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Previous Delegation Experiences

At a Mexican migrant shelter I met a young man from El Salvador who was U.S. bound for the second time. He had already traveled a great distance to get to Mexico - at one point clinging to the top of a train through the night - and still had much further to go. He spoke to us with downcast eyes and with a voice of anger and despair as he explained about the dire situation he came from. He was not able to find work and provide for his family in El Salvador. He blamed the U.S. for his family’s economic woes.

“The U.S. has purchased my country, but has not provided any social support” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The American dollar is our currency. Your country has purchased mine,” he responded. He also directed anger at President Barack Obama for increasing border security and the amount of deportations from the previous administration. When we asked him what would happen if he didn’t make it for the second time, he said: “I will return to my family and probably starve to death with them.”

In stark contrast to the haunting desperation I encountered at the shelter, I met Daniel in the humble and hope-filled community of San Juan Sosola. In a population of about 50 people, Daniel age 20 is one of the town’s youngest males. Most of his peers have emigrated, lured by work opportunities in the U.S. Daniel, however, has no intention of leaving if he can help it. He took us on a tour of the countryside and shared the love he has for the land. He educated us about the wild plants, the ones that could cure hangovers and the ones that should be left alone, like the Mala Mujer (bad woman).

The town is traditionally agricultural, but its survival is in question with so many of the young workers gone. Daniel is helping to restore traditional organic farming practices as the town representative of an organization called CEDICAM, Center for Integral Development of Campesinos (farmers) of the Mixteca Alta. With this work, the people desire to be able to feed themselves in an environmentally friendly way while providing jobs so that the younger generation can return. Eventually they hope to break the cycle of migration.

Last winter I analyzed research that explained how our international policies can have negative consequences in other countries. This summer I experienced it. Daniel and the young man from El Salvador are my constant reminders of the human cost of unfair U.S. economic policies implemented abroad. Though, there is currently a policy up for debate in Congress that might finally address the roots of migration. The TRADE Act, if passed will mandate a review and renegotiation of existing trade agreements and change how future agreements are created. I urge you to join me in supporting the passage of this bill.

-Excerpt from reflection piece by Courtney Toch, WFPNW 2010 delegate and intern

Colombia Letter to My Family

If we are the sum total of our experiences, our emotions and our accumulated knowledge, I can honestly say that the trip to Colombia changed me.

The trip (Oct. 31—Nov. 8, 2009) was put together by an organization called Witness for Peace which is a secular group dedicated to international monitoring and working with “partners” who are defending themselves against the most outrageous violations of human and labor rights taken for granted in other parts in the world.

Our delegation had seven people in it, four labor guys, a nurse, an educator from Philly and an accountant from San Francisco. The meetings, accommodations, travel, etc were coordinated by two extremely competent and dedicated Witness for Peace staffers who live in Bogota.

Our emotions ran the gamut from dismay, amazement, pure admiration, depression, being overwhelmed and hope. The delegation would leave one meeting that took everyone’s breath away and then have another profound, high impact meeting the next day.

We met mostly with labor groups that were attempting to exercise their rights to free speech, the right of assembly and the right to withhold their services (strike) in an effort to improve working conditions—like moving their wages from sub-poverty levels to poverty levels and the right to negotiate contracts with their employers! They were extremely brave and determined, even in the face of threats and assassinations of their fellow workers (usually the leaders).

Colombia is extremely rich in resources and agricultural products—oil, coal, minerals, emeralds, gold, water, fertile soil, bananas, sugar cane, coffee—yet the wealth is concentrated in the hands of very few. We heard different “poverty” rates but I think it is safe to say that utter, destitute poverty is in the 20% range and total poverty is in the 40% range. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is larger than in any other Latin American country.

The Uribe government is closely allied with the global transnational corporations that are in Colombia to exploit and export valuable resources. Uribe has been credited with reducing the level of violence (deaths at the hands of the military, right wing para-military and left wing guerrillas) and has opened travel to places in the country that were previously too dangerous. But, according to our interviews with professors, workers and human rights advocates the violence has merely been taken out of view in the cities and still operates with impunity in the rural areas—in those areas where most of the country’s resources lie, where coca is grown and where narco-trafficking is concentrated.

The Uribe government and parliament has passed the Colombian-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and it is now before the U.S. Congress for approval. This agreement is opposed by virtually every group we visited with—Colombian unions, worker groups, university student groups, human rights activists and even the mayor’s office in Cali, the third largest city in the country. The FTA is seen as consolidating even more power into the hands of the multinationals and the powerful Uribe government to cripple human and labor rights even further—not to mention of the huge move to reduce employment for Colombians as export shipments soar.

We met with dock workers in Bonaventura. This already large port is being expanded into a monster mega-port with investment partners from all over the world. It’s part of a massive waterway project that will allow the transnational corporations to send vast quantities of raw materials to destinations all over the globe. Another piece of this export strategy is the construction of a massive expressway to move products from Cali to the docks in Bonaventura. It is based, in part, on the assumption the FTA will be approved by the U.S. Congress.

