Colombia-Venezuela-Cuba Rally
Union Chapel, Islington 2004-6-17

Mark Thomas: First of all, thank you very much for coming along tonight.

If we are against US imperialism then it's not just enough to be against the US military, but against the beneficiaries of US militarism and US intervention, which are the multinationals. Now about, I think it was about six weeks ago, there was a corporate conference in London and it was called "What's the point of corporate social responsibility?" And it was run by the corporations to talk about corporate ethics and the people attending that conference were BP, Gap, Levi, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, News International, Marks & Spencer. It really was - we advertised it as "The Corporate Bastard Sale of the Century: all the scum under one roof!" And protesters got outside there with the big banners, my favourite of which was "Baby Gap - old enough to wear 'em, old enough to make 'em!"

But inside what was remarkable was - I managed to get inside and talk to some of the corporate beings. And there was a guy there who was one of the lawyers for McDonalds and I cornered him afterwards. And a propos of nothing, he suddenly said to me, "Companies have got to be very very careful of their corporate image, for example, Coca-Cola are in real trouble at the moment because they didn't take what happened in Colombia seriously." And two things went across my mind, one of which was: when McDonalds slag off Coca-Cola on ethical grounds - this is off the scale! This is like the BNP saying that Prince Philip's a bit racist - it's off the scale. And the other thing I thought was: we're getting to them. We're getting to them, and Coke are scared.

It's important to realise a couple of things about Coca-Cola. Firstly, they're huge, they're absolutely enormous. They're worth one thousand five hundred billion dollars. They're worth more than Pakistan. They're absolutely enormous, they've got huge political power. The actual CEO of Coke in Mexico, well he's now President Fox, Vicente Fox. They're hugely powerful. The guy who pushed through aspartate, which is the active ingredient in Diet Coke, worked for Searle, a subsidiary of Monsanto. The guy who was the CEO of that company pushing it through was a man you might know, called Donald Rumsfeld.

They are hugely powerful. You get "Pepsi Presidents", you get Coca-Cola Presidents. Carter was Coke President, Reagan was Pepsi, Bush is obviously some kind of weird magic-mushroom-milkshake, we all accept that, but he is ultimately on Coke's side.

Now what Coca-Cola are accused of in Colombia is very, very simple. They have worked within this framework whereby the paramilitaries are waging war against the social movements and the trade unions. I'm sure you've seen the leaflets that are at the back and I'm sure many of you know: eight Coca-Cola trade unionists have been killed since '94 by paramilitaries. One of them, a man named Isidro Seguno Gil, was killed inside the Coca-Cola plant. So the paramilitaries got into the plant, found the person they were after, killed that person, left the plant, and got away scot-free. His wife campaigned for justice: she was murdered. The levels of collusion between the state and the paramilitaries and the corporations are huge, and I don't think there's any better example than that of Coca-Cola in this instance.

And this isn't just stuff that is happening in the past or the recent past. I should say there is a move by the steelworkers in America that have tied up with the trade unions in Colombia to take Coca-Cola Colombia to court. And they're accused of conspiring or hiring paramilitaries to kill, murder, kidnap and disappear trade unionists. And that case is coming up.

But this isn't just something that's happened in the relative past. In the past, I think it was about seven weeks, I guess two months, thirty Coca-Cola trade unionists went on hungerstrike outside the Coke plants because Coca-Cola waged a war against the union. What they want to do is see trade unions out of the workplace. They want to see working people's ability to organise for themselves taken away. They want to control the workforce completely.

Those people went on hungerstrike and they were on hungerstrike for two weeks before the management caved in. And what they did was an incredibly brave thing to do. And with the Colombian trade unionists I've spoken to, often you'll hear the phrase "to be a unionist in Colombia is to walk with a gravestone on your back". Three and a half thousand trade unionists have been murdered since '87.

About five, six weeks ago, we had emails from the president of SINALTRAINAL, the food and drink workers union, a man named Luis Javier, who wrote saying "It's with great sadness that I have to tell you that the family of a prominent Coca-Cola trade unionist have been attacked by the paramilitaries. Gabriel and Fanny Remolina were attacked and murdered by paramilitaries, and the following day their son Robinson died. They have two children who are left in the hospital." These are not things which happened in the past, they are happening now and Coca-Cola has to take responsibility for its actions.

Now Coke have said, "This is just a bottler, it's a separate company." But they're a franchisee and also, if you're gonna claim that the Colombian bottlers are a separate company, it's really a good idea not to have 46% of the shares, which Coca-Cola do. They have the controlling interest and it's therefore important that we hold them to account.

