Interview with Hernando Hernandez Tapasco about surviving as an activist in war-torn Colombia

*We arranged to meet at a railway station, where Hernando Hernandez Tapasco was in transit between one meeting and another.*

‘The Government [of Colombia] is arrogant, authoritarian, in hock to the IMF and World Bank – and the only one in Latin America that supported the invasion of Iraq,’ he says. ‘It puts everything into war, nothing into peace. We are opposing it in every way we can, to show the world that the problems are still there and that the way out is not by war but through the search for peace with social justice.’

For him, no doubt, this was just another episode in his effort to bring to our attention the situation in Colombia – a country where being a trade unionist or a human rights defender can cost you your life. As he is both, his words carry extra weight because of the risks he runs in speaking them.

‘I am an indigenous person. I was initiated as a leader from a very young age. To begin with I worked in our traditional community groups to resolve local problems, participating also in the struggle to regain our land. Then I became a leader of the _Cabildo_, which is the authority for indigenous peoples. It elected me to attend university – a right indigenous people won in the 1991 Constitution. I became a leader of the student movement.

‘But I never lost touch with my local community and I returned there when my studies were complete. I was persecuted, threatened, continually harassed by the state security apparatus and paramilitaries. This obliged me to leave for the capital, Bogotá, in 2001. From there I was sent to find refuge in Spain. When I returned two years ago I was persecuted again, until I was eventually detained for six months last year. Fortunately I was able to demonstrate my innocence, winning my freedom with the help of trade unions in Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and Britain, who know my work – and that I am not a “terrorist” or “guerrilla”.’

The civil war in Colombia has been going on for decades. From the outside, there’s a danger of seeing an entire people as if they were nothing more than actors in this one terrible drama.

Hernando illustrates why this attitude is so wrong: ‘At the moment I work for a trade union organization, FENSUAGRO, where I am responsible for the department of human rights and also for work with indigenous people. This is one of the largest unions in the country, with 16,000 members among the rural, black, indigenous and agro-industrial workers.

‘There’s something special about the trade union movement in Colombia. We’ve gone beyond a “syndicalist” approach, only concerned with workers’ rights, and become more political, more class-conscious, because this is a country with a serious problem. It fights for land rights, for democratic agrarian reform, for food sovereignty, for the environment and also for workers’ rights, human rights and peace with social justice.

‘The Colombian people haven’t [yet] found a solution for their basic needs. It’s a country with great potential, a lot of resources, strategically placed as the point of entry to the Southern Cone [of Latin America] and the Amazon Basin. I mention this because we’re not going to solve our problems by talking just about drug trafficking and violence [which are the primary foci of governments both inside and outside Colombia]. It would be a very rich country if it were well organized. The problem is that it has been governed for years by a traditional, conservative oligarchy. The people are totally excluded.

‘Let me illustrate what I mean. There are currently about 45 million Colombians, of whom 26 million live in poverty, with 11 million of them completely destitute. They have no land to live on, no employment, wages or healthcare, education or anything to feed themselves with. This is the principal problem of my country.

‘The second problem has to do with the conflict. This has gone on throughout our history, since the [Spanish] invasion. The number of people victimized by the permanent violation of human rights, which we call “state terrorism”, has totalled more than 13,000 people since the 1980s. We are still the victims of selective assassinations, disappearance, massacre, torture and imprisonment.

‘Colombia is a country of great cultural diversity, with 94 indigenous groups speaking 84 languages. The one political group which tried to bring together all the social movements in the country, the Unión Patriótica, was simply exterminated by the State, its armed forces and mercenary paramilitaries. These [exterminators] are responsible for more than 90 per cent of the human rights violations in my country. Together they mean to create terror, to assassinate the organizations’ leaders and to displace rural populations, so that they will abandon the land and its valuable resources.’

Hernando Hernandez Tapasco talked with David Ransom

New Internationalist issue 394 magazine cover This article is from the October 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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