2014 Changemakers in Colombia

“Underneath the Banana Peels Are Tears of Blood”

Posted by Randall Miller

It’s hard to believe, but we’re now in the third day our immersion. On the first day, we made the long journey to Bogota. At 8600 feet, Bogota is a vibrant and elevated city, which made breathing and moving quickly difficult for us Bay Area coast-huggers. One the second day, our learning journey began in earnest as we heard the complex legacy of human rights violations and systemic violence that has marked permeated Colombia’s modern history.

In many ways, Colombia’s history follows a by now well rehearsed pattern of the colonization and exploitation natural resources that has devastated whole peoples in the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Pacific Islands. That this story is familiar, though, is by no means to say that modern forms of this phenomena are any more horrific or troubling.

Yesterday, we met with a well-known human rights defender, [name withheld for safety reasons], who has and is representing the victims of assassinations and massacres committed by right-wing paramilitary forces not-so-secretly aligned with the Colombian military and government.  Colombia’s paramilitary forces are regularly used to rein in those who oppose an increasingly dictatorial government as well as those who oppose the land- and resource-grabs carried out by international corporations.

I have long known the sordid history of Chiquita Banana’s dealings with many countries in Latin America, but their use of paramilitary forces to cause the mass dislocations and the seizing of the lands of Colombia’s people, primarily the indigenous farmers and Afro-Colombias who lack the political strength to oppose these strong-arm tactics. It was in this context, that ‘Joaquin,’ [I’ve name changed his name to protect his life], a courageous human rights defender said to us, “Underneath the banana peels are tears of blood.” This chilling phrase will be hard to forget the next time I slice a banana to put on my cereal or blend in a shake. How many lives are worth a single banana anyway?

In return for doing the sacred work for defending the defenseless, challenging the powerful, and attempting to gain justice through a legal system that seems increasingly impervious and disinterested in the rights of the poor and the marginalized, Joaquin, has had to watch the assignation of the lawyer and human rights defender who mentored. Joaquin himself has received barely concealed threats from people high up in Colombia’s government and is under constant surveillance. The threats have been serious enough that Joaquin has sent his wife and children to live in the sanctuary of the United States.

At times during his testimony to us, when he spoke of the massacre of children, the assignation of his mentor, or his hope for Colombia, Joaquin’s eyes brimmed with tears. This alone made courage, persistence and fears all the more real to us. At the end of his time with us, we blessed Joaquin by the laying on of hands and prayed for him. It was powerful, moving, pentecostal even — and it may not be enough in and of itself to save him or those he loves.

What might save him is doing something about our complicity. Our hosts from the Fellowship of Reconciliation have encouraged us to avoid being ‘human rights tourist.’ Maybe, just maybe that act of avoidance begins with acknowledging that as citizens of the U.S. government, we fund and support large parts of the operations of the military (and hence the paramilitary) in Colombia. Much of the funding comes under the auspices of fighting the war on drugs, but its obvious that its uses go far beyond this. In reality, we support a continuation of ‘Cold War’ polices that  preoccupied U.S. policy for the latter half of the twentieth and the start of the 21st centuries.

If confession is the next step then action is the next, I have obtained permission from ‘Joaquin’ to publish his name in other forums in order to shine more light on the power of his work and the dangers that he and others face on a daily basis. We’re only at the start of our journey, but already we carry blessings, prayers, testimonies, and fragile hopes for peace and prosperity that beg to be shared. Pray for us not to be accidental tourists, pray for Joaquin that his life might be spared, and pray for the Colombia and U.S. governments entangled in a tragic spiral of death.

– Randall Miller