by Carol Jachim, Pax Christi Michigan
It was International Peace Day in September when I first met Jorge Parra, a humbling man who walked with a cane. We marched together with 25 peace advocates for a mile or so from a downtown Detroit Church to Comerica Park where the Detroit Tigers were playing a home game. Did we make a difference? Did anyone notice? One only wonders with hope.
As we gathered in a small park, Jorge spoke, through an interpreter, telling us his reason for being in the U.S. — to draw attention to his and his coworkers’ plight in a General Motors plant in Columbia. GM Colombia (Colmotores), the most profitable GM plant in Latin America, fired over 200 workers who suffered work-related injuries and diseases, including spinal fractures and cancer.
Again, I met up with Jorge in November when the opportunity arose for a ride on the UAW bus to the annual School of the Americas protest in Georgia. Although we had been to many protests/rallies since the 1970s, both local and national, I and my husband had never been to the SOA event. Jorge rode the 15-hour bus ride with us; we learned more about his struggle.
In Georgia at the convention center, I attended the Labor Caucus; Jorge spoke. He vowed that he and his fellow workers would sew their lips shut and go on a hunger strike if GM would not listen and negotiate with he and his fellow workers. A peaceful vigil in Bogota for a year outside the U.S. Embassy was getting nowhere. Workers were protesting a set-up that left them not only disabled from their working conditions, but then unemployed and without medical benefits. If they couldn’t work, they were let go. Jorge says he could work in another job if he could get some medical help.
My mind, that weekend, dealt with knowing that enormous amounts of money were thrown into the School of the Americas to train some of the worst human rights abusers in Latin America. I was there at Ft. Benning, at the School of the Americas/WHINSEC to protest the oppressive policies and systems that it represents. My presence meant solidarity with my sisters and brothers in Latin America.
SOA Watch is a movement to close the School of the Americas; founded by Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a vocal, dynamic leader. Some 23 protests were held there in memory of the six Jesuit priests and their housekeepers murdered on Nov. 16, 1989; their killers trained at the SOA. I was appalled to learn that the “U.S. Government has trained over 10,000 of Colombia’s military troops at the SOA.” You can learn more at www.SOAW.org. One bright note: Two more countries, Ecuador and Nicaragua have said no to the SOA. The numbers of dissenting countries have climbed to six. Protests do matter. Change is often too slow.
On Nov. 28, injured auto worker Jorge Parra, did indeed have his lips sewn together in his third hunger strike … about 50 protesters joined us outside the GM headquarters in downtown Detroit during the close of the business day amid people leaving their jobs. It was sad to see Jorge this way. It was the same day that GM was up for the U.S. Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence. Braving some very cold winds off the Detroit River, Jorge was in his eighth day of his third hunger strike.
I will never forget Jorge. My prayers are with him and his Colombia brothers, and their families. They are the voices crying in the wilderness. Is anyone listening … is the meaning of holiday peace worthless?