Last November, a gathering outside the World of Coca Cola Museum in Atlanta, Georgia heard a bloody story. Edgar Paez, a Colombian unionist from the Coca Cola bottling plant in Carepa, Colombia, told the crowd that on the morning of December 5, 1996 the paramilitary squad, United Self Defence Forces (AUC), appeared at the gates of the factory. When Isidro Segundo Gil, an official of the union, went to see what they wanted, the AUC opened fire and killed him. That evening, the squad broke into the union’s office and burned it down. The next day, a group of heavily armed men called the workers together and warned them that if they didn’t resign by 4pm, what happened to Gil would also happen to them. In the end, the workers quit to save their lives, and the union was completely destroyed. Since then, experienced workers, who had been earning $380-$400 a month, were replaced by new employees on a minimum wage of $130 a month. Paez’s union, joined by the United Steel Workers Union of America and the International Labor Rights Fund, is taking three companies — Coca Cola, the soft drink bottler Panamerican Beverages and Bebidas y Alimentos, owned by Richard Kirby of Key Biscayne, Florida — to court in the United States. They are charging the three companies with complicity in the assassinations of Colombian union leaders.
Paez links Coca Cola’s union busting in Colombia to the U.S. government’s so-called anti-drug offensive, named “Plan Colombia.” Said Paez: “Plan Colombia’s objective is the elimination of movements of social change in our country. That creates a much more favourable environment for the exploitation of our natural resources and our labour force.”
Leaders of the entire Colombian trade union movement, feminists, human rights lawyers and activists, and guerrilla fighters such as the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are all on the paramilitaries’ hit list. Backed by the Colombian government, the forces are directed by army officers trained in the U.S.-sponsored School of the Americas. Since 1999, they have operated with impunity under the Plan Colombia which, as Paez says, is about extending U.S. corporate control over the rich resources of the region. In the past four years, the greatest violence has occurred in regions where multinationals have special interests, such as the gold deposits where small-scale miners — Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and subsistence miners — are being forced off their land and their union leaders murdered. Overall, these communities account for 45% of the forced displacements and 58% of all massacres.
In October Jesus Gonzales, from the Colombian trade union association (CUT), and Pedro Mahecha Avila, representing the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, were on tour in Australia, organised by Australian Solidarity Network with Colombia. Debbie Brennan spoke to them.
Jesus Gonzales: “Over the past 15 years, the union movement in Colombia has lost more than 300,000 members, including women of great value. The conflict in Colombia has affected women the most. They are victims of human rights violations and treated by the paramilitaries as trophies of war.
“In the year 2000, 128 women and men from CUT were assassinated. This year, 125 have been murdered. “Disappearances” are systematic, and the level of detentions has increased since organised protest was criminalised. Leaders of the petroleum sector unions are currently being targeted. There is an order for the arrest of 25 comrades, and seven have already been arrested.
“Plan Colombia is really a Plan Washington designed by the Pentagon and CIA. Its objective is not to eliminate the drug trade, but to control the territory of Colombia and also the Andes and the Amazon. It is a war plan that targets the social sectors by intervening either directly or through an international army from Latin America. By this means, it will violate the sovereignty of the countries in the region and take away the self-determination of our peoples. It will deny us the right to solve our own conflicts.
“The greatest problem for Colombia is social, and drugs are just a consequence. Coca production is the means of survival for Colombians, including the peasants who grow it. There are no markets anymore for the normal agricultural produce, like rubber, coffee and staple foods. Coca is easy to produce, and it attracts high prices.
“It is possible that the region could become another Vietnam, and September 11 gave the United States the excuse to intervene.
“The violation of human and civil rights by assassinations, forced disappearances and displacement of people is not only happening to trade unionists. It is happening to the Colombian people as a whole.”
Pedro Mahecha Avila: “Plan Colombia is an extension of North American imperialism. Washington wants to apply the doctrine of expansion through the excuse that in that part of the world, the security of the United States is at risk. For this reason, all democratic women and men of the world need to take a radical position of opposition. Plan Colombia is also a strategy to continue the plundering of our natural resources. One of its objectives is to dominate the Amazon. There will be massive environmental crimes, including a huge trafficking of flora and fauna.
“In relation to human rights, the impunity of crimes against humanity is 100%. Torture, massacres, political genocide, displacements and forced disappearances are not punished in Colombia. There are more than 40,000 crimes that have not been dealt with. In respect to these crimes, we demand that the truth should come out, the murderers must be punished and compensation must be paid to the families of the victims and to Colombian society in general.
“Sixty-two percent of Colombians live below the standards established by the United Nations. Of this majority, about 25% are totally without resources. This means desperate conditions.
“The situation for women is very difficult in Colombia. The forced displacements have meant that women must assume the role of head of the family, in addition to their other responsibilities. Women, like those in the Organizacion Feminina Popular, have been important to the struggle. It is a resistance of African Colombians, Indigenous people, workers, human rights defenders and the marginalised — all have been affected by neoliberal policies. Women’s role in this resistance is vital.
“In Colombia, women have a history and tradition of struggle, beginning with the Spanish invasion. Policarpa Salavarrieta was a leader who started the independence struggle. Maria Cano, who we call the Rosa Luxemburg of Colombia, was one of the women who planted the seeds of the Colombian Communist Party and was much loved by the women and men of the country. Yiea Castro and Carmenza Londonjo were guerrilla leaders in the liberation struggle who died in combat.
“All solidarity organisations need to observe the Colombian situation. It is important to be clear that the popular press’s depiction of resistance fighters as narcotics traffickers and terrorists is disinformation. Any political person in the world would understand that this is a struggle for political power in Colombia.
“Colombia must go through fundamental structural change, because for more than 100 years, we have had a political regime that socially excludes people. That is why since 1960, a great part of the Colombian population define the struggle as a socialist one. To eliminate our structural problems means the elimination of capitalism. Meanwhile we believe that the rights of the Colombian people must be respected — not only their rights and freedom to elect but also to have housing, education, nutrition and culture. We believe that a political solution to the armed struggle must come with social justice.
“We have received a lot of solidarity from Australian workers. The enthusiastic support from all the women and men we have met makes us feel that our tour has been a great success. Trade unions, politicians and organisations in Australia have committed to make strong demands on the Colombian government for human rights.”
Solidarity and support can be sent through letters to President Pastrana, demanding that the Colombian government stop the atrocities, disband the paramilitary forces, prosecute them for their crimes and compensate the victims and their families. For more information, contact Australian Solidarity Network with Colombia: PO Box 253, Carlton South Vic 3053. Ph: (03) 9470 1452 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org