by Colette Cosner
I was in Colombia when the earthquake hit Haiti. I was also in Colombia when the news coverage of the tragic event turned rapidly into a barrage of congratulatory human interests pieces. While the international community, and in particular the U.S., applauded itself for the rapid humanitarian crisis response, I took down testimonies of massacres, sifted through notes about the crisis we don’t talk about and for which there will be no outcry.
There are over 4 million people in Colombia who are refugees in their own country–the world’s second largest internal-displacement crisis (after Sudan), stemming from two generations of war and systemic economic violence. My time in Colombia was spent trying to untangle the interplay of theses forces of war and exploitation from each other and from U.S. foreign policy. Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in Latin America and a key component of our free trade ambitions in Latin America. But I fear that disentangling these problems does its own damage. By disconnecting the trigger puller from the gun maker, do we absolve ourselves from the shot?
In witness work we learn that memory is a tool of resistance, that first person accounts of those affected by conflict are key tools in understanding and advocating against injustice. But what I remember was being jealous of a poet and fellow delegate, how he wrote with a fever and made sense of Colombia through art. I have 80 pages of massacre testimonies, assassination stories, and documentations of threats. Yet when I try to explain to people what’s happening in Colombia, my notes fail me.
There are many statistics I could share with you: how Colombia has the worst human rights record in the western hemisphere, how despite the $6 billion dollars the U.S. gave Colombia to fight the War on Drugs, coca production has slightly increased. I could share with you statistics linking multi-national corporations to paramilitary violence, or denounce the pending Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Colombia for relying on those links. I could denounce the number of assassinations of union leaders, of human rights defenders, and community activists. But I won’t do that here.
Don’t get me wrong; the battle of statistics has its place. But I’ve also seen how it dehumanizes the lives of the very people we are trying to know. The passing of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement hinges on an improved human rights record in Colombia. So while Congress may have to decide if 34 union leaders killed this year (as opposed to last year’s 46) is good enough reason to pass an ostensibly anti-union trade agreement, we, as U.S. citizens, must decide to look beyond marginal improvements and listen. Facts can be used to create distance between us and a memory, resistance in its purest form.