Juan Carlos Galvis, Human Rights Director of SINALTRAINAL (Colombian Food and Drinks Workers’ Union) and President of the CUT in Barrancabermeja is currently touring Europe to promote the International Campaign against Coca-Cola. Juan Carlos is one of the plaintiffs in the court case in the USA, where the multinational stands accused of complicity in the forced displacement, kidnap and assassination of trade unionists in their Colombian bottling plants. Michael Lydon caught up with him at the PCS conference in Brighton.
The hotel bar where I meet Juan Carlos Galvis is festooned with the red and white of Coca-Cola. I apologize and explain that it is difficult to escape the multinational in this country. Juan Carlos smiles in sympathy and tells me that the Zapatistas had run into similar problems when launching the boycott in Mexico. “In Chiapas, there are some indigenous groups who have internalized the Coca-Cola message so thoroughly that they use Coke bottles in their sacred ceremonies. This is what we’re up against.” He smiles again, this time with a touch of resignation.
Resigned or not, the International Campaign against Coca-Cola has had a powerful effect since its launch in July 2003. Verdi, the biggest trade union in Europe; Unison, the biggest in this country; hundreds of trade unions, universities and social organizations around the world have all joined the boycott, demanding that the multinational meets Sinaltrainal’s demands for truth, justice and reparation.
Juan Carlos is the plaintiff in one of four ongoing court cases in the USA. The cases allege Coke’s complicity in the murder of one Sinaltrainal member inside the Coke plant in Carepa, Antioquia, the kidnap of another Sinaltrainal member in Cucuta, and the falsification of evidence that led to 5 trade unionists spending 6 months in prison on charges of terrorism and rebellion. If these cases are successful, Coke will have another 7 charges of murder to answer.
Juan Carlos has suffered several years’ worth of death threats, persecution that culminated in an attempt against his life on 22 August 2003. “I was leaving the Coca-Cola plant after work, when 2 men pulled up to my car on a motorbike. On of them pulled out a gun, aimed and let off several shots. The police closed their investigation, claiming it was a robbery.”
He may have survived, and the police may have claimed that it was a robbery, but when he describes other incidents of harassment and persecution that he has witnessed, I am left in little doubt that Coke management was behind the attempt on his life. “This attack came on the back of a series of threats against my life, and the safety of my family. I was receiving death threats at home, graffiti threatening me appeared inside the bottling plant, and I know for sure that management regularly met with local paramilitaries. I saw two managers in a meeting with a well known paramilitary- a guy named Saul Rincon. I complained, asking why these people were allowed in the plant. Management responded by saying that he was a client, and then issued a complaint at the Attorney General’s Office, accusing me of slandering Rincon.”
The very same Saul Rincon was arrested 2 years later for the murder of an oil workers’ leader. He is currently in prison in Bogotá for homicide and the formation of illegal armed groups; one of the few paramilitaries forced to answer for such crimes. Juan Carlos proceeds to give me several other examples of such meetings. Even the mainstream press in Colombia has acknowledged that Coca-Cola management has held high level consultations with the paramilitary AUC.
“In a way, these cases have afforded us a certain level of security. Coke isn’t stupid. They know if they kill us now, the repercussions will be too great… but the paramilitaries are now going after our families. Last year they massacred 4 members of comrade Efrain Guerrero’s family, they kidnapped and tortured the son of Liberto Carranza, a Sinaltrainal leader from Barranquilla. They’ve threatened my kids, and they killed my brother in law. People might be willing to put their own lives in danger, but you can’t expect people to endanger the lives of their children.”
However, recent information from Colombia suggests that family members are not the only target. Just last week on the 3 June 2005, paramilitaries in Barranquilla kidnapped 5 students who had been working with Sinaltrainal on Coke’s environmental record. They were released the same day, but only after they had been threatened that they would be killed if they ever protested outside a Coke plant again.
While the repression in Colombia continues, Coca-Cola has been forced to adopt more sophisticated strategies to fight the boycott elsewhere. As well as launching an aggressive ‘whitewashing campaign’ in US universities, one of Coca-Cola’s most recent coups involved a $10 million donation to a new charitable organization in Colombia. A sure sign of a guilty conscience you might think, but the donation has caused scandal in the Colombian left due to the fact that Carlos Rodriguez, President of the CUT trade union centre is one of the directors of this new organization.
“Rodriguez sat with us at the press conference to launch the boycott; he told the world’s press that the CUT were behind us in our fight for justice. Then he accepts this money and starts to claim that the CUT doesn’t support us. His actions could cause real damage to our campaign.”
Following Rodriguez’ windfall, a representative of the CUT National Executive issued a statement making it clear that Rodriguez’ position was a personal one, and not shared by the CUT which made their support for the International Campaign clear at the Public Hearing against Coca-Cola in 2002, and again at the launch of the boycott in 2003.
Juan Carlos accepts this as just one of many challenges in Sinaltrainal’s search for truth, justice and reparation. “We’ve had worse,” he shrugs, “George Bush himself has tried to strike the mechanism we are using to prosecute Coca-Cola in the USA from the statute books. He says that it interferes with North American foreign policy and the war on terror. That’s why we’ve had to call for the boycott. We have much more faith in popular justice.”