An Independent View From the Hinterlands

(The following comment is personal and does not represent views expressed or presented for endorsement by the Colombia Support Network.)


             The Colombia Support Network (CSN) is not headquartered in Washington, D.C. Our national office and our local chapters are all located many miles from our nation’s capital. But in terms of the credibility of our work it seems an advantage to be outside the beltway, since we are not tempted to insert our views in place of those of the members of Colombian sister communities we work with in communicating with U.S. government officials.

             A few days ago Adrienne Pine, a professor at American University in Washington and a senior fellow of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, published an analysis of the work of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) relating to the coup d’ etat which overthrew the elected President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. As Professor Pine described it, WOLA scheduled a conference with the “goal of reconciling a divided society”, essentially ignoring the illegality of the overthrow of President Zelaya and the fact that the post-coup elections took place in the context of violent suppression of the popular movement which had emerged during Zelaya’s Presidency, violence against legitimate protest which continues today.  WOLA thus undertook the role of a facilitator of U.S. government policy, perceiving itself as having a special role in bringing non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) to support a dialogue designed to make the new Honduran government acceptable. The fact that WOLA called off its “reconciliation” conference in response to criticism of its role does not alter the fact that WOLA, and its close collaborator, the Latin American Working Group (LAWG), often act as self-appointed “official” spokespersons for Latin American popular movements in the United States. They see themselves as having a special, unique relationship to the Congress and the Presidential administration, and they belittle or undermine the efforts of grass-roots organizations such as CSN. Indeed, LAWG rejected a CSN application for membership some 20 years ago. Why? Apparently because we had independently developed a sister-community strategy matching Colombian communities in rural areas of conflict with CSN chapters in U.S. communities and developed our own membership, two characteristics which the Colombian human rights organization in Washington disapproved of. When we sent a written proposal to the Colombian human rights organization for coordination of our activities with theirs, they did not bother to dignify our proposal with a response. Then they openly talked of our efforts as undermining unity in Colombian human rights work in this country. If we were not prepared to deliver our program and our contacts to them for them to manage, they preferred to ignore our work and criticize it.

            The current role WOLA perceives for itself is not the role it began with or was founded to pursue. Its first director, Alex Wilde, was a good friend of ours and the Political Science professor at the University of Wisconsin who first directed my steps to Colombia years ago. The organization was not founded as a collection of self-important persons who perceived themselves as leading the benighted members of Congress out of their ignorance on Latin America. It was founded, as I understood it, to convey information about the reality of people’s lives in the Latin American countries and how they are affected by U.S. government policies; to present facts, if you will,  independently and impartially for the use of policy-makers.  Their role certainly was not, and should not be, to work to squelch popular movements in the name of “strengthening institutions”, or to promote “stability” and thus assure U.S. access to Latin American markets and natural resources on a basis favorable to this country at the expense of our Latin American neighbors. While a few years ago a spokesperson for LAWG, in reviewing a few changes in an overwhelmingly military-focused Plan Colombia, stated “we can live with that”, we at CSN continued to rejected Plan Colombia because of its primary military design, even when it and its successors by any name have incorporated a few programs— such as assistance to Colombia’s courts and prosecutors, and alternative crop development for campesinos—which we might well support were they not part of a larger pro-war strategy.

            In short, we at CSN feel privileged to pursue our strategy in support of our sister communities in Colombia, and to support and advance U.S. democracy through the expression of our chapter members’ points of view, reflecting the concerns of their Colombian sister community organizations, to their elected representatives in Congress. Maybe it is our distance from Washington’s internal politics and cozy relationships that has led us to reject a role of facilitator of U.S. Government policies. Advancing technology has made possible direct communications from our sister communities to our U.S. chapters, so a central coordinating office, such as that proposed to us by Washington NGO’s, seems less and less necessary and appropriate. We therefore celebrate our independence here in the hinterlands!


                                                            John I. Laun

                                                            April 23, 2010


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phone:  (608) 257-8753
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