In Memoriam: Yul Francisco Dorado Was a True Champion for People and the Environment

¡Lo logramos! “Whenever there was a victory, my father started with those words,” recalled Daniel Dorado. In 2009, when Colombia passed one of the most comprehensive tobacco control policies in the world, Yul Francisco Dorado called his son in the middle of his law class to say, “We did it!” And surely the elder Dorado, who served as the Latin America director of the nonprofit Corporate Accountability International, would have said the same in July 2016 when, just two months after he suddenly passed away, the tobacco giant Philip Morris International lost its lawsuit against the country of Uruguay for passing strong public health laws.

Dorado played an important role in both Colombia’s policy and Uruguay’s victory. And he leaves an outsized legacy on public health, the environment and human rights that extends far beyond Latin America—and well beyond his lifespan. In fact, his work is affecting negotiations on international law that are about to take place. As governments prepare to gather for upcoming treaty negotiations on tobacco and climate policy, the global community is determined to fulfill Dorado’s vision of a world where decisions are made based on the good of people and communities everywhere, not on filling corporate coffers.

Reining in corporate power

When Dorado, a human rights lawyer, first learned about the World Health Organization’s global tobacco treaty (formally, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control), he knew immediately that “it had great potential for human rights, far beyond tobacco,” said his son. He understood that this international law would not only protect people from the tobacco industry, but also would also serve as a powerful tool to rein in corporate power.

“It stirred his passion,” said his wife Esperanza Cerón Villaquirán.

He put that passion to work to ensure the treaty was as strong as possible. Nick Guroff, deputy director at Corporate Accountability International, recalled Dorado in action during a treaty negotiation in 2008:

The agenda for what civil society and governments were to focus on during the week had largely been set. Checking industry interference was not a serious focal point. That was the landscape. I watched Dorado, as a team leader, pick that landscape up and set it down in a whole other place altogether.

Delegates and allies alike implicitly trusted him. “You just have an instinct about people,” explained Reina Roa from the Panama Ministry of Health, with whom Dorado worked until the end of his life. This instinct led delegates to listen closely as Dorado explained how the tobacco industry would distort the aims of corporate social responsibility (CSR) to undermine public health objectives.

While he talked with delegates, he also reinforced the message in the media. “Throughout Latin America, the tobacco industry employs different strategies to pressure governments and legislatures,” Dorado said to EFE, the largest Spanish language news wire, reaching tens of millions of people. “One is to promote so-called 'corporate social responsibility' through donations to government projects. For example, Philip Morris made a donation of $2 million to the Colombian government as it debated the bill to implement the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.”

By the end of those treaty meetings, Dorado had played a lead role as the delegates developed strong guidelines keeping the tobacco industry from influencing public health policy through CSR and other means. These set a powerful precedent for protecting policymaking from corporate influence and interference across industries.

As Roa noted, “We wouldn’t have the guidelines if it weren’t for him.”

Water is life—and a human right

As evidenced in his work with tobacco, Dorado understood how to work across political and party lines to move a policy forward. He shared those lessons with allies working for water justice in Colombia, an issue dear to his heart.

For Dorado, “the ratio between the water in the human body and the planet represented our responsibility to take care of this liquid as delicately as we would our children,” said Villaquirán. “And by ‘children,’ he meant every single sentient being.” So together, they canvassed Bogotá’s streets and squares, talking to people about the issue and moving them to action.

In the end, two million people across Colombia called on the government to declare the human right to water. But Congress turned a deaf ear. So Dorado helped escalate the campaign.

Juan Camilo Mira, a leader in the Colombian water justice movement, explained how Dorado taught Mira that showing up to a senator’s office with a 60-page document would surely lead to one thing: an unread report dumped in the recycling box. Instead, they got the senators’ attention with a CD of Colombian songs accompanied by short pieces of texts.

“Then they read,” remembered Mira. “I learned to talk to them.”

Solidarity on climate

Dorado cared as passionately about the rest of our ecosystem as he did about water. “He thought of the planet Earth as a living marvel, which he loved and revered,” said Villaquirán. In the last year of his life, he worked on leveraging the precedent of the global tobacco treaty to remove the fossil fuel industry’s influence over climate policy.

But Dorado had his doubts. He looked at the entrenchment of the industry and the political dynamics of Latin America and he didn’t know if he’d be able to move as quickly as he needed to move the U.N. climate treaty delegates to take a stand.

Nevertheless, he knew what was at stake as he traveled to Paris in December 2015, for a U.N. climate meeting. The world was still reeling from the fact that 130 people had been killed and hundreds more wounded in bombings and shootings throughout Paris. But Dorado was determined to attend, stating, “There are so many people whose lives are so much at risk because of climate change,” he told me. “This is a very small risk to take.”

In Paris and in the months that followed, he built relationships with delegates as only he could do. I wonder if he knew the extent of the impact he made in such a short time. Because when our team arrived at the next climate meetings about a month after Dorado’s death, they were immediately greeted by a delegate from Latin America. In tears she said, “We must do this. We must do it for Yul.”

And they took a huge step forward during that meeting. For the first time in the history of the climate treaty, delegates from across the Global South stood up to demand an end to the conflicts of interest posed by the fossil fuel industry. These delegates who led this action were from Latin America: Nicaragua, Venezuela and Ecuador. Evoking Dorado’s passion and dedication, they stood up to the fossil fuel industry interests in the form of powerful Global North countries. They declared, “The world is with us.”

This show of solidarity and courage would only have been possible with the relationships Dorado began, even when he hardly believed that it could be achieved.

Believing in the power of the cause

Before he died, Dorado was also working on a measure in the global tobacco treaty that holds tobacco corporations liable for the harm they cause. He saw great potential in the ability to put the costs of the industry’s abuses—billions in healthcare costs, illegal activities and more—where it belongs: onto the corporations.

“He envisioned a day when we could take Big Tobacco to court all across Latin America,” said his son Daniel.

Yul Francisco Dorado’s vision, as always, was even larger. He understood the implications of this provision not just for tobacco, not just for Latin America, but for all industry abuses all around the world. No other industry has been held to account on this scale, and the precedent it could set—for water, for climate and beyond—is groundbreaking.

And so the world is taking up his vision as we head into the next meeting of the global tobacco treaty in November, prepared to advance this provision.

We follow in Dorado’s steps, who believed “what you are already doing isn’t enough,” according to his son, Daniel. “And as long as there is at least one other person besides yourself who believes in the power of the cause, you can do things differently.”


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