Volume 1, Number 14
11 June 2001

Land Seizure in Cali

Dear Friends,

As Luigi and I toured the slums of Cali in his Volkswagen, we found ourselves at a dead end before a large ceibo tree. Ahead lay a field, about a mile long and half a mile wide, dotted with what seemed like tents in a campground and families enjoying a Sunday school picnic. On closer inspection they were tiny shacks framed by branches or cardboard, mainly covered with cloth. In front of each sat a family, usually with several children. Upon spotting us, many surged out to surround our Volkswagen, threatening, looking fearful and serious. They pressed so close we could not turn around and go away. They just stood and stared at us.

Luigi was an American professor of economics at the University of the Valley, just finishing his term, and I was being interviewed as a possible replacement. Knowing my penchant for the poor of Latin America, he had suggested we visit the slums. But we had not expected this fearful turn of events.

After a few moments of standoff, a passage opened up in the crowd, and a young man with a green armband pushed his way through. "Who are you?" he asked in an anxious voice, "and why have you come to our land invasion?"

"I am a professor of economics from the United States," I replied, "and I am interested in land invasions. Maybe you would show us yours?" Immediately a smile came upon his face, and when he smiled, the others showed relief.

"My name is Reynaldo Polonía," he said. "The ownership of this field has been in dispute by two rich families since 1820. While it has lain unused for over a century, many Colombians do not have a place to live. That is unfair," he went on. "So one night we decided to take it."

Polonía led us through the crowd and into the field where he introduced his assistant, Ejidio Restrepo. They explained that they had formed a committee to study the city's development plan for this land: where to put streets and other facilities. Respecting this plan, they had assigned plots to all the homeless they could recruit — 26,000 of them — and held meetings to discuss their own plans. They would invade the land all on one night, and in the morning each family would dig a ditch to delineate its pre-assigned plot. A string would not do, since it could be moved. Then they would build rudimentary huts, which they called chocitas.

They had rules. No liquor. No firearms. No violence of any sort. The committee wore green arm bands. If a dispute arose, the parties would seek out the first person with a green arm band who would decide it on the spot. Any who disagreed or quarreled or disobeyed the rules would lose their plots. Outside the field, congregated under the ceibo tree, were over 100 "would-bes," waiting in case a plot should become available.

I came back alone the next day, to spend the weekend going from chocita to chocita, asking the families about themselves. Children would follow me, so when I took a picture of a family by its chocita, usually the same children were in it. The only way to know how many were in one family was to ask the parents; they varied from none to seven, with more families at the larger end.

All were friendly, expressing concern that the American people should know of their plight. Many had lived in Cali, but most had migrated from the countryside, looking for work. About half the men were employed, earning not enough for a decent house; the women looked after the children. A few had lived in shanty towns, but most had slept under bridges or in the parks. All that I encountered were unskilled. "We do not want to steal this land," they said. "When we have enough money, we will buy it."

They had no political interests or affiliations. They were not revolutionaries. All they wanted was jobs and a place to live.

"How much will you pay for your plot? I asked." "Ten dollars (equivalent in pesos)", they replied, uniformly as if they had rehearsed in advance. I knew the market value of such land was much, much higher.

Those who had money bought food for those who had none, and these amounts were supplemented by sympathetic people from the neighboring slums. A tiny church was being constructed, with only the framework finished. A priest would come once a week to say mass. One woman showed me a box with the words, Ayudanos en nuestra lucha, con tu óbolo ("Help us in our struggle with your pittance").

On Sunday night, I bid them farewell. As I was about to leave, Polonía sidled up to me and said, "I want you here tomorrow at three o'clock."

"I can't," I replied. I had an appointment at the central bank in Bogotá, and my plane would leave at four.

"You must be here at three," he said. "The army will be here to rout us, and I want you to see it, to report to the American people." I asked how he knew. "We have our spies," he said,

It was a hard choice. The central bank dignitaries were to meet my plane, and I didn't even know what hotel I would stay in. The next flight (at 8 o'clock) would arrive after the close of business. Would I be stranded? But I had to stay in Cali. I would find the bank officers somehow and apologize. After all, missing a plane is not such a great sin.

At three o'clock Monday afternoon, Luigi and his wife, Silvia, and I were at the invasion site in the Volkswagen. In the center of the field Restepo was waving the Colombian flag, a signal for all to gather. "The army is coming," he announced, "and you know what to do." (They had rehearsed in advance). "You will go to your chocitas, raise the small Colombian flag, and sing the national anthem, to show your patriotism. When the army asks you to leave, go to the side of the field, and stand there. There will be no violence."

The army arrived, in military trucks, bayonets drawn. They went to the center of the field and ordered the families to leave. All left peacefully. One by one, the army burned the chocitas. One woman, tears streaming down her cheeks, approached me as I clicked my camera. "That's right," she said. "Take pictures. Show the American people how the Colombian army treats its people!"

