and in Colombia. They supply support for concrete programs operating inside of Colombia. In addition, the Network serves as an advocate for those suffering from human rights violations inside the country.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire. He covered the visit of Cecilia Zarate-Laun to Detroit. For more information on the Colombia Support Network just log on to the following URL: http://www.colombiasupport.net or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org