Colombia Action Network
Colombia Action Network was a front for Freedom Road Socialist Organization/FightBack!.
CAN Founding conference
Around one hundred people gathered in Chicago April 7 and 8, 2001, for a historic meeting of Colombia solidarity activists from across the U.S. The Colombia Action Network (C.A.N.) is the first national network to bring together a true diversity of people to oppose U.S. intervention in Colombia and to support the self-determination of Colombian people struggling for peace with social and economic justice.
Colombians and people from the U.S., young and old, men and women, revolutionaries and pacifists, union members and students, all united around a common goal of building what one Chicago-based activist called "a tent that's big enough for all those who oppose U.S. intervention in Colombia."
People came to Chicago from as far away as Portland, Oregon, and Burlington, Vermont. A van-full of activists drove from Morristown, New Jersey. Other activists came from Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Duluth, Minneapolis, all over Illinois, and from the small town of Steven's Point, Wisconsin.
Some participants shared frustrations over having been excluded from past coalition efforts. "I support all Colombians fighting for progressive change, including the guerrillas. That's not a popular point of view in the U.S., and many human rights groups spend half their time adding to State Department propaganda against the F.A.R.C. and other guerrilla groups'" said Meredith Aby. "I think it's time for U.S. activists to focus on opposing the role of the U.S. government in Colombia, and let Colombians decide the future of their own country."
The conference opened with Heather Truskowski, of Chicago's Colombia Solidarity Committee, denouncing U.S. aid to Colombia's brutal military and paramilitary forces. She said, "We need to come together and build a movement that can stop U.S.-sponsored attacks on the Colombian people." C.A.N. participants and Chicago-area activists led workshops on topics such as Organizing 101; Human Rights and the Social Movement in Colombia; and Eyewitness Colombia - A Report from the Demilitarized Zone.
Jose Fernando Ramirez Lozano, a 21-year trade union leader, and president of the Oil Workers Union of Bogota, closed the first day of the conference with an inspiring talk. He is a leader of the left-wing Patriotic Union and is active in the Peasant's Association of the Cimitarra River Valley of Barrancabermeja, an area that has witnessed countless attacks on peasant leaders. After the conference, Ramirez set out for a coast-to-coast tour that will include speaking at the Labor Notes conference in Detroit, Michigan.
"We are fighting kilometer by kilometer against the paramilitaries. El Salvador's death squads, the Nicaraguan Contras, the self-defense groups in Colombia, they all have the same father - U.S. imperialism. And they are all trained at the School of the Americas," Ramirez told the crowd. "That is why your solidarity as North Americans is so important to us."
He continued, "Because as defenders of human rights, we come into conflict with multinationals and those who hold power. We have been declared military targets - the C.U.T. has 10,000 dead. We in the oil workers union have lost over 130 people - the last one was killed two weeks ago. But we can't allow them to kill our hope."
That spirit of hope moved the C.A.N. activists to take action. They sent a statement of solidarity to the Colombian media, and agreed to take a series of joint actions to stop U.S. military aid. In spring and summer, activists will pressure local congress people in dozens of U.S. cities. In the fall, the C.A.N. will mobilize for protests in Washington, D.C.
Sundin meets Raul Reyes
Jess Sundin, of the Colombia Action Network, led a small delegation of three North American activists to Bogatá in July 2000, to attend a conference responding to U.S. military aid. The delegation also traveled to the area in Southern Colombia controlled by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People's Army.
- I met Comandante Raul Reyes in July 2000, at a guerrilla camp outside of San Vicente del Caguan, Southern Colombia. My visit was the FARC's first from U.S. solidarity activists. At the time, the FARC-EP was in the midst of a dialogue with the Colombian government which took place in the area I visited, an area cleared of all U.S. and Colombian military and police forces, and where the guerrillas operated openly.
- After having a taste of life in town, and a visit to the site of the dialogues, we were driven around winding, rutted dirt roads, into the mountains, and to a semi-permanent FARC encampment, where Comandante Reyes was based, along with about 40 other men and women.
