A Colombian Prisoner of Empire

David Ravelo, arrested on September 14, 2010, is confined to Bogota’s enormous La Picota prison. Clearly innocent of any crime, he received an 18-year sentence. Ravelo relied on independent political thought, action, and courage to oppose Colombia’s oligarchic, militarized, U. S. backed regime. Having attracted considerable attention, he was as vulnerable to persecution as any of Colombia’s 9500 political prisoners.  .

Ravelo had always lived and worked in gritty, oil-producing Barrancabermeja – famous for labor radicalism.

Now almost a year after his appeal failed, a year when even Colombia’s leftist media seemed to lose interest in his case, Ravelo returns to the news. In late August the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) submitted an amicus curiae report on his case to Colombia’s Supreme Court, having submitted a similar report a year earlier. The José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, whose members are defending Ravelo, noted on its website that, “the Supreme Court has the opportunity to do justice in a case of obvious persecution against a defender of human rights in Colombia.”

This amicus curiae report advances the legal doctrine of “annulment” of an erroneous conviction and sentencing. “Amicus curiae” refers to a group or individual offering an opinion to a court but not a party to the proceedings.

The British lawyers’ action puts the spotlight on international solidarity. The need for new ways to make solidarity efforts more effective shows up in the intransigence of authorities holding Colombian political prisoners and prisoners in the United States like Oscar López Rivera from Puerto Rico and the three remaining Cuban Five prisoners, and indeed prisoners all over.

A remarkable display of international solidarity unfolded on September 1 as Kirsty Brimelow, BHRC international litigation head, and Reinaldo Villalba of the Restrepo group held a joint news conference in Bogota to discuss Ravelo’s case. The YouTube rendition of the conference has Villalba reminding viewers that Ravelo led the fight against right-wing paramilitary domination in Barrancabermeja, also that the charge against him of involvement in the 1991 murder of a municipal official rested entirely on accusations by two paramilitary chieftains. These were serving long prison sentences because Ravelo had implicated them in the 1998 massacre of 32 people in Barrancabermeja. The state evidently took advantage of their lust for vengeance.

Villalba also reported that William Gildardo Pacheco Granados, Ravelo’s prosecutor, served one year in a military prison in 1993. That was because as a police lieutenant then, he participated in the forced disappearance of a young man. Colombian law forbids those with criminal records from serving as prosecutor. Ravelo’s lawyers say Pacheco Granados’ role in the case is grounds for his release. Although he resigned as prosecutor in 2013, Pacheco Granados remains on the job.

Political prisoner Liliany Obando’s recent experience testifies to the importance of international solidarity. On August 5, officials seized her from her residence in Bogota where she was living under house arrest. She had already served four years of unjust incarceration. Then they returned her on August 19. That was after a hunger strike, Internet reports on her abduction, pressure on Colombian authorities from foreigners, and a North American sympathizer showing up in Bogota to lend a hand.

David Ravelo is no stranger to international solidarity. International delegations have visited on his behalf, and British Parliamentarians, NGO’s, international human rights groups, unions, and hundreds of individuals contacted Colombian leaders and court officials. Most Colombian political prisoners, of course, have no international following, and support for higher profile ones is sporadic. What might work to augment the intensity, reach, and effectiveness of international solidarity?

Colombian Communist Party secretary general Jaime Caycedo recently offered historical insights possibly helpful in answering this question. Caycedo harks back to the beginnings of U. S. efforts to ensure a Latin America free of communism. It was not his explicit purpose, but Caycedo rationalizes fighting for prisoners within the framework of anti-imperialism.  He cites the Truman-era Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, formation of the Organization of American States in 1948, military support for destroying the then brand- new FARC guerrilla organization in 1964, and U. S. help thereafter with building Colombian state – security and military capabilities. Reflecting on Colombian troops fighting in Korea, Caycedo says, “Colombia was the only Latin American country that took on such an act of vassalage to the empire.”

Within Colombia, “The consistent theme leading to victimization has been hate and class greed directed at the helpless. The pretext was and continues to be the specter of communism, of socialism, of revolutionary ideas, and even of critical thought.” He sees “criminalization of the right to protest, to be non-conformist, to dissent, to complain, and to organize and mobilize the people.  They managed to project an imaginary enemy within the people itself against whom persecution, intimidation, and murder becomes ‘legal.’”

David Ravelo was made to order as a victim. He was a municipal official in Barrancabermeja in the early 1990’s for the Patriotic Union leftist electoral coalition.  He organized community – based political and economic educational programs. Ravelo wrote articles for local media. He worked with several human rights groups and helped found and eventually led the “Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights” (CREDHOS). CREDHOS provided the organizational framework for Ravelo’s fight against paramilitaries.

In 1993, Ravelo went to prison for two years on false charges. He and his family received repeated death threats over many years. Between 1991 and 1992 seven CREDHOS members were killed “and almost all of its directors had to flee the city and sometimes even the country.” Ravelo stayed. Then “The paramilitary takeover of Barrancabermeja began between December 2000 and January 2001 and caused an exodus of CREDHOS members that continued until March 2005.” Ravelo stayed.

In 2009 the Barrancabermeja Catholic diocese awarded Ravelo its San Pedro Claver award for 35 years of defending human rights. He’s been a member of the Central Committee of the Colombian Communist Party since 1991.

Having set the stage for repression in Colombia, U.S. imperialism bears much responsibility for David Ravelo’s fate. That’s a scenario playing out also beyond Colombia’s borders.  They are places where antagonists’ orientation and objectives often resemble those in Colombia. It makes sense in such situations to move advocacy for individual prisoners into broader campaigns linking anti-imperialism and prisoner defense.

The idea of starting with imperialism and then looking for prisoner victims is not new. Under U. S. Communist Party auspices, International Labor Defense, beginning on 1925, organized leftists of varying persuasions to intervene in the Sacco-Vanzetti case, the Scottsboro Boys case, and the jailing of hundreds of strikers and labor leaders. ILD defended unionists under siege in Cuba and Mexico and had chapters throughout the United States.  Maybe it’s time once more to give dispirited activists an opportunity actually to apply what they know about the workings of empire. They might respond and help build a real force for defending all political prisoners.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.  

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.