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Nimia Vargas' speech compels us to action

This was a very compelling call to action to prevent further U.S. aid for perpetuating war in Columbia, and to instead redirect the funds to better serve the people. The translated version as I heard it, of Nimia's speech is here, and the questions and answers, mostly asked in Spanish, will be posted later.
Kathleen Jeurgens opened with a song in Spanish, called "It's not enough to Pray".

Nimia Vargas, co-founder of Colombian Network of Rural Women and the Network of Choco Women, has been active for many years in Columbia, teaching rural women organizing groups, and most recently on March 8th, International Women's Day.

Translated version of her speech went pretty much as follows:
"We are going through a difficult period. This is not a period that involves one or two or three years. What has given rise to the problems we have faced in Columbia is the invisibility of some of the society, the inequalities between different sectors of society, and the lack of resources for them. The people who work and work are not visible.

The fact that there is government corruption, the fact that the government is carrying out their activities of corruption on the backs of the people, this is not well understood. I'm sure you are aware that there are over 40 million people in Columbia. Of these over 11 million of them are of African descent. And 3 million of these are also indigenous. Many have been displaced within the country. Of these, 50% are of african-american descent, scattered throughout many regions, including Bogata, near Panama, and.... [other places I could not understand ]

At the time our country is facing this war and conflict, the african and indigenous peoples are those that are suffering the most. What is worrisome for us is that the media speaks of the guerillas and the miltary, but never of the paramilitary.

And in this conflict also we are worried that the Mestisa [sp?] women of african descent are facing the worst, because:
1) their husbands are being killed
2) their children especially adolescents are being taken to join the military ranks of the warring factions and the paramilitary, lured by the promise of payment.
3) they are fleeing their homes to become part of the growing ranks of poor people in marginalized communities.... Perhaps some of you have seen the women with children begging with signs that say "displaced"

We are concerned about the fumigation that is taking place in the guise of destroying the coca. The coca is considered to be medicine by indigenous people. What makes coca in a sense poisonous/dangerous is the chemicals that are used to process it. You are well-aware that these chemicals come from the United States. So we don't understand in regards to houw the U.S. and our gov't seems committed to stopping drugs by using chemicals sent by the U.S. to apparently stop coca growing. The coca production has increased 25%.

And as the increase of coca planting takes place and fumigations take place, we see the effects in the destruction of other crops, animals, poisoning of water, children getting skin rashes and being born with deformities.

So we don't see how this policy can be effective in ending of coca production or drug trafficking. We have proposed another way.

Our group, rural wormen organization, we have proposed to our government what is seen by many to be an idealistic proposal, but that we see as viable; To provide minimal salaries to people so they can survive and plant their own crops. Because coca is how they can feed their family. It seems that the [columbian] government has paid no attention to our proposal. We think that the farmers have a right to grow coca in order to feed their families at this point.

We don't see it as [being a need for] using different or new resources. Resources are being spent already on fumigation, it is just a matter of redirecting these resources.

A little history: In 1957 the [columbian] government approved the "2nd Law", stating that in lands the black community inhabited, these were considered empty lands, by the Pacific. In 1993 "Law #70 was passed, as a way to correct the law in 1959. In some sections of this Law #70, it states that there will be collective title to te lands given to people of African descent, in essence that no other people will have a right to live in these lands, in an attempt to improve development near the Pacific.

But paradoxically/ironically, when the giving of titles was first happening in 1996, Paramilitaries entered the areas, desplacing and massacring people from areas these people live in. When the 1st land title was given collectively to people in N. Choco, next to Panama, the Paramilitaries massacred 38 people and 400 families were displaced.

In the Ande[sp?] municipality, quite a few people were killed, children orphaned and families displaced. In the Anton Bahuan Bahu [sp?] in 1997 where the 2nd and 3rd titles were to be given, many massacres and displacements occurred.

And the ones who have committed these atrocities have been the paramilitaries. I am not saying that the guerillas don't intimidate or kill people. But the guerillas and military is not my focus, because the news focus is already only on this, but the news doesn't cover the paramilitaries actions. And what's curious for us as leaders for the region, is to hear that there are proposals from the U.S. and Columbian governments to have funding increase for really big projects in our area. This does not mean that we are opposed to development in our area, but we are calling for these dicussions on these proposals be held in public, with input from the public that will be affected, not behind closed doors, as is happening currently. And that these negotiations be made in the interests of the people.

And also, in the Pacific, I want to mention that they have discovered not only the greatest biodiversity, but also urnaium, petroleum, gold and platinum. And that this flora and fauna that is so precious is being called "the lung of the world".

But in all this, the government at least up to now has paid very little attention to reason. We don't have electricity, the worst roads and despite talk for years to build a hydroelectric plant, this has not occurred. And also we don't have enough food.

