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In Colombia the mask has slipped

MARIELA KOHON says despite an international charm offensive the Manuel Santos regime is continuing to persecute peaceful protesters and violently repress trade unionists and activists

The progressive mask of Colombia's Juan Manuel Santos administration has been torn away by recent events.

On August 25 Huber Ballesteros, a renowned trade union leader, member of the Colombian TUC executive and a leading organiser of the Patriotic March opposition movement was arrested the day before he was due to pick up his visa to travel to address Britain's TUC conference as a guest of Justice for Colombia.

He joins some 7,000 political prisoners held in horrendous conditions in Colombian prisons, a living example of the way that the Colombian state represses critical views.

He has been accused of rebellion and terrorism. His only crime is to have organised Colombian workers.

At the time of Huber's arrest he was one of the leaders of strikes which rocked the country throughout the summer.

These were the largest social protests seen since 1977, with hundreds of thousands demonstrating and on strike across the agricultural, mining, transport, health, education and oil sectors, protesting against years of neglect and neoliberal economic policies that have ruined livelihoods and robbed people of decent healthcare and education.

Road blockades and transport strikes paralysed vast regions. The government initially denied the strikes were happening, but when the reaction came it was heavy handed - a dozen demonstrators were killed, many more were wounded, hundreds were arrested and there were numerous accusations of the army and police carrying out torture, sexual assault and indiscriminate violence.

The government accused demonstrators of violence, but video footage showed police mingling with men in civilian dress smashing windows. In other areas locals accused the police of paying local gangs to go on the rampage.

Fifty thousand troops were put on the streets of Bogota and the main cities. The government then tried to negotiate with specific organisations in order to break the unity of the strikers and arrested Huber in an effort to affect morale.

These efforts failed to dent the strikes and the government was forced to the table. However, despite an "agreement to negotiate" since then little has been resolved, with the government unwilling to concede anything significant.

The strikes and mobilisations were co-organised by the Patriotic March, a new mass political and social movement backed by the trade unions which is made up of over 2,000 organisations, from peasant groups to women's organisations.

Since its foundation in 2011 several of its members have been disappeared or killed, including a husband and wife activist couple murdered in Algeciras on October 8.

Others have been imprisoned or suffered death threats. The Patriotic March has routinely been stigmatised as a front for the left-wing Farc guerillas by government and state officials. The president publicly attacked them during the strikes.

 

The recent strikes were also declared by the government to be part of a Farc strategy with the minister of defence arguing contradictorily that on the one hand the Farc is a minor presence across the country and on the other that it was behind the wave of strikes.

The repression of the national strike comes alongside ongoing peace talks between the Farc and the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba. The talks began last November after a five-point agenda had been agreed.

By May a basic agreement had been reached on the land issue, the first point of this agenda.

Since then negotiations have stalled on the second point covering "political participation," though a partial accord on the question was signed last week.

Observers watching the repression of the political opposition must wonder at the sincerity of government rhetoric. The situation shows the urgent need for more international pressure on the Colombian government to replace its propaganda charm offensive with some real action to prove it will tolerate dissent and create the right environment for the peace process to advance successfully.

That is why Justice for Colombia has been organising high-profile international support for civil society's search for a peace process which delivers social justice. Colombian cities were recently highlighted in a UN report as having the highest inequality in Latin America.

We have brought together a group of politicians with experience of the Good Friday Agreement from all the political parties in Northern Ireland including Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party and took them to meet both President Santos, his negotiators and those of the Farc earlier this year in Havana.

Past experiences of successful peace talks have shown the need for the parties involved to be treated as equal partners both at the negotiations and by the international community.

This was the first public international delegation to meet the Farc during the current talks - an important step in showing non-partisan support for the talks.

The Colombian peace process needs to be given the international profile and support that the Good Friday negotiations and other processes have had.

Both sides need to be recognised as equal partners, civil society should be listened to and the government must stop persecuting and criminalising peace activists and the opposition and agree to a ceasefire.

Only then will a lasting peace become a reality.

 

Justice for Colombia director Mariela Kohon will be one of the speakers at the Latin America Conference 2013 at Congress House on December 7 along with Jairo Diaz from Patriotic March. For tickets go to http://www.latinamericaconference.org.uk/buy-tickets/. For up-to-date news on speakers follow us on Twitter @LatinAmerica13 or like us on Facebook.

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