By Tom Burke
The U.S. government is stepping up its surveillance and harassment of U.S. activists in an attempt to intimidate them and dampen their spirits for the change we believe in. International solidarity activist James Jordan was returning from a two week trip to Haiti, on Jan. 7, five days prior to the terrible earthquake disaster. When his flight touched down in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, flight attendants called out for “James Patrick Jordan” and asked him to come to the front of the airplane. Homeland Security came on board the airplane to escort him off.
Jordan said, “The agents put me up against a wall, kicked my legs apart and frisked me. They took me to a detention area, then a back room where two agents began going through all my papers, my cell phone and camera, all my bags, looking for Lord knows what?” Homeland Security was most interested in his notebooks concerning Haiti and Colombia.
The Haitian groups James met with organize against the grinding poverty, support workers’ rights and work to improve health care for the masses. Now hundreds of thousands of Haitians are dead in the earthquake and more will die due to poverty and lack of doctors and medicines. The U.S. government is responsible for the dire conditions in Haiti, holding the people down and suppressing any progressive change. In 2004, the U.S. military kidnapped President Aristide and overthrew his government. Aristide had disbanded the Haitian army a few years earlier to prevent a U.S.-backed military coup. President Aristide, a former Catholic priest, was making mild reforms to help the people of Haiti, but U.S. companies wanted privatization of the electric system and other services.
The Latin American Solidarity Coalition (LASC) in the U.S. sponsored Jordan’s delegation, and his Colombia work was the focus of the interrogation. Jordan said, “I told them that two of us were in Haiti representing the Alliance for Global Justice [AFGJ] and that, specifically, I worked with the Campaign for Labor Rights, a part of AFGJ. And I explained that AFGJ was part of LASC. They asked about Chuck Kaufman and what kind of work he did. They wanted to know his flight information and I told them I didn’t know what it was. They asked me about the other delegates and I told them that I didn’t know their flight information and that I didn’t feel comfortable giving them names and other information about those delegates and they ceased questioning about them.”
Chuck Kaufman, also on his way home from Haiti, was detained and questioned in New York City. Chuck said, “I told them I was in Haiti. They asked what other countries I've visited and what I did there. I described a trip to Hiroshima, Japan and swimming with nurse sharks in Belize. They dropped the subject.” Chuck was held for a couple of hours and missed his connecting flight, forcing him to spend the night in New York.
James Jordan continues, “They were very interested in the folder I had about the terrible situation with the Colombian prisons, political prisoners and human rights violations. I am working on a project to advocate for better conditions at La Tramacua prison in Valledupar, Colombia - a prison that is very overcrowded, rife with violence and intimidation aimed at the political prisoners and imprisoned guerrillas, where inmates do not have access to sanitary toilet facilities and have access to drinkable water only ten minutes a day. There was also information about the relationship of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in funding, advising and restructuring this and other maximum-security prisons in Colombia. We are calling for an investigation of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ relationship with these prisons and what responsibility it bears for the conditions that exist there. Everyone hears about the White House closing Guantanamo, but the U.S. government is overseeing terrible things in Colombian prisons.”
Jordan emphasized, “There was a flier for my speaking at the School of the Americas protest this [past] year that featured a picture of Lily Obando. Lily Obando is a political prisoner we support and campaign for. The agents asked about Lily Obando, if she was part of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] or accused of being part of the FARC. I told them Lily is so accused, but the evidence against her is not credible. They seemed especially interested in notes I had taken from a Counter Punch article concerning the Valledupar prison in Colombia and the targeting of FARC members held as prisoners of war. I tell you the U.S. government is up to no good there.”
Lily Obando is internationally known for her recent report exposing the death squad murders of 1500 farm organizers and union members with FENSUAGRO. Obando is one of 7000 political prisoners and prisoners of war. Many are trade unionists, peasant organizers and community leaders; some are FARC and ELN guerrilla fighters, held by the Colombian government, many without trial.
There is a massive movement against the wealthy elite, including narco-traffickers, that rule Colombia. The U.S. government funds the notoriously corrupt Colombian military, giving it nearly $7 billion in the last ten years. The White House announced it is occupying seven military bases inside Colombia. This will expand the U.S. war in Colombia and threaten neighboring countries like Venezuela and Ecuador. Pentagon generals and the U.S. Southern Command direct the war that brings poverty, misery and death squads to the lives of Colombian peasants and workers. The U.S. Congress funds and covers for the most reactionary, corrupt and unsavory elements of the Colombian elite.
James Jordan, though a seasoned activist, said, “Certainly the process was intrusive, uncalled for and intimidating. I was unsure of what my rights were when they took me off the plane. I did not know if I should answer their questions or ask for a lawyer?”
Bruce Nestor, of Minneapolis, Minnesota and past President of the National Lawyers Guild, advises, “Homeland Security asserts an unprecedented right to search people’s papers and even the entire contents of their computers, when they cross the border back into the United States. In addition to treading upon constitutional rights to privacy and against unreasonable searches, much of this activity appears to be intelligence gathering directed at political activists traveling to countries which are actively challenging United States foreign policy. People need to know and assert their rights, to refuse to answer unwarranted questions and refuse consent to search of personal papers and electronics.”
We have heard from a number of activists and their families that they have been detained when returning from holiday trips abroad. The line of questioning is similar to the case of James Jordon where they are asked of political history regardless of the purpose of the trips the activists were taking. U.S. agents made insinuations and demanded answers that had nothing to do with the trips that these people were taking. It is clear the U.S. government is stepping up its harassment and repression of people organizing for fundamental social change.