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Issue #1535      15 February 2012

Culture & Life

After FTA passage, US unions turn to political prisoners & peace

Increasingly, politically-motivated incarceration threatens Colombian unionists, human rights workers, and political activists. They are already too familiar with killings and disappearances at the hands of armed enforcers. International solidarity with victims has grown over recent decades, with the labor movement in particular taking on a prominent role in defending human rights in Colombia. British trade unions have been instrumental in bringing the fact of 7,500 Colombian political prisoners to the world’s attention.

Some time ago, the US and Canadian United Steelworkers union (USW) took up the cause of political prisoners there. On January 3, 2012 the USW wrote to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking that she press the Colombian government to release political prisoner David Ravelo and “take all measures necessary to protect his life and the life of his family.”

The USW informed Clinton that “Mr Ravelo, a human rights activist with CREDHOS (a partner of Christian Aid) in Barrancabermeja as well as a former leader of the Patriotic Union – a political party which has suffered literally thousands of assassinations over the years – has been held in jail, without charge, for 14 months now.” Clinton was informed that “before being sent to prison, Mr Ravelo received numerous threats against his life.”

Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzon, former secretary general of Colombia’s CUT labour federation, received a copy of the letter.

Ravelo once publicised a video showing ex-President Alvaro Uribe hobnobbing with paramilitaries. He had directed the local branch of the Movement of Victims of State Crimes, helped build the left-leaning Alternative Democratic Pole electoral coalition, and once served as Barrancabermeja city councillor. He belonged to the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The Barrancabermeja Diocese honoured Ravelo for 35 years of dedication to human rights. Interviewed in April, 2011, he explained, “They are getting even for my longstanding, relentless work in defence of victims and for my unbreakable position against injustice.”

The pretext for Ravelo’s detention was conspiracy alleged in the murder 21 years ago of mayoral candidate David Nuñez Cala. That accusation came from imprisoned paramilitary chieftain Mario Jaimes Mejía, who reportedly is seeking a reduced sentence.

USW solidarity with Colombian political prisoners is no surprise. The USW had long opposed the recently approved US-Colombia free trade pact, condemned Drummond Corporation impunity in the deaths of coal mine workers, and sued Coca Cola for complicity in the murders of unionists employed by Colombian affiliates.

In 2008, once the British Amicus and Transportation & General Workers Unions had joined forces to form Unite the Union, the USW combined with Unite to establish the world’s largest union, with 3.4 million workers. The planning agreement for that merger, signed in Ottawa in 2007, outlined five overall objectives. One identified, “Projects [that] might include, but are not limited to, support of Columbia’s trade union movement in the face of continued attacks on labour and human rights.” (Other projects would involve “partner unions in Africa,” ship breakers in India, and outreach in China.)

British unions created the Justice for Colombia group, notable for pushing Colombian authorities to honour prisoners’ rights. Its website www.justiceforcolombia.org provides regular updates on human right struggle in Colombia. Unite the Union has prioritised solidarity with the Cuban Five political prisoners in US jails, with former Unite co-general secretary Tony Woodley assuming a lead role.

USW Senior Counsel Dan Kovalik has travelled to Barrancabermeja and met with David Ravelo’s human rights group CREDHOS on several occasions. Questioned via email in connection with this article, he replied:

“We are working in close conjunction with Justice for Colombia in Great Britain on the political prisoners’ campaign. While there may be 7,500 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Colombia, Mr Ravelo’s case is particularly compelling as he is a leading human rights advocate being held without charge. We believe that his release would be a crucial part in the effort to begin releasing the thousands of political prisoners in that country.”

Kovalik added: “The US labour movement has been unanimous in its opposition to US military assistance to Colombia since 2000 in light of its abysmal labour and human rights practices which, among other things, has claimed the lives of over 2900 unionists – a figure unprecedented in the world. I believe that an important step now is for US unions to join the voices of labour, human rights and other social groups in Colombia who are calling for a peaceful, negotiated settlement to the armed conflict in that country. That is probably the greatest contribution we can make to Colombia at this time, and the release of political prisoners is a key step in this direction.”

People’s World  

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