- He acted as our principal host during my week inside FARC-controlled territory. My first night at camp, he invited us to join him for dinner. After dinner, we shared a few rounds of vodka, and a smoke for those who wanted it. He asked about the political situation in the United States, and how North Americans viewed the struggle in Colombia. Then, the Comandante shared his views, and that of the FARC, on the political situation in Colombia, the significance of the dialogue with the government and the prospects for peace.
Sundin told Fight Back;
- It was an incredible opportunity, and an honor, to meet with Comandante Raul Reyes. He was my host in Southern Colombia. He's a very warm and thoughtful man, who told me time and again that he was so pleased that we were there.
- Like so many of the people I talked with, he asked me to bring back a message of peace and solidarity. Members of the FARC are outraged by the escalation of U.S. military intervention. They believe that progressive people in the U.S. - revolutionaries, activists, people of faith, young people, union members - are their allies in trying to bring peace with justice to Colombia.
- The guerrillas and civilian activists alike told me that the single most important thing people in the U.S. can do is bring an end to U.S. involvement. I agree with them - to solve Colombia's problems and build a future, the best people to do that are Colombian's themselves.
- That's why we need to build a national movement that can really challenge U.S. policy. We can take inspiration and lessons from what was done here in the movements to end the war against Viet Nam and to get the U.S. out of Central America. That's just what we're doing with the Colombia Action Network. With committees in cities and towns across the U.S. - and we need more - we are building a national network that can say no to U.S. intervention in Colombia.
2004 delegation to Colombia
Meredith Aby-Keirstead writing August 9, 2004 on her trip to Colombia. For two weeks in July, a solidarity delegation of the Colombia Action Network (CAN) traveled in Colombia, meeting with leading trade unionists, peasant leaders and other participants in that country’s powerful movement for justice and liberation.
The CAN delegation was made up of anti-war and student activists from Illinois, Minnesota and Connecticut. The delegation investigated the impact of U.S. military aid through Plan Colombia and extended solidarity to the struggle of the Colombian people against U.S. imperialism.
The U.S. has sent the Colombian government nearly $3 billion in military aid, which funds both the military and paramilitary war on trade unionists, human rights workers, student leaders and campesinos (peasants). This aid includes military advisors, weapons, helicopters and fumigation chemicals.
The CAN delegation met with representatives from the unions leading the labor movement in Colombia, including the CUT, Colombia's largest labor federation; USO, the oil workers’ union; the Bogotá teachers' union and SINALTRAINAL, the beverage workers’ union which has been fighting at Coca-Cola plants.
Another union fighting for the right to organize is SINALTRAINAL, the beverage workers union. Since 2002, the Colombia Action Network has been organizing in solidarity with this union. Last summer the CAN joined the international campaign for a boycott of all Coca-Cola products for their union-busting tactics, including Coca-Cola’s support of right-wing paramilitary death squads. Vice-president William Mendoza informed the delegation that the movement in the U.S. has helped. He said, "We’ve felt international solidarity and the pressure has decreased the threats to us. The company has had to give some means of security to us because of the international pressure. It’s because of this that we can continue our struggle."
Matt Muchowski, a student activist from DePaul University who is organizing the effort to kick Coke off his campus, explained, "The paramilitaries are open in their support of the multi-national corporations and there’s been even a magazine article which described a meeting between the paramilitaries and Coca-Cola. I take this to be further proof that corporations such as Coca-Cola work against democracy and human rights. I will take this information and the contacts I’ve made here with SINALTRAINAL back to Chicago to continue to fight for workplace and student democracy."
While traveling in the northern Colombian states of Antioquia and Arauca, members of the delegation talked with campesinos about how the fumigation chemicals that are purchased with U.S. military aid kill legal crops in along with coca.
Thistle Parker-Hartog from the Anti-War Committee in Minneapolis, Minnesota explained, "It’s important for people in the U.S. to understand the conditions Colombian campesinos face every day. Most of these farmers have no connection to the armed struggle and are merely trying to work enough to support their families and create a stronger community. The U.S.-funded Colombian military and paramilitary bring terror and intimidation into their streets and into their very homes. I hope that North Americans will be moved by the poignant stories from our delegation to take political action to stop the Plan Colombia policies which are impacting these campesinos."
