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Colombia Action Network Meets, Demands U.S. Out

By Tom Burke

Chicago, IL – The Colombia Action Network held a successful conference here at DePaul University, Feb. 25-27. Eighty students, trade unionists and solidarity activists from eleven cities and eight universities attended. People came from as far as Montana, New Jersey, Minneapolis, Wisconsin Dells, New York, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Over a dozen Colombians from various movements and unions gave a strong feeling of unity and earnestness to the presentations and discussions. The Colombian activists are living in exile or came to the United States as part of the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center program to protect the lives of trade unionists.

Dan Kovalik of the United Steel Workers of America stated, “This past year alone, over 90 trade unionists lost their lives at the hands of Colombian military-run death squads.” Unfortunately, under Bush’s Department of Labor, the AFL-CIO solidarity program is being closed down, putting more Colombian trade unionists in harm’s way.

The keynote speaker at the Colombia Action Network (CAN) conference was Javier Correa, president of the Colombian food and beverage workers’ union SINALTRAINAL and leader of the worldwide Campaign to Boycott Coca-Cola. He spoke about the continuing struggle of his union and the great success of the Coke Boycott campaign. Javier Correa, himself a target of the right-wing paramilitary death squads, spoke about the nine trade unionists murdered by Coca-Cola’s death squads. Correa asked the Colombia solidarity activists, especially the students, to “continue to press their campaigns to kick Killer Coke off campus and support the Colombian workers.” [ See Fight Back! interview]

During the Coca-Cola Boycott panel, 50 people listened as Colombian trade unionist Luis Adolfo Cardona told his chilling tale of escape and survival from the clutches of a Coca-Cola death squad. SINALTRAINAL’s lead union negotiator, Isidro Gil, was shot dead at the Coca-Cola plant and the union hall was burned down that night. The same death squad came into the bottling plant, forcing all the Coke workers to sign letters resigning from the union. Coca-Cola refuses to accept responsibility for the nine murders or to recognize the crimes of its bottling company officials.

Luis Adolfo Cardona said, “We hold the Coca-Cola Company responsible for its crimes and condemn the destruction of our union through murder and intimidation. Plan Colombia, what we Colombians call Plan Washington, is George Bush’s plan for poverty and death in our country. Over $3.5 billion in U.S. tax dollars has been used to suppress unions, peasant groups and indigenous people so U.S. companies can take oil, coal, emeralds and other natural resources from our country. We need your help to build a movement to stop Plan Colombia.”

While many attending the CAN Conference lead local efforts in the Campaign to Boycott Coca-Cola, activists are launching a new campaign by the Colombia Action Network: “From Baghdad to Bogotá: No Blood for Oil!” Meredith Aby of the CAN says, “The U.S. government and big business corporations have one and the same agenda in Colombia – to dominate the country politically and militarily so as to pillage the natural resources, especially oil. Bush and big oil companies act like pirates; they sail in, take what rightfully belongs to the Colombian people and leave nothing but death and destruction behind them. The CAN makes the links between U.S. war and occupation in Iraq and in Colombia. We know the war on drugs is phony, that the ‘war on terrorism’ is just another excuse to expand the U.S. oil empire. The U.S. is losing hearts and minds both in Iraq and in Colombia, as well as here at home. Bush’s military adventures are failing and we must act now to stop Plan Colombia before it is too late.”

Dan Kovalik of the United Steel Workers of America spoke on the lawsuit filed in federal court against Occidental Petroleum and its ugly practices in Colombia. “Occidental Oil is the direct beneficiary of $99 million in taxpayer money to protect an oil pipeline in Arauca. There the U.S. advisors and soldiers train the 18th Brigade of the Colombian Army. The 18th Brigade gunned down three unarmed trade unionists on Aug. 5, 2004, just six months ago. This is what U.S. tax money is supporting. These are the supposed ‘anti-terror techniques’ in practice.”

Jhony Meneses, of the Taxi Drivers’ Union in Cartegena, Colombia, explained about U.S. military intervention and oil. “The U.S. military received $99 million from the U.S. Congress to patrol an oil pipeline that is largely used by Occidental Petroleum. In this area of Colombia, near Arauca, the unions, the peasant groups and the ordinary citizens have seen paramilitary death squads move in and force anyone opposed to the policies of Occidental Petroleum or the Colombian government flee the area or be murdered. First come the Colombian military with their U.S. advisors, and they tell the people, you better leave or the paramilitaries who follow us will ‘take care of you.’ Then the union and community leaders must make a difficult choice, stand their ground and possibly die, or abandon everything they have worked for.”

Meneses continued, “Of course this is all legal because no one in the military is held responsible to the laws – under the ‘War on Terrorism,’ anyone opposed to President Uribe’s policies is a suspect. Conservative politicians and the press label trade union leaders as ‘terrorists.’ So anyone demanding trade union rights or advocating for the environment or indigenous people asserting their sovereignty over their land is a ‘terrorist threat.’ This is the meaning of promoting American democracy in Colombia under Plan Colombia.”

The CAN Conference also hosted a unique panel entitled, “No blood for oil!” There was one bright light in the discussions about oil and politics. The Consul General of Venezuela, Martin Sanchez, spoke about the importance of oil to the whole of Venezuelan society. He said, “The Venezuelan government under President Chavez has restructured the national oil industry to benefit the Venezuelan people. The reforms eliminate whole layers of bosses and corrupt officials who did no work, but were being paid. The anti-corruption reforms allow Venezuela to use the savings and the profits from oil to build a new society that benefits working people. The Venezuelan government for the first time can invest in education, healthcare and infrastructure, to benefit all Venezuelans, not just the wealthy.”

Suzanne Adely of the Arab American Action Network spoke about U.S. war and occupation in the Middle East. Many participants said it was the most powerful speech they have heard concerning oil and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. She defended the right of the Iraqi people to resist occupation. Ms. Adely explained, “The outcome of the elections were predetermined in the sense that the new regime could only do the bidding of Bush and the Pentagon, given the ongoing U.S. military occupation and the failing attempt to put down the insurgency.”

She spoke about the unity of the Iraqi people in opposition to British and U.S. forces and the support of the Arab masses for the resistance. Ms. Adely related the Palestinian struggle for self-determination and the liberation of all of Palestine to the desires of people everywhere for freedom from colonialism and empire.

The conference then moved into workshops covering topics such as how to kick killer Coke off campus, organizing delegations to Colombia or to the World Youth Festival in Venezuela, how to organize and stop Plan Colombia, work against the ruinous Free Trade Agreements of Bush and the regional resistance to U.S. empire in Latin America.

One workshop dealt with the formation of a National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera, the FARC leader now imprisoned and on trial in the U.S. The Colombian speakers at the Conference insisted that Ricardo Palmera’s trial was a bad precedent for all Colombians and activists and liberation fighters around the world. They emphasized the need for the CAN to take up this campaign and oppose the U.S. extradition of any Colombians for trial in the U.S. The Colombians underlined in the workshop that U.S. solidarity activists must oppose any extraditions, because it undermines the sovereignty and self-determination of Colombia.

The final morning of the CAN Conference took up resolutions supporting the Colombian Oil Workers’ Union, USO; opposing Plan Colombia; supporting the campaign to Free Ricardo Palmera; supporting the Mar. 19 anti-war protests and calling for a national day of action on tax day, April 15.

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