Life Onboard
Lisa Sullivan: Growing peace in Venezuela, Nov 28, 2015
Peace activist Lisa Sullivan joined the ship as a guest educaor as it crossed the Atlantic to provide insight into Latin America's history.
Lisa Sullivan was not always a gardener. When she and her family arrived in Bolivia in 1985, she wasn't thinking about what trees to plant by their new house on the lake, or what flower cuttings to ask for from her neighbors. Instead, she found herself surrounded by death. She was working in a poor indigenous community at a time when children in Bolivia were dying every day from disease and malnourishment. "To experience that, you realize the toll it takes on you," says Ms. Sullivan, who has three children of her own. Nothing grew around their house, but on the other side of the lake was a patch of grass. Every so often she would take her truck around and cut a square of it to plant by her home. "I had never planted a thing in my life," she says. "But in three years, I had a lawn." This was how she dealt with the suffering around her, she says, though she didn't realize it at the time. She just wanted to see something grow.

Thirty years later, peace activist Lisa Sullivan joined Peace Boat's 88th voyage. During her fifth visit onboard the ship she helped participants understand Latin American history its relationship with the US and shared how her love for growing things has become her life.

Ms. Sullivan invites participants to play an active role in her presentations onboard.
Ms. Sullivan first came to Latin America in 1977. It was a time of fear, civil war and brutal dictatorships. In Guatemala and El Salvador, where she lived for some time, people were being "disappeared": kidnapped by the military, their bodies never found. El Salvador was receiving military aid from the United States and sending its troops to train at the School of the Americas (SOA), a United State military training institution. The school is infamous for the use of torture and other human rights violations in its training curriculum and many of Latin America's most brutal generals and dictators were graduates of SOA. It was closed in 2000 as a result of domestic and international pressure, only to be quietly reopened in Fort Benning, Georgia as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) at the start of 2001.

The faces of forty-three students murdered in Mexico .
After twenty-one years living and working in communities ravaged by these oppressive regimes, backed by the US. Ms. Sullivan joined School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch), a Washington D.C.-based grassroots movement that monitors graduates of WHINSEC/SOA and campaigns to close the institution for good. She traveled to eighteen Latin American countries as the SOA Watch Latin American Coordinator and met with ten presidents, convincing all but three to commit to no longer sending military personal to be trained there. Though the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation remains open, fewer troops are sent every year, with 90% coming from Columbia alone. "You're up against the Pentagon, an out and out victory is next to impossible," she says of her accomplishments at SOA Watch. "But at least you feel like you've kicked them in the shin." Ms. Sullivan has spoken about the work of SOA Watch in detail during her previous visits onboard Peace Boat as a guest educator while she was their Latin American Coordinator.

Working with SOA Watch meant years of meeting people who had been tortured or had lost family. Just as in Bolivia, the experience took its toll. "It was like putting your finger in the wound for eight years," she says. She decided her next chapter would be dedicated to life. "Our work [at SOA Watch] was defined by something we were against," she says. "I wanted my life to be defined by what I am for." What she was for was peace, the earth, and children; thus, the Kaikauri Peace Center was born.

To prepare participants for their arrival in Latin America, Ms. Sullivan held a quiz show challenging two teams on their knowledge of Latin American culture.
The center lies in the foothills of the Andes in Sanare, Venezuela. After buying the land in 1990, Ms. Sullivan would retreat there to plant trees and play with local children. The idea for the center "grew organically" through her work with these children, both in Sanare and in the city of Barquisimeto. "Kids rarely have space to appreciate beauty," says Ms. Sullivan, who regularly invites youth from the city to take part in exchanges with rural children at the center. The Kaikauri's main objectives are reviving local permaculture and promoting values of non-violence, leadership, and community.

Most food in Venezuela is imported. Ms. Sullivan says the soil is good, but as oil trade in the country boomed, many people left working the land for easier income. "It's a culture that forgot its roots of feeding itself," she says. Conuco is Venezuela's indigenous farming method of cultivating small, sustainable farms. Ms. Sullivan invites rural children from the area to garden at her home and reconnect with this part of their history. Every time a tree is planted, it is named after a child. There are now nearly five hundred trees on Kaikauri's five acres. Most are fruit trees, but Ms. Sullivan says they are planting more native trees with medicinal purposes, and have been seed-saving to recover the area's lost diversity.

The center also provides a space for gatherings and dialogue. "I'm such a believer in face-to-face interchange," says Ms. Sullivan, who compares the center to a mini, inland Peace Boat. The center recently hosted a gathering of youth from eighteen Latin American countries to discuss demilitarization and the future of their nations. The peace center offers a safe place for people to come together to create positive change.

Roleplaying as Sherlock Holmes, Ms. Sullivan "investigated" the facts and myths of the "War on Drugs."
Music is Ms. Sullivan's other love, and is a big part of life at the peace center. "It is because of music that I fell in love with Latin America," she says. For twenty years she has been teaching Afro-Venezuelan music to city children, and finds it builds students' self-confidence. "I realized it was a great way to teach kids who weren't necessarily really good in school," she says. "It's amazing the talent you can find in kids." As she taught students with her partner and future husband, she encouraged them to share their knowledge with their peers. "It became our motto that as soon as you learn, you teach," she says. She eventually founded the San Juan Cultural Movement and built a center in the barrio in Barquisimeto. Now she takes these students up to the Kaikauri center to perform and make friendships with youth from more rural backgrounds.

Ms. Sullivan has played the Venezuelan cuatro for twenty-five years. Here she plays along as participants sing a song about Venezuela.
During her time onboard the 88th voyage, Ms. Sullivan used her time with participants to challenge their preconceptions about Latin America and shed light on the history of the region. Many countries in Latin America are rich in resources, and in the past the United States supported and empowered brutal regimes in exchange for favorable trade policies. The School of the Americas is one of the tools the United States used to keep its allies in power, despite the human rights abuses committed by many of the graduates. Ms. Sullivan used skits to illustrate the rise and fall of dictatorships, the myths surrounding the United States' "War on Drugs," and the consequences of corporate influence.

Music also played a role in Latin American history, and Ms. Sullivan took participants on a musical journey through some of the most influential songs of the era. In her final workshop, participants gathered around her to sing songs in Spanish. She welcomed them to come visit her at the Kaikauri center, where they can play music and plant with her on her hill in Venezuela. "It opens up your heart, it opens up your mind," she says of her garden home. "It opens up your soul."