13 thoughts on “Colombian Huber Ballesteros still jailed for trade unionism

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  11. Wednesday 13th September 2017

    posted by Morning Star in Features

    HUBER BALLESTEROS tells the James Tweedie that despite the peace accords, Colombia is still a very dangerous place for trade unionists

    WHEN the Colombian government sent farm workers’ union leader Huber Ballesteros to jail on trumped-up terrorism charges, he didn’t stop organising. He became the health and human rights organiser for the prison.

    In Britain last week for a round of meetings with fraternal union leaders, Ballesteros took half an hour out of his busy schedule to chat to the Morning Star.

    Ballesteros was released from prison in January after three-and-a-half years of “preventative detention” on spurious charges of rebellion and financing terrorism.

    He was arrested in 2013 while leading a national agrarian strike as vice-president of the Fensuagro farmers’ union, executive member of the Colombian Trade Union Congress (CUT) and national organiser of the Patriotic March umbrella group of social organisations.

    “In those three years I gained the respect of the prisoners,” he says. “What allowed me to gain the sympathy of the inmates was that I was the one who represented them, who brought prisoners’ complaints of human rights violations before the administration.”

    He says many Patriotic March members are among some 5,000 political prisoners in Colombia’s 138 jails, along with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerillas — but Huber was the only trade unionist in his jail and there was only one other Patriotic March member.

    The Farc’s peace accord with the government last year after five decades of war paved the way for Huber’s release. He read the news of the cease- fi re deal between the ELN and the government in that day’s Morning Star. But, he says, some 500 Farc combatants remain in prison despite the amnesty law.

    What are main struggles of the campesinos (peasant famers) and their unions now?

    “The most important is the demand for the implementation of the peace accords,” Huber says. “This is the priority, but we continue working in the trade union movement.

    “As for human rights, [the government] keeps assassinating union leaders, it has murdered teachers, sugarcane workers, electrical workers. This is work we have to continue until the persecution of the labour movement ceases.”

    The other big battle is against transnational mining corporations — such as Johannesburg-based Anglo-Gold Ashanti — to which the government has granted exploration and exploitation licences in many parts of the country.

    “Along with this comes the eviction of small miners who work for themselves, artisanal miners and their communities which have exploited these mines” — many of whom are indigenous or Afro-Colombians in mountainous regions.

    “We are also helping in the consultations against big mining. The communities have the opportunity — through a process called popular consultation — to decide by a vote if they are interested or not in mining exploitation in their communities.”

    Huber says Anglo-Gold has just lost a consultation in a municipality called Cajamarca in the central Tolima province where it had a concession for one of the biggest gold mines in South America, named La Colosa, with estimated reserves of 24 million ounces.

    “The community demonstrated that it didn’t agree with mining in this area because it affects the environment. The farmers’ water supply has dried up. And it has little social benefit because the kind of work contract from the big mines don’t have respect for the labour rights of the workers.

    “Colombia has many gold-bearing regions, in Choco and Antioquia provinces. There are something like 4,000 mining concessions there.

    “Colombia is a country with a lot of gold. We say Colombia has been a gold exporter since the time of the Spanish colonies. There are many mines that have been producing for 500 years.

    “The indigenous people mined them artisanally. Then the Spanish came and introduced certain techniques, and created figures known as the mining royalty.”

    A 40-day strike at one of these ancient mines in Antioquia, run by Anglo-Gold, had just ended a few days before Ballesteros came to Britain. The community took part in the strike and the police killed three protesters.

    But the newer gold mines being discovered are in highlands crucial to the environment, the sources of the main rivers, he explains, like Choco.

    “They say if the forest in Choco was lifted up, there’d be a blanket of gold underneath.”

    Another strike, ongoing for a month when we met, was in the public sector. Another dispute is over the minimum wage, which is no longer enough to cover basic necessities.

    President Juan Manuel Santos’s government is shifting the tax burden from the rich to the poor and, as Ballesteros describes, is “loading it onto the workers.”

    Despite the country’s natural wealth, the people are still mired in poverty. “Colombia has an economy of an extractive character,” he says — oil, gold, coal, nickel.

    “But the companies running these concessions are not national companies. We produce oil, but we import petrol from the US. The price of a gallon of petrol today is roughly $3 or 9,000 Colombian pesos (£2). But really the cost of producing a gallon of petrol is $1 because this petrol comes from US companies, Britain’s BP and some other European companies.”

    Coal is controlled by the US Drummond company and Switzerland’s Glencore, the world’s biggest mining firm. AngloGold Ashanti dominates gold. Timber is the fiefdom of Irish cardboard giant Smurfit Kappa. “We are not the ones who export our riches for the benefit of the people,” Ballesteros laments.

    In April this year Huber received a death threat — but many others have been killed since the peace accord. Do trade unionists still face the persecution which Colombia became notorious for over the past few decades?

