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 state evidently took advantage of their lust for vengeance»
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.
«Most Colombian political prisoners, of course, have no international following, and support for higher profile ones is sporadic»
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.”
«They managed to project an imaginary enemy within the people itself against whom persecution, intimidation, and murder becomes ‘legal'”
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.
«Maybe it’s time once more to give dispirited activists an opportunity actually to apply what they know about the workings of empire»
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.
by W.T. WHITNEY Jr.
* W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.
Interview with David Ravelo, January 2014 La Picota Prison, Bogota:
The economist and human rights defender David Ravelo has spent three-and-a-half years in Bogota’s La Picota Prison. Accused of aggravated homicide, the charges against him are based on the testimony of demobilized paramilitaries. In December 2012, David Ravelo was sentenced to 18 years in prison. As a member of the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights (CREDHOS), Ravelo had filed countless reports regarding human rights violations by paramilitary groups in Barrancabermeja. Before he was imprisoned, David Ravelo had to endure a decade of death threats.
PBI: You have been incarcerated for more than three years for a crime that you claim you did not commit. Why would anyone put so much effort into framing you?
David Ravelo: I am innocent, as evidenced by procedural truth as well as real truth. I will exhaust all legal recourse to the national authorities in order to demonstrate my innocence. If necessary, I will resort to international bodies, such as the Inter-American human rights system. I was granted interim injunctions by the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as a human rights defender and survivor of the genocide against the Patriotic Union.
Two paramilitaries have accused me of having participated in the alleged meeting, one that never took place, with former liberal Senator José Arístides Andrade and members of the FARC, to allegedly plan the murder of engineer David Núñez Cala, an official of the Barrancabermeja Mayor’s Office, an unforgiveable crime that took place on April 1991.
Mario Jaimes Mejía (a.k.a. “The Baker”) and Fremio Sánchez Carreño bore false witness. They were previously reported by human rights organizations such as CREDHOS and myself for the massacres in Barrancabermeja, such as the one in 16 May 1998, and were condemned to more than 40 years in prison. The statements concocted by these two criminals constitute the testimonial “evidence” that the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented against me. As the philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca wrote: “many lie to deceive, while some lie because they have been deceived”.
They have sought my physical death, my political death, and my judicial death, but as someone said: “I only fear one thing: to be unworthy of my suffering”. And I am conscientiously enduring with dignity this whole sea of arbitrariness. In doing so, I remember the words of Che Guevara: “Let’s go. By defeating them, we will cope.”
PBI: How did you adapt from an active life as a defender to a life behind bars?
David Ravelo: I was detained on 14 September 2010 and on 15 September they brought me to La Picota Prison, to the civil servant’s yard. After a month of being detained, democratic elections were held in the yard to select a representative for the Human Rights Committee and I was elected by an immense majority. That is, behind bars I continued to serve as a human rights defender on behalf of inmates and their families, and to speak to prison authorities. This has always been my work and I continue to fulfill this role here in confinement. This is what I have done my whole life.
PBI: Tell us, what is your typical day like?
David Ravelo: To have to suddenly leave my hot homeland to come to a cold land was an abrupt change, but I adapted to it. I wake up early as I used to in Barranca. I get ready, have breakfast, call my family (it energizes me to hear their voices), speak to the inmates, defend their rights, voice my opinions, read, and write. During the night I take advantage of the solitude and silence to write my poems.
PBI: How do other people in your prison yard treat you?
David Ravelo: With respect and recognition. In fact, I have been democratically elected as the yard’s representative to the Human Rights Committee three times. Having to defend their rights and advocate for a peaceful and negotiated solution to the problems that arise in the yard created social harmony. There is a good atmosphere of understanding and great respect.
PBI: How has your family been since you were sentenced?
David Ravelo: My family has always been an example of unity. It is particularly true in these difficult moments. This gives me great strength. Being incarcerated has always been very hard on my family, particularly knowing that I am innocent. The ones who suffer the most are my young children.
PBI: Every time we come to visit you al La Picota Prison, here in Bogota, you are very animated. What is your secret?
David Ravelo: Being certain of my absolute innocence gives me strength to be in high spirits and have a positive attitude. Life continues and I will tirelessly keep my head high because the future and my family await. The Spanish poet Miguel Hernández wrote a beautiful poem titled “Before hate”:
No, there is no prison for man.
No, they won’t restrain me, no.
This world of chains
is but small and foreign to me.
Who can lock-up a smile?
Who can wall-off a voice?
In this confinement, nor smile, nor hope, nor optimism will be destroyed. As I say to my family: onwards and upwards, because the future is ours.
PBI: What does poetry mean to you? How did you become a poet?
David Ravelo: I would like to clarify that I don’t consider myself a poet. I simply attempt to write poetry, which surely improves with time. Albert Einstein used to say that creativity flourishes in human beings during adversity. I hope that this creativity continues to flourish and improve. Regarding the definition of poetry, the poet Miguel Hernández says: “A feigned beautiful lie. An insinuated truth. Only insinuating it does it not seem like a half-truth.”
In Barrancabermeja I used to write opinion pieces in the various city newspapers. I have always enjoyed writing, as I have always enjoyed to defend the human rights of others.
I write about daily life. Those are the topics of my poems. About love and suffering, about joy, about the present, about the future. I always write about subjects of general and vested interest. Poetry became my refuge and a way to transport myself and break shackles and chains. Poetry releases me from confinement.
PBI: If you could return to the past and change something, would you?
David Ravelo: The past is our history, instances of impunity, of exclusion and lack of guarantees for social and opposition leaders, where State terrorism left in its wake violence and suffering for the population. I act in the present to prevent this history from being repeated in the future. The future of our children and new generations should be built by persevering in our fight, so that children may cry, but of happiness and joy. The future is hope, where thinking differently is not criminalized or punished. The future is peace, where social justice is an imperative, so that real and abstract peace may become one.
PBI: If you could send a message to the international community, what would you say?
I would thank all the international organizations that have honored me with their solidarity—as in the case of PBI, who have made my case known throughout the world—and given that continuing support that fortifies me every day. The international community must know that in Colombia people are persecuted for their ideas, as in my case.