was around four in the afternoon when Sean Smyth of
the Colombian Solidarity Campaign called. The flight
from London was expected on time and we were running
slightly behind schedule. The passengers would have
most likely disembarked and cleared whatever delays
there were before we would reach Belfast International
and we did not want them to be waiting around on us.
Jackie Seymour, the interpreter, had probably made
the journey before but for Luis Eduardo Garcia it
was the first trip to our pacified and socially stratified
city. On pulling up at the entrance to the arrivals,
our two charges were standing beside their luggage.
Once in the car and safely ensconced behind seat belts
we were on the road to Derry and Sandino's Bar. The
last time I had been there was in the company of John
McGuffin. I made the point to Sean that were he still
of this world, McGuffin would be at Sandino's ready
as ever to lash his tongue in the direction of those
willing to keep their foot firmly on the dispossessed
of this world. The last time I was in John McGuffin's
company was to attend his cremation.
dispossessed and how they fare in a world increasingly
shaped by neo-liberalism - the discursive nicety employed
by the grossly selfish to mask their rapacious intent
- as it ravages Colombia was the reason that brought
Luis Eduardo Garcia to Ireland. The Derry Trades Council
in conjunction with the Colombian Solidarity Campaign
was hosting a talk by him in Sandino's. And he agreed
to be interviewed by the Blanket once his talk had
ended. Luis is a trade union leader in Colombia and
is employed by the Coca Cola company which is believed
by many to be actively involved in murdering trade
unionists amongst its workforce. Maria Engqvist has
termed the murders the Coca Cola killings.
Luiss union, Sinaltrainal - Food and Drink Workers
Union - has been at the forefront of seeking to curb
Coca Cola's attempts to impose neo-liberal economics
on the workforce. It is no easy task. In a flyer announcing
a London meeting featuring Luis it was claimed that,
all forms of social organisation which attempt
to resist this are being exterminated: indigenous
people, small farmers, and workers are assassinated
for opposing the objectives of foreign investors.'
Every year Colombia sees more of its trade unionists
murdered than the rest of the world combined. Since
1990 right wing paramilitary death squads allegedly
hired by subsidiaries of Coca Cola have murdered
eight colleagues of Luis in Sinaltrainal. Despite
a US judge concluding that Coca Cola in Colombia had
a case to answer, the company obstinately refused
a lively discussion in a first floor room in Sandino's,
myself, Luis and Jackie sat down at a table over our
pints of lager. Sean abstained - he would be behind
the wheel for the journey back over the Glenshane
Pass later in the evening. Anyway he had been out
the night before watching two matches and had a fair
sup, so he would hardly begrudge us one pint. But
it was not the alcohol that brought Luis to Ireland,
although he may be excused if he felt the country
housed more bars than radicals. Our reputation for
leftist politics has hardly soared - all our parliamentary
political leaders forming an obedient crescent at
Hillsborough earlier this year to pay homage to George
Bush while he contemptuously used them to legitimise
his war on Iraq.
visit is to help start a campaign against Coca Cola
over its human rights violations. I went to England
and this allowed me to come over to Ireland. Also
the action by the students in boycotting Coca Cola
in their university showed me that Ireland was a
country willing to be radical on these matters.
Ireland is interested in human rights and has never
relaxed its vigilance on these issues. Ireland's
example of independence and development has served
as an example to other struggling countries.
Ireland is a country absorbed with itself, particularly
in the North at any rate. The rest of the world could
be starving, flooding or ablaze and Northern politicians
would carry on howling about the street they live
in and demanding that prime ministers, presidents
and Taoiseaigh convene to discuss the amount of watts
the light at the corner of their street should have.
Are Colombian activists so narrow in their focus?
is part of a wider global movement. While our struggle
is against Coca Cola and against human rights violations
in Colombia it is also to show the ill-effects of
a neo-liberal agenda of globalisation.
man who looks to be in his mid-40s, Luis is married
with three children, two girls and a boy. His son
and one daughter are at present studying back home.
He has worked for Coca Cola for 25 years. His one
fear while out of the country is for his family back
home. He used the word 'terror' when describing the
thoughts that visit him while separated from them.
Yet they support him, feeling that future generations
should be free from the terrorism orchestrated by
the rule of capital. One of his major influences is
Fidel Castro and he loves the books of Gabriel Garcia
Marquez. He is also a supporter of Hugo Chavez in
Venezuela. When I asked him about other figures such
as Oscar Romero and Helder Camara, he told me that
liberation theology was purposeful in that it offered
alternatives to the poor.
I moved to solicit his interest in Ireland I found
it strange that he did not mention the hunger strike
of 1981. Unlike the charade we have today the hunger
strike was an event of huge international import.
But if it was not at the forefront of his mind, then
what was? He stated that he had been impressed by
the miners' strike in England in the mid-1980s which
demonstrated genuine evidence of union solidarity:
a reflection that this man's interests were guided
by a concern for the working person and that his energies
had been absorbed in trade unionism. No easy task
given the experience of trade unionists in his country.
The case of the three Irish republicans held in Colombia
had hardly escaped his attention? It had not. Their
detention was unjust. He believed that the Colombian
authorities were penalising the three.
is an example of the insecurity that the government
feels when it thinks it is confronted with international
solidarity. It is against all international solidarity.
It even declares the NGOs as being outside the law.
The people of Colombia would prefer to see the three
Irish men go free. It is the government alone that
wants to hold them.
he contends, lives in the permanent grip of armed confrontation
involving the government, paramilitaries and guerrillas.
Although the government often claims that the civilian
population is squeezed between killers of the extra-parliamentary
left and right, the situation on the ground is more
accurately described as one in which the right wing
paramilitaries strike out at the civilian population
using the excuse of guerrilla activity. One report
at the end of 2002 estimated that over 30,000 civilians
had died in the previous decade. The paramilitary
apparatus is, in the view of Luis, the creation of
the countrys president, Alvaro Uribe Valez.
The head of the death squads, Carlos Castaño,
has a back ground in the Colombian armed forces.
1996 Luis was imprisoned for six months after he had
been arrested inside the Coca Cola premises. The management
had accused him of planting a bomb at the plant. But
the charges were later dropped after the defence showed
them to be absurd. But are there any links between
the guerrillas and the trade unions? Luis readily
admits that he is a Marxist and that FARC operate
from within a Marxist paradigm. But there the similarity
ends. The guerrillas dont mix with the trade
unions and the trade unions don't bother with them.
But there is a degree of respect for each other. He
does not live in fear of FARC claiming that they do
not target trade unionists. His assessment of FARC
is that it plays a role in certain areas and it seeks
an alternative to the present situation while holding
out the belief that it can reach agreement with the
government on this. While Colombians are demanding
a negotiated end to the conflict, in the view of Luis,
peace processes have always failed.
the end of the interview we posed for a photo, shook
hands and embraced. We then made our way through the
cold Derry air to our car for the journey through
the mists of the Glenshane Pass and on to Belfast.
There, Sean and myself made sure both Jackie and Luis were in their
hotel before making our way home. The last thing I
wanted to see in the foyer was a vending machine dispensing
Coca Cola. We would simply have written on a blank
sheet out of order and laid it across
the machine. However, we were spared that act of defiance.
On the way up the Falls Road, past all those premises
that still sell the murderers product
the Culturlann alone at present in refusing to stock
it we hoped the words of Sinaltrainal member
Carlos Julia would bear down on the community of West
Belfast: We ask Coca-Cola to stop killing and
you to stop drinking Coke.
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