    “This has not changed, despite the peace process, the signing of the accord. The paramilitaries still exist. The government denies their existence but we have had 149 assassinations in one year.”

    It is still as dangerous as it was 10 years ago, Ballesteros insists.

    “And the government is doing nothing to dismantle the paramilitary groups. They act in complicity with the army, with the police.”

    For Ballesteros, the right-wing death squads are a problem “conceived by the state, that persecutes everyone from the political opposition, the labour movement and human rights defenders.

    “Paramilitarism is ingrained in politics, in business, in local and regional government, in the police and the army.

    “It is more than one group. Some are disbanded but new groups reappear. Now there are some 30 in the whole country. They are really drug-trafficking gangs that the government uses for its dirty war.”

    So does the trade union movement still have hope for the peace process?

    “We are working in the peace process and we are optimistic. We believe the implementation of the accords will change things. Nevertheless there are certain aspects that worry us.”

    The government ignored the unions’ legislative proposals and instead introduced its own that will restrict the freedom to protest. It also eliminates the possibility of opposing mining concessions through popular consultations.

    “We have advances and we have setbacks,” Ballesteros says.

    James Tweedie is the Morning Star’s international editor. Huber Ballesteros will speak at the TUC conference in Brighton today.


  12. Thursday 14th September 2017

    posted by Steve Sweeney in Britain

    COLOMBIA’S peace agreement is the most valuable asset of the country’s people, but it is under threat from the “far right” and the rich, Congress heard yesterday.

    Trade union leader Huber Ballesteros told TUC delegates in Brighton that the deal offered hope, but warned of the need to defend it from opposition attempts at sabotage.

    He said he had arrived at TUC Congress “four years late” as he was jailed in 2013 for “defending the rights of the most unprotected and impoverished workers” in Colombia.

    Mr Ballesteros spent almost four years in prison on trumped-up charges of terrorism related to his activities as vice-president of agricultural workers’ union Fensuagro.

    But the thawing of relations between communist guerilla army the Farc and the Colombian government paved the way for his release.

    “Having now regained my freedom, I have found a country full of hope because of the peace deal signed between the Farc insurgency and the Colombian government,” he told Congress.

    But he added that the agreement faced bitter opposition from the “far right” in Colombia, which has vowed to “rip it up” as it threatens their interests.

    The South American country remains a dangerous place for trade unionists, with right-wing death squads still operating — though the government denies this.

    Mr Ballesteros told delegates that since the peace deal’s signing last November, 149 social and political activists have been killed and the opposition has tried to disrupt the passing of laws connected to the agreement in Colombia’s parliament.

    He said international solidarity was vital in the struggle for his release. “Consider my freedom as your victory,” he told delegates.

    “I reaffirm my commitment to continue fighting to defend the rights of workers and for the unity of the trade union movement across the whole world.”


  13. Friday, 15 September 2017


    COLOMBIAN trade union leader, Huber Ballesteros, was finally able to address the TUC Congress in Brighton on Wednesday.

    Weeks before he was due to fly from Colombia to Britain in 2013 and speak from the platform at Brighton, the strife-torn South American country’s most celebrated trade unionist and best-known opposition figure was arrested in a raid on the headquarters of CUT, the Colombian TUC, on criminally fabricated charges of rebellion and financially assisting terrorism.

    In a sustained demonstration of workers’ unity, trade unionists from around the world campaigned for his release, led by TUC and Irish unions and Justice for Colombia. Regular union and political delegations went to see him in prison and put continuous pressure on government ministers in Bogota and London, while exasperated diplomats were harried until visibly exasperated with the persistence of his supporters.

    He was finally released in January this year after an agonising 42 months behind bars, during which the regime even denied him proper treatment for diabetes. So for a persecuted activist never convicted of an offence Brighton was unfinished business, and an opportunity to express gratitude for the UK and Irish labour movements’ international solidarity.

    Given a very warm welcome, he addressed this year’s Congress saying: ‘I have arrived to this conference four years late. I have had to spend three and a half years in prison for doing what all trade union or community leaders should be doing.I was defending the rights of workers, of the most unprotected and impoverished workers in my country.

    ‘Regaining my freedom so that I could continue once more my activities in the Colombian Trades Union Congress, the CUT, and in the National Agricultural Workers’ Federation, FENSUAGRO, was a difficult journey. But in this journey Justice for Colombia, the TUC, and all of its member unions played a decisive role.’

    Thanking them for their solidarity, he continued: ‘Having now regained my freedom, I have found a country full of hope because of the peace deal signed between the FARC insurgency and the Colombian government.

    ‘It is an agreement which, in spite of the many problems faced so far in the implementation, has significant value in offering the Colombian people a unique possibility to make changes to the political system and the economic model, in favour of the least favoured sectors of society.

    ‘The transformative potential of the agreements has seen the far right mobilise in opposition. They have promised to rip it up. These sectors have gained financially form fear and war, from land theft and from murder. Those who are not in favour of peace, social justice and reconciliation want war, they continue to kill peasant leaders, trade unionists and human rights defenders.

