Colombia has long held the title of trade union murder capital of the world. With increasing threats against workers and an estimated 4,000 trade unionists killed in the last three decades, the practices of multinational corporations operating in the Andean Nation are beginning to be more vigilantly scrutinized. A new film shines the spotlight on Atlanta-based Coca-Cola.
Colombia has long held the title of trade union murder capital of the world. With increasing threats against workers and an estimated 4,000 trade unionists killed in the last three decades, the practices of multinational corporations operating in the Andean Nation are beginning to be more vigilantly scrutinized.
One of those corporations, Coca-Cola, has received much attention over the last 10 years by activists part of the US-based Killer Coke campaign. Arguably the Nike of soft drinks because of its universal brand and suspect human rights record, Coke has most recently become the subject of a new documentary titled The Coca-Cola Case.
The film has brought out packed audiences as it tours North America, with especially large crowds on college campuses. At New York University (NYU) last week, over 300 people were in attendance thanks in part to their local chapter of the Coalition to keep Coca-Cola off Campus.
Unfortunately, despite the large crowds and hype, the film struggled to focus and with minimal investigation into the allegations, it left little impact on the viewer. Instead, the directors, Carmen Garcia and German Gutierrez concentrated primarily on the legal battle, following US lawyers, Daniel Kovalik and Terry Collingsworth as they fought to take on Coca-Cola Enterprises in U.S. courts.
With support from the Killer Coke campaign and its leader, Ray Rogers, Kovalik and Collingsworth resort to the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCT) to prosecute Coke. Among other aspects of the law, the ATCT allows foreign citizens to sue companies in U.S. courts. With the success of a handful of cases recently, the law has become increasingly useful in prosecuting multinational corporations for their practices abroad.
Garcia and Gutierrez’s choice to concentrate on the legal battle ended up being a bit problematic, however. In addition to being denied access into court hearings and Colombian bottling plants, they were also unable to interview representatives from Coca-Cola. A good portion of the documentary is simply reflections by the U.S. lawyers as the case drags on.
Yet, despite the shortcomings of the film it has clearly created some stir inside Coca-Cola’s corporate headquarters. The company’s attempt at reaching a settlement with the lawyers, as caught on camera, was undoubtedly suspicious but not enough to prove them guilty.
Needless to say, Coke continually denied any involvement in the murders and even attempted to keep the documentary from being distributed. On the allegations that the film violated a confidentiality agreement, Coke’s effort to block the documentary from premiering proved to be unsuccessful.
Although only slightly mentioned in the film, organizing by groups pushing for boycotts on college campuses has been one of the most successful tactics of the anti-Coke campaign. Close to 200 universities have started Killer Coke chapters and many have been effective in actually banning Coke from their campuses.
At NYU, local Anti-Coke activists successfully pressured the university to ban Coke sales on campus in 2005. However, last year the university lifted the ban, sighting a report released by the International Labor Organization. According to students, though, the report shows that no investigation was ever conducted.
Beyond college campuses, the highly visible campaign has also attracted activists all over North America, while the Killer Coke logo has become recognizable in Latin America as well. Regardless of the support, Kovalik and Collingsworth were unable to produce a settlement the Colombians would accept. Hardly the climatic ending the directors could hope for after three years of filming.
Perhaps the film would have been more effective had it not focused so narrowly on the Coca-Cola abuses. For “a story of international solidarity” (as reads the opening line), it is unfortunate the Coke case was taken out of the context of the struggle stated by Colombian activist Edgar Paez. “We are negotiating against U.S. politics. We are fighting the neoliberal model,” stated Paez towards the end of the film.
Paez’s words were rather out of place given there was no attempt by the filmmakers to touch upon the larger conflict. While Kovalik mentioned that only 5 of the thousands of murder cases have been brought to justice, the film ignored the fact that the government that allows such impunity is highly funded by U.S. taxpayers. Having received billions in military aid from the US since 2000, Colombia is the biggest beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid in the region.
Likewise, a statement made by Rogers while campaigning against Coke at the University of Chicago was also given no context. “It is a collusion between the government, working with the paramilitaries and the big corporations, to make sure there is no strong labor or human rights movement that can challenge their authority, that can challenge their profits or that can challenge their brutality,” he told the crowd.
A rather bold statement. But it was followed up by no analysis of the links between right-wing paramilitary groups and the U.S.-backed Colombian government. By omitting these facts, the movie willingly or not portrayed Coca-Cola as an isolated case.
As Paez pointed out, the fight against Coke is not just about one corporation. Rather it is about the policies of the U.S. government and neoliberal economics that threaten Colombian workers. And while campaigns against corporations are important in bringing justice to these cases, it is only a part of the solution that will eventually end the structural violence afflicting countries like Colombia.
Lainie Cassel is currently living in between New York City and Caracas, Venezuela. She can be contacted at Lainie.Cassel[at]gmail[dot]com.