We think as women that it is crazy that the politics of the Bush Administration in terms of changing the use of the resources to end drug trafficking should be used instead to eliminate the guerillas. As women we believe war is not the answer, that the trainings of soldiers at the School of the Americas, or sending more guns is not going to solve our problems. It is only going to make them mor acute.

We believe that the promoting of war is not the answer. But as it stands, around 97% of the resources sent are used for war. Only 3 % are used for development. The problem is not the military or the paramilitaries so much as the disinvestment that has taken place, the lack of social justice, and the disrespect for human beings. It's truly unjust that there is a "Law 121" for african people and agrarian reform, and that when we put forth efforts to try and implement these laws, there are no resources. I could tell you that my organization been touched by the war; Particularly that 3 years ago, one member of our group that was aspiring to be mayor was killed, and 10 women had to leave because of death threats; That we are committed to peace and dialogue with armed actors, and that we fear to do so because these activities are prohibited.

But I will wait for the question and answer session to go into greater detail. Thank you."
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Announcement of upcoming events:
Sunday nite april 14th at 5 PM at SEIU union hall 2526 SE 36th St CAFTA event. Contact (503) 236-7916 for more info.
Monday April 15th Tax Day protest at Holliday Park 1 PM and then at Pioneer Square at 5 PM with a 6 PM march to the Post Office.
Wednesday April 17 Historical documentary on the Chicano Movement, 7 p.m. at the Guild Theatre, 829 SW 9th (btwn Yamhill & Taylor)
May Day dedicated to the rights of immigrant workers, that the U.S. Supreme Court just denied have any such rights.

Groups folks can join or contact for more info:
*Latin American Working Group: this is a coalition of over 60 religious, grassroots, human rights, policy and development organizations that strives to influence US policy toward Latin America and the Carribbean so that it promotes peace, justice and sustainable development.
For info, email  lawg@lawg.org. To be added to this listserve, email  estarmer@lawg.org; website:  http://www.lawg.org/colmar18.htm
*Peace in Columbia Action Group is a group working locally on issues in Columbia: (503) 236-7916  pcasc@igc.org.

Putting the dollar amounts in perspective, to raise money for Nimia's ongoing work, 4 dollar figures were thrown out.
23 dollars=what each taxpayer contributes as part of Plan Columbia
1.3 billion is what has been spent on Plan Columbia
2 million= what is spent each day on Plan Columbia
11 dollars=what we could each give in this room in order to raise $500.00 to help Nimia do this work.... This goal was achieved.
Questions, Answers and Discussion 14.Apr.2002 15:24

laurie

Nimia Vargas Question & Answer period, Saturday Mar 13th at Ainsworth United Church of Christ. Many questions were asked in spanish and so the questions and answers here are the translated versions. Interpreting for Nimia was Dr. Veronica Dujon, PSU professor of sociology, and Martin Gonzalez of AFSC's community economic development program.

Q: How is the situation in Venezuela affecting the Choco region in Columbia?
A: It's hard to have any analysis about the Venezuelan situation. But I think that whatever situation exists in neighboring countries is also relevant in Colombia. I'm sure whatever is happening in Vezuela impacts the Colombia situation.

Q: About the paramilitaries...we don't hear a lot about these;
*who are they?
*historically where do they come from, and where are the members from?
*How do they arrive at having so much power?
A: We've been hearing about paramilitaries in our area since 1995 and everyone understands that those who support them support military visas. They never explain why they do what they do, nothing about what their ideologies are. They try to kill people, get people out of particular areas, at least that has been our experience.

Q: Are these people from the Choco region?
A: No, not typically. But more recently youth from Choco are joining their ranks because they are offered payment.


Comment: I'm from Columbia... Paramilitaries are so dangerous, journalists are afraid to declare these facts about them.

Q: I'm from Columbia, in the U.S. 13 yrs. This is very brave, I appreciate what she is doing for the people of Columbia. So many of us feel the pain. I must reiterate that the $$ being invested by the U.S. is mainly going to the government, so that the government has begun to look at the war as a 'business'. The 'business' of killing is only expanded by getting more land.
A: To elaborate, this is not just an issue for Colombians, but also for you all, because your tax $$ are being used to perpetrate these atrocities so you need to get involved. Writing letters and making calls to congresspeople is very helpful, makes a huge difference.

Q: How effective is this approach?
A: We've met with various Senators and Congresspeople and every time w emphasize that they should redo laws so that issues become transparent as soon as they come up, so that lawmakers can make informed decisions. I'd like you all to know that all the activist activities you engage in makes a huge difference. Indeed all the groups in Philly and Boston have really helped, to let us get the word out and motivate people. Thank you all for the work that you do.

