International Summit of Women and People of the Americas against Militarization
In August, Colombia hosted the first “International Summit of Women and People of the Americas against Militarization,” which was attended by almost 3000 people, including around 200 international delegates from the Americas and Europe. The event provided a unique space for organizations and social activists to come together to share, denounce, and visibilize the effects of militarization and war on the bodies of women, territories, and civil society, with the objective to systemize the experiences of resistance against militarization and to define a strategic agenda to coordinate a social movement of women and people for the defense of territories. Although the Colombian Constitutional Court deemed the agreement leasing seven Colombian bases to the U.S. unconstitutional on the second day of the summit, the focus of the attendees remained centered on building a strong opposition to the rise of U.S. military presence in Latin America.
The summit, convened by the Social Movement of Women Against the War and for the Peace, came out of a long process involving 60 Colombian social organizations that have spent the last four years developing a common agenda against militarization. According to Betty Puerto of the Women’s Popular Organization (OFP), the goal of the movement is to eventually present a proposal of peace from women to the Colombian national government urging a political negotiation to the armed conflict, along with various measures to assure that human rights are protected in Colombia. The Social Movement of Women was spearheaded ten years ago by the OFP, when they began to collect information about the suffering of women caused by the effects of the internal conflict. Jacqueline Rojas, the Barrancabermeja regional coordinator, said that they later opened to the movement to other regions of the country, where other organizations already had initiatives, and began a campaign of popular education in schools and neighborhoods, teaching the effects of militarization on the bodies of women and civil society.
The movement now includes indigenous communities, labor unions, housewives, Afro-Colombian communities, political organizations, church organizations, academics, student movements, displaced people, small-scale farmers, community mothers, and regional peace processes, all of whom were represented in the summit, united under the slogan “We do not birth sons and daughters for war.”
The summit took place at a moment when U.S. imperialist forces are carrying out aggressive strategies of re-colonization to reposition and recuperate from the crisis of the capitalist system, according to the women of the movement. This has had dire effects on the people of the entire region; inequality, unemployment, violence, sexism, and poverty are becoming endemic in Latin America.
Colombia is no exception – a country abundant in natural resources such as minerals, petroleum, carbon, water, and biodiversity, where 65% of the population lives in poverty on less than $5 a day and 56% of Colombians are unemployed or underemployed, according to Felix Posada of the Popular Center of Communication in Latin America, who gave a talk on the Colombian context the first day of the summit.
The territories of Colombia, and likewise all of Latin America, are being exploited by transnational companies, who use the tactics of militarization, war, displacement, and murder of the people to claim control of territories. U.S. economic interests are protected by U.S. military bases, which are strategically positioned all over the continent, and have been used to exert influence and control over the region. Although the history of U.S. military intervention in Latin America is well known, many feel the trend continues – the plane that carried the Honduran president out of the country after a military coup last year stopped at a U.S. base, suggesting U.S. participation. Berta Cáceres, a summit atendee and resistance leader in Honduras, thinks the CIA was behind it.
Violations of human rights are further aggravated by U.S. presence – in Colombia, U.S. military personnel contracted by an oil company to protect a pipeline participated in the massacre of 17 civilians in 1998. A recent study published by FOR found that despite legal mechanisms to prevent U.S. military aid to Colombian army units that commit human rights violations, not only has the U.S. provided assitance to such units, the number of extrajudicial executions went up in more than half of the units after they received aid linked to Plan Colombia.
The implications for women living around bases are even grimmer, where the number of rapes goes up dramatically, with a 98.6% impunity rate for the perpetrators, according to summit speaker Ana Maria Diaz, the sub-director of Investigation at the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ). A 2009 annual report released by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights shows the state can be held responsible for 65.8 % of sexual violations in Colombia (committed by both public forces and paramilitary groups linked to the public forces). Diaz claims that other sources point to an even higher rate, with the military as the major perpetrator. Another concern of Diaz’ is that U.S. soldiers in foreign countries generally receive diplomatic immunity, meaning they can’t be tried for their crimes in foreign countries, and there are numerous cases of sexual abuse committed by U.S. personnel, sometimes to young girls, that remain in impunity. Prostitution rates also skyrocket around bases, with military-sanctioned “entertainment houses.”
To see these effects first hand, international delegates from 19 different countries participated in humanitarian commissions to twelve different heavily militarized regions around Colombia in the first days of the summit. They found evidence of multinational companies around the country allied with police, military, and paramilitary forces to end social organizations and gain control of territory, according to the report written and presented during the summit. They found women to be extremely victimized in these regions due to the militarization, and social movements to be severely stifled by the state.
In Barrancabermeja, the delegates joined over 2000 Colombian activists from the organizations that make up the Social Movement of Women Against the War for two days of seminars, workshops, and speeches. Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba, who has been involved with the Movement for sometime, told the effects that the largest business in the world, war, has brought to Colombia – cadavers floating down the Magdalena River, women’s corpses missing a head or arms, and more than 5000 false positives, civilians killed and dressed up as guerrilla by the army.
Women presented the topic and talked about the issues they faced from various perspectives: indigenous, small-scale farmers, Afro-Colombians, urban dwellers, union leaders, artists, and internationals were all represented. One afternoon the Movement held the largest march to happen in Barrancabermeja in 8 years; participants carried banners, candles, and rocks to remember those who had lost their lives in the conflict.
On the last day of the summit, the group caravanned to Puerto Salgar, home to the air base Palenquero, one of the seven bases “given” to the U.S. in the 2009 agreement. According to a study contracted by the Social Movement of Women and released at the summit, prostitution has grown at an alarming rate in Puerto Salgar since the installation of the base. The study also showed the strong influence the base has had on cultural, political, and social life in Puerto Salgar. The women held an 8-hour vigil in front of the base, complete with musicians, speakers, dancers, and theater acts. One impressive youth dance group from Barrancabermeja highlighted the devastation to the environment and civilian life in the city due to oil company control.
Colombian Senator Gloria Ines Ramirez spoke of the need to continue the struggle, and a message of encouragement to the Movement was read aloud, written by Clara Lopez, the president of the Polo Democratico, the only major Colombian political party to oppose to the U.S.-Colombia bases agreement.
The summit successfully brought together a lot of people working against the expansionist interests of the U.S. in the region, people who denounce the growing militarization of the region as a strategy of appropriation of the natural resources and wealth of territories, and the effects on women in particular. Women’s bodies are used as commodities in war, and while femicide rates are rising, women are frequently left behind to raise and support the family when their partners go to war or are killed. The event brought hope and promise to a broken movement, a movement that has been systematically marginalized, threatened, and suppressed by the powers that be. Already many women who helped organize the event have received subsequent threats – one organizer has been followed by men on motorcycles taking pictures outside her house, another has been forced to flee the country. Around the time of the event a human rights defender was found murdered in retaliation for her participation in public, international human rights events. The picture remains grim inside Colombia and out, but the international community of opposition to the status quo gets stronger after each event such as this one.