Father Brendan Forde' decision to stay in Colombia is not a very Celtic Tiger thing to do. He has decided to remain where six men were massacred on July 8th, and where the rest of the community has been told by paramilitaries to get out or meet a similar fate. He is doing so simply because the people there have asked him to, and he believes that his presence, if it succeeds in mobilizing public support in Ireland, may provide some hope of safety for them.
His decision is completely out of synch with an Ireland where all we seem to talk about are scandals and house prices. But maybe, just maybe, it is not out of synch with the deeper values of Irish people. Maybe, just maybe, we have not lost those values, just allowed them to be misplaced temporarily in a sea of cappuccino froth.
But we need the Irish Government to reflect those deeper values, not just in humanitarian intervention for Brendan Forde himself but by taking a stance independent of American policy in the area.
I spoke to Brendan Forde by telephone last Thursday. He sounded worn out from the constant tension. His parting words were: "I know that when there's an Irish person involved Irish people feel it, but the main thing is the people of Colombia."
There is little history of connection between Ireland and Colombia. Trócaire has been working with local groups there for over 10 years, channeling some of our donations and governmental bilateral aid to peace and development projects run by Colombians. But the massacre of six men which left 15 children without fathers in La Union would not register even a blip on the radar of Irish consciousness if it were not for the presence of one stubborn priest.
The Irish Government has been good on Brendan Forde himself, including an assurance by Government sources to Barbara Forde, Brendan's sister, that Bertie Ahern has been in personal contact with Bill Clinton. Yet if we treat this story as just a touching tale of personal courage in the face of brutal repression, we will have failed this Irish Franciscan. Of course we need to protect him and the people he works with. But much more is needed.
Colombia has endured civil war for decades, a bitter struggle between left-wing guerrillas and the forces of the state. Added to that mix are right-wing paramilitary groups who are officially illegal, but who in practice have been identified by numerous human rights groups as having close links with government forces, and with the attack on La Union.
Brendan Forde is working with the people of the peace communities of San José de Partado. These communities comprise peasants who are sick of being pawns in a vicious power struggle. They have been failed by both left and right, by the virtual industry of kidnapping and protection money which funds both sides. The peace communities have declared neutrality, and have called on all sides to engage seriously in the faltering peace process.
Where does American policy come into this? American interest can be summed up in one word: drugs. The US Congress recently mandated $1.3 billion for Plan Colombia, a military counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency campaign. The aim is to eradicate coca crops, the plant from which cocaine is derived, by fumigation, thereby cutting off a source of income for the guerrillas and the supply of drugs to the US.
It is, quite frankly, an insane scheme, involving supplying Colombia with Blackhawk helicopters and funding for three battalions of troops. Have the Americans learnt nothing in decades of ham-fisted intervention in Latin America? Fumigation was tried in Peru, where it succeeded in cutting coca production by half. But the supply of cocaine on American streets didn't change, nor did the price go up. That's because the key players simply shifted production to other places. The same will happen again.
Meanwhile, a fragile peace process will be destabilized further, more peasants will be displaced, and vast quantities of fertile land will be rendered unusable for years. The real winner is the American armaments industry, which has gained million-dollar contracts.
American military personnel are already being deployed to train Colombian military in fumigation. This same Colombian military was involved in an ambush last Tuesday which went drastically wrong when six children on a school trip were killed instead of the guerrillas for whom the trap was laid. Military who cannot distinguish between children and guerrillas seem less than ideal candidates for military aid.
THE key to the complex Colombian situation is that the poor have no rights. This gung-ho militarism by the US reinforces the idea that the poor are the problem in the drugs war, instead of recognising that they are merely the cheap labour who help to make drug barons rich.
As if the US military aid were not bad enough, the EU is being canvassed to supply matching funds, allegedly to foster human rights and peaceful development. The reality is that if the EU participates in Plan Colombia, it will be giving support to a military strategy. As yet, the EU Commission has cautiously sat on the fence and deferred making a decision until next month, all the while making soothing noises about "long-term economic and social development and political reform".
Which is where the Irish Government comes in. The EU Commission has promised that nothing will happen without the consent of all member-states. Ireland has an honourable record of never tying development aid to military aid. It would be an outrageous departure from previous policy to support a plan described by Eamon Meehan of Trócaire as "a badly put together aid package designed around a military strategy".
But here's the crux. Bill Clinton is determined to push this through, and we owe ol' Bill, big time, for his consistent help in our own peace process. Had Brendan Forde not taken the stance he has, Plan Colombia might have been quietly assented to by Ireland. Who in Ireland, aside from a few non-governmental organisations such as Afri, Trócaire and Comhlámh, would have protested?
Which is why it is important that we dust off those values we seem to have temporarily mislaid, and make it clear to our elected representatives that Plan Colombia should not be supported. The vital aid needed by Colombia must be tied to genuine development, not madcap militarism. Or else we will prove beyond doubt that we do not deserve the Brendan Fordes of this world.
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