Q: Are there any Congresspeople or groups right now that are sympathetic?
A: Those critical to us have been the Black Caucus. We inform them of our activities and they in turn inform others. Others we have met with escape my memory, the Kennedy's come to mind, Rep Jaco (sp?)

COMMENT: Senators Wyden and Smith SUPPORT Plan Columbia
Congressment Wu and Blumenhauer voted against it and have listened to the human rights problems. Hulie and Defazio voted against Plan Columbia also, but are still under a lot of pressure to shift counter-drug measures funds into counter-terrorism activities instead.
www.seattle.columbiacommittee.org more involved with affairs in Washington.

Q: So far, U.S. aid has done more harm than good.
*If you were to imagine a Utopian future though, where U.S. was actually going to be redirected, how would you like to see it spent?
*And how to prevent the Columbian government officials from spending the money in a bad way?
A: That's an interesting one. The following is what I'd like to see it spent on,
*Resources and Policies for Plan Columbia change entirely, used for social development instead.
*That the laws on the books be honored, and that some money be redirected to implement these laws.
There will always be military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. The more money you give them, the more corruption exists, so there is no easy answer on how to make sure the funds are used as they should be, other than monitoring the spending and requiring that books be transparent.

Comment: I am from Bosnia. The U.S. Agency for International development speds billions around the world, a lot in the Balkans right now. I don't know of any such program in Columbia, and the U.N. is not as present there as it should be. For some reason it doesn't seem to be in the U.S. best interests to do so.
Comment: I am from Colombia. I have volunteered with Mercy Corp International. Right now these funds are around 80 million... there has been only 6 million spent in the last few years, because since the military agenda is anti-drug/anti-geurilla--anyone who gets involved becomes miltary targets.. Because the $$ being used has such a "counter-geurilla" focus. It is tainted and enyone using it becomes a target. This money could be used for good and should be supported.
Comment: In my experiences in Central America, especially in El Salvador,usually any aid serves the agenda set by our administration and carried out by the State Department. In El Salvador, aid for the military to build roads was given, a seemingly good cause to give aid for. But the only problem was that the only roads being built were being done into areas of control of geurillas

Q: About the Columbian media, most Americans are not aware of the dynamics going on in Columbia. This is because our media is not doing their job. Is there a free media in Columbia?
A: [Laughs] -- In COLOMBIA?? [Laughs and shakes her head]

If someone in the media says anything.... The Colombian media is controlled by the Colombian government. Anything that has anything to do with money is going to create a conflict. Any aid needs to be specifically designated by the U.S. gov't. There is a rich resource the U.S. can use and benefit from. We need to control how the $$ are spent.

Q: What is that medal you are wearing around your neck about?
A: It was given to me on Mar 8 1999 by the Columbian Congress for the work I did in rural areas. The order of the Bolivar- he was the hero of the Independence Movement- that person was hung, but considered to be a hero, and this medal is mostly given to women for the work that they do.

Comment: I am living in Vancouver Washington. Last week around 200 young people working to find solutions to problems in Central America listened to Ex-president of [costa rica?] Osco Aria[sp?] answer the question about what he thought the biggest obstacle to Peace in Central America is. His answer was the intransigence of the U.S. government. The U.S. wants military victory, not a mediated peace agreement in the region.

Q: I am from Mexico, in my experience the geurilla movements, especially the Zapatistas have widespread support from left-leaning groups. How does this compare to the Colombian geurilla groups.... Why are they seen more as violent and drug-related? How are they supported?
A: We don't know where the Colombian geurillas get money. I do know they often kdinap people, claiming they need the funds.

Q: Does your organization have recent reports on how Plan Columbia funds have been used already?
A: Not exactly, but I am pretty certain that at least 97% has been used to forward the military agenda. The fumigation is especially bad, it affects food and water souces, children, and there are many other things.

COMMENT: The breakdown of PlanColombia fund allocation can be found at: www.ciponline.org

Q: What do think will happen next? Will there be a coup?
A:The issues are so complicated, it is hard to say, but deep down inside, I don't think there will be a coup.

Q: Have things changed much since Pastrana ended the peace talks? What do you think of his decision?
A: I think the whole process had to end because there is no transparency, or ethics involved, and there is too much corruption. Many misunderstandings and the talks not being done in good faith by either the Columbian government or the U.S. involvement. These talks couldn't go anywhere.

Q: But isn't it worse now with all the deaths?
A: But you see, there was death even before the talks. But it was difficult because there were all along hidden agenda that were decided in advance and the geurillas could not be involved in the process.

Q: Are there fumigations happening in the Choco region?
A: No fumigations in Choco itslf, but there were in De Marco, and along with the spraying of the coca. There were also economic plants that were affected and that created some serious damage.