Slavery? In Florida? In 2003? Yes

By Dan Moffett, Palm Beach Post Editorial Writer

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Each year since 1984, the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights gives an award to courageous activists somewhere in the world.

The past winners are a diverse collection of men and women who fought against most every conceivable injustice that infects the human spirit.

Among them are Salvadoran mothers who protested torture, a Polish newspaper editor who assailed communism, a Korean dissident who promoted democracy, a Kenyan lawyer who represented political prisoners, a Chinese astrophysicist who demanded civil liberties and an Israeli who worked for peace in the occupied territories.

In 1996, the RFK center had to give its prize anonymously to an activist from Sudan. The fear was that disclosing the person’s identity might necessitate a posthumous presentation.

This year was a little different, too: Three Floridians won — and largely for leading a campaign against Taco Bell.

It was the first time U.S.-based activists claimed the honor. Americans are quick to associate human rights abuses with faraway places and renegade states. But the RFK award winners are reminders of the injustice that goes on down the road, in the shadows of suburbia and middle-class comfort, where farm workers still toil under disgraceful conditions.

Lucas Benitez, Julia Gabriel and Romeo Ramirez are members of the , a group that organized in 1996 to promote reforms in Florida’s fields. The CIW has grown to more than 2,000 members, and the RFK awards presented last week in Washington recognize its growing national impact.

Which is where Taco Bell comes in. Three years ago, the coalition tried to persuade the chain of about 7,000 restaurants to accept a deal that would improve the lives of farm workers. Taco Bell buys huge quantities of Florida tomatoes, and if it would agree to pay one penny more for each pound and let the penny pass to the pickers, the workers could double their salaries and earn a living wage.

The plan’s added cost to restaurant customers would be undetectable — about a quarter-cent per taco. But the difference for pickers — who earn about 40 cents for every 32-pound bucket picked and average about $7,500 a year — would be life-changing.

The company steadfastly has refused the deal, and the CIW steadfastly has pressed it. Taco Bell boycotts have spread throughout the country, particularly near college campuses. The RFK center calls it “one of the fastest-growing social justice movements in the U.S. today.”

But what made the three coalition members shoo-ins for the awards were their heroic efforts to expose and convict employers who enslaved workers in the fields. Four years ago, Mr. Benitez, one of CIW’s founders, helped federal authorities convict employers and free 30 tomato pickers held in an isolated swamp outside Immokalee, northeast of Naples. The men were beaten and threatened if they tried to leave.

In 2000, Mr. Benitez investigated slavery in the citrus groves of Lake Placid, north of Immokalee, involving more than 700 workers. Mr. Ramirez volunteered to work undercover to provide evidence for federal agents. Last year, two field bosses were convicted, sentenced to 34 years in prison and ordered to forfeit $3 million in assets. A Guatemalan who started working in the country’s coffee plantations when he was 8, Mr. Ramirez endured threats on his life to get the prosecutions. Farm workers turn up floating in Florida canals all the time. He could have been another.

Ms. Gabriel is a Mayan from Guatemala who grew up speaking the indigenous language of Mam. She dedicated herself to human rights issues after being held captive in South Carolina fields with hundreds of other workers. Gunmen kept them under armed guard, and employers woke them each morning at 4 with gunshots. She escaped with six friends after watching the brutal public beating of a co-worker.

Mr. Benitez, 27, a Mexican who immigrated to the U.S. a decade ago, has been called the “Cesar Chavez for the new millennium” by El Diario in New York. Three years ago, he won Rolling Stone magazine’s Brick Award as the nation’s top young community leader. He says the $30,000 award from the RFK center, and its new partnership with the CIW, will help heighten awareness of problems the nation is used to ignoring.

“It’s a tremendous support,” he said, “and a recognition that human rights are still being violated in the United States.”

You don’t have to go all the way to Sudan or China to confront injustice — or even slavery. Think about that the next time you bite into a chalupa.

dan_moffett@pbpost.com

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