Monday, December 8, 2008

Where death lists become friends

October 2004 and I am leaving a meeting of my university walking club. I am handed this flyer with a note attached “Coca-Cola: Crimes in Colombia. Speaking :Edgar Paez, Sinaltrainal, Colombia. 7.30pm” I decide to stay instead of going to the union bar. The effect of his words put me on a new path.

He spoke about how the policies of this multinational are destroying lives in Colombia – through sacking workers and rehiring them as temporary workers, through unemployment, through the bullet of a gun. This was news, fucked up news, which I had not read about in the papers.

Even more crucially this was news combined with a plan of action. These were not words about violence that submerged me with gloom, desperation. This was a violent reality being told to me but with a refusal to be silenced. Instead there was a request for support coming directly from those affected: organise institutional boycotts of Coca-Cola to show people what was happening in Colombia and to force Coke to sit down and negotiate with the union for integral reparation: to fully repair the emotional, material, cultural and social damage done – in the families affected, in the workplace, in the union and in the community. Restoring dignity weaves through all of these.

This was it, I was being asked to help, to use my privilege as a british student. Ever a pragmatist (very soon to be on the path to becoming a radical one at that) I responded with determination and naïve/focused positivism. Of course we could kick Coca-Cola out of our union. Of course it was the right course of actions. And as I read, questioned, doubted, reaffirmed, I consciously immersed myself more in the Campaign against Coca-Cola. As I analysed, looked at what was going on it became impossible for me not to realise that my earlier moments of doubts came from the twisting and hiding of facts by Coca-Cola and a few unions that opposed the boycott for various complex but shit reasons.

Fast forward through four years of personal/political/emotional/spiritual awakening/maturing /developing, through the difficult slump of the student campaign against coca-cola in the uk through a reawakening within the camp for climate action process and I now arrive here: at the week long national assembly of sinaltrainal. A past me is thrust into the present as my past actions are connected across time to now, as I connect with people I was working with but who I imagined through the three sinaltrainal members I worked with on speaker tours in the uk: edgar, juan and euripides.

Last night while thinking about what I would write in this post I had the urge to read through old sinaltrainal press releases where they have publicised and condemn the threats they have received. Why?

In my speech at the end of the assembly, before being cajoled into playing my flute in front of them all, I spoke of getting over fears. I was thinking about chats during the week with different guys about participation in the political process. Many ideas were shared about how to improve this but it hits me now.

Fear of life ending was never mentioned an unspoken

The focus of the assembly was decision making and not-to-bad internal politics

  • how will they fight against sackings that violate legal and constitutional rights,
  • how can they prepare themselves better for negotiations with companies,
  • how can they counteract the work Nestle is doing to get the wives to be against the union activities of their husbands?
  • how can they build their demands for direct contract rather than through one of a thousand subcontractors where rights are eroded ever quicker.
  • how to continue their grassroots support of the sugar cane cutters who have been politicised by their recent 2 month long strike
  • how will they respond as union to the economic ‘crisis’ (“as opposed to the systemic crisis in which we live permanently”) given than colombia has second highest external and internal debt in the world –meaning a shrinking economy will make it near impossible to make payments.

I enjoyed listening, observing the dynamics without having to take a position – it left my ideas space for much maneuver. But what I didn’t engage with was the depth of the bloody reality for the union, despite knowing the statistics of violence.

Appreciating this more fully now back in Bogota, I see clearly as to why just my very presence was so openly and warmly received, just to spend time with them, with warm, kind men (with varying splashes of sexism thrown in to keep me on my toes) was really appreciated.

I read through old emails. 22nd November 2007: Jose de Jesus, a worker at a Nestle factory is killed…. in Dosquebradas. ... A* is from there. A* with whom we chatted about the internal union politics as we swam breaststroke side by side in the lunch break. He taught me how to play tejo – bit like french boules but with an angled board filled with clay that you have to get your disc to stick in to, he explained things when I got lost in the debates…. he has just been elected to the national committee of sinaltrainal.

I ask R~ if he took into account the security implications when he made the decision a few years to be on the National Committee. “No, I just saw things that needed doing and got on with them, found myself taking the initiative more and more in the union work and it seemed a natural next step to take part in the national organisation of the union. I take precautions like I only sharing my views with people who it is necessary to”

On Thursday night while a group of us were having a beer together in an outside bar they all noticed a guy sat on the table next to us. I didn’t spot him. I let relaxation set in as I made a judgement about what is and isn’t a safe space - based on limited experiences. Instead I noticed a family sat together in silence– women, boy and man - with 12 empty bottles of beer on the table. I felt sad for the emptiness that cloaked their space. R~ and I left to walk back to the holiday park after we could stand no more bad eighties rock that F~ insisted on putting on the duke box. When we got back, R~ got a call asking him to wake up the security and get them down to the plaza quick. The man in the bar and another had followed the group as they left the bar. Paramilitaries. They returned safely. Their jokes about the state of Colombia, about how ridiculous it is that they can’t go for a beer hundreds of miles away from where they do most of their union work attempted to dispel the the charged atmosphere.

I stayed with L~, the daughter of Santi, one of the guys involved, during all of this. She was shaken but not paniced. Seventeen years old and since the age of 11 a bodyguard has followed her father everywhere he goes. Later I catch her having a sneaky hidden kiss with one of the younger guys, all is well.

Twenty-two members of Sinaltrainal have been assassinated.

Reading the list of names makes me feel weak. Death threats are to people I have shared food or had a beer with, even played my flute for. Death threats may arrive for R ~ with whom I shared some beautiful spiritual intimate moments with this week

My soul is starting to root in Colombia.


@ said...

wonderful words as ever from the radical pragmatist, and a real awakening as to how this current time in colombia is part of a longer life journey for you, and one i am sure will continue to develop much more deeply for you over time.

equally awakening is the rememberance your words call for that it is so easy to get bogged down in worries and concerns (money, jobs, relationships, all the tat in your life) and yet forget to appreciate all that many of us taken for granted - most of all our very life and breath itself.

thanks for offering guidance in your own story of your journey.

Anonymous said...

Really enjoying reading your words and they are indeed inspiring, uplifting and earthing. They teach, put things in perspective and awaken empathy.