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A Poet Speaks Out About Colombia

Why I Refused Coca-Cola’s Money

by MARTIN ESPADA

My poetry reading at Kansas University tonight (March 10) is co-sponsored by Coca-Cola, through the KU Endowment Association. After giving the matter serious thought, I have decided that I cannot accept funds from Coca-Cola due to the company’s labor record in Colombia.

According to The New York Times, ninety percent of all trade union leaders killed worldwide are killed in Colombia. Thousands of trade unionists have been murdered in that country, targeted by paramilitary death squads. Thousands more have been tortured, abducted or threatened with death.

SINALTRAINAL, the National Food Workers Union, represents workers at the Coca-Cola bottling plants in Colombia. This union has been decimated. A Fact-Finding Delegation headed by Hiram Monserrate of the New York City Council identified 179 major human rights violations suffered by workers at Coke plants, including nine murders. Union leader Isidro Gil was actually shot down at the Carepa plant itself. Paramilitaries then returned to the same plant and coerced mass resignations from the union. Union leaders and others have charged that managers at Coke bottling plants in Colombia are collaborating with paramilitary forces to repress the union, pointing out that the access of paramilitaries to the plants would be impossible without management collusion.

The Coca-Cola company must effectively protect trade unionists. The company must examine links between plant management and paramilitaries. The company must cooperate with an independent investigation of the human rights abuses suffered by its workforce in Colombia. The company must take responsibility, instead of reacting to these charges with sputtering indignation. When profit from the misery of others is at issue, then sputtering indignation is not enough.

Until the disturbing questions about Coke’s labor record in Colombia have been answered, I cannot in good conscience accept monies from Coca-Cola or have my name associated with the company. This is a personal decision, and does not reflect on the KU Endowment Association or anyone involved in co-sponsoring my visit to KU. I am not an expert on these matters; I am learning about this crisis and trying to take an ethical position.

The simplest course would have been to refuse the Coke money outright. However, I want to go beyond symbolism. Therefore, I am donating the entire amount of Coke’s contribution to tonight’s event–twelve hundred dollars–to the National Food Workers Union in Colombia, SINALTRAINAL. Coke should not object to my financial support of a union in Colombia devastated by violence in that country. Giving up twelve hundred dollars is not easy for a poet, but the union needs the money more than I do.

For More on Coca-Cola’s activities in Colombia Visit: Killer Coke.

MARTIN ESPADA teaches poetry at the University of Massachuesetts at Amherst. He is the author of numberous books of poetry, including A Mayan Astronomer in Hell’s Kitchen, City of Coughing and Dead Radiators, Alabanza: New and Selected Poems (1982-2002) and Imagine the Angels of Bread, which won the American Book Award for Poetry.