You could call it both a case of good timing for Colombian indigenous advocates who want the United States to stop funding Colombia's military and the proposed free trade agreement, and a foreign policy disaster for embattled President Alvaro Uribe.
But even though the human rights policies affecting Colombian indigenous people now have some (more) teeth, and important exchanges took place between Native peoples from both sides of the pond, nothing should be taken for granted. Although this latest chapter has started out well for Native Colombians, it remains a complicated scenario.
Two highly respected Colombian indigenous leaders in March came to Washington, D.C., to present their case directly to lawmakers, the State Department and the U.S. Embassy, and then went on to a summit/fact-finding tour with American Indian leaders through Americans for Indian Opportunity in Albuquerque, N.M. By all accounts it was a very productive and illuminating visit.
According to Natalia Cardona of the American Friends Services Committee, the organization that helped organize last year's Verification Commission in Colombia, indigenous activists expressed interest in coming to this country to present their cases directly to U.S. lawmakers and officials after the commission study. (Among other findings, the commission presented data on the indigenous killed in the conflict and who is doing the killing - mainly, but not exclusively, the U.S.-funded military.) Cardona assisted the group including Jessica Eby, Washington Office on Latin America; Annalise Romoser, U.S. Office on Colombia; Lisardo Domico, National Indigenous Organization of Colombia; and Alcibiades Escue Musicue, Association of Indigenous Townships of Northern Cauca. They visited legislative officials and the National Museum of the American Indian during their three-day Washington visit. In the meetings, the leaders emphasized the importance of increasing social and economic aid and reducing military aid to Colombia. The Bush administration's recent budget request for $600 million includes 80 percent for military purposes and only 20 percent for social and economic programs. Much of the military aid will go to funding fumigations of coca crops.
Both speakers asserted that U.S.-funded fumigations have exacerbated the crisis of internal displacement of indigenous peoples and the militarization of their territories.
''We would like to invite members of Congress to visit Colombia to see firsthand how the fumigations have forced indigenous peoples to leave behind their ancestral territories,'' said Musicue. (The issue of displacement was also examined in the international arena in early April when figures were released showing that worldwide, Colombia was second only to Sudan in the number of refugees fleeing their respective conflicts.)
Domico and Musicue met with traditional allies such as Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who drafted legislation requiring the State Department to certify that the Colombian government is making progress in terms of human rights and who has created other policies that protect indigenous peoples in the Amazon Basin and elsewhere. They also talked with many senators and representatives who had not had any contact previously with Colombian indigenous issues or people.
Activists Cardona and Romoser were optimistic that the Washington visits were helpful to the Colombians.
''This is the first time the Colombian indigenous got the attention they deserve from the Congress and the State Department,'' Cardona stated. ''I think the lawmakers were very impressed with the organization and nonviolent struggle of the indigenous peoples, and they were also unaware of the extreme severity of the situation.''
Romoser echoed Cardona's assessment of the meetings and noted one success that came out of the sessions with the State Department, which investigates human rights complaints as part of the certification process to which the Colombian authorities must submit to receive funding.
'' ... Soon after the meeting, the U.S. Embassy agreed to directly consult with ONIC leaders in its consultation process,'' Romoser said. ''This is a process that takes place at the embassy with human rights organizations twice a year to get information for the State Department's certification efforts.''
This will be the first time that Colombian indigenous leaders get a chance to participate in the discussion, despite the fact that Leahy's original legislation mandated that conditions of the indigenous communities be taken into consideration for funding. It is another negative reflection on Colombia's Uribe government.
Not long after the heartening experience of the indigenous leaders came weeks of torment for President Alvaro Uribe. First came the freeze. The subcommittee lead by Leahy blocked the sending of over $55 million in funding for Colombia until allegations against Uribe are examined further. Not long after the funding postponement came a public relations fiasco in Miami: former Vice President Al Gore canceled his visit to the Expogestion Forum because he did not want to be seen with Uribe. Gore also canceled a previously scheduled visit to Colombia slated for September.
While Uribe scrambles to regain his cozy relationship with the United States, he may now find it necessary to actually do what he said he would do for the indigenous people of his country. That is, not to kill them and force them off their land. A person can hope ...
Rick Kearns is a freelance writer of Boricua heritage who focuses on indigenous issues in Latin America.