Outside, under the ceibo tree, a man with a green arm band stood on a table, exhorting the "would-bes." "Don't go away," he called. "We can outstay the army."

Twenty-six thousand people, standing several deep, silently at the edge of the field, watching their houses burn, was an awesome sight. Whoever said Latin Americans were a violent people!

At that point Restrepo approached us, holding up a newspaper to shield his face. "They have arrested Polonía," he said, "and they're looking for me. Can you help me escape?"

I looked at Luigi. It was his Volkswagen, and his call. I could imagine him thinking of tomorrow's possible headline: "American Professors Arrested Helping Criminal Escape."

But we all three knew we had to do it. Restrepo crowded himself between the front and back seats of the Volkswagen with a blanket hiding him, Luigi and Silvia sat in front, and I in back with my feet on top of Restrepo's blanket. As we drove through the military lines, I smiled and waved at the soldiers. They waved back, not knowing we were helping their quarry escape.

We left Restepo in the center of town, and I have not seen him since. Luigi and Silvia drove me directly to the airport, to catch the eight o'clock flight to Bogotá. At the counter, the agent said, "Hurry, the plane is about to leave." I ran out to the field and up the stairs on to the plane. No sooner was I in my seat than the doors shut, and the plane took off. But it was only quarter to eight. I called the stewardess over.

"Is this the flight to "Bogotá?" I asked. After an affirmative reply, I asked why it was leaving fifteen minutes early. "Oh," she said, "this is the four o'clock flight."

The central bank dignitaries were at the airport to meet me, dressed in dark suits with neckties. It was a different world. They apologized for Avianca, the national airline. "That's all right," I said. "I have friends in Cali who kept me well entertained."

The next day we met in their luxurious headquarters to talk about national income.

All this occurred in 1963. In June 2001, while I am traveling away from my files, I will pull up some "old stuff," to help explain why I decided, in 1970, to quit consulting governments, and to study the causes of poverty.

I did get news later from Luigi. The invaders had indeed stayed until the army withdrew, then rebuilt their chocitas. There were other forced evacuations, in one of which a woman was killed. Finally they made peace with City Hall; they were allowed to stay and build more durable structures. They did not own the land, but they were no longer forced off it. As happens in many places in the Third World, land is occupied but unowned. Ten years later, when a student of mine was to visit Cali, I showed her the invasion site on a map. When she came home, she reported that it was a slum just like any other. No one there had heard of Reynaldo Polonía or Ejidio Restrepo or indeed that any land invasion had occurred at all!

Next week I will tell about my contacts in the Black homelands of South Africa during Apartheid, and after that my ten years conducting seminars for Latin American Marxist students who strongly criticized the United States. That will include my meeting with Paraguayans plotting the overthrow of the dictator, General Stroessner. Keep tuned!

After that, we will get back to current happenings.

Sincerely your friend,

Jack Powelson

Readers' Comments

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Jack, please write more personal stories about your experiences in the slums of the world. I had read about the poor in Cali, Columbia trying to take over unused land (or similar situations in S.A.) but reading a personal experience about that problem paints the picture in brighter colors. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.

— Lorna Knowlton, Boulder, CO.

One morning we opened our local newspaper [while living in Cali] to the headline that Jack Powelson says that Colombia's problems won't be resolved until there is land reform AND the U.S. ambassador trying to tone down the truth of Jack's remarks. What a pleasure to read 'the truth'!

[Editor's note: This reference is to a later visit of mine to Colombia, not the one written about here. — Jack]

The government was under a great deal of internal pressure and declared martial law in 1965-66, saying it could no longer defend the citizens. The Country Club (company paid) members (women) were offered training by the army in self-defense - how to shoot and handle a gun. Tom [Amy's husband] insisted I take it as he was gone for weeks at a time in his work and would feel safer for me to be knowledgeable. In the time I received the training (about 100 women, 20% American) I learned more about the Army. A colonel and other minor officers were our teachers. Most soldiers and some officers were quietly sympathetic to the poor people, as they had been poor themselves, and were the ones who supplied books etc. to the country schools. I knew there were many people of good will working behind the scenes.

— Amy Cooper, Lafayette CA (and Cambridge MA Friends Meeting).


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Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board

  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Herbert Fraser, Richmond (IN) Friends Meeting.
  • Asa Janney, Herndon (VA) Friends Meeting.
  • Gusten Lutter, Mountain View Friends Meeting, Denver (CO).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor.
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Wilmer Tjossem, Des Moines Valley (IA) Friends Meeting.
  • Faith Williams, Bethesda (MD) Friends Meeting.

Members of the Editorial Board receive Letters several days in advance for their criticisms, but they do not necessarily endorse the contents of any of them.

This newsletter was formerly known as The Classic Liberal Quaker.

Copyright © 2001 by Jack Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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