CHICAGO – Deepening U.S. military involvement in Colombia is part and parcel of Washington’s blueprint to politically and economically dominate all of Latin America, said panelists at a recent forum here. If allowed to continue, they said, the Pentagon’s escalating involvement could well lead to another ‘Vietnam-type conflict’ of huge and uncontrollable proportions, spilling well beyond Colombia’s borders.

‘Plan Colombia and the Bush administration’s Andean Initiative are aimed at violently suppressing the Colombian people’s resistance to U.S. corporate policies,’ said Sarah Staggs, a Chicago peace activist and member of the Communist Party’s Peace and Solidarity Commission.

‘These policies – and the policies embodied in ‘free trade agreements,’ like the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) – have brought hunger and misery to the workers and peasants of Colombia for many years,’ she said. ‘The people of Colombia have been resisting these attacks on their living standards. Plan Colombia aims to crush their resistance by military force.’

Staggs said that ‘Plan Colombia ends up being a direct attack on trade unionists, on agricultural workers and peasants, and certainly on those who have taken up arms to fight for a better life, like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).’

‘The so-called war on drugs,’ she said, ‘is simply a pretext for the U.S. waging what is basically a counterinsurgency war.’

Staggs cited the large number of assassinations of trade union leaders in Colombia as an illustration.

‘On average, of every five trade unionists killed in the world today, three are killed in Colombia,’ she said.

‘In 2000, 129 trade unionists were killed, and some 72 have been assassinated this year alone. They’ve been brutally slain by paramilitary groups allied with the employers and the government.’

Staggs described the work of the United Steelworkers of America in exposing the case of the assassination of several workers at a Coca-Cola bottling plant as an important act of labor solidarity.

Citing the case of the Drummond Company, Staggs said that ‘these same U.S. corporate policies have badly hurt the living standards of workers here in the U.S.’ Drummond has closed five mines in Alabama since 1994, throwing thousands of coal miners out of work; it has simultaneously imported five million tons of lower-priced coal from its operations in Colombia.

Staggs called this ‘a classic example of how globalization ‘free trade’ has nothing to do with improving the lot of working people in the U.S. and everything to do with creating more profitable operations for U.S. corporations abroad.’

Another panelist, Guillermo Cohen of the Colombia Solidarity Committee, gave a brief history of U.S. involvement in Colombia, and stressed how rapidly the U.S. deployment of advanced weaponry, private contractors and mercenaries, defoliation chemicals and aircraft has taken place over the past several months. Things are escalating quickly, he said, and the scale of the conflict is growing with each passing day.

Cohen also emphasized the geopolitical significance of Colombia – situated as it is next to Central America, the Caribbean and in a strategic region of South America – and how important its natural resources, particularly oil, are to the profits of U.S. corporations. This explains, he said, the intense interest of the U.S. elite in controlling Colombia’s economy.

Jamie Owen Daniel, a University of Illinois professor and an executive board member of Chicago Jobs with Justice, described how the FTAA would dramatically expand upon the worst features of NAFTA.

‘If allowed to pass,’ she said, ‘FTAA would remove all obstacles to the privatization of health, welfare, water, electricity, senior and environmental programs throughout the hemisphere. It would challenge every publicly funded program and strip away every safeguard that workers have in protecting their living standards.’

She urged a stepped-up fight against the FTAA and Fast Track negotiating authority sought by President Bush.

Tom Burke, a member of the Colombia Solidarity Committee and trade union activist, reported on the recent conference in solidarity with Colombia held in El Salvador. After a vivid account of encounters with other conference participants, including fellow trade unionists and human rights activists, he noted that world solidarity, while increasing, needs to be stepped up.

The forum was sponsored by the Oak Park and West Suburban Friends of the People’s Weekly World.