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.