Friday, January 20, 2006

Travels in Colombia

We were driving in a jeep through the jungle in Arauca, a war torn and oil rich department on th eastern part of Colombia that borders Venezuela. The Colombian army had a number of checkpoints, every hour or so we had to stop, and have our car searched by soldiers who were on the lookout for leftist guerrilla’s from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia: People’s Army (FARC-EP) or the National Liberation Front (ELN). At one of them we noticed something strange on the hand of one of the soldiers. He had asked us to bum a cigarette, and when one of our crew gave him one, we saw what was tattooed on this soldiers hand. This soldier, a Mestizo, had a swastika tattoo.

We meet with SINALTRAINAL leaders.

It’s soldiers like him that are enforcing the policies that originate in Washington. This is where our tax dollars go. Amnesty International reports that government forces work with right-wing paramilitary groups and routinely violate human rights. Despite this, Colombia is the third largest recipient of US foreign military aid, after Israel and Egypt through

a package called Plan Colombia.

Being a middle class white kid of Polish and British Canadian descent raised in the suburbs of Chicago, I wasn’t necessarily going to care about Colombia. I became interested in politics though, on how those in power of government and corporations abuse their authority. I got involved in anti-war activity, protesting the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. I did a lot of pro-union and anti-sweatshop work.

I was aware of the situation in Colombia of the 40 year old civil war pitting leftist guerrilla’s against the government and right-wing paramilitaries like the AUC. I was critical of the US intervention there, but didn’t get involved until I heard Luis Adolfo speak at DePaul. Adolfo was a member of SINALTRAINAL, the food and beverage workers union of Colombia. He worked at a Coca-Cola bottling plant where the management was getting sick and tired of dealing with an organized workforce that made demands like better health care and a living wage. In order to maintain the sweatshops conditions, the management of the plant worked with paramilitary forces to intimidate workers.

In one case, Isidro Gill, the union’s negotiator, was murdered in front of the rest of the employees of the plant. The other employees were given a contract that said they would be leaving the union. They were told if they didn’t sign that piece of paper, they would meet the same fate.

Adolfo was kidnapped by paramilitary forces, but heroically escaped and managed to be granted political asylum here in Chicago with his family. This means that the Department of Homeland Security looked into what he said happened to him, and found it valid enough to grant him asylum.

Several student groups here at DePaul started supporting the boycott against Coca-Cola soon after that.

One of the groups I was in, the Activist Student Union, worked with a groups called the Colombia Action Network. CAN was organizing a delegation to Colombia for two weeks in the summer of 2004 and wanted to have several students go with it. Since I was so involved in the boycott campaign at DePaul, they asked me if I wanted to go.

Of course I did! After a few fund raisers I was ready to go with the delegation to our first destination: Bogota.

* * *

The first thing you notice driving away from Bogotá's airport is two giant statues of Ferdinand and Isabella. Monarchs of Spain when the conquest of Colombia began. That history of colonialism was cast off by Simon Bolivar, a national hero in Colombia, respected by all. The second major thing you notice on the road coming from the airport to downtown is the walled entrance to a park. These walls are covered with leftist graffiti. All the different tendencies are represented, with graffiti that says, “Viva la FARC” “No ALCA” There were circle A’s for anarchist and hammers and sickles for communists.

While we were there we met with a number of groups fighting for a progressive Colombia. We met with Human Rights Groups, trade unions, peasant organizations, and even the president of the Communist Party of Colombia (PCC).

The Human rights groups we met with told our delegation of six a lot about how much the government and paramilitaries collaborate and attack dissidents. We were told about the history of groups like the Patriotic Union. The Patriotic Union was an attempt to peacefully end the civil war by allowing the guerrilla’s to form a political party with the PCC and other left wing groups. The Patriotic Union ran in several elections and received large voter turnout in support of them. However the paramilitary groups assassinated thousands of candidates.

We were also told about how the AUC will often times take control of a city and begin passing out fliers of the laws the AUC will enforce. The AUC has a policy against homosexuals, to the point where “any man caught acting like a woman on two occasions will be killed.” One of the people on our delegation and myself saw this first hand when we saw a flier in Bogotá calling for a rally against homosexuality that had a swastika superimposed on it.

We met with a number of different trade unions. On our first day we met with the leaders of the Workers Union of Colombia (CUT). They told us how they considered the government of President Uribe to be fascist. They also described how Colombia was under the influence of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other’s with neo-liberal dreams of privatization and corporate control. They told us how the governments shadow war against union members took the lives of about 3 union members every week. Just the day before we met them, they received a phone call about how one of their unions members was murdered.

We also met with leaders from SINALTRAINAL, this was especially interesting since we had so many questions about what we could do in the US to help them in the boycott against Coca-Cola.

We met with the teachers union of Colombia. They have the highest rate of assassinations out of any of the unions in Colombia. Which makes sense since teachers educate the next generation of a nation. Whenever a teacher educates students to question society or to read a banned book, they become a target of the army and the AUC.

The union we spent the most time with was the Oil Workers Union (USO). Colombia is a very oil rich country, so when the oil workers get organized, they can bring the government to it’s knees. A year before we arrived, USO had gone on strike to protest work conditions and what they saw as the future privatization of the state run oil company ecopetrol. President Uribe went on television and called USO terrorists for their act.

