Just days before he was set to speak at the 2013 Trade Union Congress (TUC) Conference in Britain, Colombian union leader Huber Ballesteros was arrested and imprisoned in his home country on trumped-up charges of rebellion and financing terrorism.
Ballesteros, a national executive member of Colombia’s main trade union confederation, the CUT, and vice-president of FENSUAGRO, the agricultural workers' union, had been targeted for his role in leading the National Agrarian Strike in 2013.
Following a prolonged international campaign – in which Britain’s peak trade union body played a key role - Ballesteros was finally released in January after 40 months in jail.
In September, he attended this year’s TUC conference.
There, he spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Denis Rogatyuk about his case and the current situation in Colombia in light of the recent peace accords signed between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), now the Revolutionary Alternative Forces of the Commons as it transitions from a guerrilla group to political party.
Why do you believe you were finally released by the Colombian government after 40 months in jail?
First, the trade union movement, particularly the British union movement, carried out a big campaign following my arrest, because I was scheduled to participate at the TUC Conference and the Colombian government did not let me go. International solidarity was very important.
Second, the political context of the peace process in Colombia and the legal framework adopted for the FARC to lay down its arms. It was untenable for them to continue holding me prisoner, accusing me of being a guerrilla fighter belonging to a group that no longer exists.
What is the current situation like for rural trade unions in Colombia?
I don’t see any changes in the government’s economic policies when it comes to the countryside.
The government has issued an agribusiness development law that promotes the use of primary materials for biofuels, meaning the amount of food we need to import to eat continues to rise.
The only possibility for change for small farmers is the implementation of the peace accords.
Has the threat of paramilitarism decreased since the peace accords were signed?
Paramilitarism in Colombia has changed, but it has not decreased. There are more paramilitary groups, but they are no longer part of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).
There are a large number of groups that define themselves as autonomous, that are present throughout the country and have the support of the police, bosses and politicians.
They continue to assassinate activists, with 149 killed in the past year alone.
How has the government used the excuse of guerrilla groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) to repress the union movement, now that the FARC has demobilised. Is it more difficult for the government to accuse social activists of being terrorists?
The situation is still difficult because paramilitarism is a state concept, introduced many decades ago by the United States government as part of its national security doctrine.
The US trains Colombia’s police, military, judges, prosecutors, bosses and politicians, making use of aid agencies such as USAID, to promote the doctrine of the “internal enemy”.
In this view, everyone who is a leftist, communist, or trade union or social leader is a potential enemy, a subversive. The US Southern Command has trained the police, military, bosses, judges to see the trade union movement and the left as enemies of the state.
It is not enough for the insurgency to demobilise and lay down its arms. Government policy is that everyone who is not with the government is an enemy.
Even if the attempts to link unionists to guerrilla groups disappears in practice, the government has created a law whereby people can get 8 year’s jail for promoting or organising social protests that occupy roads, streets or public offices. The Citizen’s Security Law criminalises social protest.
What do you think are the prospects for the left in the 2018 parliamentary and presidential elections?
The panorama is not very favourable for the 2018 elections.
The Latin American context is one of US imperialism and transnationals, together with European nations, attempting to recover lost ground in places like Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela.
They want to stabilise the capitalist system in Brazil and Argentina where they had problems with progressive government during the past 15 years. Overall, the regional situation is not very favourable.
At the national level, the key issue is that of the democratisation of the country in political and economic terms. The unity of the left should revolve around the issue of democratisation, starting with the implementation and compliance with the peace accords signed in Havana, and finding an agreement with the ELN.
I don’t think this is the moment for an anti-capitalist government in our country.
One of the most important changes has been the transformation of the FARC into a political party. How do you see the relationship between the FARC and the trade union movement?
The union movement in Colombia has various political and ideological tendencies within it: some are more liberal leaning, some are social Christians, there are small unions that follow the conservative line of the Democratic Centre, but the large majority of the union movement in Colombia is social democratic and left leaning.
The union movement has welcomed peace in Colombia and has welcomed the fact that the FARC has become a party and entered the political contest. It is no secret that even before becoming a party, the FARC had members and sympathisers in the union movement.
All of this will contribute to the ideological discussion inside Colombia’s union movement
Is there anything else you would like to add about the situation in Colombia or more broadly?
Having spent some time with unions and union leaders from around the world, I see that the problems facing workers across the world are the same, though perhaps with different levels of severity.
We fight for better wages, for job stability, against racism, for inclusion of sexual diversity and women, in sum for a better world.
We need to unite unions beyond our borders, for a fundamental reason, because today, capitalism does not take the form of national capitalism anywhere – it is globalised.
If we do not globalise our struggle, our struggle will be futile because we will be fighting from one nation against a capital with no country, with no nationality.
We have to globalise our unionism.