The port is situated on an island which sits across a one hundred yard bridge from the mainland. The plan is to convert virtually the entire island into a port facility which means relocating 17,000 poor, slum-dwelling residents to remote locations. Many dock workers are forced to live in this dangerous squalor because of extremely low earnings.

The port was privatized in 1993 and with that came a new set of rules that undermined the right of workers to organize into a union and to make a living wage. The dock workers complained that there have been 45 deaths since privatization but the government has failed to investigate or to force compensation to widows because the port is “privately owned”. When the port was owned by the government about 8,000 workers were hired directly by the port authority. Now workers are considered “owner-operators” and hired under a cooperative system were they are responsible for their social security payments to the government for future pension benefits. Unions are prohibited under the company-dominated cooperative system. Wage rates have not increased for 16 years and the normal workday is 12 or 14 hours but workers are often paid for only 8 hours. We were informed that the hourly rate of pay is officially about $1.00 but dock workers rarely achieve that level because of the unpaid hours worked. A complaint only means that a worker won’t be called by the cooperative for work the next day. The port is being modernized which means fewer jobs. Without unemployment benefits or other transition benefits laid off workers are left to fend for themselves.

We also visited with sugar cane workers who work in some of the worse conditions imaginable. After a cane field is burned to remove excess foliage the cane cutters enter to cut cane with machetes. They work 14 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week in oppressive heat and humidity. They supply their own water or buy it from the cooperative boss. There are no portable toilets available. The five-person crews are paid based on the tonnage they cut and are routinely cheated on the tonnage numbers.

Cane cutters told us that a truckload of cane weighs about 37 tons but after the truck goes to the refinery and is weighed (there are no impartial overseers or worker representatives

at the scale) they are never paid for 37 tons—it’s always less and sometimes as low as one- half the amount of cane that was cut and hauled.

Cane workers struck in 2008 for 80 days. 16,000 workers were involved and three sugar refineries were shut down. They were seeking direct employment by the sugar cane refinery owners (to get out from under the repressive cooperative “owner-operator” system), an 8 hour workday, health insurance, a pension and investment in education (many cutters and refinery workers are illiterate) and in the community.

During the strike the sugar barons claimed the pay was twice the Colombian minimum wage but an independent inquiry demonstrated that sugar workers were, in fact, receiving only one-half the minimum. The strike actually brought about some modest gains and the contracts are coming up for renewal this year and next. But the real story is how the government and land owners have filed criminal charges against the six leaders of the strike. We met with four of the leaders facing these charges. A detailed discussion left us with the firm conclusion that this is one more government device to systematically destroy the rights of workers and to intimidate any other workers who may be thinking of collective action to secure some measure of dignity at work.

The charges against the six is criminal conspiracy and sabotage (based on loses claimed by the sugar refiners due to the work stoppage). If they are found guilty on the first charge there will be prison time and a guilty verdict on sabotage will mean a multi-million judgment against these six workers which will ruin them. After multiple delays, the trial is expected to happen in the months ahead.

These stories about the dock workers and the sugar cane workers represent a small sampling of what our Witness for Peace delegation found.

We were so moved and outraged that the U.S. Congress is even considering a Colombia –U.S. FTA that we intend to submit a report on our findings to the U.S. Department of Labor, to members of Congress and to media sources that can help circulate information on the abuses and exploitation of workers and others in Colombia who oppose policies being promoted by the Uribe government. It’s certainly ironic to find that this FTA would be just as bad, or worse, for Colombia workers as it would be for U.S. workers.

You can help. Drop a letter to your member of Congress and your two Senators expressing your opposition to the proposed Colombian-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. Our best guess is that Congress will take up this matter early next year so we have an opportunity to have impact during this interim period.

 

Denny Scott

Oregon Union Leaders Visit Colombia

More union activists get assassinated each year in Colombia than in the rest of the world put together, and that is why we went there. We were a delegation from the U.S. of five union members and two others, conducted by the non-profit organization Witness for Peace. The focus of our trip was on meeting Colombian union brothers and sisters: the labor federation, CUT, in the city of Cali, as well as the municipal workers union and the university union there, the dockworkers in the rapidly expanding port city of Buenaventura, and the sugar cane cutters in the fields of the Valle de Cauca, where Cali is located. We heard how bosses circumvent Colombian labor law by forcing workers into “cooperatives,” which amounts to making everybody a temporary employee, without health or retirement benefits, job security, or even any guarantee of making the minimum wage. We learned how privatization has destroyed family-wage jobs for the sake of profiting foreign corporations. And we learned how ownership remains hidden behind falsefront entities, making it easier to get away with irresponsible corporate behavior.

It’s worse than that, of course. Six leaders of the cane cutters movement stand under threat of jail terms and massive fines in retaliation for a strike the cutters undertook last year. They, and others, are the targets of public threats by paramilitaries who do the dirtywork of the powerful – newstories not withstanding, the paramilitary menace did not end with “demobilization.” In Colombia, threats are not idle. We heard face to face from the father of a university student who was killed when riot police stormed the campus, and we stood with an indigenous community leader at the spot where his brother and nineteen other people were killed by paramilitaries because others coveted the land where they lived. A human rights group has counted 50,000 cases of people murdered or “disappeared” over the past fifteen years.