2005 student delegation
Meredith Aby of Fightback! interviewed Marty Hoerth, Erika Zurawski, and Tsione Wolde-Michael, part of a student delegation from Minnesota and Montana to recently tour Colombia, organised by Colombia Action network and Community Action for Justice in the Americas.
Angela Denio was part of an August 2009, a delegation of U.S. students, trade unionists and anti-war activists who traveled to Colombia to meet with leaders in the struggle there. The Colombia Action Network and the Campaign for Labor Rights, two grassroots organizations here in the United States fighting against U.S. intervention in Colombia, hosted the trip.
“I knew what I heard in the U.S. media about the benefits of U.S. tax money and aid to Colombia was true only for the rich. I wanted to see for myself what the reality is for Colombians,” said Jeremy Miller, a member of the Colombian Action Network when explaining his decision to go on the delegation. Members of the Colombia Action Network and the Campaign for Labor Rights arranged meetings with peasant, indigenous and student groups, as well as with political leaders, unions, political prisoners and families of Colombians killed or imprisoned by the government.
The first union the delegation met with was the National Peasant-Farmer Federation, FENSUAGRO. They unite farmers from all over Colombia to struggle for land reform and everyday rights for rural workers. It is the largest rural labor organization in Colombia and is unwavering in its principled defense of workers. Because of the work they do, this union is the most targeted for violence by the wealthy and their pro-government death squads.
During a rural community meeting, a FENSUAGRO leader told the delegation, “75 of our members are currently in jail. We fight for a public policy that favors the peasant farmer and we are always clear about our demands. Because of this the government works daily, looking for ways to finish us off. The government tries to connect us to the FARC [the largest armed rebel group in Colombia], in attempts to discredit us. The Uribe government goes after anyone who defends the working class. They claim that we are not the victims of violence, that we are the aggressors. Farmers have no support from the government. No rights even to housing or health care. The government does not care for the poor and has completely abandoned us to poverty. Human life is worth only the value of a bullet.”
The stories from other groups told much of the same - of being afraid to leave the house in the morning, of being followed, of having family members killed by death squads, of being arrested for implausible charges - all of this because of the fight for the rights of workers and peasants, indigenous people and Afro-Colombians, everyday people. “I was shocked to hear the stories of the university students in Bogotá. They are doing the same kind of activism we are here in the U.S., but because of it, they are facing death threats, they are being imprisoned or assassinated,” said Sarah Buchner of Students for a Democratic Society, another delegate on the trip, speaking one night after a particularly intense day of stories.
- During the trip, the theme that repeatedly came up was “what is most important for us as U.S. activists to bring back?” We decided to bring back the stories and pictures but also something more: to drive home the message that the terrible violence in Colombia is directly connected to the United States government. We can do something to change that, to stop it. It is the U.S. government that foots the bill for the war and violence that happens in Colombia. The people of Colombia are very clear on this. The people the delegation met with had all sorts of ideas about ways to build a better Colombia and about ways for peace. But all of them were united in saying U.S. intervention must stop, that the seven proposed U.S. military bases in Colombia would do nothing to end violence in the country and would serve only to increase it, that peace in Colombia would only come with the end of U.S. violations of Colombian sovereignty.
From this trip, members of the delegation have returned to the U.S. with the hopes of continuing to build a movement in the United States against imperialist intervention in Colombia.
- Fightback news, Colombia Action Network Founding Conference a Huge Success by Jess Sundin | May 1, 2001
- [Fight Back News Eyewitness to Revolution by staff | July 1, 2000]
- [Fight Back News Eyewitness to Revolution by staff | July 1, 2000]
- [FightBack! Solidarity Activists Stand with Colombia by Meredith Aby-Keirstead | August 9, 2004]
- Fightback, Sept/Oct 2005]
- [FightBack! Eyewitness report from solidarity delegation Report by Angela Denio | September 8, 2009]