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Colombia: From Making Dolls to Making Policy Change

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This year, we’ve been working together to take advantage of the new opportunities for change in U.S. policy by contacting the White House, the State Department, and the new congressional representatives before they set their agenda on Colombia. Now, for the first time in a long time, we are beginning to make progress with both Congress and the Obama Administration. Still, there are so many more steps that they will need to take before we truly have just policies, and it will be up to us to push them forward.

How We Made Congress Listen to Us

During the Days of Prayer and Action, we put pressure on Congress to make real change in the allocation of aid to Colombia, as activists from all across the country made and sent paper dolls to policymakers as a way to emphasize the violence that drives people from their homes. When the Foreign Aid Bill for 2010 recently went through the House and Senate, we saw that our efforts had made a difference. They made some key changes in funding that we had called for –giving more aid to refugees and adding more human rights conditions. But on the topic of military aid, we still were not heard.

Encouragingly, Congress added aid for Colombia’s refugees via nongovernmental organizations, with $4.5 million in the House and $10 million in the Senate. Both bills also added a human rights condition that calls on the government to respect the rights of human rights defenders, trade unionists, and journalists. They heeded our advice in counter-narcotics efforts as well, cutting aid for fumigation by $10 million and calling for the use of more humane and less environmentally damaging manual eradication methods instead. They also continued to devote substantial aid to the justice system and rural development. Meanwhile, the Senate’s version of the bill banned aid to the DAS intelligence agency which has been illegally spying on human rights activists, journalists, and Supreme Court judges.

Unfortunately, despite our pressure to cut down on military aid, the bill still continues to fund the military at the same level as last year. So clearly, our work is not done.

How the White House Used Our Message

Before President Obama had his first meeting in the White House with Colombian President Uribe, we took action and made an impact. Thousands of grassroots activists sent emails and made phone calls to urge President Obama to use this opportunity to take U.S.-Colombia policy in a new direction. Here in DC, we worked with other policy and human rights organizations to get our message out to the press and administration officials. When they met on June 29th, many of our talking points made it in.

At the White House press conference, we learned that President Obama discussed with his Colombian counterpart two issues we had pressed for:  the killing of civilians by the army and the massive illegal wiretapping of activists, journalists, Supreme Court judges and anyone else pegged as opposition. And when Obama unmistakably chided President Uribe’s plan to run for a third term by firmly stating “after eight years usually…people want a change,” he made headlines in Colombia.

On some issues, however, President Obama did not take the strong public stance that real change demands. During the press conference, he "commended President Uribe on the progress that has been made in human rights in Colombia and dealing with the killings of labor leaders there." President Obama claimed that violence against trade unionists is on a "downward trajectory," even though, according to the National Labor School in Colombia, the number of murders in 2008 rose from 39 to 49.

In the months to come, we will need to keep reminding President Obama of these serious issues that must be addressed before a free trade agreement with Colombia is even considered.

What now?

While our actions this year have influenced President Obama and Congress to change their stance on U.S. policy towards Colombia, we must continue to press for deeper change. To get involved and stay informed, sign up for our email action alerts and check out the Stand by Colombia’s Victims of Violence campaign page on our website.