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Bearing Witness

Powered by prayer and awareness, Gail Phares campaigns against dirty wars in Latin America


A nation searching for sensible ways to counter terrorism could learn a lot from Gail Phares, even though she's never fired a gun or dropped a bomb.

"We do not fight terrorism by making war," Phares says. "I don't justify anybody doing terrorism, including my own government." Instead of meeting violence with violence, Phares wields her faith and her power as a witness and an advocate. Hers is not an impractical, pie-in-the-sky idealism: She's been standing up to terrorists for more than 30 years.

Phares, who lives in Raleigh, is one of the country's leading human-rights activists. In the early 1980s, she founded the Carolina Interfaith Taskforce on Central America (CITCA) and helped start Witness for Peace--two groups that have made North Carolina an active hub for national campaigns against Washington's support for dictators and dirty wars.

As an organizer, educator, agitator and walking database of foreign policy information, Phares has done more than anyone else in this state to raise awareness about the effects of U.S. interventions in Latin America.

"Gail is an intense person, she is time-and-a-half on anything she does," says Joe Straley, a former UNC-Chapel Hill professor who heads the Chapel Hill branch of CITCA. "She always has about three irons in the fire at any one time. Each one of them would be a full-time operation for a normal person, but she handles them all."

Most of Phares' considerable energies go into raising awareness. "U.S. citizens are good people, but they're just not tuned in to foreign policy," Phares says. The best way to tune them in, she believes, is to escort them to the places where U.S. military aid and covert operations have contributed to violence and political repression. Toward that end, she's led dozens of delegations--with thousands of Americans--to Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico and Nicaragua.

And then she's led the delegations back home to spread the word. The visits to other countries are crucial, but "really, our work is here," Phares says. "It's always been about changing U.S. policy. If you are in Latin America, and you listen to people, they will say to you, 'Thanks for coming, but go home and change your country.' What I'm doing is empowering people, so that they know how to work with the press, with Congress, so they know how to give talks."

Phares has developed an intimate knowledge of how foreign policy is made, and that, along with her first-hand insight into the costs of U.S. interventions, makes her both an eloquent witness and an effective lobbyist.

A few weeks ago, for example, she was meeting with an aide to Sen. John Edwards, relating how U.S.-sponsored herbicide spraying over coca fields in Colombia has harmed humans, animals and the ecosystem. According to Phares, the staff member said, "Well, the senator's on the Intelligence Committee, so he has information you don't have."

"Excuse me," she responded, "but he's being handed a bill of goods about Colombia, and I have information that he doesn't have."

Phares, 62, has lived in Raleigh since 1982, but it's accurate to say she feels at home just about anywhere in the hemisphere. For the last four decades, she's darted back and forth between the United States and neighboring countries, and lived abroad for years.

The oldest of nine children in an affluent North Dakota family, after high school Phares opted out of the privileged life and joined the Maryknoll Sisters, a liberal Catholic order. Her first posting was to Nicaragua, where she taught school in rural areas from 1963-66.

Next she spent two years in Guatemala City, an assignment that "changed the way I see the world," Phares says. Denied land, livable wages and basic political rights, Guatemala's impoverished masses were also enduring a counterinsurgency campaign by the country's military. She worked on public health and literacy projects with student leaders and community organizers, "many of whom would later be killed by the security forces," she says.

It was then, Phares says, that Washington's role in furthering repression became clear to her. "It was right when the U.S. Army was training the Guatemalan army. We trained an army to focus on the civilian population--that's what counterinsurgency warfare is."

In 1968, Guatemala's generals expelled the Maryknoll order, and Phares was suddenly back in the United States, full of rage at her own government. "I really didn't want to come back," she says. But in hindsight, "it was sort of God's way of getting you where he needs you."

Where she was needed, it seemed, was Washington. She rapidly completed a master's degree in Latin American studies at American University, and then began a five-year stint with the Inter-American Foundation, administering grants to grassroots projects in Latin America.

Phares says her anger cooled as she learned she could have an impact on policy. In 1979, she founded the National Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, and began publicizing the scorched-earth campaign the military was then waging against peasant villages.

Phares moved to the Triangle shortly after the newly elected Reagan administration widened the U.S. role in several low-intensity wars in Latin America. In response, she decided to see if her style of faith-based activism could take root here. She started by founding CITCA, coordinating the efforts of churches to promote peace in Central America. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the taskforce had 26 chapters in North and South Carolina.

In April of 1983, Phares took a group of 30 concerned citizens and church people, most from North Carolina, to Nicaragua on a fact-finding mission. The Reagan administration had launched a destabilization campaign against the country, funding the contra rebels, which quickly earned a reputation for brutality. Phares' tour group visited a village on the Honduran border where a notorious contra commander had been staging hit-and-run attacks.

As long as the CITCA delegation was in town, the contras' guns were silent; the North Americans, it seemed, were forming a human shield. Phares and other trip leaders realized, here was a practical way to interrupt this war. When they got home, they launched Witness for Peace.

"So we put out a call, out of North Carolina, that we wanted to have people from all 50 states on the ground" in Nicaragua, she recalls. "And the response was overwhelming. So many people were upset about what our government was doing that they were ready to go put their bodies on the line and risk their lives. We took 157 people."

A national movement was born. That first trip would be followed by dozens of others, and Witness for Peace became a major presence in Congressional debates over Central America policies. In his book, Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement, UNC-Chapel Hill sociology professor Christian Smith credits the group with "generating the basis of a massive, grassroots domestic opposition to the administration's Central America policy."

Today, Phares serves as director of the southeast chapter of Witness for Peace, and she's leading the group's projects in war-torn Colombia. So far, she's led two delegations there, and has another planned for January.

On the trips, she's met with everyone from military commanders to the U.S. ambassador to local officials, small farmers and indigenous people in areas most impacted by the so-called war against drugs. In reality, Phares warns, it's a war against people, and the United States is supporting another brutal counterinsurgency, since the U.S.-backed Colombian military is working hand in hand with paramilitary death squads.

With so much attention focused on the war against terrorism, Phares says, "Colombia's a hard sell." But she's encouraged by the enthusiastic response she's still getting for the delegations, particularly from college students. "My experience has been that if you can get a critical mass, if you can get enough people from enough states with firsthand experience, they will come home and change things."

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