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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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.