The TUC's Paul Nowak meeting Huber Ballesteros in La Picota. Photo by Seamus Milne
Defiance, hope & solidarity in Colombia
La Pictoa prison, south of Bogota is a foreboding place. The sheer scale of the facility, the lines of relatives and lawyers waiting to visit those inside, the ubiquitous presence of armed guards – all make for a pretty overwhelming experience. Over 8,000 prisoners are crammed into a space designed for less than 5,000 – and last week me and a number of other union and parliamentary colleagues visited two of them – Huber Ballesteros and David Rabelo.
Huber is an executive member of the CUT – Colombia’s largest trade union federation – and a key leader of the Patriotic March, a progressive political movement bringing together over 1500 organisations including trade unions, community organisations and human rights groups. Last August, just days before he was due to fly to London to address the TUC’s annual Congress, Huber was arrested on trumped up charges of aggravated rebellion and financing terrorism, charges he has always strenuously denied and which are completely groundless. His real ‘crime’ of course is to be a prominent trade union leader and to have led a wave of strikes in a country where trade unionists are routinely smeared, victimised, threatened and assassinated for daring to exercise their fundamental rights to organise and collectively bargain.
David Rabelo is a human rights defender and, like Huber, a survivor of the institutional genocide of the Patriotic Union carried out by the Colombian state and right-wing paramilitaries in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s which resulted in more than 3,000 activists being murdered. He is currently serving 18 years and 3 months for criminal conspiracy and aggravated homicide – a conviction based on the testimony of a former paramilitary known as ‘El Panadero’ who, in return for his testimony, saw his sentence reduced from 40 years to a maximum of eight. Like Huber, David has always maintained his innocence and his case has been marked by numerous abuses of due process. David’s real ‘crime’ was to be a vocal opponent of the Colombian government – in 2007 he released a video showing the former Colombian President meeting known paramilitaries – and a leading human rights defender in a country where the government is keen to talk the language of human rights at the same time as it turns a blind eye too, or – in many cases – colludes with, those who abuse such rights.
Our permission to visit Huber and David had originally included an agreement that we could see the conditions in which both men were held – but having spent a good couple of hours persuading the prison authorities just to let us in and meet the two prisoners as had been previously arranged, it was clear that we weren’t going to be able to visit the cells themselves. The conditions in Colombian prisons are notoriously poor. The POA general secretary, Steve Gillan, who has visited prisons all over the world, has described the conditions in Colombia as the worst he has ever seen – a point reinforced by the testimony of both Huber and David. David described examples of prisoners sleeping on the floor of bathrooms, or 4-6 to a cell because of a lack of space. Vital medical treatment is often withheld from prisoners with dreadful consequences – an untreated aneurysm left one prisoner disabled – and prison authorities routinely ignore court orders stipulating that prisoners with medical conditions should be placed under house arrest or held in hospital detention, rather than locked-up. Despite suffering from type-2 diabetes and a bowel complaint, Huber himself has had only one medical assessment in the 11 months he has been held in La Picota. Drugs, alcohol, prostitution and arms are rife throughout the prison.
Meeting Huber and David was in turns both depressing and uplifting. Depressing to see two men, committed to the nascent peace process and progressive political change in Colombia incarcerated unjustly. Uplifting to see that, despite the dreadful conditions in which they are being held, both were clearly focussed on securing justice and are determined to continue to speak out even within the confines of La Picota.
Those conflicting emotions reflected my broader experience in Colombia. Everywhere we went, we met people facing, or who had faced, the most appalling and, on the face of it, unbearable challenges. We met the ’Mothers of Soacha’ – women whose son’s were lured to their death and extra-judicially executed by Colombian troops eager to boost their tally of killed ‘insurgents’. We met ‘campesinos’ in Putamayo, whose sons were allegedly killed by the army in May this year – the youngest, just 14 years of age. And in Buenaventura, home to a new mega-port and many western multi-nationals we met poor communities living in the shadow of the paramilitary ‘chop-houses’, and where tens of thousands of people have been ‘displaced’.
But alongside these unspeakable horrors, we also witnessed amazing examples of resilience and a determination to keep fighting for peace and political change. When we arrived in Putamayo, the local campesinos were in the midst of a strike and had blockaded local roads and bridges. In Buenaventura, the local Bishop described how up to 30,000 people had marched in a demonstration against violence in the city. And in the same city, we saw first-hand how one small local community had wrested their street back off the paramilitaries to create a ‘Humanitarian Zone’.
That spirit of defiance, of hope, and a huge amount of practical solidarity action is supported by the work of Justice for Colombia – an NGO already supported by many national unions. Help support their work – and to support the workers and unions of Colombia – by affiliating your union, branch or local trades council.