Fight Back! News

News and Views from the People's Struggle

Eyewitness Colombia

By Meredith Aby

Interview with Marty Hoerth, Tsione Wolde-Michael and Erika Zurawski

Meredith Aby of Fight Back! interviewed members of a delegation to Colombia: Marty Hoerth, Tsione Wolde-Michael and Erika Zurawski.

Community Action for Justice in the Americas and the Colombia Action Network organized a delegation of student and community activists from Montana and Minnesota that traveled to Colombia in June. The delegation met with human rights organizations, labor unions and campesino (peasant) groups to investigate the true effects of U.S. military aid to Colombia.

Paramilitary death squads murder an average of two to three Colombian trade unionists every week. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International document that U.S. military aid, called Plan Colombia, funds the repressive Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary death squads. The U.S. has spent over $3.5 billion since 2000 to fund Plan Colombia.

Fight Back!: What did you see during your trip?

Erika Zurawski: U.S. military aid to Colombia just went up again, renewing $742 million in military aid. As a result, political repression by paramilitary death squads and the Colombian Army has risen dramatically. In the city of Tamé, 85 people were already assassinated from January to May 2005. The situation is deteriorating. Colombians directly relate this to U.S. military aid.

While we were in Tamé, we heard the testimonies of around 50 people with the courage to denounce the massacres of the people in their city. Some of these testimonies were made at a public meeting where paramilitaries were present. The people of Tamé, like the rest of Colombia, are dedicated to resisting oppression and to working towards positive change.

Fight Back!: What is the current situation for the Coca-Cola workers’ union, SINALTRAINAL?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: Coke’s new move is to use psychological tactics in addition to physical ones to dissuade Colombians from joining the union. Company representatives scare workers’ families into signing ‘voluntary agreements’ to resign from their jobs. The Coke psychologists say if the father or mother does not resign, they will get no compensation from Coca-Cola. If the workers resign then Coca-Cola takes no responsibility in lawsuits for job layoffs or if they are murdered.

Nine SINALTRAINAL trade unionists have been killed by Coca-Cola death squads. Local vice president William Mendoza specifically credited the Coca-Cola boycott with protecting them and helping them keep their jobs. Because of the Coke boycott, Mendoza receives a call once a month from the U.S. Embassy to see if he’s alive. In 2003, when eleven Coca-Cola plants were closed, pressure from the Coke boycott forced the company to relocate the union workers instead of throwing them on the street. The international boycott has helped keep the Coca-Cola workers’ union alive.

Fight Back!: Under Plan Colombia, the U.S. government purchases chemical poisons for the Colombian government’s aerial spraying in the countryside. What is the impact that you saw of U.S.-sponsored fumigation in Colombia?

Tsione Wolde-Michael: The fumigation is interesting when you look at it in the context of the ‘war on drugs.’ Our U.S. tax dollars are supposed to be spent to help fight the drug war and coca production. We see that fumigation kills the coca, yes, but it also kills legal crops and animals. People are sprayed too!

In the end, even people growing legal crops are forced to grow coca. The reason is, when you grow a legal crop and the government sprays you, you do not have your crops to sustain yourself, and your animals are dying off, and your family members are sick. You either get up to move, which is sometimes what the government wants so they can get your land, or you begin to grow coca. Campesinos decide to grow coca because it will eventually grow in the polluted soil and it has a guaranteed income.

In Santo Domingo, helicopters fly in to come pick up coca. Whereas farmers who grow legal crops take a three-hour mule ride followed by a two-hour boat ride to get their crops to market. It just is not worth it to take that trip. Conveniently, it is great for U.S. policy because it looks like Bush is trying to stop drugs, when in fact all the money is going to the paramilitaries and military. Fumigation forcibly displaces people and creates opportunities for U.S. corporations to exploit the land and resources.

The ‘war on drugs’ is really about securing U.S. interests and having another puppet government that is strategically placed next to Venezuela and near Bolivia. By controlling Colombia, the U.S. is trying to prevent the full realization of the Bolivarian process – the unity of South American countries against U.S. imperialism.

Fight Back!: You met with many social organizations who are fighting for economic and political rights in Colombia. What dangers do they face from the right-wing government of President Uribé?

Marty Hoerth: Social organization leaders face warrants and arrest. While the police do not immediately act upon them, the warrants limit the movement and organizing of those leaders.

We witnessed this with the campesino leader Álvaro Manzano. We were supposed to accompany him back to his hometown. Previously, he had been arrested, detained and forced to sign a confession that he was a guerilla fighter. The government used this signed paper as ‘evidence’ of rebel activity and further targeted his fellow activists. He escaped from the secret police, the DAS, and went to Bogotá. Eventually he needed to return home, so he took a bus to meet us in Barrancabermeja but only a block from the bus station he was arrested again by the DAS. He was with a member of our U.S. delegation. Fortunately, two weeks later Álvaro was released without charges due to a lack of evidence.

Many leaders have these arrest warrants out for them and can be imprisoned at any time. Three years ago the government had arrest warrants out for six activists on the board of directors of the Cimitarra River Valley Peasants Association, now it is sixty.

Fight Back!: What connections do you see between the U.S. occupation in Iraq and the U.S. intervention in Colombia? What connections do Colombians make between these two areas of U.S. foreign policy?

Erika Zurawski: Colombia, like Iraq, is an oil-rich and occupied country. The difference is that the U.S. is more able to hide their involvement in Colombia because their government bows to U.S. interests. The U.S. cannot hide their involvement, however, from the Colombian people, who say that policies in Colombia are made by the U.S. State Department. Colombians do not choose to displace themselves and give their land to multinational corporations.

Colombia is a land occupied by soldiers and paramilitaries, and those fighting for the people of Colombia are labeled as terrorists and are the targets of assassinations, disappearances and death threats. In Iraq, the U.S. is trying to secure the same government compliance as in Colombia. Though U.S. presence in Iraq is visible now, without the resistance forces that continue to fight against the occupation, a sovereign Iraq will disappear under neo-liberal oppression, as in Colombia.

Colombians understand that resistance to U.S. occupation in Iraq is resistance to U.S.-led oppression in Colombia. A victory by the resistance in Iraq will be a victory to the people in Colombia because it will be a blow to the U.S. agenda of war and terror. Just as Colombians who fight for justice are not terrorists, neither are the Iraqis. Alirio Joreda, a former local president of USO, said, “We admire the strength of the resistance of the Iraqi people in defense of their national sovereignty and will continue to carry out actions in support of them.”

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