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Issue #1533      1 February 2012

After FTA passage, US Unions turn to political prisoners and 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 7500 Colombian political prisoners to the world’s attention.

Some time ago, the US and Canadian United Steelworkers union (USW) combined with the British union known as Unite the Union (itself the merger between British Amicus and Transportation and General Workers Unions) the USW to establish the world’s largest union, with 3.4 million workers, known as Workers Uniting. 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 labor 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 honor prisoners’ rights, and the USW has joined the Justice for Colombia group as well. One of the priorities for Justice for Colombia and Workers Uniting is the freeing of political prisoner David Ravelo, and they have called on the Colombian government – as well as its chief military patron, the U.S. – to “take all measures necessary to protect his life and the life of his family.”

As USW Senior Counsel Daniel Kovalik explains, “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.” Kovalik further explains that “before being sent to prison, Mr. Ravelo received numerous threats against his life.”

Ravelo once publicized 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 councilor. He belonged to the Communist Party’s Central Committee. The Catholic Church honored Ravelo for 35 years of dedication to human rights. Interviewed in April, 2011, he explained, “They are getting even for my long-standing, 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, via Workers Uniting, 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.

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 7500 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 labor movement has been unanimous in its opposition to US military assistance to Colombia since 2000 in light of its abysmal labor 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 labor, 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.”  

Next article – A whopping punch in the public’s face

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