Huber Ballesteros speaks at a Marcha Patriótica May Day rally.
TUC Congress speaker arrested in Colombia
The arrest and detention on Sunday of Colombian trade unionist Huber Ballesteros shows how little has changed in that country. It is yet another move in the government’s attempt to disrupt and frustrate both industrial action and union engagement in the developing peace process.
Huber was arrested at the headquarters of the CUT, the Colombian TUC, and has now been charged with ‘rebellion’ and providing financial assistance (from Justice for Colombia i.e. the British union movement) to terrorists. Although we are awaiting more details it appears that the prosecutors may well allege that money provided to support organising projects for agricultural workers in fact went to guerrillas, needless to say the unions involved can show exactly where their money went.
Frances O’Grady has written to the Colombian ambassador in London and the authorities in Bogotá to condemn the arrest demand his release and seek information about the exact circumstances of his detention and specific charges he faces.
However, past experience makes it unlikely that the answers we get will be satisfactory. The charge of rebellion has been used repeatedly by the Colombian authorities against trade unionists and other activists that they want to silence. Lilany Obando and Miguel Beltran were both locked up for years without trial on the same charge and although they have now been released, following stalwart campaigning by Justice for Colombia and others, they still have legal action hanging over them.
You don’t have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist – or even particularly well informed about the tactics used by elements of the Colombian state -to understand why Huber’s been arrested. He is a vice president of FENSUAGRO, an agricultural workers union which has faced a horrific level of attacks and assassinations. He has recently been elected to the executive of the CUT, the largest Colombian union federation. And he is one of the national organisers for the Patriotic March – the alliance of civil society groups campaigning for a just and inclusive peace process to end Colombia’s decades-long civil war.
Immediately before his arrest Huber had been coordinating a wave of industrial action across various sectors of the Colombian economy and he is one of the ten spokespeople for the Mesa de Interloccion y Acuerdo (MIA), the body set up to negotiate with the government over the strikers demands. On the day of his arrest Huber had been due to visit the British embassy in Bogotá to collect his visa for the UK, where he was due to address our annual TUC congress, on the theme of progress in the Colombian peace process and the need to secure an increased role for civil society in achieving a sustainable settlement.
The Colombian government and their supporters have been loudly trumpeting the fall in the number of trade unionists being assassinated over the last year. Thankfully there does appear to have been a reduction in those being murdered, although make no mistake killings continue.
But those who still want to crush the trade union movement and all those campaigning for a more equal and socially just Colombia have developed other techniques. ; There has been an increase in imprisonments, the number of death threats, often aimed at family members rather than the activists themselves; and stigmatising by publically labelling anyone deemed as being a threat to those in economic and political power as linked to the ‘terrorists’ of the FARC and other groups.
The peace process does appear to be making progress, but as the experience in many other countries has shown, for those campaigning for just and inclusive settlements, reactionary forces can often take the highest toll in the run up to a final settlement.
Our immediate priority has to be to ensure that the Colombian authorities are left in no doubt that the international labour movement is watching their actions closely and that we will not allow Huber to be framed simply for standing up for Colombian workers. Huber may not now make it to the 2013 TUC Congress, but we will fight to make sure he can join us next year.