|Political Campaign of Strong Outspoken Woman in Colombia Seeking Support
by Batya Weinbaum*
The following is an interview with Gloria Cuartas, aged 45, born on June 18, 1960. She was born in Savaneta, in Antioquia in the center of Colombia. The city of Medellin is capital of the state, which borders on Panama in the mountains. She has been coordinating the recognized initiative of 1000 Women for Peace. This year the women were nominated together for the Nobel Prize. She was one of the 12 women nominated from Colombia, working with the project of collectivizing the recognition of peace efforts. Our interview took place on August 1, 2005, in Tamera, a community started by German counterculture communitarians in southern Portugal with the idea of building up peace communities around the world.
We were discussing the peace community of San Jose, also in the mountains of the state of Colombia in which she was born. The region in which she has been working has been the center of much warfare between various factions of the military the paramilitary, and the armed insurgents (guerrillas) as she explains. I began by asking her questions about the position of women in the peace community.
Were women in leadership before the murders or did they arise to fill the void?
It was not a culture of women in public culture before the situation of extreme pain. The death of many of the male leaders made women take the power after many things--after the disappearance of their men, the deaths, the permanent attacks of the military. All the aggressive acts were made by men, robbing their gardens, taking their things, their husbands. It was men who came from outside and did harm to the community.
How do women contribute to daily life to survive?
The women work as peasants. Now after eight years they are concentrated in the work of constructing the community of peace. They are making work of education, health, culture, in a mixture of ways. There is work collectively for the children, but each woman has her own kitchen. This project has beans, corn, and other products which they cultivate individually, and in addition they cultivate bananas called primitivo which are little and very sweet that they attempt to export together. They can’t work through Uniban, a union of banana exporters in Colombia. For more than 30 years they have had control of economic production of bananas. And around these, the guerrillas make it hard to earn in the region. There is land collectively owned, not with a title or papers. But the persons work together on this land. Many of the people who own the land went to Bogota, but the people in the community are caring for the land, possessing it. The people have only small pieces of land. The families each grow some of their own food on their own land, and some on the collective land. The women work with the men in the banana fields in production. Caring for the land, and caring for cocoa. In the center of all this conflict they are trying to cultivate. But they can’t grow and export all alone because they don’t have the boats, the infrastructure.
Can you tell us your personal story of coming into leadership in this region of conflict?
The story of the peace community San Jose is a small piece of the bigger picture. I was mayor of the large region, of a city 100,000 inhabitants. San Jose is within Apartado a municipality of 2800 personas. Apartado is the city I was the mayor of between 1995-97.
By profession I am a social worker. I am a specialist in community development. I was the only daughter of my family. My mother and my father were separated. My father was an itinerant free spirit, traveling always and living without money, a poet. My mother lived in Venezuela for many years. She went without papers, undocumented, to work and left me with my grandparents. She was sending money home to my grandparents to support me. As soon as I was born she went to Venezuela and she was communicating to me by cassette how was the life. And she always sent contacts like this. Every Sunday, her day off as a domestic worker, she would tell how the Bolivian women lived, and the other Colombians that she knew in Venezuela, who were meeting in the park. In Venezuela, the women found each other in the park and told their stories, telling each other why and how they had come. Bit by bit, I was getting to know the situation of the women, not by books, not from investigation, but from personal contact from my mother. I am a political woman from birth. I always knew what was happening. After I finished school, I went to live for ten years with a group of architects and engineers in four regions of Colombia that had national catastrophes. For example, in remote regions which were being destroyed by earthquakes, avalanches, land slides. I was responsible for organizing and coordinating the groups that went there to work in reconstruction. The women and the men, we helped with the design of the houses. The association Antioquia Presente was created in response to these natural catastrophes to help rebuild. Different groups gave money to the association to help in the country and the families who had lost everything. This group was formed to help in reconstruction. Our mission was to lessen the impact on the people. Always the houses of the most poor were most effected, those of the most humble people. This helped in my total political development. But in this era, I didn’t have a special preoccupation for the interests and needs of women. They were collective groups. Working for all. But my style was different.
I inherited the spirit of traveling from my father, and the spirit of wisdom, love and hard work from my mother. My father always wrote to my mother on her birthday, but not directly to me.
