Maria Ruth Sanabria is living in a ceaseless dichotomy. She lives in one of the most tranquil, natural environments in the world, yet she is surrounded by violence. She fights for social justice in her native country of Colombia, but her government is rife with corruption. Sanabria, in her mid-40s, has been traveling around the Northwest for the past month to share her story of struggle with students, faculty and anyone who will listen. Her visit to Cheney was sponsored by numerous human rights organizations.
“The idea is for U.S. citizens to know the reality of what the Colombian people are living,” she said.
For more than an hour Sanabria passionately spoke through her translator, Scott Nicholson, about her family, her home and the realities of a subversive civil conflict in her home state of Arauca. She has been on the front lines of the ongoing war with the Colombian government for political freedom. An elected member of the Arauquita municipal council in the state of Arauca, Sanabria yearns for a peaceful revolution.
Her presentation, “Women Waging Peace in Colombia,” covered a number of critical topics. She discussed the modern political history of Colombia, human rights violations within her country and the consequences of the United States’ funding of the Colombian government, all of which presented a fresh perspective to Eastern Washington students.
Roxcie Dills, a senior majoring in elementary education, attended the discussion as a requirement for her Spanish class, but left with a different outlook on U.S. foreign policy. “I had no idea this was going on; it really makes you want to get involved,” she said after Sanabria’s speech.
Sanabria hoped that she could change some of the misconceptions about her fellow Colombians. “We are very hard-working and enterprising people who search for peace with social justice,” she remarked. She said the media, in both the U.S. and Colombia, fuels the negative sentiment for those who desire change. “In Colombia, the media are the ones who cause the most harm. They don’t show the reality of the country, but they do slander some social leaders in the country. They show what capitalism and imperialism wants to be shown.”
Since 2000, the U.S. has given over $5 billion in counter-terrorism aid to Colombia. This has only fueled the ongoing war between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The aid package, supported by both the Clinton and Bush administrations, sends billions of dollars to fund the Colombian military to fight against FARC, which uses cocaine profits to fund its operations. The money was intended to be used to fight the “war on drugs,” but has resulted in a proxy war fought on Colombian soil.
Still, the most controversial aspect of the anti-narcotics strategy is the fumigation of Colombian fields to eradicate the presence of coca plants, which are used as a main ingredient for cocaine. The practice of fumigation kills millions of acres of legal crops, while damaging the soil and water in the surrounding areas. It also presents numerous health problems for local populations causing skin rashes, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea and birth defects. The chemicals used for this aerial fumigation are produced by Monsanto, the makers of Roundup, an American-owned multinational agriculture biotechnology corporation which reaps massive profits from government contracts. After seven years of fumigation, the amount of cocaine being imported into the U.S. has not decreased.
Aid money is also being funneled by the Colombian government to paramilitary “death squads” who have been responsible for numerous human rights violations cited by such organizations as the United Nations and Amnesty International. These paramilitary groups have killed thousands of peaceful political dissenters, including Sanabria’s first husband.
“Everyone who is not on the side of the Colombian government is labeled a guerilla,” Sanabria said. “Prisons are filled with supposed guerillas and cemeteries are being filled with innocent bystanders.”
Human rights activists contend that if the U.S. wanted to fix the drug epidemic in their own country, they should invest more tax money into drug education and rehabilitation programs. According to the Rand Corporation, investing tax dollars into domestic drug treatment is 23 times more effective than attempting to eradicate foreign drug crops.
Sanabria urges anyone who is concerned with the ongoing human rights violations in Colombia to immediately contact their Senator or House Representative. House Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers can be contacted at her district office at (509) 353-2374. Sen. Patty Murray can be contacted at her Spokane office at (509) 624-9515.
Maria Ruth Sanabria was accompanied by her translator Scott Nicholson, an Eastern Washington alumnus, who recently was the recipient of the Montana Amnesty International Human Rights Award in 2007.