Colombias forgotten humanitarian crisis

Freddy Espitia was murdered in Monteria, Colombia, on Jan. 28. Yolanda Izquierdo was killed three days later. Both were internally displaced persons (IDPs) fighting for the rights of other displaced persons, particularly peasants.

Paramilitaries from the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) are presumed responsible for their deaths.

In March, Albeiro Parra, a priest working in Colombia’s Choco Department on the Pacific Coast, reported that 79 indigenous and Afro-Colombian infants, children of IDPs, died from starvation and lack of medical care in 2006.

These items were off the table as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe lobbied in Washington, May 1-3, for a free trade agreement. He ran into street demonstrations. His reception by congressional Democrats was cool. Legislators are concerned about ties between Uribe’s government and the AUC, and about the murder of 400 unionists during his presidency.

The U.S. public remains all but oblivious to Colombia’s humanitarian disaster. Some 3.5 million Colombians, amounting now to 11 percent of the population, have been forcibly removed from their land and homes over 40 years. Half are Afro-Colombian or indigenous. Almost a million peasants have been displaced since Uribe took office in 2002.

On Feb. 20, the United Nations called for donations toward a $14.4 million relief fund. Visiting Colombia in March, Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, described the situation there as a “forgotten crisis.” Only Sudan claims more internal refugees than does Colombia.

Forced removal of small farmers is not new in Colombia. As mining declined in the 1800s, land ownership gained ground as a source of power. Colombia’s rich and powerful have periodically taken advantage of political chaos to seize agricultural lands, causing displaced peasants to take up land in Colombia’s periphery.

In recent years, many of the displaced have moved into cities, having been expelled by AUC paramilitaries acting as enforcers for large landowners and narco-traffickers, or acting to enrich themselves.

In Colombia, 0.4 percent of all landowners own 61 per cent of usable farmland. A 2005 report said 4 percent of the population owned 70 percent of all land.

National statistics elucidate a universe of suffering. Two million Colombians suffer periodic shortages of food. One-fourth of the children don’t attend school. Over 35 percent are chronically malnourished; 13 percent of them are abnormally short. Half of Colombians live in poverty — in rural areas, 70 percent — and 33 percent lack drinkable water. Conditions for the displaced are even worse.

Women and children make up 73 percent of displaced people. Women head 60 percent of the households. Almost 77 percent of displaced children never return to school; 52 percent of the women report physical abuse; 36 percent, sexual abuse; and 60 percent, no health care. Almost three-fourths of displaced adults are unemployed.

Compared to Colombian averages, life expectancy in Choco Department state is five years less; death during childbirth, 8.5 times more; infant mortality, four times more; and illiteracy, three times more. Choco’s people — 85 percent Afro-Colombian — suffer displacement 7.5 times more often than other Colombians.

Reacting to infant deaths in Choco, César Rodríguez writes in NACLA Report on the Americas: “Incredibly, what no one talks about ... is that the skin color of those victims of hunger is black. Black are the malnourished children who pose with their bloated soccer-ball like bellies.” In Colombia, 85 percent of black people are poor, 42 percent of them jobless.

Mass suffering of displaced people and racism are each part of a status quo built on violence. Profits are part of it too. In 2006, U.S trade with Colombia amounted to exports worth $6.7 billion, imports worth $9.2 billion, each up 25 percent over two years. In 2005, the U.S. share of foreign direct investment in Colombia was $3.4 billion. Presently 250 U.S. businesses operate there.

The U.S. State Department, as required, announced April 10 its approval of Colombia’s human rights record to free up money for the Colombian armed forces. Later, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) put a temporary hold on $55.2 million of unspent 2006 money. Under Washington’s “Military and Police Assistance Program” for Colombia, the Uribe government will receive $624 million in 2007 and $619 million in 2008. The total for 2000-2006 is $3.5 billion.

About 1,400 U.S. military personnel — about half of them mercenaries — serve in Colombia today.

atwhit @megalink.net