I always wanted to go to Israel. I don’t know why. At first this was I think because of the religion. After, because of the problems in Israeli-Palestinian relations I wanted to know what these were and how to solve them. So I got a fellowship to go to a kibbutz in 1991. When I arrived in Israel in December of 1990, I said to my friends of the kibbutz, I want a mass. I am from the lineage of Liberation Theology, Paolo Freire and so on. So here I come to Israel. God is not above, but everywhere in all of us. I want to find a mass in Spanish. But there wasn’t. There were always different caretakers. So we programmed one for the end of February, two months after I asked there would be a Spanish mass. OK. I believed it. But time passed. I wanted to see how the Jews and the Palestinians lived, their security, everything. My mother tried to get me to leave, to come back, because she thought it was dangerous for me there in Israel. But I told my mother no no no I am going to stay. My mother wanted me to come home, afraid I would be killed. I had a good friend in Israel who understood the situation with the Palestinians. My friend was impressed that I stayed. Then I received a call a day before the mass. I heard my mother was seriously ill. She and I had done many projects together after she returned to Colombia when I was 15. She had continued working in other parts of Colombia taking care of sick people. So I decided that this was serious. I had to leave. My mother died that night. So the night of February 26, there was a mass, which was in effect although it had been planned earlier, for my mother. There was an act of faith, and of liberation. I suffered much. The next three years were very difficult for me in my life; my feelings were like an internal tsunami. I left February 27. The war was over. There were still problems of leaving by airplane. But I left. And it took three days to go to Bogota. After, from Bogota, to Medellin, even more time. I told them to go ahead and bury my mother and not to wait for me because I couldn’t get there in time. I was hard on myself. I berated myself constantly asking myself out of guilt over and over why didn’t I come earlier when my mother asked me to leave Israel and return to Colombia. Although I had said to go ahead with the funeral, an older brother of my mother that was really old said these two women were always together even if they were apart physically. It was very important for me that he said this. He said to hold off having the funeral until I arrived. So I didn’t miss it. I was glad for this, because I had a kind of closure. After this, we made nine days after the death of some one, a circle of friends and family. Prayers, tradition. The ninth day my father called to ask for my mother.
In 1993, he was reading poetry in a park. He had no money. He was wearing a beard, and had nothing. Like the free spirit that he was, he had a heart attack in the park and was on the way to the hospital. A woman social worker heard that the man who was on the road to the hospital was repeating a name. The woman social worker listened to the name and began to look for me because she knew where I was. If it had been a male in charge he probably wouldn’t have been sensitive enough or attentive enough and wouldn’t have taken note of the information that my father was giving to contact me. I have a daughter named Gloria Cuartas, my father was saying, and she works in INURBE, the institute. This is like a social ministry that helps people survive. So this social worker accompanying him to the hospital from the park where he had a heart attack, she began to investigate and found me. Because I was working in Bogota and she in another city. As soon as she found me, I went to see him. We spoke a little. He said he was sorry to me, and thought at first that I was my mother but I said no. When he asked for my mother, I said you know she is dead. And oh yes I remember, my father said, but he had forgotten. I hope you are well in your life. That you forgive me for not being close and that I don’t have money, or anything. I said, I am working but I am going to look for a clinic to attend you. And after I will bring you to the house. I am outside of Medellin. He began to cry because I was offering him the house where I had lived with my mother. I organized everything and was going to return in 15 days to get him. But in those 15 days he died. Nonetheless it was good to have the contact and the closure. I had only seen him three times in my life. Once he had come back to live with my mother for three months but he always left without saying goodbye.
But in ’91, I went to work in Uraba, near the frontier of Panama. The region is very important for one reason because it borders on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The port is very important, and it is also a region that is very rich. I worked ‘til ‘94 in the entire region. I was working on living projects, programs of the president of the republic, and with an electric company. I created an office, Relations with the Community. As a social worker, I worked in education, energy, how to make public education on the theme of energy. This is how I got to know the war. Working very closely, I got to know the complexity of thirty years of the political problems of the region. This was a problem historical of conflict. The war meant always struggling, always looking for change of methods. I knew the war in Colombia existed but I didn’t understand the methods being used. I didn’t agree with the methods they used, the forms of struggle, being hidden and all. The zone became very important for drugs and narcotic traffic. It was such an important area because it is a route to take drugs out of the country, also an important route for arms for the paramilitary, the military, and the guerrillas. But again as well, there was productive land for agriculture and land rich with coal, petroleum, and minerals. The resources were very rich. They take out land rich with minerals and send it to Japan. Mines. They use it in technology, because the earth has so many minerals. They export the soil because it was very compact.
