The Colombia Human Rights Committee-Boston was founded in 1988 by Colombian students in area universities who were concerned with the deteriorating human rights situation in their country, and its name was changed to Colombia Vive within a couple of years of its inception. The group has always been explicit in stating that it does not support any of the armed actors in the Colombian conflict. I’m going to give you a brief and very incomplete summary of our history by talking about just a few of the things we have done in these last 22 years.
CV has always responded to changing circumstances in Colombia’s social and political life, and in fact it was founded very much in keeping with events on the ground at that time. The Colombia of the 1988 was in some ways very different from the country as we know it today. In fact, the founders of the organization were not very concerned with US policy toward Colombia. The country was still struggling to define its political future in the wake of the exclusive duopoly of power imposed under the National Front from 1958-1974. The Liberal and Conservative Parties were still coherent and dominant entities. The country was reeling from the debacle at the Palace of Justice, which foretold the reintegration of the M-19 guerrillas into legal political activity and the establishment of the 1991 constitution. The Unión Patriótica was a legal political party that was in the process of being exterminated one assassination at a time, slowly annihilating the hope for a peaceful solution to the war with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, which continues to this day as an obstacle to the peaceful and just outcome that we all strive for. Between two and three thousand members of the UP were killed and together with other political killings the toll reached up to ten per day. Pablo Escobar and the Medellín cartel were at war with the Colombian state and a new paramilitary infrastructure had been created in a fluid series of alliances with powerful property owners and political figures including a young Álavro Uribe. Soon after Colombia Vive was founded, presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán was assassinated and one of our organization’s founders, Alberto Galán, received the news of his brother’s killing by phone during a Colombia Vive meeting in Cambridge.
Colombia Vive was formed, paraphrasing the words of the founders, due to the substantial deterioration of the human rights situation in Colombia in the previous five years, and the impressive level of disinformation in the United States, even among progressive organizations, about Colombia’s political, social, and economic situation. Despite wide coverage of drug-related issues, this disinformation was preventing the channeling of international solidarity vitally needed by Colombians.
The organization was active in those first years, sponsoring a series of lecture tours along with up to nine sister organizations in different parts of the United States that at one timed participated in the Colombia Human Rights Network. Guests included Orlando Fals Borda, one of Colombia’s leading leftist intellectuals until his death in 2008, and Clara López Obregón, Gustavo Petro’s vice presidential candidate and today the president of the Polo Democrático Alternativo. Colombia Vive organized numerous showings of a video on the rural crisis focusing on agrarian reform, violence, and the environment, placed ads in Boston and Bogotá newspapers supporting the struggle over freedom of information, and organized a peace demonstration when president Virgilio Barco addressed the MIT commencement. At that time it could already be said that the death toll due to political violence in Colombia was vastly greater than in the South American dictatorships of Chile, Argentina, or Uruguay.
Colombia Vive organized a delegation of black Americans to the department of Chocó in 1991 in order to call attention to the multicultural character of Colombian society and the dire conditions of poverty that prevailed in that black-majority region. This steered the work of the organization from supporting leading political movements and addressing headline events to working with the base of popular organizations in the urban and rural environment. With the help of outside funding a video of the delegation’s visit was produced and given a number of public showings. Later on in the 1990s Colombia Vive raised funds and provided humanitarian assistance to a community of people in Bocas de Atrato, Chocó who had been displaced by the violent struggle for the control of Urabá, an area of strategic importance for the smuggling of coca and arms, but where the rural population was also being displaced as powerful economic players competed to drive them off the land, clear cut the forest, and concentrate property ownership for the production of African palm oil. In Colombia, though, it’s impossible to separate the armed conflict from the interests of powerful economic forces. At this time we developed working relationships with the offices of our US Senators and Representatives who were at times receptive to our point of view.
The turn of the century was also a turning point in the Colombian war as efforts to negotiate with the FARC guerrillas came to an ignoble end, coca production and the socially-corrosive drug industry reached new levels of profitability and penetrated Colombian political life in new ways now that the Medellín and Cali cartels were dismantled. The United States under Bill Clinton turned its attention to Colombia in the context of the so-called War on Drugs and distorted what was to have been a massive humanitarian assistance package conceived under the presidency of Andrés Pastrana, into the fumigation and military-aid oriented Plan Colombia as we came to know it. Alvaro Uribe was elected president on a hawkish platform and adopted Bush’s anti-terrorist rhetoric after 9/11, even asking that the United States move its military operations to Colombia after taking care of Iraq.
Colombia Vive worked against the military buildup in collaboration with many US peace organizations, and publicized the terrible and ultimately futile effects of aerial spraying. We sponsored speaking tours by Colombian unionists, religious workers, and grassroots activists from Cauca, Arauca, Magdalena Medio, and Antioquia, as well as representatives of important Indigenous and Afro-Colombian organizations, and provided material aid to communities and NGOs working around the country and in particular in Arauca, Putumayo, and in the slums of Soacha outside Bogotá.
In the early part of the decade during some of the most frightening times of military escalation, Colombia Vive also participated in the Coalition for Temporary Protected Status for Colombians along with most of the progressive Latino organizations in the area as well as the consulate of Colombia, probably the only time that we stood together with the consulate on any issue. We also participated in the Latin American Action Coalition and held a teach-in on Colombia at Boston University. We started to distribute information about Colombia, organize post card campaigns, and build up our contacts by tabling at numerous festivals and community events in the Boston area, a practice that we continue to this day.
In recent years we have continued to sponsor a series of lecture tours directed at university and political audiences that have focused on the indigenous movement, the victims of crimes of the state, and most recently the communities displaced by the expansion of international mining to the detriment of the population at the Cerrejón strip mine in Guajira department. Together with the North Shore Colombia Solidarity Committee we are helping to support these communities and add an international voice to their demands for just compensation and resettlement. Members of Colombia Vive have visited the communities and reported their findings to the US embassy in Bogotá and have participated in a new partnership that has been formed between the anti-mountaintop removal movement in Kentucky and the affected Colombian communities.
We have begun to participate in national and international coalitions to oppose the handover of seven well-established Colombian military bases to US forces for use at their discretion, an indication that the United States sees Colombia under its present leadership as a fortress for its Southern Command and the new Fourth Fleet of the US Navy established in 2008, which together serve to hold onto US military hegemony in the Americas and which represent a destabilizing factor and a grave threat to the peace of the region and indeed to Colombian democracy such as it is.
We are also in the early stages of planning for a fall speaking tour of one of the mothers of the disappeared in the Falsos Positivos, or body count scandal, where army officers and soldiers were given rewards for turning in dead guerrillas and decided to kidnap and kill poor and unemployed young men in order to dress them up as guerrillas killed in combat. Just this simple description of a recent crime committed by state forces in Colombia can not help but point to the abysmal moral and social situation in a country overrun by criminal networks tied to illegal armed actors and a thoroughly compromised political class, both of the traditional variety and the dedicated followers President Uribe who are even more openly contemptuous of honest and legal governance.
We will continue support and provide a platform to our courageous Colombian friends and allies who are willing to face the dangers and disappointments of standing up for popular democracy in desperate times.