Tom Burke and Zeno Wood of the Colombia Action Network conducted the following interview with Colombian trade union leader Hector E. Castro. Castro is a leader of the Central Workers' Federation (CUT) and the Death Squad Coca-Cola Campaign in the U.S.
What are the daily conditions of life for trade union activists and Colombian workers in general?
In general, conditions for Colombian workers can be characterized by the assassination of labor leaders - seven at Coca-Cola plants - death threats, forced displacement, and the creation of trumped-up charges against workers and labor leaders to imprison them and criminalize their union organizing. The paramilitary death squads carry out raids on union offices, cooperatives, and houses of union members. They also use extortion and kidnapping to force workers to renounce their labor contracts and their rights to free association and protest. We've been subject to forced decertification and violation of collective labor agreements. All this makes up a systematic policy to destroy the unions.
The U.S. has spent more than $2 billion in tax dollars on Plan Colombia, a plan for war. How has this money affected Colombia in general, and unions in particular?
The strategy of the previous Pastrana government went two ways. On the one hand, they had a policy of peace. On the other, they had the strategy of war, not only against the insurgency but also against the entire population. Plan Colombia has been a failure. Plan Colombia is a long-term plan for direct colonial pillage - pillage by big business interests. And so it continues with the new president, Uribe Velez, receiving more money from the U.S. government.
The military has been re-engineered and technically updated, paid for with $1 billion of the $1.6 billion in U.S. "aid". This money isn't just to fight the FARC and the ELN-Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces and the National Liberation Army-the two main guerrilla armies, with a military escalation, but to also recolonize Colombia.
This obliges the workers and the entire population to have a concerted response against the imperialist strategy.
International opinion must know how "two party democracy" works in Colombia: the continuous assassination of labor and social movement leaders, the 3000 deaths of members of the CUT (Central Labor Federation) in recent times, and the complicity of the landholders and the regional bosses with the paramilitaries. International opinion must know this because we need international monitors who will guarantee our democratic rights and the right to life.
Who is behind the death squad murders of trade unionists at Coca-Cola plants in Colombia?
The paramilitaries are responsible for the crimes against the workers, but it's also the military and the transnational corporations from the U.S. and Europe. In sum, it's the Colombian state and its criminal regime that are directly responsible. The political model Colombia's government follows is that of extermination of the civil population; selectively in the case of trade unionists and the social movements, and indiscriminately in the rural areas.
This selective and indiscriminate model was the same that was used in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala during their civil wars during the 1980's. We first saw this model in Argentina where the Argentine officials and their civilian collaborators were financed and supported by the CIA and the U.S. State Department in the 1970's.
Will the new president of Colombia, Uribe Velez, make the situation better or worse for trade unionists?
The situation will get worse. The new government's proposals are characterized by major budget cuts and austerity measures for workers. This is the continuation of previous governments' anti-people policies-cutting health care, education and justice, while giving tax cuts for the rich.
Security: The new government is proposing the modernization and expansion of the security forces with 15,000 more soldiers per year, and 10,000 more heavily armed police; while strengthening the repressive system by cutting back on democratic freedoms.
Justice system: The new government wants to cut personnel in this department by 50% and to introduce changes so the military are their own judge and jury outside the cities.
Education: This money would come in part from cutting into other social service budgets like the family compensation funds, increasing direct and indirect taxes paid by poor and working people, higher payroll taxes, and increased alcohol taxes.
Health care: The new government is saying that to provide basic health care for all poor people in Colombia they will create a big fund. To do that, the government proposes raising state workers' payroll taxes. President Uribe Valez wants the workers to pay. The new government wants to end pensions for the state workers-in the oil industry (EcoPetrol), for teachers, and amongst civil servants like those in the judiciary (the magistrates). The government wants to raise the retirement age and lengthen work hours. Currently, workers in Colombia can retire with 65% of the average income of the last ten years on the job, the government wants to change this too.
Can you tell us more about the United Steel Workers of America lawsuit against Coca-Cola? When and where will this take place?
The lawsuit seeks to find Coca-Cola and the Colombian government responsible for the systematic violation of the workers' human rights.
We're holding public tribunals to demand that Coca-Cola and the government stop their policy of persecuting, criminalizing and killing off the workers and the union.
We're trying to create links to the international community so we can let people know about the systematic policy of eliminating popular organizations in Colombia and cases that occur in other countries.
We want to create links of solidarity between labor federations, union locals, farmers, human rights organizations, and other popular sectors and communities.
What can trade unionists and activists in the U.S. do to support the campaign against Coca-Cola?
There are a few ways to support both the campaign, and the public tribunals [Audiencia Publica Popular].
Individuals and organizations can sign on to the public document that denounces Coca-Cola and the Colombian government.
Get new people and organizations involved with the public tribunals, which take place July 20-22 in Atlanta. Create support teams and carry out political support campaigns. Help raise money to support all this work. Participate in the public tribunals and help carry out the conclusions that we come up with.