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Still fighting for union rights from a prison cell

Justice for Colombia’s MARIELA KOHON speaks to jailed Colombian trade unionist Huber Ballesteros

Colombian trade unionist Huber Ballesteros is still in jail almost eight months after his sudden arrest on August 25.

The Colombian trade union congress (CUT) executive member was snatched by secret police just hours before he was due to get a visa to come to Britain and address last year’s TUC Congress.

Just before his arrest, Ballesteros was a key leader of a massive strike. One of the issues which sparked the industrial action was the free trade agreement between the European Union and Colombia.

“That was just one aim of the strike, to modify the free trade agreements,” he says.

“Colombia is an enormously unequal country. Just 1,500 families own 45 million hectares of land, while eight million people in the countryside either have nothing or not enough to make a living.

“The agrarian problem is the root cause of the armed conflict that has now gone on for over 50 years.

“That’s why our strikes aimed for integrated land reform and a change to the rural development model. We wanted to create peasant farmer reserve zones, and halt the ‘war on drugs’ policies of fumigation and forced eradication, which have shown no results.

“We want to protect national food production, reduce fuel prices and tolls for using Colombian roads, cancel peasant farmers’ debt, stop handing national sovereignty to transnational corporations in the shape of mining titles and land rights — which means opposing that free trade agreement.”

So is the terrible treatment of trade unionists in Colombia linked to the armed conflict? Could the peace talks between Farc and the government offer hope of improvement?

“The repression of the trade union movement predates the insurgency,” Ballesteros points out.

“The Colombian state has always had an anti-union policy, but it linked the trade union struggle with the insurgency so as to have an excuse to target it.

“In that sense a negotiated solution to the conflict would help, as long as it leads to proper changes in the political and economic systems.

“We also need to remember that assassinations, imprisonments and forced displacement are just some of the obstacles to the development of union activity. There are legal, non-violent methods that are also used.”

I bring in the notorious Colombian riot police, ESMAD. Should it be disbanded — and if so who would provide security during mass protests?

“ESMAD has become a group of assassins with a licence to kill,” he says simply. “Not a single person has been brought to justice for the multiple murders committed by this repressive police body.

“It should be dismantled, put on trial and convicted for the innumerable crimes it has committed. What we need is a civil body that co-ordinates security at protests with social organisations and trade unions.”

Colombia’s repressive machinery is powerful. Could international pressure be usefully brought to bear to liberate trade unionists? What about the Latin American group Celac? Or even intervention by the International Criminal Court (ICC)?

“It would be excellent if Celac had the necessary mechanisms to carry out this sort of pressure in a similar way to the Organisation of American States, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) or the UN.

“But I do not agree with intervention by the ICC. These global courts of law are part of global capitalist policy.

“We see cases get twisted and judged in favour of capitalist interests. The role of the international community should be to look for justice to be applied in every country, but we know this is not the case — for example European governments and Nato members are some of the biggest human rights violators, but they don’t get judged for war crimes or crimes against humanity.

“Some of these countries — the US for example — have not even signed up to the Rome Statute” (which set up the ICC).

There are other forms of international pressure, of course. I ask if he has been visited by the British embassy, as Britain’s TUC requested in August and September.

“To date just you of Justice for Colombia, which I believe the TUC knows about,” he says. “I haven’t had a visit from the embassy.

“I’d like to thank everybody for all the actions that have been taken. Anything that can be done to appeal to the ILO, national parliaments, the European Parliament or the UN would be useful in bringing an end to the persecution of trade unionists.

“An advocacy directed towards the Colombian home secretary, attorney-general, the High Courts and the president would also be greatly appreciated.

“This will help us achieve justice through a fair trial, without political or ideological bias, which will allow us to prove our innocence.

“Freedom of political thought should not be confused with the charge of ‘rebellion.’ It is wrong that people like me and organisations like Fensuagro” (the agriculture workers’ union, of which he is vice-chairman) “are accused of financing terrorism when we have obtained our resources through legal organisations and legitimate administrative bodies and used them to carry out legal activities to strengthen the social struggle and the labour movement.

“Such an accusation is saying that trade unions are terrorist organisations and our activities are subversive. The Colombian state is ignoring international and domestic legislation recognising people’s entitlement to social protest and trade union organisation, which is a recognised international human right.”

Has he managed to stay in contact with his trade union from jail, and how is the work going?

“I’m the CUT director of the department responsible for liaising with social movements, and also work for Fensuagro.

“I’m in touch with both. The conditions in prison restrict my access to computers and the internet, that hasn’t been possible so far, but we’re managing to continue our work.

“Fensuagro is currently preparing for its congress in December and is pushing for negotiations around the proposals presented to the government during the rural strikes of the second half of 2013.

“The CUT is also preparing for its congress which will take place in the second half of this year and we are also preparing for its involvement in the ITUC international conference. Alongside this both organisations have their permanent work to defend workers’ rights.

“From prison I am contributing in whatever way I can to these matters and also acting as an adviser for the creation of a trade union for the prison guards and administrative staff within the jail.

“And I’m working to set up a National Prisoners Movement representing 150,000 detainees in 138 prisons across the country. I’ve also been creating study groups and I’m involved in setting up a reconciliation committee which we would like social and political organisations to participate in, including soldiers, prisoners and insurgents.”

He sounds busy. But I ask about his health — has he had any treatment for his diabetes?

“I haven’t received any medical care in prison. I’ve had two visits from doctors in six months but no treatment for my diabetes or colon problems. My health is stable, but not good.”

I ask if he is still sharing a cell with a paramilitary, and whether he has feared for his life at any point.

“Three months ago I was moved and I no longer share a cell with anyone,” he says. “There are paramilitaries in this part of the prison. Some aren’t happy about the presence of political prisoners here.

“We’ve spoken to prison management but they haven’t taken any steps to do anything. Professor Francisco Tolosa and I are concerned about our safety and we worry about our food being prepared in a kitchen where there are paramilitaries and demobilised guerillas who we know the judicial police and district attorneys have paid to testify against us.”

I ask if he has any message for British trade unionists.

“Thank you for your solidarity,” he says. “It shows we have brothers and sisters around the world.

“And I’d like to say that although some workers around the world have been successful in obtaining better standards of living through their trade unions, we must not let our guard down when it comes to capitalism, which is always looking to unload the weight of the crisis onto the shoulders of workers in Britain, in Colombia and in other countries.

“Carry on fighting so that in places where working conditions are better, what trade unions have won is not lost and new workers don’t receive less.

“In Colombia we will carry on fighting until workers enjoy a better quality of life, with democracy, peace and social justice.

“From here, from prison I will continue to strive to contribute what I can. Greetings to all workers around the world.

“We create the wealth, so we have a right to enjoy it. And a big hug from Huber!”

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