by Nefer Munoz
(IPS) NEW YORK -- Lenore Palladino, a 23-year-old graduate student in New York City, has stopped drinking Coca-Cola, and is working hard to persuade other young people to boycott the brand. She and fellow student and labor activists hold the soft drink giant responsible for human rights violations in war-torn Colombia.
"As students, we have power," she says confidently, talking to a small group of colleagues sitting around a giant box of steaming pizza on a Sunday afternoon on the ninth floor of the Kimmel Centre, New York University's most luxurious classroom building, whose tall, vertical windows reveal a landscape of brownstones and skyscrapers.
"We want universities to break contracts with Coke," Lenore tells the students. "No more Coke in the dining halls, no more in the vending machines."
In New York, student activists like Lenore are pressuring the boards of universities to break off ties with Coca-Cola, one of the world's leading symbols of mass consumerism, and to divest from the company.
The international campaign against Coca-Cola involves students, trade unions and human rights activists from Colombia and the United States. They might not speak the same language, but they have the same concerns.
They hold Coca-Cola responsible for labor abuses and for the torture, kidnapping and killing of trade unionists in Colombian bottling plants -- a serious accusation that runs counter to the company's light-hearted image of wholesome fun.
The activists say that since the 1990s Coca-Cola bottling plants have hired paramilitary forces to intimidate and murder trade union leaders in Colombia, which is caught up in a bloody four-decade-old conflict involving leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels, and the army.
Trade unionists are frequently seen as leftist troublemakers by the paramilitaries and security forces. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), 70 Colombian trade unionists were killed in 2003.
Although that is less than the 2002 total of 184, the ICFTU points out that the right-wing government of President Alvaro Uribe has cast social protest as a criminal activity, "making the expression of trade union rights meaningless as far as Colombia is concerned."
Anti-Coke activists argue that Coca-Cola has been taking advantage of the impunity, and two U.S. lawyers, Daniel Kovalik and Terry Collingsworth, filed a lawsuit against the company in July 2001 at a federal court in Miami.
Lori George Billingsley, issues director at the Atlanta, Georgia-based company, said, "The allegations that the Coca-Cola Company or our local bottling partners have engaged in human rights abuses in Colombia are completely false."
"Sadly, Colombia continues to be a dangerous and difficult place for the people who live and work there. The violence affects many people from all walks of life, and is not limited to trade unionists," she added in an e-mail interview.
On Dec. 5, 1996, trade unionist Isidro Gil was working as a door guard at a Coca-Cola bottling plant in the small Colombian town of Carepa. Suddenly, a group of armed men broke through the gate and opened fire, killing Gil, according to activists.
The next day the armed group visited the plant again. They gathered the workers together and told them if they did not quit the union they would be killed. "There were many witnesses," said Jana Silverman, a Columbia University graduate student who believes what happened to Gil and his co-workers is merely the tip of the iceberg.
"Since the 1990s they have killed nine workers," she said. "The most recent victim was Adolfo Munera, who died in the city of Barranquilla in 2002." Silverman has developed special ties with Colombia, with the people, the food and the climate, and plans to move there in a few months.
In New York, she sends e-mails, organises meetings and takes part in protest marches to demand the end of the armed conflict in Colombia, and to call on Coca-Cola to stop persecuting union leaders and to compensate the families of Gil and other victims.
Gil's murder is a centrepiece of the lawsuit presented by Kovalik and Collingsworth.
In the case, Gil's union, SINALTRAINAL, the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) assert that Coca-Cola bottlers "contracted with or otherwise directed paramilitary security forces that utilised extreme violence and murdered, tortured, unlawfully detained or otherwise silenced trade union leaders."
In March 2003, the court ruled that there was no legal basis for holding the transnational corporation responsible for wrongful conduct in Colombia. Kovalik and Collingsworth have filed an appeal.
"This lawsuit could take a few years," Kovalik said in a telephone interview from his office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
He said he has no doubt the company is directly responsible for the abuses. "Our argument is that all of these bottlers manufacture Coca-Cola, they operate under a franchise agreement with Coca-Cola, they exist only to make Coca-Cola and they make profits for Coca-Cola, and Coca- Cola has control over them. Are they guilty? Absolutely."
The company denies all charges, and says the campaign is just a publicity stunt for the activists.
Kovalik and Collingsworth are invoking a law enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1789, the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), originally designed to solve conflicts between pirates and foreign countries. ATCA permits foreigners to sue in U.S. courts for human rights violations.
"The situation in Colombia is tragic, and we sympathize with its people," said Billingsley. "However, the factual reality in Colombia is that neither The Coca-Cola Company nor its bottling partners are complicit in any way with acts of violence against union workers or anyone else."
The struggle is also being played out on the Internet, where there are sites containing information both for and against the company. Among the sites criticising Coca-Cola is 'Stop Killer Coke' (www.killercoke.org), created by Ray Rogers, a 59-year-old trade union consultant who heads the non- profit group Corporate Campaign Inc.
Rogers says he even spends his own money on the campaign. Why? "I am concerned about justice," he answers, surrounded by huge stacks of paper in his Broadway office, including colourful signs from past campaigns, many of which carry the word "boycott."
"I don't need to go to Colombia to work day and night to solve this," says the labor activist, who does not speak Spanish and has never set foot in the South American country. "And the solution to this is not in Colombia. The solution to this is right here, mainly in the United States," he adds, under the passive gaze of Melvyn, his black and white cat.
Rogers has designed posters and stickers using the Coca-Cola logo with the words "Killer Cola."
In response, the Coca-Cola Company has created its own website with a similar address (www.killercoke.com), which answers the accusations and provides links to additional information where the company presents its version of the facts. One of the links allows visitors to the site to send a message to a friend to clarify doubts. Another displays facts about violence in Colombia.
"Coca-Cola has said that many of us are linked to leftist guerrilla movements; that's a lie," said Gonzalo Quijano, one of SINALTRAINAL's national leaders. "Once they accused three co-workers of placing a bomb in a plant. It was false, but the police locked them up for six months."
Quijano, 40, was forced to flee his city, Barranquilla in northern Colombia, in 1997 after receiving death threats from the paramilitaries. He and his wife moved to the capital, Bogota. "Nowadays the environment inside the Coca-Cola plants is one of uncertainty, because they are laying off so many people."
He said that in Colombia, human rights violations are rarely if ever punished, and that the justice system protects the privileged. That is why he is hoping that justice can be done in the U.S. courts.
The growing Colombian community in New York is sending a fact-finding mission to Colombia. One of the delegates is Jose Schiffino, a U.S. labour organiser who is participating in the campaign against Coca-Cola.
"There are many multinational companies that are committing abuses all over the world. That's why we want to punish Coca-Cola, to send a strong message to the others," said Schiffino, whose mother is Colombian.
He clarified that he has no personal feelings against Coca-Cola. And although he avoids drinking Coke, he admits: "I love Coke, I miss it."
April 27, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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