* * *

We were in three major areas of the country. Bogotá, which is in the center of the country, high on a plateau so it was cool year round. Then we traveled to the Rio Magdelena Valley area and later to Arauca. In the Rio Magdelena Valley we spent some time in Barrancabermeja. Barrancabermeja is a major center of the oil i

This Banner reads: 1964-2004: 40 years of Struggle and combat of the National Liberation Army. Not one Step Back, Liberation or Death. The Eastern Front of War.

ndustry in Colombia, with an oil refinery the size of the rest of the city. While we were there we saw a giant statue called “Petrol Christo” or “Oil Christ.” It is a statue of Christ with his arms spread out, but it’s made entirely out of oil refinery parts.

We then traveled deep into the valley. We went on dirt roads, through rivers, and up mountains to meet with several peasant organizations. At one point, standing in a small town, a peasant pointed at two mountains maybe a mile away. He told us that behind them, there was a gun battle going on right then between guerrilla’s and the army.

These groups told us how hard it was to scrap a living by. Because of various free trade agreements, US subsidized agriculture has flooded the Colombian market and these farmers can’t sell their normal crops for a livable price. So they are forced to grow cocoa for the cocaine trade. We met a little child who was maybe 10 years old who worked on his neighbors farm picking cocoa. He told us how he preferred to be in school, that his favorite subject was writing, but that he needed the money to help support his family.

The US and Colombian governments use the cocaine trade as an excuse for their military engagements in the region. But every peasant we spoke to told us how they didn’t want to grow cocoa for cocaine, maybe a little bit for herbal tea. They told us that if the US and Colombian governments really wanted to eradicate Cocaine, they would have to treat addicts in the US and give peasants in Colombia a real alternative.

However the US is trying to get more free trade agreements with Colombia. Such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA) and the Andean Free Trade Agreement (TLC).

We then traveled to Arauca. Arauca was the most militarized zone we visited. When I tell Colombians in the US I visited Arauca, they are often impressed that I would go into such a dangerous department. We first met with a general of the Colombian Army, General Matamoros in order to gain permission to travel unimpeded in Arauca. This was one of the scariest meetings of my life.

This general freely admitted to us that he was trained at the School of the Americas. The SOA is a military training school where the US trains Latin-American soldiers on how to destroy social movements. Among the curriculum is torture, and assassination of priests, while the graduates have gone on to be among the worst human rights violators in Latin-America. The General told us how he viewed human rights groups as just as bad as terrorists and how he wanted to treat them the same way. Ultimately we were granted permission to travel in Arauca, but I was disturbed the rest of the trip by our meeting with General Matamoros.

In Matamoros’ office, we noticed that the few women there were in menial positions such as secretaries. This highlighted the role of women in Colombian society. The government is deeply conservative and patriarchal, it allows prostitution to be legal, but abortion is not. The guerrilla’s place a much bigger emphasis on women’s empowerment than the government does. A third of the leadership of the guerrilla’s are women, and women are often the front line fighters for the FARC or ELN. While the only time we saw military women in the regular army was as secretaries.

Perhaps the Reason why Arauca is such a war torn region, is because of the vast oil resources there. This was the region where the American oil company Occidental attempted to build a pipeline through indigenous U’Wa terrirory.

While in Arauca we visited Santo Domingo. Santo Domingo was a peaceful town which several years earlier had bee

JUCO poses with us in Che Plaza at the National University in Bogota

n bombed by the Colombian air force. We talked to residents to told us how they waved white flags, but the air force still bombed the town, killing several children. Then the government tried to say that it was really a car bomb that the guerrilla’s left. However the people of Santo Domingo took the government to court and won, proving that the government bombed innocent civilians.

We also visited the town of Flor Amarillo, where the community told us about how paramilitary forces had attacked them only a few weeks before we got there. The paramilitary groups rounded up the village, and told them to not support the guerrilla’s. Then the paramilitaries kidnapped several people, including a 16 year old child. The bodies were found in the local school house.

We had several hours before our plane left from Arauca to Bogota, so we took the opportunity to travel to Venezuela and pay homage to the Bolivarian revolution currently taking place under President Hugo Chavez.

In Bogota we met with some of the leaders of the legal and electoral Communist Party of Colombia. They told us about how they hoped to build enough support among the people of Colombia to be elected, and to begin peace negotiations with the guerrilla’s, end the way the World Bank and IMF control Colombia through debt and Structural Adjustment Programs, and to build a fair and democratic economy for all Colombians. However the history of the Patriotic Union hung over their efforts, as they we often targets of paramilitary violence.

We then got to what I felt was one of the most exciting events of the trip. We met several students with The Communist Youth (JUCO). They gave us a tour of the campus of the National University in Bogota. The history on that campus was incredible. They had Red October Square, named after a student demonstration in the 1950’s protesting the assassination of a leftist economics professor, the police opened fire and killed several students. They had murals and graffiti all over the campus honoring different leftist groups or people. The sociology department there was founded by Father Camillo Torres, a Catholic Priest who believed in liberation theology. Torres went on to start one of the Guerrilla groups, the ELN. We all had our picture taken at Che Plaza.

Coming back to the US was a shock. We had to adjust to superficial people, neon lights, and commercials everywhere you turn. On the plus side, there weren’t army troops stationed outside shopping malls like there were in Bogota, but with the war on terror stripping away our civil liberties, and creating a more militarized society, who knows where we might be in a few years.

You can support Colombia by boycotting coca-cola! Use the Anti-coke fund the activist student union will provide alternative drinks to your student groups event for free. Just e-mail with the info. Wear a boycott killer cola button.

E-mail these people and encourage them to cut DePaul’s contract with Coke:,,,,

Also visit and

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