Heather Colonnese has traveled to several different cities and countries since she graduated from college, but she says none of these trips has been as “overwhelming” as her recent trip to Colombia. Colonnese, a campus minister at Le Moyne College, spent eight days in Colombia this past July. Colonnese started learning about the situation in Colombia in April at the Colombia Mobilization in Washington, D.C. They were looking for candidates who spoke Spanish to participate in an upcoming delegation to Colombia. Colonnese didn’t know Spanish, but she spoke some Portuguese and figured the languages were close enough for her to get by. She also decided to go on the trip because she thought it would be an enlightening opportunity.
“The trip sounded like a great way to learn more about the situation in Colombia,” she said. “It was a chance to see first-hand what was really going on down there.”
Colonnese had already been involved with protests against the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., which takes many of its recruits from Colombia.
“I’ve tried to raise awareness about Colombia around campus,” she said.
Colonnese made the trip with a few other Syracuse residents and traveled through the Central New York Colombia Support Network (CSN). Based in Madison, Wis., CSN was started about ten years ago by a native of Colombia and sends delegations to Colombia a few times a year.
Ed Kinane, a member of CSN, also participated in the July trip. He said one of the goals of the organization is to change U.S. foreign policy towards Colombia and to try to improve the situation for Colombians.
“CSN tries to make U.S. foreign policy more friendly to the people in Colombia,” he said. Colombia faces many problems today, two of the major problems being a lack of security and a depressed economy. Large parts of the country are under the influence of guerillas, an insurgent group trying to overthrow the government; and the paramilitaries, a right-wing anti-insurgent group. These two groups compete for control of the government as well as control of the illegal drug trade which helps fund the rebel groups.
“The Colombian military has had the worst human rights record of any military south of the Rio Grande,” Kinane said. “The Colombia Support Network will not ally itself with any military group in Colombia.”
While neither of these groups really has popular support, they are pervasive enough to create a very violent and dangerous political atmosphere in Colombia.
“We had to be really careful not to do anything overly political, since we could put ourselves or the community members whom we were with in danger,” Colonnese said. She also said the U.S. pours billions of dollars each year into Colombia for fumigation. This fumigation is part of the effort to wipe out drug crops under Plan Colombia, an anti-drug campaign. Unfortunately, she said, this fumigation often does more harm than good. Although it wipes out some of the drug crops, it also eliminates many of the local farmers’ crops and causes health problems.
CSN members use the information they gather on their trips to Colombia to lobby, write letters to the U.S. government and inform their local communities of the problems faced by the Colombian people.
“What the CSN does is try to link communities in the U.S. with communities in Colombia,” Kinane said.
As a way of bringing the message home to communities in the United States, CSN creates “sister communities,” by which a community in the United States is paired with a community in Colombia.
“The sister communities help put a face on the people and their problems,” said Colonnese.
While she was in Colombia, Colonnese spent two days in the small town of Yondó, the sister community of Syracuse. She and other Syracuse participants spent time speaking with local people and meeting with representatives from approximately 50 government organizations and human rights groups to discuss the problems faced by this community. Colonnese said this trip to Yondó was a very uplifting experience.
“The people live in a very violent situation,” she said. “They live in fear. Yet they are incredibly filled with hope, an incredibly peaceful people. It was just a very overwhelming feeling to be there.”