Now Coke have got a history, because they really are the beverage wing of the US military, they have a history of working with and in repressive regimes. From the Nazis - that'll be the Nazis in Germany with the armbands, those Nazis - where Coca-Cola collaborated with the Nazis. In fact in 1941 when Coca-Cola Germany could no longer get the syrup to make Coca-Cola they invented a drink specifically for the Nazis and for the Nazi market; that drink was Fanta. So Fanta is the drink of Nazis.

Through to Franco's Spain, where the bottling plants were owned by Franco's fascist cabinet members. Through to Guatemala, where again trade unionists were killed by paramilitaries. Through to Nicaragua, where during the Sandanista era the main Coke office in Managua was being run by one of the Contra rebels. Through to now, where we look at what's happening in Venezuela where workers at Coke are being asked to provide evidence that they've signed up the recall for Chávez. Through to Peru, where only a week ago, two weeks ago, workers were on strike over redundancies.

And through to Mexico, and in Mexico Coke have - you might have heard about the case in India, in Kerala, where Coke opened up the bottling plant, took the water from the groundwater and - bang - the peasants' and the farmers' crops went. Thousands of people have been affected there, thousands. They've lost their farms, they've lost their crops, they're in debt to the bank, the croppers have got nothing to crop, they've got no work. Some people are having to walk seven kilometres just to get fresh water. And what has happened is the landless peasants there have had an occupation, have had a vigil, a protest outside that bottling plant. And they're into something like day 760 of that 24-hour-a-day vigil. And they've called for boycott, just as the Colombian trade unionists have.

But what's interesting about Mexico is that Coca-Cola look like they're gonna nip round that problem of stealing people's water. And what they're gonna do in Mexico, and what they're doing is, in partnership with their friends in Monsanto, Coca-Cola is busy privatising the water. They're actually building damns, creating reservoirs, throwing people off the land to actually get control of the water. They will control the water. And it's important to realise that Coca-Cola have one stated objective: they want Coca-Cola to out-drink water globally. That's their stated objective. They want to control the way, quote, "we hydrate ourselves." They +are+ the beverage wing of the US military because they want to take over and run how we drink.

So, what's to be done on this? Well, as I said, there has been a call for a boycott. In Ireland that call has been particularly well received, where the issue is considered a mainstream issue. Five colleges in Ireland have boycotted, voted to boycott, to ban Coca-Cola. One of them actually had a vote for the second year running, because they voted and the students said, we don't want Coca-Cola. So they said, ok, democratically we'll have another vote this year. Coca-Cola got to hear about their second vote. They sent over their top person to speak to the students, to convince them that Coca-Cola was an ethically sound company. The top person spoke to the students and afterwards they voted and they counted the votes and found that after Coke's man spoke to them, the number of students voting for the boycott had increased! And you do have to think, who on earth did they send there?

So there are lots of moves here that are being made, not just in the courts but in the boycott, and I think it's very important to note several things about the boycott. Firstly, and I say this in a spirit of comradeship, there is resistance to the boycott call from the trade union movement in Britain. And it's very important to challenge that resistance. If we stand against US imperialism, then what we are, we are anticapitalists, we are antiglobalists, and we should be proud of that. We shouldn't cling to the old associations that we have of trade unions who perhaps are more interested in a knighthood or climbing the ladder with the Labour party, but we should get them to do our will. We should get them to do what we want. If that is how democracy works, and it is, then that is what we should be doing and we should be campaigning for this boycott, we should not be frightened of it, we should not be intimidated by some of the trade union pressure but we should go out and we should fight. And we should fight proudly as people in solidarity with people in Latin America, and as anticapitalists, and that is what we should be doing.

I think that one of the great things about the move against Coca-Cola is you find the strangest allies. You find people who are concerned with childhood obesity, you find people who are concerned with food rights, you find people who are concerned with trade union rights. This is up for winning. And they're frightened, Coca-Cola are frightened. Some of the students went to speak to Coca-Cola and the first thing Coca-Cola said was "We don't want this turning into a Nestle situation." Our job is to make sure it does! Our job is to make sure, to get out and campaign because, I'm sure you know, people want to know things. They're not content just to sit and watch vacuous Big Brother fighting over who's got cigarettes and who hasn't, or whether someone's getting kicked out or whether they're not. People want information, and it's our job to provide that. And I hope those of you who aren't involved already will go to the stalls and get involved because this is our struggle, as well as the struggle of people of Latin America.

back to speeches