This summer, the Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo, director of Colombia Programs for the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, saw firsthand some of the effects of U.S.-operated military bases in Colombia.
As part of a delegation organized by Witness for Peace and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Vance-Ocampo traveled to Colombia with other nonviolent peace activists to visit some of the proposed to-be-leased U.S. military bases. The group also met and talked with Colombians who live near the bases, members of Colombia's Congress, staff at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia and other advocacy groups and academics.
The trip, July 24-Aug. 2, came on the heels of the 219th General Assembly (GA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which approved an overture calling for several actions toward negotiating peace in Colombia:
- direct the stated clerk to seek the permanent suspension of U.S. military use of the seven bases;
- direct the stated clerk to request a U.S. negotiation of a peace accord to end the country’s violent internal conflict;
- strengthen prayer and action by PC(USA) bodies and members toward peace in Colombia;
- encourage Presbyterian churches to visit Colombia and monitor the bases; and
- direct the General Assembly Mission Council to work with ecumenical partners to monitor and post updates on the impact of the bases.
Vance-Ocampo presented the overture to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota and was the first Presbyterian to visit Colombia in an official capacity after GA. And although she has been traveling to Colombia for 11 years and is married to a Colombian, she said this trip introduced her to some new realities and dangers.
The delegation visited two bases: Palanquero, an Army and Air Force base in central Colombia, and Bahia Malaga, a Navy base in western Colombia.
At Palanquero — the largest base — the 11-person delegation got within four blocks of the base before being surrounded by four young guards carrying Uzi machine guns. The guards had paperwork and were able to identify the Colombians in the group. Although the delegation's organizers had reached out to the bases months before the trip to request visits, they were rebuffed by the Colombian guards at the bases.
The group was blocked from moving forward on a public street and ended up being followed out of Puerto Salgar, the town surrounding the base, by armed Colombian military police.
"We were clearly not wanted near these bases," Vance-Ocampo said. "To actually get on the bases is a near impossibility."
She had never experienced that level of harassment or intimidation in Colombia before, she said. And although the group had been trained to act in non-provocative, nonviolent ways, the young ages of the guards concerned her — she wondered if they'd been trained well enough with their weapons in such situations.
The experience made Vance-Ocampo appreciate the GA overture even more. As U.S. citizens, the delegation members could act, while many Colombians don’t even have the opportunity to understand the forces against them.
"It just highlights to me how important our General Assembly actions are to the Colombians," she said.
The group tried to talk with local residents to hear their thoughts on the dangers, noise pollution and environmental impact of the bases, but the guards also made it clear that the Colombians shouldn't talk to U.S. citizens, Vance-Ocampo said.
They did meet with the mayor of Puerto Salgar, who supported the base because he believed it would bring new jobs to town. The bases often offer "carrots" like jobs or new hospitals to keep local dissent down, Vance-Ocampo said. But they do nothing to combat negative things like crime, prostitution and environmental damage.
"It was eye-opening and heartbreaking to see the bind that these communities are put in," she said, adding that she felt powerless at seeing big forces squash people's ways of lives.
The Presbyterian Church of Colombia (IPC) has also stated its objection to the bases. Increased militarization hasn't ever brought peace to Colombia, and the IPC opposes having foreign troops on Colombian soil. The GA overture about Colombia included the IPC General Assembly’s statement.
"We are concerned therefore that the democratic security promoted by the current government, the increased military cost, and the growth of the army have not shown us the prospect of peace even though they have reduced the actions of the illegal armed groups," the declaration reads. "Furthermore, there are tensions with Colombia's neighbors — Ecuador, Venezuela, and throughout the region — because of the announcement of the US Army's use of Colombian military bases.
But in Colombia, Vance-Opcampo said, it's not easy for a church — or any group — to speak out against human rights violations. In the past, IPC leaders who have done so have had their lives threatened and have been forced to flee to the United States.
"At the end of the day, we're the ones who have the most opportunity to do at least a little bit of advocacy to our government," she said. "Our advocacy does not go unnoticed. We have a definite impact."
For more information about PC(USA) advocacy work in Colombia or partnering with the IPC, check out the Colombia Accompaniment Program, a short-term volunteer program sponsored by World Mission and coordinated by the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. Contact the group by email for more information.