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Colombia Action Network Meets, Plans National Day of Actions

By Tom Burke

Madison, WI – The Colombia Action Network gathered here March 8 to develop the campaign to boycott Coca-Cola, in defense of Colombian trade unionists. Luis Adolfo Cardona, the Colombian trade unionist who escaped kidnapping, torture and murder by Coca-Cola’s death squads, gave a talk about the grave human rights situation for Colombia’s workers.

Cardona said, “The world campaign against Coca-Cola has helped to reduce the death squad murders of trade unionists in Colombia, but the U.S. multi-national corporations and Colombian President Uribe have added new tactics. Uribe now falsely detains and jails hundreds of trade unionists on charges of ‘terrorism’ or criminal activity. Union leaders have a difficult time fighting for the rights of the workers while they are behind bars on trumped-up charges. Jailing leaders of unions and popular movements is part of Plan Colombia, the U.S. plan for war in our country.”

John Lugo of Colombia Action Connecticut spoke next, explaining the history of the people’s movements in Colombia and the negative impact of U.S. intervention – especially the growing military intervention.

Lugo stated, “The U.S. has been involved in Colombia’s civil war since 1964, when the CIA first advised Colombia’s government in setting up paramilitary death squads. Many times the people’s movements have attempted peaceful roads to social change, as in the late 1980s and 1990s, when the Patriotic Union – a legal political party – won millions of votes in elections. Death squads connected to the Colombian military murdered nearly 4000 members of the Patriotic Union, from presidential candidates to election workers. Hope for peaceful change was killed. In recent years, the Colombian government has been losing control as the rebel insurgency grows, so direct U.S. military intervention has increased.”

Meredith Aby of the Anti-War Committee in Minnesota spoke about U.S. intervention and militarization in Colombia, “Plan Colombia is a plan for war, a plan for misery and poverty and a plan for death. Plan Colombia was introduced by democrats Clinton and Gore. As part of the ‘war on terror,’ Bush has increased military aid to Colombia, using our tax money to protect Occidental Oil’s pipeline, introducing 1200 Green Berets as advisors. Now three U.S. intelligence personnel have been captured and are being held by Colombia’s revolutionary movement – the FARC-EP. The U.S. is clearly involved in Colombia’s civil war.”

Building the Fight

The meeting summed up lessons learned and discussed how to lead the campaigns forward on campuses, in unions and communities. Katie Williams of DePaul University’s Boycott Coca-Cola Campaign announced a victory. DePaul’s administration wrote a letter to the Workers’ Rights Consortium requesting an investigation of Coca-Cola’s crimes against trade unionists in Colombia. This will begin a public investigation and reporting process that the United Students Against Sweatshops and the Colombia Action Network were key to kick starting.

Katie Williams said, “DePaul must follow their own Catholic Vincentian principles of faith and act accordingly. The University took a moral stand and agreed to the investigation of Coca-Cola. We hope it leads to ending the exclusive Coca-Cola contract on campus. We want to change the human rights situation for trade unionists in Colombia.”

Another panelist, Fred Gomez of Northeastern Illinois University, said student organizers need two things, patience and persistence. He told how a small group of activists on his campus collected over 500 signatures on a CAN petition and got the endorsement of 18 student groups after a few months of hard work. Their campus administration advised them to write a Freedom of Information Act Request to obtain a copy of Coca-Cola’s contract. Next, their Campaign to Boycott Coca-Cola will approach student government for a resolution backing the effort. They have built tremendous public support at this diverse campus of working class, oppressed nationality and immigrant students.

Gomez stated, “We table every week, but we do it actively. While one person sits in the main hallway, the others go around the halls and the cafeteria collecting petition signatures and explaining the deadly situation in Colombia that our tax dollars support and U.S. companies take advantage of.”

Groups organizing the Boycott Coke Campaign have pushed it to new levels and have tied in to issues of oppressed peoples. At Northern Arizona University, Jeronimo Vasquez reports, “The students and community organized a march from campus to Flagstaff City Hall and occupied the busiest intersection during rush hour. Led by young college women, protesters leafleted drivers and were well received.”

Jeronimo explains another aspect of their work “The other success is in bringing the issue of the Colombian trade unionists and the Coca-Cola Boycott to the Hopi and Navajo reservations. There is a movement of parents concerned about Coca-Cola and tooth decay and health problems of Native children. Schools have banned Coca-Cola for health reasons in many places, so it is easy to talk with parents about the rights of Colombian trade unionists who Coke has attacked. We can also educate about Plan Colombia, oil corporations and the abuse of indigenous peoples in Colombia.”

In New York City, the Colombia Action Committee organized a forum with Irish and Irish-Americans on the plight of three Irishmen imprisoned by the Colombian government. The case is seen in the light of the Irish anti-colonial struggle over the last few hundred years. The Colombia Three have been in prison for three years, surrounded by 4000 right-wing paramilitary prisoners, while a trial with no evidence drags on. The three stand accused of aiding the revolutionaries of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP). In fact, they traveled to Colombia to study a peace process – later ended by the Uribe regime. The Three are now hostages of the death squad government.

Conference participant Conor McGrady, of New York, said, “In solidarity with the Colombian trade unionists, we are planning to spread the Coca-Cola Boycott throughout the Irish pubs in New York.”

In Missoula, Montana, Scott Nicholson of the Community Action for Justice in the Americas explained how community and student activists marched around campus and into the University of Montana’s administration office with a coffin, representing trade unionists murdered by Coca-Cola. The action by fifty protesters followed a meeting where University Vice President Bob Duringer said, “I do not have the luxury of caring about human rights.”

In Milwaukee, the group Compa organizes both in the community and on campus, producing music and artistic events that highlight the Coca-Cola Boycott.

The CAN meeting laid plans to develop the Boycott of Coca-Cola and build a protest movement against Plan Colombia. The Colombia Action Network created a flyer with the slogan, “From Baghdad to Bogota: No War for Oil!” that activists distributed at anti-war rallies across the U.S. on March 20.

National Day of Action

The CAN is going all out for National Day of Action on tax day, April 15. On this day, supporters of Colombia will demand that no tax dollars be spent on Plan Colombia and will point out how multi-national corporations like Coca-Cola operate outside the law.

The CAN also endorsed an International Day of Indigenous Action on March 11, 2004, marked by protests and events from Arizona to Latin America to Africa.

Finally, the CAN will travel to Colombia for a solidarity trip, hosted by the USO (the Colombian Oil Workers’ Union) and Reiniciar, a Bogota-based human rights group. They will be meeting with and talking strategy with the Coca-Cola workers’ union, SINALTRAINAL. The CAN delegation will also investigate U.S. chemical fumigation policies and the human rights situation for trade unionists and peasant organizations.

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