Picture the scene. It's early January. U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Ann Patterson—elegantly attired in a cardinal skirt-suit and cream silk blouse with matching spectator pumps—stands on the greasy tarmac at the military airfield outside Bogota. Behind her loom 14 twin-turbine Black Hawk helicopters outfitted for anti-armor missions, just arrived from the Sikorsky factory in Stratford, Connecticut. Colombian President Andres Pastrana, a light breeze riffling his silvered hair, steps forward to accept this generous gift from the American people. In the warm Andean sun, Ambassador Patterson closes the deal.
One day later, on Jan. 8, Pastrana broke off the three-year-old peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—the oldest armed leftist insurgency in Latin America—paving the way for the next stage of the U.S. "war on terrorism."
By the time the press release was out announcing the end of the peace process, the Colombian army had massed troops in preparation to reoccupy the FARC zone. The brutal right-wing paramilitaries were also moving into place. U.S. embassy officials were in a flurry of meetings, seeking authorization and resources for aiding the Colombian military. In the quickly forming DMZ, people panicked. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. Just prepare to be massacred.
The political and economic machinations of the globe's superpower were gathering again in relentless forward motion that would reelect senators, secure defense contracts, ease the way for multinational oil companies, and remind the world that the president was not at war with Islam but with terrorists, wherever they may hide. For the Bush administration, this was a scenario made in heaven. What on earth could stop it?
ENTER MEDELLIN Archbishop Alberto Giraldo, president of the Colombian council of churches, and papal envoy Beniamino Stella. It was the pleas and prayers of these two men, plus the behind-the-scenes work of Colombian, faith, peace, and human rights groups, that turned the scenario on its head. Their pressure created the necessary opening for U.N. special adviser James LeMoyne and representatives from the "group of 10" (European and Latin American countries most heavily invested in a negotiated truce) to begin an 11th-hour effort of shuttle diplomacy.
Four hours before troops, tanks, and air defense forces were to cross the line, LeMoyne used his wits, excellent Spanish, the non-military resources promised by European countries, and a bottle of 18-year-old whiskey to secure an agreement between Pastrana and rebel leader Manuel Marulanda to continue the talks—thus saving thousands of lives. According to the agreement, FARC and the government immediately began discussions on the cessation of hostilities, the suspension of kidnappings, and the pursuit of concrete agreements. The government committed to combat paramilitary groups with all its power.
No one knows how these negotiations will ultimately unfold. But for the moment, let's hold on to the truth that in a thatched-roof hut deep in the jungle of southern Colombia, pastors and politicians, generals and pacifists sat down together and averted a war that the world's strongest superpower deemed necessary and desirable. "The harvest of the seeds we sowed years ago allowed us to find ways out of this most recent crisis," said Mennonite peace negotiator Ricardo Esquivia.
In a time when Americans are swept up in a war frenzy and a worldview mediated through the Bush administration's increasingly suspect political agenda, it is incumbent upon U.S. churches to look for pragmatic avenues toward peace. It is time for the Black Hawks to move over.
The church has a different agenda for securing a just peace. It involves nonviolent, democratic efforts to satisfy human needs, treat all people with the highest sense of dignity, build long-term models of reconciliation between warring factions, and hold all parties equally accountable for their actions. This is the only model that promises success in securing stable societies and drying up the sources of injustice that supply the foot soldiers for militant ideologues.
Rose Marie Berger is assistant editor of Sojourners.