The following interview was done in Colombia by Joergen Hassler and published in the Aug. 8 issue of Internationalen, the weekly newspaper of the Socialist Party (Swedish section of the Fourth International, Socialist Action’s sister organization in Sweden), from which we have translated it.
“Six of our comrades have been murdered by paramilitaries at Coca Cola. Some were murdered right on the plant grounds. The company’s terror has crushed the union in half of its plants,” said Edgar Paez, a food industry worker who worked 19 years in the Nestle plant and is in the leadership of the food workers union Sinaltrainal.
“On Dec. 5, 1996, our comrade Isidro Segundo Gil was murdered at the door of the plant in Carepa. After that another worker was murdered, and the same night the paramilitaries burned down the union headquarters.
“Before they set fire to the headquarters they took away all the office machinery. Their operation completely smashed the union local.
“After the attack threats have continued. Up until now, we have collected information on threats against 70 workers by paramilitaries at other Coca Cola plants.
“Five union comrades were jailed by the authorities.They sat in jail for six months under the charge of inciting to rebellion. After they were released, they were forced to flee; some of them were even obliged to leave the country for a while.”
The company claims that it has nothing to do with the persecution of the trade unionists. But Paez pointed out, “It is totally absurd to think that the paramilitaries are doing this on their own. In all the plants you can find graffiti in the toilets that say, ‘Guerrillas Out of Coca Cola.’ This is designed to frighten people, and it works.
Sinaltrainal has brought suit against Coca Cola in the United States. “Coca Cola,” said Paez, “has violated the right of collective bargaining, the conventions of the International Labor Organization, the laws of Colombia, and of course human rights. So, we are suing Coca Cola in a court in Florida as well as in the Inter-American Court for Human Rights.
“At the same time we are organizing public tribunals to take up the company’s violations. The first was held in July in Atlanta, where Coca Cola has its central office. The second will be in October in Brussels, and a third in December in Bogota.
“Support is important. The pressure on our organization is very severe. If we have a lot of people with us around the world, we are strengthened in Colombia.”
The mass movement in Colombia is working more and more with tribunals in various places around the world. The reason is that the paramilitaries, who, according to the human rights organizations are committing 70 to 80 percent of the violations, are operating with total impunity. “We set up the first tribunal in Canada and Colombia after the massacre in Barrancabermeja, where seven people were killed and 25 disappeared.”
The tribunals are set up like courts.They become a sort of parallel system of people’s courts. “We heard witnesses and offered evidence,” Paez reported, “and we could establish that the massacre was carried out by paramilitaries with the help of members of the army.
“We know that members of the regular Colombian armed forces participated, and so the authorities had to know that the massacre would take place, but they did nothing to stop or it or to warn the people of the town.”
The next tribunal was about the bombing of the town of Santo Domingo. In this operation, a helicopter given by the United States to fight drug smugglers was used to drop cluster bombs that killed 17 people, including seven children, in December 1999.
“We held that tribunal in Chicago, where we presented evidence that had been gathered by an organization of Vietnam veterans that supported our campaign. And we were able to establish that the bombs were made in the U.S. and that they were dropped by a helicopter given by the U.S.”
According to Paez, this is evidence that the U.S. Plan Colombia, ostensibly designed for fighting the drug traffic, is really designed to crush all mass movements in the country. Up until now, 52 trade-union activists have been murdered.
“Plan Colombia is a war plan, a plan for militarizing the country. In the process, the unions are being broken, and that serves the interests of the companies.
“When the union is gone, the company fires all the workers and hires new ones without a contract and at lower wages. In that way, the multinationals get cheap labor. That is the side of globalization we see.
“In the upcoming tribunals we will lay out all the cases in which workers have been killed, or threatened, or subjected to illegal attacks. We are going to show that Coca Cola has been involved in the persecution of trade-union activists. At the same time, we will show how the multinationals contribute to the conflict in Colombia, and how they benefit from the paramilitaries and Plan Colombia.
“Sinaltrainal is also working more directly to help those who are having a hard time in our country. We are doing a lot of work with violations in the southern Bolivar and in San Lucas, in many places in Colombia with great biodiversity. In these areas is the world’s greatest diversity of species per square meter and also the world’s biggest gold mines.
In San Lucas there is Conquistador Mines, a Spanish corporation. “Gold had traditionally been extracted by hand, so that some of the money remained in the hands of local small farmers. Now the big corporation is starting industrial operations that are harming millions, polluting the rivers.
“The local population is resisting the corporation’s plans, and they also are running into an offensive by the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries came to the area with Conquestador. And the Colombian army carried out operations in Bolivar in April and May, and that enabled the paramilitaries to set up permanent bases in the area.
“The paramilitaries’ offensive has been terrible. For example, the chairman of the miners union was murdered. They cut off his head and played football with it. After the murder, the peasants held big protests. They even succeeded in getting an agreement with the government about how the paramilitaries should be combated, and for getting social investment in the area. After launching every offensive, the paramilitaries destroy schools, burn crops, and wreck whole villages.
“But the government has not respected the agreement. The paramilitaries’ offensive has even been stepped up. The onslaught of the paramilitaries and the army has been so destructive that last year we organized an international humanitarian caravan. We made contact with cities in the United States and Europe and in some Latin American countries also. In this way, we brought 72 foreigners who worked together with the social organizations and distributed food.
“Today, communities in southern Bolivar have declared themselves towns in rebellion. They have gone up into the mountains, because they are denied the right to run their own region, to control the areas where they live, denied their right to live. Rather than flee to other regions, they go up into the mountains. When the paramilitaries withdraw, they go back to their land.
“In the town of Mauecito, the inhabitants have been driven out three times by the paramilitaries, but they are staying in their region. We supply them with food and seed that is not genetically altered, with medicines and tools.
“But during Operation Bolivar in April and May, the army destroyed everything. They killed the mules, they killed the livestock, they destroyed the crops, everything that the peasants had managed to build up. So, we have to take them seed again.”
Together with 120 other social organizations, Sinaltrainal has formed a coalition called Colombia Demands Justice. It includes unions, peasant organizations, Indian nations, cooperatives, and churches. “We are fighting to save lives, to defend our human rights,” Paez asserted. “They are being constantly violated.
“The state must guarantee the right to life for all citizens, and it is not doing that. And the Colombian state does not want to clear anything up, because they are accomplices in the crimes. We have never been able to get any information from the authorities about the 38,000 human rights violations that occurred over 35 years, which we reported in Brussels in 1998.
“At the same time as fighting against the impunity of these crimes,we are building social movements, because this impunity is used to break down the organizations of the civil society.
“Without social movements,” said Paez, “people cannot express what they want for the future, what they wish for, what they dream of. We know that despite the war and all the problems, the people can continue to resist, fight, and organize themselves.”