    ‘Since the signing of the peace deal on the 24th November last year, 149 social and political activists have been killed. They act irrationally in Parliament, disrupting the passing of laws connected to the peace agreement which are needed for its actual implementation in Colombian communities. The peace agreement is today the most valuable asset of the Colombian people.’

    He added: ‘The Colombian trade union movement and especially the Colombian Trade Union Congress, the CUT, are committed to the implementation of the peace agreement and at the same time we will continue fighting to defend the rights of workers.

    ‘Issues that continue to be our main concerns are: subcontracting and precarious employment, the murder of trade union leaders and trade unionists from different organisations and sectors – both from production and service industries, low wages, the proposed reform to the pension system, the high rate of unemployment, the growth in the informal economy as a means of hiding unemployment – there are eight million people in this situation, the high levels of corruption in all levels of public administration, etc.

    ‘At the CUT, we have worked in the international arena, particularly in the ILO, to pressure for Colombia to be included in the list of 25 countries where the worst labour and human rights violations take place.’

    Ballesteros concluded: ‘I would like to reiterate my gratitude for this opportunity to speak to you all, for the work carried out in the campaign for my freedom. Consider my freedom as your victory. Before you all I reaffirm my commitment to continue fighting to defend the rights of workers and for the unity of the trade union movement across the world.’

    Continuing in the international debates, Amarjite Singh, CWU, spoke up for Rohingya people in Myanmar. Referring to Section Five of the TUC Annual Report, he said: ‘There have been murders and killings.

    ‘People have been fleeing to Bangladesh. It’s not the richest country. Aung San Suu Kyi needs to come out and condemn what is being done by the military. The TUC should be in the forefront in putting pressure on the government and the UN to stop people being murdered, repressed and displaced.’

    Sally Hunt, for the TUC General Council, said: ‘The TUC has a long history of campaigning for workers’ rights in Burma. We have repeated again that the struggle for democracy is foremost. The recent events are nothing short of genocide. We will take up with international unions, but also our own government. We must stop arming the very people who are killing the Rohingya.’

    Earlier, Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke demanded that Boeing ‘ends its corporate bullying’ and the UK government stands up for manufacturing jobs after the company lodged claims of ‘price dumping’ with the US Department of Commerce, in a case concerning Bombardier’s C series airliners.

    If Boeing claims are upheld Bombardier could face punitive fines and this would place at risk thousands of jobs at the company’s Belfast factory and could threaten the sites very existence. Boeing’s claims are a result of Bombardier having benefited from state investment from Canada and from Invest NI, Northern Ireland’s economic development agency, all of which was lawful and legitimate.

    Unite is demanding that the UK government urgently clarifies the legality of the state funding that Bombardier raised. Bombardier is the largest private sector employer in Northern Ireland. Tony Burke said: ‘What is needed is to end this corporate bullying by Boeing that is putting thousands of good jobs at risk.

    ‘Boeing’s attempts to link this public investment to the allegation of unfair competition are unsustainable; indeed, in the case of the sale of planes to Delta airlines which has been raised, Boeing did not even make a bid.

    ‘Unite is demanding the prime minister and the government stand up for the workforce in Northern Ireland and our aerospace industry and to stand up for decent jobs. She needs to tell president Trump, she will not stand by and watch Boeing threaten thousands of jobs.’

    Delegates went on to vote unanimously for motion 75 Solidarity with all progressive forces and the Kurdish population of Turkey, moved by Unite. It stated: ‘Congress is appalled at the continuing repression and massive human rights abuses taking place at the hands of the Turkish government. It’s clear that since President Erdogan failed to achieve an electoral majority in the June 2015 election, his government has embarked on a war against the Kurdish population, criminalisation of opposition groups, closing down the free press and intimidation and threats against anyone who challenges his rule. The failed coup attempt has been used as an excuse to radically speed up this process.

    ‘Congress is further appalled at the international actions of the Turkish government. ‘Its actions in Syria demonstrate clearly it’s more intent on fighting the progressive Kurdish-led administration in Rojava rather than defeating so called Islamic State.

    ‘Congress calls on the Turkish government to:
    ‘i. Immediately end the state of emergency, restore all democratic and press freedoms and restart the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
    ‘ii. Release all political prisoners, including the imprisoned HDP leaders and members of parliament and jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan.
    ‘iii. Withdraw its forces from Syria, and stop attacking Kurdish-led forces.
    ‘iv. Immediately cease support and backing of Jihadi groups.

    ‘Congress calls on the UK government to maximise pressure on the Turkish government to comply with the actions listed above and calls on all unions to affiliate and support the work of the Peace in Kurdistan and Freedom for Ocalan campaigns. Congress calls on the TUC to organise a solidarity delegation to Turkey including a visit to the Kurdish areas.’


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