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Issue #1547      16 May 2012

Rights dragged from the grasp of the ruling class

Speech by Bob Briton to May Day rally Adelaide May 5, 2012

Comrades and friends, I am a member of the SA May Day Collective, the Communist Party of Australia and the International Network in Solidarity with Colombia’s Political Prisoners. It was in these latter capacities that I was invited to attend two events this year – the first was an international forum on the situation of Colombia’s estimated 9,500 political prisoners.

Bob Briton at the Colombia Behind Bars forum earlier this year.
(Photo: Kevin Neish – Conference Delegate – Canada)

Colombia is a beautiful, contradictory country but the subject of many appalling statistics like the one I’ve mentioned – 9,500 political prisoners. You probably know that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, but that is just the start. It has over four million people internally displaced by the unimaginable, most depraved violence being inflicted against rural communities by paramilitaries and the regular army acting in the interests of transnational corporations including, from time to time, Australian based ones.

Comrades, we are meeting here today and enjoying the simple democratic right to gather and speak our mind. Unless I am very much mistaken, we are not about to be attacked by the police with tear gas and baton charges. However, I am under no illusions about this achievement. That right was dragged from the grasp of our ruling class and it has cost us dearly as a people to preserve that right. If you have any doubts about that in this day and age, just ask Ark Tribe and the CFMEU about the struggle they’ve had with the ABCC and the push to crush their union!

When I was in Colombia I was reminded to what extremes wealthy elites are prepared to go to preserve their privileges. In February, our group of international delegates was issued a death threat to leave the country. Armed men paraded through the hotel where we were staying. When I returned for the launch of a new social and political movement called the Patriotic March, the main rally of around 100,000 people was hemmed in by a contingent of 20,000 police in riot gear, equipped with water cannon and all sorts of other methods of crowd control.

Buses were prevented from coming into the capital city of Bogota. A union leader was kidnapped by the military and has not been seen since. The leader of the cane cutters union was assassinated shortly after the Patriotic March. So was a former member of the group of bodyguards of the editor of the weekly publication of the Communist Party, Carlos Lozano. Comrades I work on the collective of the CPA’s weekly newspaper, The Guardian. The idea that the editor of our paper would ever need a bodyguard blows my mind. The fact that a person taking up such responsibilities would be murdered out of sheer political hatred sickens me. But that is the reality in Colombia.

For part of my time in Colombia I accompanied a recently released political prisoner Liliany Obando so that she could go to appointments in the city with a lesser risk that she would be attacked or abducted by paramilitary forces. She and her family have had death threats, been followed by unknown persons and Liliany lives with the prospect that the regime will concoct another charge of aiding left wing guerrillas in the country and drag her back to prison. This is one of the main ways opposition voices are silenced in what is supposed to be the oldest democracy in Latin America.

Comrades, I owe a great debt of gratitude to the people of Colombia and its left and progressive forces. When I was there I saw masses of people putting their fear behind them. Thirty years ago, a movement uniting the left called the Patriotic Union was founded. It was very successful but the regime launched a massive attack on the movement. Over 3,000 members were murdered in what is now recognised as a political genocide. Today the Patriotic March is taking up the same demands for social justice, sovereignty, a political solution to the armed and social conflict in the country and freedom for the political prisoners. Their resourcefulness and energy and courage are amazing.

But they also made me see very clearly the monster they are grappling with is the same one we are facing. The exploitation and repression are starker but the processes are the same. In Colombia land is grabbed for transnational corporations by packs of thugs attacking peasant farmers with chain saws. Here remote Aboriginal communities are forced through humiliation and neglect to leave their land. In Colombia, union leaders are shot dead. Here unions are hemmed in and neutralised by legislation that threatens to bankrupt them.

It’s not surprising that because the class struggle is waged with such ferocity that the masses of Colombians are more politically aware than Australians. They are shedding their illusions about the two-party parliamentary system faster than us. They are clearer that the underlying problem they face is capitalism and that they must unite to achieve socialism. This step in the development of the labour movement is inevitable and it faces us today. If ever we are going to break from the ridiculous choice of “the lesser of two evils”, we will have to unite left and progressive forces to break the hold of the capitalist ruling class on political power. That’s what the people of Colombia are doing and, comrades, that’s what we should be doing.  

Next article – Song Lyrics – The Hammer Song

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