A short, un-comprehensive reflection on my time spent in Colombia

My flight leaves at 2AM from the airport in Barranquilla.  That is exactly the kind of thing people mean when they say, “you get what you pay for.”  It’s 6:30PM right now and everybody else from my Colombian delegation has either left for the airport or gone on their own independent adventura Colombiana.  Meanwhile, I’m stuck at the Hotel Genova — which isn’t bad at all, they have great food and everybody’s super nice (especially Pablo the Canadian).  I’d walk around, but I was told it’s not that’s not such a great idea in this part of Barranquilla.  I’m not complaining though.  I mean, if I have to wait anywhere it might as well be in the Caribbean.

Our delegation set out on the 8th to meet with various communities affected by U.S. corporations, to hear their stories, and bring their stories back to the United States, and press for policy changes and just compensation for damages that have been caused. The delegation ended yesterday, where we started the day in Santa Marta grabbing breakfast and reflecting on our experience.   Each of the dozen-or-so members went off on their own to think about what we had seen in the campos along the Colombian coast.  I went off to the beach and bought some kitsch for my roommates.  Then I bought a beer, walked out along the break wall and put my feet in the water to stare out at the mountains and the sea.  I decompressed and let the past ten days wash over me.

The view of the Carribean from a beach in Santa Marta.

One moment hit me particularly hard.  We had met with an organizer from a campo called Ciénega (literally “swamp”).  Ciénega is historically  notable as the location of the matanza de las bananeras (or Banana Massacre).  Gabriel Garcia Marquez claims in 100 Years of Solitude that as many as 3,000 workers of the United Fruit Company were killed in this attack by the Colombian military in 1928.  The army was called in by the United Fruit Company to put down a month long strike.  Today a statue marks the location of the massacre.  The organizer we were with actually works for something called the December 6th Foundation, so named to commemorate the day of the massacre and revitalize the institutional memory of the people of Ciénega.

We went there to meet with displaced fishing community.  The people used to have comfortable, albeit poor, lives in towns not too far away from where they are now, but they were forced out of those lives by armed paramilitary groups years before.  Many of the armed groups were funded by American companies, the legacies of United Fruit Company, such as Dole and Chiquita Bananas.  As our group departed our bus to enter the neighborhood, a small, slender girl, probably younger than ten years old asked us for food.  A calm light rain grew as we started to come down as we huddled with community members under a small roofed area, until it began to storm.  The swamp started to flow over and take over the neighborhood until the water grew up to our ankles.  The same girl that was begging for food bent over and picked a small baby crab off my ankle.  Meanwhile, the people of the community told us their story.

A girl living in the displaced community holds up a small baby crab.

Many had been displaced by violence, others had been displaced by companies moving in to use the people’s waterways.  People who used to gather tons of fish from rivers and the sea, now are forced in tiny boats to go out unsafe distances, to gather small fish that can hardly feed one family member.  Worst of all, coal companies like Drummond, have been contaminating the Colombian coast with coal dust that falls from their transportation systems into the sea.  Adding insult to injury, many of the fish that people are able to get from the sea are contaminated with coal dust!  This wasn’t a one time complaint, almost every community we met that was affected by Drummond’s operations had brought this complaint up.

As I reflected on the madness and confusion of hearing and seeing displaced people scrambling to tell their stories while rain came down and brought water up to our ankles, I realized how remarkable it is that the people here had not yet broken apart, sought their own way out, but instead, against almost all odds, had stuck together as a community to solve their problem.  And that gives me hope.

Displaced persons living in Ciénega.

Moreover, I realized the responsibility that we as American citizens have to the people of these communities.  Colombia is the third greatest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, next to Israel and Egypt, and has been the primary Latin American subject of American corporate intervention and influence for over a century.  Almost 80% of the revenue generated from one of Colombia’s largest industries, bananas, go straight to the United States and Europe.  U.S. companies have been funding paramilitary violence (the chief source of murder and violence in Colombia, by leaps and bounds over left-wing guerillas) for decades, seeking to protect their own interests in profit and resource extraction over the welfare and safety of their workers and stakeholders.  These corporations sell us our energy, our fruits and more, at an enormous cost to the people of Colombia.

Let me make something clear though, I’m not saying that we should feel necessarily guilty for being on the upper-hand side of that relationship.  Guilt is a self-righteous, unconstructive, hopeless response to something that warrants action and solidarity.  Being a sap and a mope doesn’t do anything for the victims of U.S. backed violence and imperialism.  As the benefactors of an unjust system of privilege and oppression, we are responsible for fighting for a new, just, ecologically sound system that grants everyone, everything they need to realize their full potential.

I plan on writing a lot more about my experience here, as well as giving public presentations and more, so keep your eyes and ears open for that.  I’ll definitely be posting about that on my blog and the Book (where you can find more of my pictures from Colombia) and Twitter, and so on.  I’d like to end this post by clarifying that I totally recognize that I’m leaving a lot of holes open here (what’s “fighting for a new system” and so on mean, etc.)  This isn’t by any stretch meant to be a comprehensive analysis of my experience here.  Just a short post about something I had thought about during my time here.

Well, writing this just about ate up all my time (I went for a swim, ate some dinner and read a little in between starting to write this post and now).  I’m gonna head out to the airport in a bit.

Until next time,

¡Aqui, no se rinde nadie!

UPDATE: I hate Spirit Airlines.  They almost didn’t take my luggage on the flight because of the stupid baggage check charge.  My bank is blocking my card, presumably because I’m in another country.  So I was about to leave the bags here, in Colombia, and have them sent to my house until this profoundly kind couple actually gave me the $30 to check my bags! How awesome is the kindness of strangers!

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One Response to A short, un-comprehensive reflection on my time spent in Colombia

  1. Melissa says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and ideas on an experience that took your mind down a complicated yet very important journey! Look forward to seeing how your reflections unfold.

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