Lunes, 5 de Diciembre de 2016
21:27 CET.
Repression

Two observers from #Otro18 at the referendum in Colombia

On October 2 the "No" vote prevailed in Colombia, where a referendum gauged the public's support for the peace treaties signed in Havana days before between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group. The Colombian people rejected the accords, despite an international campaign supporting them.

Two members of Cuban civil society, one a Lady in White and another a journalist, were special witnesses to those days. Invited by Colombia's Electoral Observation Mission (MOE), Ada María Lopez and Arturo Rojas attended as members of the #Otro18 Observers Network to learn about the details of election observation, its role and objectives. On the ground they verified "that the organization of the referendum revealed a country with a culture of participation, and people who have their own ideas and want to assert them through their votes," said Ada María.

According to Arturo all the parties were able to observe the elections, along with citizens and civil society organisations. He explained: "At the table that I ended up observing there were people of different parties, but they all have to abide by the observation rules, including impartiality and refraining from manifesting any preferences. It is something that should to be taken as an example when it comes to doing things in Cuba."

Ada María and Arturo received instructions about the observer's task. Prior to the referendum they chatted with supporters from both sides. A member of the negotiating team who was present at the negotiations in Havana advocated for "Yes," while a women senator defended the opposite position. Leading a team of observers was a rapporteur, to whom they were to turn if they observed any irregularities, and each observer had a guide to orient him in his role.

The two observers from Cuban civil society witnessed a voting process in which existing conflicts were far from impeding the referendum or placing the parties at each other's throats. Their arrival in Colombia was a far cry from their departure from Cuba, preceded by an ordeal of detentions, beatings and paramilitary impunity, regular manifestations of Castroist intolerance.

Details of a tough trip

"Ada María, you're not going to Colombia," the Lady in White was told by a paramilitary official with whom she was already familiar due to his previous repressive actions, especially on Sundays, when she participates in the march led by Berta Soler. He was the same Yonatan who, cruelly, visited her in the hospital in which her daughter had been hospitalized months prior, adding anxiety and anger to the mother's anguish.

Another paramilitary official, who identified himself as Ronald and said that he dealt with members of the independent press, told him: "You're not going to travel to Colombia." Immediately after that he was locked up in the holding cell of the El Cotorro police station to ensure that he was not on the flight scheduled to leave at 5 pm on September 26.

"National security reasons" was the justification offered by the Cuban paramilitary officers for their repressive act.

A visa for both observers had been obtained from the Embassy of Colombia, thanks to the MOE and its prestige. While Arturo was arrested the day before, Ada María was ushered violently to the police station in Regla when she tried to make it to the airport around noon, and she was detained there until night, after her flight had departed.

At dawn Ada María's home had been surrounded by police, headed up by Yonatan. The Lady in White's brother, Agustín López Canino, was beaten and taken to the police station in Santiago de las Vegas, and later to El Vivac (detention center), where he was then transported to the infirmary for treatment of the injuries he had suffered.

"As I was determined to attend the referendum, I left the jail and headed straight for the airport," Arturo explained. "There I told the woman that I had missed my flight and that I needed for them to put me on the first one bound for Bogotá. When she going to make me a reservation she realized that I was already booked on the next flight.  My flight and Ada María's had been changed since before we missed the first one, for the next day, the 28th.

"When Arturo told me 'We're going to Colombia' that for me was, well, just imagine, a tremendous surprise. I said 'Wait, I'll get dressed'. Then he said, 'No, it couldn´t be today. It's tomorrow at four in the morning.' Then I got everything ready. At night I went to the Iglesia de La Víbora [church] with my son, where there was a pastor giving a talk. I went to the church with my luggage. From there I went to the house of a Christian sister, and from there I left for the airport, in the morning."

Ada María and Arturo did not see each other until they passed Immigration Control. The flight was boarded early, and then they had to wait a long time while it rained. With them were members of the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU), who were going to take a course in Colombia

"On the plane there was a foreign gentleman who, when they put us on the bus, began to complain, because they were waiting for a passenger who was allegedly missing, but who never showed up. Then the man said 'You Cubans have no guts. You don´t stand up for your rights. How long are we going to be stuck here on this bus?' Then Arturo replied, 'Sir, shut up. You don't know the Cubans you are going to travel with,'" recalled Ada María, laughing.

When they arrived in Colombia the taxi driver could not believe that they were the two Cubans who had been in the news. "Are you going to return to Cuba?" they asked over and over again. The MOE presented a letter of protest at the Colombian Foreign Ministry and the Cuban Embassy condemning the repression of its two guests. Members of the Democratic Action Unit (MUAD) were received at the Colombian Embassy in Havana, where they took a letter to report the treatment Ada María and Arturo had received.

The paramilitary official said to me: "I don't know why you've gotten involved with #Otro18. It´s good for nothing," recalls Arturo. "If it´s good for nothing, why do you fear it?" Arturo replied. Not long after that, along with Ada María, he was able to appreciate that people like them do actually make a difference.

The discipline and public cooperation are striking in Colombia, a country which has been racked by a brutal conflict for more than five decades, in contrast to the treachery of the repressive forces in the country where the peace agreements were negotiated.