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Colombian trade union leader Huber Ballesteros finally joins us in Brighton after his sensational arrest four years ago. Kevin Maguire reports.

It’s a safe bet the journey of rebel with a cause Huber Ballesteros was far smoother than the last occasion he prepared to visit Congress.

Weeks before he was due to fly from Colombia to Britain in 2013 and speak from the platform at Brighton, the strife-torn South American country’s most celebrated trade unionist and best-known opposition figure was arrested in a raid on the headquarters of CUT, the Colombian TUC, on criminally fabricated charges of rebellion and financially assisting terrorism.

In a sustained demonstration of the global power of workers’ unity, trade unionists from around the world campaigned for his release, led by TUC and Irish unions and Justice for Colombia. Regular union and political delegations went see him in prison and put continuous pressure on government ministers in Bogota and London, while exasperated diplomats were harried until visibly exasperated with the persistence of his supporters.

He was finally released in January this year after an agonising 42 months behind bars, during which the regime even denied him proper treatment for diabetes. So for a persecuted activist never convicted of an offence Brighton is unfinished business, and an opportunity to express gratitude for the UK and Irish labour movements’ international solidarity.

In a message before he headed to the airport and hopefully this time a seat on a flight, Ballesteros declared: “The work of JFC and the trade unions affiliated to the TUC was of huge importance over the years I was in prison. The political pressure in response to my situation and the violations committed by the Colombian judicial apparatus was possible thanks directly to the work of JFC.

“It is a great honour for me to participate in the TUC conference and it is something I want to do so that I can express my gratitude to all the trade unionists, as well as to the union leaders from both the TUC and its affiliated unions, for all the work and solidarity that they carried out over the three and a half years which it took to regain my freedom.”

The inspiring Ballesteros risks his life daily in one of the globe’s most unequal nations, a land scarred by deep poverty and obscene wealth pockmarked with appalling human rights abuses, a country where trade unionists and opposition activists continue to be targeted despite a peace deal to end the 50-year civil war that claimed more than 200,000 lives.

Before becoming a union leader, Ballesteros was a local councillor in the 1980s for a Patriotic Union party which saw around 3,000 members murdered by the army and paramilitaries in a case named “political genocide” at the Bogota Supreme Court.

Members killed

As vice-president of the Fensuagro agricultural workers’ union, the second largest group of organised labour in Colombia, he’s suffered more than 100 members killed since the mid-1980s when organising in plantations owned by large landowners and international corporations.

The executive committee member of the CUT is also a national organiser of the Patriotic March, an opposition movement launched five years ago which bring together more than 2,000 unions and peasant and political organisations to fight for peace and social justice.

More than 130 supporters have already been killed. At the moment of his arrest, Ballesteros was one of the major spokespersons for nationwide strikes in energy, transport, health and agriculture against the workers’ rights being sacrificed to the free trade policies of hardline Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

While British trade unionists stood shoulder to shoulder with Ballesteros, Theresa May feted Santos with the full royal works on a state visit to London in the Tory prime minister’s desperate scramble for post-Brexit trade deals.

Alas, Ballesteros’ freedom outside prison is restricted when he’s forced to travel everywhere in an armoured vehicle with bodyguards.

Since his January release, 10 frightening threats have been issued against him and his closest family, including his partner Mayerli Hurtado Motta and their daughter Victoria Andrea Ballesteros Sanchez. These included graphic threats of sexual violence and dismemberment. On Facebook Hurtado Motta received a picture of a dead woman and the message: “Let’s see if Ballesteros will still want to continue with his pacifist guerrillero ideas when he finds your body like this.” Ballesteros Sanchez, a young activist in Cauca, received the same picture and the message: “It’s not your fault but your father doesn’t understand that we’re giving you all the time to leave.”

History of assassinations

Menaces aren’t lightly dismissed in a state scarred by a long, bloody history of assassinations, and particularly so when many of those sent to the TUC’s guest were signed with the logo and picture of a rifle used by the self-styled Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or AUC.

The tell-tale insignia of the AUC, a feared paramilitary and drug-trafficking group operating in the 1990s and first half of the 2000s, was emblazoned on a threat to his family at the end of July via WhatsApp.

The AUC brand Ballesteros a “military target” spreading socialism and “Castro Chavista” ideals who the authorities should “return to jail”. Direct threats to kill, rape and maim were reinforced by psychological warfare.

Right-wing enemies even sneaked into a house he uses in the city of Popayán. The trespassers departed without stealing anything but left the front door and window open to let him know they know where he sleeps.

Unbowed determination

I had the privilege of meeting likeable Ballesteros on a JFC delegation late last year and his unbowed determination and enthusiasm were both humbling and infectious.

“I have a lot more enemies than even Jeremy Corbyn”,

The quipped in his prison cell, although unlike the Labour leader those of the Colombian are armed and dangerous.

Days later Carla Lopez, Minister of Labour and the only Leftie in the Santos Cabinet, freely told us Ballesteros was held on “trumped-up charges” and shouldn’t be detained.

Now, as Ballesteros was about to say before he was rudely interrupted four years ago...

Kevin Maguire is associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror.

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