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This weekend, a group of Colombians living in Vancouver together with supporters including local NGO CoDevelopment Canada are organizing a conference and discussion entitled Land, Trade and Democracy. There will be a keynote speech on Friday, September 21st and a day of workshops and panels on Saturday, September 22nd. Both events will take place downtown.
The Vancouver Media Co-op recently had the chance to catch up with one of the organizers, Jorge Salazar, to ask him what the events this weekend are all about.
Why a conference on Colombia in Vancouver, and why now?
Canada and Vancouver continue to receive Colombians who do not always find opportunities to maintain a political relationship with the place they come from. There are more than 2,000 Colombians living in Vancouver and that is significant number, with lots of diversity within the community as well as overall. This event is open to a wide diversity of opinions and lived experiences, and particularly to people who believe in human rights, non-violence and social justice. Vancouver is also a place that is seen by many as site of progressive politics. We want to see how this may be true and invite Canadians to connect with Colombia beyond to what they hear on the news.
Colombia is a center of political reflection because of the US backed war against drugs, a war that is fought in Colombian territory against Colombian people. In addition, just over one year ago, Canada and Colombia signed a trade deal that ignored the human rights violations taking place in Colombia. Many Canadians are (or should be) concerned about this.
We in the north should not try to become richer or expand development through spilling the blood of union leaders, Indigenous people, Afro-Colombian communities and other community leaders. As we were organizing the conference, the Colombian government and one of the largest guerrillas (FARC) decided to go public about peace negotiations that they have been engaged in for a while now. This makes our conversations and our event even more relevant. We need spaces such as this to ensure that Canadians and Colombians who are refugees in Canada have a place to discuss how this impacts us, and what role should Canada play.
What are the main issues in Colombia that will be the focus of the conference?
The Colombian government often claims that Colombia has one of the longest standing democracies in Latin America. At the same time, it has been a country at war for more than 50 years, with terrible human rights violations. In reality, this is a contradiction. It is also a contradiction that while there are such serious human rights violations, Canada, a country that also claims to promote human rights and democracy, is doing business with the country in Latin America with some of the worst human rights violations.
So, for us, talking about democracy is important and this will play a central role in our conversations. We will also focus our conversations on the resistance process that Indigenous people in the Cauca region have been an example of. For many, their monilizations go beyond the basic ideas of democracy, these communities are constantly engaging with each other to ensure that decisions are reflective of community needs. They are also teaching the world, and in particular the people with guns in Colombia how to behave.
A few months ago the Nasa people in Cauca told the army and the guerrillas to leave their territories and the ones who didn't leave by the time they were told to were literally kicked out. People in Canada need to hear how this happens. If we are talking about democracy, we need to hear of how Indigenous people in Colombia make decisions.
These are some of themes that we will be talking about. On top of all that it is important because of the relationship between Canada and Colombia.
Who is coming in for the conference? Are there any special guests?
As special guest we will have Claudia López; her work exposes the connections between illegal armed groups (paramilitaries and drug dealers) and the Colombian congress and government. Her presence is very important for us and we hope that people take advantage of this opportunity to come and hear her speak. We had also invited Jorge Palomino who is the General Coordinator of the Indigenous Youth Movement in Cauca, but the Canadian government denied him a visa. So we decided to invite two people from Cauca, we are now having Jorge Palomino as well as Feliciano Valencia who is one of the leaders of the whole movement in Cauca be present through video conference.
In terms of attendance, it is hard to know, but we have reached out to Indigenous people living here on Turtle Island, unions, NGO's, churches, Colombians residing in here as well as the community in general.