So in this region started a group called Union Patriotica. In 1986 this movement was born as a party of the left; existing left groups joined from many sources because in this time there was an impasse between the government and the guerrilla. This happened in Uraba. The party was all over the country but it had a special force in this region. This movement had a positive socialist agenda to change support systems for the people. They began during ten years. There was a lot of political force for change between ‘86 and ’95. There was a change in the constitution that had been in existence from 1886. In 1991, it was changed to become a constitution for peace. Various groups like FARC, Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional. FARC has women working in all kinds of work. Not just sex for the men. ELN, also Ejercito Popular de Liberacion, EPL. These different groups fight with each other. EPL turned their arms in and their members were reintegrated into the society. They gave up fighting. A group of people with the paramilitaries and politicians left and did a Plan of Returning, even though later they were manipulated by the special interests who were thinking that the socialist left-leaning government (UP) was not good for big business. There are three different kinds of fighting forces. First, the guerrillas who start off in theory being for the people, supporting the laborers and peasants, although they end up becoming as ruthless as the others. Then, secondly, the people have to contend with the paramilitaries who are mobilized for the companies, the CIA, the international firms, special interests such as drug cartels, both legitimate and illegitimate, legal and illegal, etc. These groups operate in the interests of controlling the land and resources for their own purpose. Third, there is the military that works for the state.
EPL wanted FARC to leave the region and in doing so they killed off politicians, professors, doctors, peasants, because they wanted control of the land. A part of EPL, the part that became a legally reintegrated group or political party, began to fight like paramilitaries for commercial interests. EPL killed off the leadership of Union Patriotica when it turned in its arms and became instead Esperanza, Paz y Libertad. This political movement was a party with a name change, a name and legal change, but before it was EPL. So this same group EPL was killing off UP leaders, all these intellectuals and peasants, and FARC was killing EPL, the leaders of the guerrilla movement that had turned in their arms to become a legitimate political party.
But some not all of the banana firms and politicians were included in this plan, because they wanted to undercut the power of the left, like United Fruit Co. Now these companies are using the former guerrilla group, now a political party, to reduce or undercut the power of the left. Tax benefits etc were given to the companies when the EPL got the Union out and got in control. EPL was also making changes so that the land was more social, giving more rights, like human rights to workers etc. They were investing in schools. There was a political conflict and a little bit happened. But then in 1994 Chiquita Banana Company was one of the investing companies. In 1994 because there was so much death and such violence they said we had a political consensus. Unanimous, including the church, the politicians, the social organizations, seemed to have the region. But when it was proposed that my name go up for mayor, I wasn’t in any party. The heads of the parties needed a person that was sweet, to put the plan they already had out over the people. They needed a figure that didn’t think much, an idiot that they were able to move around like a pawn so they thought of a woman. A woman could cry, poor thing, and not speak for herself, they thought, we can manipulate her. They wanted me to be a figurehead for their ideas. But the bishop thought, and a group of his friends, thought we could really work for peace. But the people who were planning these things wanted a mayor who would keep silent. So they could finish in three years to clean the people out of anyone who thought differently. So I became mayor. But I did not know their plan of what they were thinking.
This was the worst experience of my life. I came there with the hope of bringing my talent to bear. With in one month the ten security guards came. I said I don’t want arms with me. I am a woman who came here with a different kind of life. I am never going to defend myself in this way. They tried to give me a vigilante guard. Supposedly to care for me but really to keep me under control. I wanted them to look after me like they look after the citizens. I don’t need protection for me alone I told them. I need protection for others. I need .for all the people to be protected.
Then they started saying I was a guerrilla. In the three years I was in charge they killed 1200 people, 43 women. The process of killing continued in San Jose where they killed 100 elders living in the country defending the rights.
Women, if we don’t have a political movement or work in an alternative movement, we have to start working in groups working in some form that permits us to have independence not just be a figurehead and no more. My experience showed me that I have to organize with other women and other men in an alternative political space.
Seventeen personal friends and colleagues, all working for the city like me, were very close to me. They were killed. For example I went to a meeting in NY and while I was away, they killed off my stand-in mayor. They just killed off a woman who became inconvenient to them. They didn’t expect me to be so outspoken They wanted a mayor as a figurehead to be quiet, but I was different. I looked for international solidarity. I looked for ways to speak out. For example, I contacted the Madres de Cinco de Mayo, in Argentina. They have been demonstrating for many many years about the death and disappearance of their children. I wanted to know why some women responded by withdrawing in pain, and other women responding to the same pain by mobilizing politically in marches and so on. They inspired me to continue working. They started a university to teach their wisdom and their ways as they realized they were getting older. I started a university for freedom of the peasants here too in a similar way, to train people in health and judicial practices and technical things as well.