Despite these realities, the people we met remain clear-eyed in their analysis, strong in their determination, and warm in their hospitality. We have something to learn from them in this regard.

One thing was agreed on, whether we were talking with unions, indigenous or human rights groups, or even the mayor’s office of the city of Cali, one of the principal cities of Colombia – they all opposed the proposed Free Trade Agreement between the U.S. and Colombia. Because the agreement has already been ratified by the Colombian government, we in the United States have to be the ones to stop it. When I went to Colombia, I already knew the agreement was bad for us; now I know it is bad for the majority of people in both countries. The time has come to stop the Free Trade Agreement for good.

John Walsh,

GCC/IBT 767M

Portland V.P.

Montanans Learn About Fair Trade in Chiapas

High school students from Missoula, along with their teacher and WFP Montana Coordinator Jay Bostrom, traveled with WFP to Chiapas in January 2008.  Pictured from left to right are Cassandra Rabe, Danielle Hayes, Jeremy Leibenguth, and Emily Steinberg.  The following are excerpts from an article printed in the Big Sky High School Newspaper.

From January 25 to February 3, 2008, six Montanans-including five from Big Sky High School-traveled to Chiapas, Mexico as a part of an international delegation.  Besides escaping the frigid northern air, these delegates sought to learn all they could about the effects of U.S. foreign and economic policies in Mexico.  In particular, they would learn about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the negative impacts that policy has had on both the U.S. and Mexico.  In order to contrast the effects of Free Trade, the delegates learned about Fair Trade production which purports to provide a fairer price, respect workers' rights, and improve environmental standards. 

The human rights organization, Witness for Peace, directing the delegation worked in conjunction with Equal Exchange (a fair trade coffee cooperative from the U.S.), and Jubilee Justice International to create an experience for delegates that would look at the issues of social and economic justice.  Mr. Bostrom is the state-coordinator for Witness for Peace, and this is the third delegation in which he has participated, first traveling to Cuba in 2003 and then leading his own delegation to Venezuela in 2006.  "Witness for Peace has opened my eyes and provided me with insights into the mechanisms and irrational U.S. policies that have prolonged the conquest of the global south by the global north," Bostrom says.  Bostrom emphasizes the need for better awareness on the part of U.S. Americans saying that "an inequitable global system and asymmetrical economic and foreign relations between the U.S. and Latin America goes a lot further in explaining the modern problems we face than simplistic, ethnocentric attitudes propagated by the U.S.'s mainstream corporate media-and subsequently-attitudes all too often parroted by an ill-informed U.S. public."

According to the Big Sky High School delegates, one such attitude that their delegation revealed to be ill-conceived and based in an ignorance of global forces is immigration.   "As an economic refugee," Bostrom says, "we are closer to describing the truth of the situation which reveals how people wouldn't normally choose to leave their lives, land, families, cultures and traditions, but are forced to due to harsh economic policies intended to benefit a small elite of wealthy individuals in Mexico and the U.S."

For each of the delegates, the high point of the delegation was a visit to an indigenous community in the highlands of Chiapas.  The community was in the midst of coffee harvesting season.  Since a primary focus of the delegation was to investigate the process of producing organic, shade-grown and fair-trade coffee, the delegates were given a firsthand opportunity to work side-by-side with the indigenous coffee growers.  The hope was that the delegates would be able to directly experience the hardships of coffee production.  Delegates were also deeply affected by the experience of homestays with the people of the community of La Ceiba.  

Danielle Hayes was especially involved in this delegation as it was part of her Senior Project.  Her research paper was a broad examination of neoliberal capitalism, focusing more closely on policies such as NAFTA.  She approached Bostrom to ask for guidance on her Senior Project and so what began as an off-the-cuff remark about traveling to Latin America to take photos ended up as this initiation into the world of economics and foreign policy.  In a matter of days, Bostrom approached several other students that had previously expressed serious interests in the issues raised in his class.  In particular, their interests were sparked by community presentations about Latin America he had required his class to attend.  Rabe, Steinberg and Leibenguth were to soon join Hayes as fellow delegates. 

Bostrom highlighted many aspects from the delegation, including a "life-altering visit to an indigenous community in the highlands of Chiapas that taught me so much about my own power, privilege and hidden prejudices."  According to Bostrom, "perhaps the most powerful thing I will take away from this experience was the opportunity to get to know these four amazing individuals from Big Sky High School.  Witness for Peace seems to be as much about looking at oneself, the interdependence of our world and the deep kind of commitment it is going to take on the part of each us to create a more just world as it is about the policies issues."

WFPNW Delegation to Nicaragua on Food Security Report

October 2005

In October 2005 thirteen delegates from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii, and Pennsylvania traveled to Nicaragua with Witness for Peace Northwest to explore food security in Nicaragua along with links to our own food security. Delegation members included small farmers, teachers, social workers, journalists and many first time travelers to Nicaragua. This was the first Witness for Peace delegation to focus on food security issues.  Click on the link below for the full report.


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