During the conflict in Colombia, many leftist political activists have been accused of belonging to armed groups and as a result have been imprisoned. He is one of them, but was released after more than three years of imprisonment.
Although the Amnesty Law 1820 was approved as part of the implementation of the peace agreements between the FARC and the Colombian Government, only 900 of the 2,500 political prisoners that exist have regained their freedom.
Huber Ballesteros is a Colombian activist who was put in jail under the false accusation of belonging to armed groups. He was invited to the United Kingdom by the British organisation Justice for Colombia to talk about his experience, denounce the violations that characterise the Colombian prison system and show solidarity with the strike held by his comrades who are still in prison, despite the Amnesty Law.
Ballesteros is the national secretary of Fensuagro, a member of the National Executive Committee of the Central Workers’ Union (CUT) and a member of the National Patriotic Board of the Political and Social Patriotic March.
In his three years of confinement, Ballesteros dedicated himself to reading, writing and continuting to support the union and the fight against state violence. On this and about his confinement in La Picota prison, which kept him separated from his family and where he experienced the horror of some Colombian prisons, Ballesteros spoke with The Prisma.
You spent more than three years in prison as a political prisoner. How has this experience affected your life?
Arriving at prison is a trauma that not only affects the person who is being deprived of their freedom, but all of their family as well because in the course of time, friends are lost and there are people who die that they will never see again. It is an experience that allows one to determine who their true friends are and eveything they mean to their family. It was also important to know that you really are important in the organisation.
Did prison change your political demands in any way?
No, quite the opposite. In prison, one sees a reflection of Colombian society: there are people who come for corruption crimes, public officials who steal money, people like myself who come to prison for their political views, for being opponents of the regime. Others arrive for para-militarism, common crimes, kidnapping, murder… The stratification is very much felt as well. Those who have money don’t have such a bad time.
Why? Is there a difference in how prisoners are treated?
Yes. In prison the officials, both administrative and the guards, are corrupt. In this sense, to the extent that someone can afford it, they can acquire certain benefits, such as entering the prison with items that will give them some degree of comfort.
Were you able to remain politically active during these years or were there barriers that prevented this?
I maintained a politically active presence within all the organisations I belong to. I did this with my ideas, with discussions, with public declarations that I made as a member of these associations. National and international solidarity had a very important role in this. The Government may have thought that putting me in prison was going to stop the labour strike, but the opposite happened – the peasants became even more radicalised, and if they thought that I was going to stay quiet because of this experience they did not succeed – today my voice resonates on an international level.
What is the difference between this strike and others that were carried out before?
This strike has very specific demands. One of them is freedom because of the existing agreements that have been signed between the Colombian Government and the insurgent forces. But this obviously doesn’t resolve the situation. Colombia has 150,000 prisoners in 138 prisons. And in the prisons conditions are inhumane because of the enormous isolation, poor health, lack of education and work opportunties, contact with family… this is not taken into consideration. Families cannot visit prisoners because they do not have money and the prisons are not nearby. This is due to the administrative disorder of the country’s prison and penitentiary system, people are placed anywhere without any considerations of their human rights.
There are so many problems in a country whose government thinks that problems are resolved by penalising all behaviour and increasing the punishment for such conduct. The strikes are likely to continue until a penitentiary policy is reached in line with human conditions and human rights.
Do you think that the strike is enough to bring an end to these conditions?
In the case of political prisoners, the strike is a tool that is specifically used to draw the attention of the government and the international community, because the failure of the government is a justice that is shifting to the right, which has a conception of ‘internal enemy’ that is not legal, but political.
When someone arrives at prison for political crimes they think that the person is an enemy and must condemn it, that they must treat it as the worst thing so as to teach a lesson and not turn against the establishment. It is going to be very difficult to obtain a change while there is this conception of internal enemies together with the paramilitarisation of Colombian society and of many levels of its state. So we want to focus attention on this because judges have no legal reason to deny freedom, considering that there is now a political framework, which is the peace agreement, and a legal framework, which is the special jurisdiction for peace that is already approved.
Did it affect your life being called a terrorist?
I would say yes, but not for the worse. Because ultimately my aspirations are not to become a politician, to come into any office or to conglomerate with the bourgeoisie.
That the press spread my image as a revolutionary made many people appreciate me more, know me more, that friends of Colombia or other parties, like the unions within the United Kingdom, visited me and had a positive effect in the sense that I maintained my commitment to the trade union cause and to the cause of the workers.
How do you build a peasant struggle which makes each peasant an ambassador of their own demands – so that there isn’t just one leader?
We all hope that the peasant movement will form in a more integrated and powerful way for its members. But this is difficult to achieve for many reasons. One of these is that for someone to achieve certain recognitions within the movement they must look beyond their economic situation, because the nature of working the fields requires them to be in the field all day. For example, I am a peasant leader, but I have not been a peasant activist for 20 years. But my activity is trade unionist, social and political on behalf of the peasants.
One can work through the organisation and training of peasant organisations and the peasants can be their own spokespersons. In fact, they are at different levels: there are local, provincial, national and international leaders.
I believe there is a place for everyone. There are the peasants who are in the area, those who work and meet in the afternoon and then go on strike, those who deal with the local authorities.
Is there a stigma against political opponents?
In Colombia, the mainstream media echoes this type of news. For example, when I was arrested, big headlines said that they had captured a terrorist, a man from FARC’s national leadership. When I was released, no one said, ‘you were released, you’re not who they said you were.’ The media ouput aime to highlight a situation that is only focused on left-wing movements. The media is now instituted to generate particular opinions in the minds of individuals.
Next edition: Second Part.
(Fotos: Pixabay, Pxhere, Prensa Rural & Sysmaya – (Translated by Sydney Sims)