But even so, I couldn’t protect people. The army and the police didn’t listen to me. I didn’t have authority. They don’t see us in the logic of their power. We are not even within the framework of the logic of that power, to them. When an intelligent woman, when women have different solutions, men get very afraid of their intelligence. And in a zone of war, a woman who thinks is a danger.
Women have to organize together to hear these stories and respect the work of the movement of women, but I believe that it is necessary that women work for gender equality. Each works on their separate issues. But what I am calling for is an interaction to value each of our particular work, and not to let each woman’s focus on her own issue keep her from joining in with the solidarity of the whole. To see each of these extreme situations as part of a larger movement. As a flag, as a protection of women, to extend into these regions with all theses characteristics. To live in the middle of such a complex situation.
For example the patriarchy divides us into church, academia, separate parts, with separate existences and we are divided into our particular problems and issues. We are all intelligent and investigating. We don’t see the women, the women in the war, the women in the politics, but not all the women are like the association that we could be. We only see our differences. We are divided in our struggles as women. We are too divided in our separate issues.
One day when I was mayor I was in a school, and the paramilitaries arrived and cut off the head of a child when I as the mayor was there. The child had witnessed the paramilitary Autodefenses Unida de Colombia, like a vigilante movement, write their graffiti initials on the wall, AUC. The child saw the man writing, it was written on the wall AUC as a form of control to show they had control like a vigilante working for the companies.
The kid saw them do it; he saw the group painting the wall of the school in graffiti and the kid of two years old was assassinated by the paramilitaries in front of all the school children. It was horrible. And it made me disconnect like a crazy person. I was not able to believe that I had seen this. The children came to protect me in the midst of this. They didn’t have weapons, but they came around me to protect me because the paramilitaries, the guerrillas and the army had a fight right outside the school.
The community of San Jose, I was close to. I was always 12 kilometers from the mountains to them. We had to send things to them like teachers etc but the guerrillas didn’t let anyone pass. Because I was the mayor I would try to go along to get the caravans with things through. The people of San Jose told me that the government and the army did not protect them. And the people said the mayor has no power. She comes to talk but she doesn’t do anything. So we will go to protect ourselves, not with arms; we will be a community of peace. The community was in the middle of areas controlled by the guerrilla, the army, and the paramilitary, but did not want to be a strategic military point being contested by the three groups, each of which wanted to extend its own land. I went for three days and returned. I don’t go alone but with a Brigade of Peace. When I go…I get denounced as if I were the army. The Colombian government in February of this year sent police to live within the community, The community therefore moved ten kilometers away. They started all over again building houses.
After I was through with being mayor, I was two years finished and went to Africa. Then I was in Kenya. I was in a project of UNESCO. UNESCO called me Mayor of Peace, and the Community of Paz. I was all known for this. I was awarded Woman of the Year in Colombian politics in 1996 also. I spent another year in Venezuela, another in Ecuador. But I stayed in contact with San Jose. Many of the people are afraid of the militaries in the region.
From 2002 ‘til today I am secretary general of the Social and Political Front. This is a movement that tries to reconnect al the movements of the left, Union Patriotico, the women’s movement, academics, etc. It is not paid work. But we have a small group, it is all over the country. And we are in a political process, called “alternativo democratico.” On the 18th of August we are going to have a national congress of all the people of the left the intellectuals, of those who work in the defense of human rights, to see if we can do something. Carlos Cabiria Diaz is our candidate for president from the Alternativo, but there are two candidates of the left; the other one is more center. He is named Antonio Wolf. They will both be running against the actual president who changed the constitution so that he could run again. Plus there will be five other candidates.
I want to run for the Senate of Colombia. But if you don’t come from a known family, if you don’t have money, and degrees, you can’t in our society. I need support to run for Senate as there is propaganda showing my face and saying I am part of FARC when I am not.
How would you like women around the world to help you now?
I would like to have the support of women’s groups to counter the campaign implying I am part of FARC and to help me in my campaign to be Senator. The election is next March. A special account will be set up in Sept or October. People should contact with any ideas of how to support my campaign.
*For other life stories of emerging women leaders in international perspective, see
Doris Earnshaw, ed. International Women Speak: The Emergence of Women’s Global Leadership. Davis, CA; Alta Vista Press, 2000. Batya Weinbaum has written and published extensively about the role of women in international left and peace movements. There will be international solidarity support actions for San Jose, the community of peace, starting on Sept 21 such as protests in front of Colombian embassies around the world.