A first-hand account of corruption in a Colombian Coca-Cola factory confirmed the suspicions of some Knox students. Attendees of Monday night’s speaker, Luis Adolfo Cardona, walked away with a fresh perspective on a long-standing debate on campus.
Estudiantes sin Fronteras and Alliance for Peaceful Action combined resources to sponsor a visit from Cardona, a former 12-year employee of the Carepa Coca-Cola bottling plant in Antioquia, Colombia. Senior Vicky Daza translated from Spanish to English for Cardona as he shared his experience as a union leader in the country.
Cardona’s daughter, Karen, accompanied him as he recounted the details of his time at the factory.
“A lot of aspects of working at the factory were humiliating,” said Cardona. Many employees, he said, were unfairly fired.
Cardona and others decided to organize a labor union in order to combat the practices they considered unfair and degrading. It was not long, said Cardona, before union leaders and organizers were threatened by their employers.
“We Colombians are stubborn,” he said, referencing the ten dead and four exiled union organizers effected by oppression in the last ten years.
Many of the union’s requests, said Cardona, were for advances in order to obtain sound housing and education for their children.
“Apparently, our demands were too much,” he said. “We got our response from Coca-Cola. It was the assassination of the secretary of the union inside the Coca-Cola bottling plant.”
The secretary was shot, said Cardona, by internationally funded paramilitaries hired by Coca-Cola.
Cardona contacted the man’s family who quickly arrived at the factory.
“[His wife] got there and he was dead. His little girls threw themselves on top of his body,” said Cardona.
“There’s a saying in Colombia that ‘Men don’t cry,’” said Cardona. “That’s a lie. I had to excuse myself.”
The same day, Cardona was kidnapped by paramilitaries. He escaped and was able to return to his wife and daughter.
“I had to live underground and walk around in a bulletproof vest,” he said.
He was ultimately able to escape to the United States with his wife and daughter.
“I have a lot to be thankful to the U.S. for,” he said. “People [in Colombia] say that Americans are sons of bitches, but there is a mistake.”
Cardona said that the American people are not to blame for the exploitation of workers in Latin America. He said it is the system of the United States that is responsible, not the citizens of the country.
Cardona and his family are hosted by the United Steelworkers of America. He travels the country sharing his experience.
Knox students found Cardona’s personal account informative and emotionally engaging.
“In the end, that was the most significant thing, just to see a person,” said senior Joey Firman. “That’s what will stay with me: his face, getting to be around that as opposed to some Web site that could have been written by anybody.”
Firman was especially moved by the individual examples Cardona gave.
“The degree of violence that happens in Colombia still startles and shocks you,” he said, “even if you’ve heard about it.”
Sophomore Rachel Clark also felt that Cardona’s testimony illuminated the Killer Coke issue.
“Things like that don’t happen in America,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking to see how much we take that for granted.”
Sophomore Emma Swanson felt that the event framed the Killer Coke issue in a new way.
“I think before, when people were tabling, seemed a bit shady,” she said. “Now I understand more about it. I don’t really drink Coke products. But I’d like to broaden my knowledge of it.”
Cardona’s talk influenced Clark to seek out more information, too.
“Before, I saw posters in hallway and sort of halfway banned [Coke],” she said. “Now I feel that I have enough information to actually boycott it.”