Magazine article New Internationalist

Making Waves

Magazine article New Internationalist

Making Waves

Article excerpt

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. …

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