Colombia’s Patriotic Union Tragedy: Lessons Learned
Recent reminders of terrible anti- communist repression in Colombia, past and present, have instructive value. Survivors faced choices: accommodate or hold the line; pull up the drawbridge or form coalitions. Emulation of what they say and did could be good medicine for a communist movement charting its future.

Over three days in mid October, family members of victims and survivors of slaughter against the Patriotic Union (UP) memorialized losses and called for justice from the Colombian state. Coincidently, a prison letter surfaced from UP survivor David Ravelo Crespo. He’s a communist in big trouble.

In 1985, Colombia’s Communist Party, elements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and other leftists formed the Patriotic Union, an electoral coalition competing for local, regional, and national political offices. Under the peace initiative launched by the Belisario Betancur government and the FARC, armed insurgents joined regular political processes.

State – sanctioned massacre began at once and continued. The toll of murdered UP congresspersons, mayors, human rights workers, labor leaders, and two presidential candidates now approaches 5000.  

UP presidential candidate Jaime Pardo Leal was killed on October 11, 1987. At one of the commemorative events in October, Communist Party leader Carlos Lozano praised Pardo Leal as an “outstanding jurist and revolutionary fighter [and] Communist Party militant.” His candidacy was “dedicated to establishing a left alternative and a social and political transformation.” In Colombia, October 11 is the “National Day for Dignity of Victims of Genocide against the Patriotic Union.”

Voz newspaper editor Lozano lumped the present Santos and predecessor Uribe governments together as purveyors of the “same exploitative capitalism accompanied by violence from the heights of power – aimed at silencing opponents and critics.” He described the Alternative Democratic Pole, the left coalition under whose banner Lozano himself ran for Congress recently, as “a bastion of anti-imperialist struggle, breaking ties with imperialism, and maintaining anti-oligarchic struggle to achieve profound political, economic, and social changes.”

“These aren’t achieved through ways of conciliation, through political weakness and ingratiating oneself with the establishment, or by accepting hand-outs to receive crumbs,” explained Lozano, as he called for working people’s political independence.  

UP survivors are threatened with jail, torture, and disappearance – and more. As one organizer of the commemoration days told a reporter: “Genocide against the Patriotic Union continues, especially [against] members of the Communist Party that are part of the UP.”

David Ravelo Crespo knows. Jailed since September 14, the Communist Party central committee member was transferred to Bogota under anti-terrorism laws from his home city, oil- producing Barrancabermeja. Death threats had been raining upon family members. A jailed paramilitary capo fingered Ravelo as the “intellectual author” of a murder 19 years ago.

In a widely disseminated prison letter, Ravelo describes himself as “a prisoner of conscience for thinking and believing different from the establishment.” His life has been “dedicated to the struggle against inequality and social disparities. To build a homeland where children do cry, but out of happiness, is why we struggle.”

A former student leader, library worker, university teacher, and leader since 1993 of the CREDHOS human rights group, Ravelo recalls posts as a housing official, regional assembly delegate, and city council member, all under UP auspices. He helped organize work stoppages in response to killings of UP activists.  Imprisoned without charge for 27 months beginning in 1993, ten years later he came under media attacks as an alleged FARC leader. His offense: having circulated a video showing ex-president Uribe hobnobbing with paramilitaries.

Earlier this year Ravelo published an article ripping into plans for privatizing local fertilizer company Ferticol. The state – owned entity is “a source of life for this region” and “patrimony of its 600 workers and the city.” 

Ravelo blames his imprisonment on a campaign aimed at “weakening the popular movement and especially human rights organizations.” He promises to “continue firm in my principles,” adding that, “The stem of truth may bend, but never breaks.”

We wonder: surely the examples of Lozano and Ravelo, their steadfastness and combativeness, their independent political struggle and fight against capitalist exploitation, should serve to draw recruits into the movement. We suggest that, by contrast, ruminations underway elsewhere as to the obsolescence of communist parties, even of the Communist name itself, provide little encouragement or inspiration for running risks in the service of the people.

The difference may be that in Colombia, where dangers loom, leaders took the broom to timidity and diminished expectations.

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