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Interview with Imelda Daza-Cotes

By staff

Headshot of Imelda Daza-Cotes

Fight Back! interviewed Colombian professor and politician Imelda Daza-Cotes, who just finished a successful tour of seven U.S. cities where hundreds heard her speak. Professor Daza-Cotes is a surviving member of the Patriotic Union, a political party that suffered the murders of 3000 of its leaders, a crime for which no one has ever been charged or punished. She toured the U.S. hosted by the National Committee to Free Ricardo Palmera and supported by local groups like Students for a Democratic Society, Colombia Solidarity Committees, Anti-War Committee of Minneapolis and the national Colombia Action Network.

Fight Back!: Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you joined the progressive movement?

Imelda Daza-Cotes: I’m from the north of Colombia, on the coast, a city called Valledupar and Ricardo Palmera is from there too. I studied economics at the International University of Colombia in Bogotá. These studies allowed me to understand the problems of my country, which I am very concerned about. It was at college that I discovered I had an interest in politics.

In Valledupar I met Ricardo Palmera. We were students together and organized a campaign to create a new university because there was not one in the entire region. We worked together for 12 years. Palmera also is an economist. Later we decided the city should help out with the finances of the university because the finances were from the ministry of education. We thought it was important that the community have more of a relationship with the university and we decided to participate in the elections and through that get the city council to collaborate with the university. We were not successful, but we liked the political process of campaigning.

Fight Back!: You were active in the Colombian political party Patriotic Union (Union Patriotica, UP). What was your experience and what happened to the Patriotic Union?

Imelda Daza-Cotes: I was elected as a city council member in that 1982 election. We did a lot of good work on the council. We had a lot of debate, and a lot of discussion for the first time. But the Minister of Justice, Rodrigo Lara, was assassinated. He was a huge opponent of narco-traffickers and they assassinated him. Luis Carlos Gallan was afraid and returned to the Liberal Party in 1986. But even being a member of the Liberal Party did not protect him. He continued to speak out against the narco-traffickers and in 1989 he was assassinated. But when Gallan went back, we said we are not going back to the Liberal Party, we were left afloat for a while. We founded a civic movement. Not a political party but a pluralist movement and it was a success. We had a lot of young people join in the movement. We did politics in a different style. We had cultural activities, parties and music.

A Conservative was elected president, Belisario Bentancur. This man decided to dialogue with the FARC and agreed to a cease-fire agreement. This resulted in the guerrilla creating a new political party – the Patriotic Union (UP). The guerrillas could go into the city and organize and the army would not persecute them. That is how the UP was born.

We heard the news and I remember that Ricardo Palmera said, “This is what we have been missing.” Because the civic movement was local, it was only in our area, but we were very ambitious and we saw this as a national need. We wanted to influence the national politics. As of that date, our political activity our political work was intense.

The Left in our region had never been able to elect anyone. We participated in the elections in 1984 as the UP. We elected 67 council members and one representative in our department (state) assembly. In Valledupar I was elected. Of these seven people elected to the Valledupar city council, I am the only one who is alive. This is very hard to speak about.

19 people founded the UP, only three of us are still alive. Two are in exile in Sweden and Ricardo Palmera who is in jail here in the U.S.

The electoral results of the UP became its death sentence. After that the crimes were daily. In the country, the UP grew to 400,000 votes. The left previous to this had never been able to get more than 150,000 votes in any election. It was a huge advance. It was after that the police and the army began to kill members of the UP daily. Even our presidential candidate was killed. 3000 leaders in total were killed.

Until one day we said, “What are we going to do?” and I left Colombia because my kids were very young. Other colleagues like Ricardo Palmera said that if the Colombian government will not give us any guarantees to have clean campaigns or fair elections and they only respond to us with murder, then that means there is no other alternative other than to fight with arms. These colleagues joined the insurgency.

And why the FARC? There were other groups? But it was logical to join the FARC because the other groups had not been a part of the UP.

All of our colleagues who had received death threats had been killed, so we knew these were not idle threats. The threats were to warn us. To my house they sent a funeral arrangement of flowers with a card that invited me to my own funeral. This made me leave the country in 1989. Exile is a very difficult punishment. It is the most difficult political punishment that exists. It requires a denunciation of everything. It does not matter if you go to a country that is developed and a democracy. One does not want exile. I wanted to work and fight for my country, to improve it and solve its problems.

Fight Back!: You came to Washington DC to testify in the case of Ricardo Palmera. Judge Hogan, who presided over the case did not let you speak. What were you hoping to say?

Imelda Daza-Cotes: The Colombian and U.S. governments justify Ricardo Palmera’s extradition to the U.S. by accusing him of kidnapping three North American military contractors [mercenaries] and of drug trafficking. I wanted to say the following: The three North Americans that are in the custody of the FARC are prisoners of war. They were not kidnapped. The guerrillas did not come here to the U.S. looking for them to kidnap them and request a ransom. They (the mercenaries) came to Colombia, in an airplane, in the area where there is conflict between the army and the FARC. The guerrillas have lived in conflict with the army for the last 40 years. It is logical that they confronted an airplane in an area of conflict. The guerrillas took down the airplane and they took them prisoner. I was not a witness because I was in Sweden when this occurred. I know about this from the Colombian media, so it is not a secret. This is their charge of kidnapping. In addition, it is difficult to prove who shot down the airplane and took the prisoners. I know that in Ricardo Palmera’s trial he explained he was on the Ecuadorian border at the time. What the Colombian and U.S. governments are trying to assert is that any FARC member is guilty of any crime the FARC has done. With this same logic, we can say that all members of the Colombian army are guilty of massacres because some of their generals are guilty of killing members of the UP.

The other charge of narco-trafficking is absurd. We were the first voices in Valledupar against narco-trafficking. We made policies with Luis Carlos Gallan and Rodrigo Lara who were assassinated by the narco-traffickers. From the very beginning Ricardo Palmera was an enemy of narco-trafficking. The Colombian government always talks about the ‘nacro- guerrilla’ to try to discredit them. What is true is that the guerrilla lives in the same region where people cultivate coca, but from that you cannot deduce that every guerrilla sends coca to the U.S.

What is certain is that these two charges were created in order to extradite him. The result of the trial proves this is the case because the jury could not condemn him. The evidence throughout the prosecution was weak.

Fight Back!: What should the American people know about the Palmera case?

Imelda Daza-Cotes: There were 21 people who testified against him and no one was allowed to testify in his favor – including me. The judge said my relationship with Ricardo Palmera was from before he joined the FARC so I did not know “Simon Trinidad.”. But I believe that in a trial one needs to take into account the personality and profile of the accused as well.

There was ridiculous testimony on the other side. When you lie it’s difficult. They kept contradicting themselves. The decision of the jury shows it was absurd.

Fight Back!: What is the impact of Ricardo Palmera’s extradition and trial on the peace process in Colombia?

Imelda Daza-Cotes: It is supremely important, it’s transcendental, if the two guerillas that were extradited here are found guilty it will be a triumph for the Colombian government. They will feel this is a tool to pressure and punish. It will only prolong the conflict. When are we going to end the war? Never if they can continue extraditing. If on the other hand they are returned to Colombia and put on trial there, that is two more prisoners in the prisons there and there is a possibility there will be a prisoner exchange. Lastly, if this circus of a trial is favorable for the Colombian government, the three North Americans in Colombia have no hope of coming home.

Fight Back!: What can people in the U.S. do?

Imelda Daza-Cotes: They can protest at Ricardo Palmera and Sonia’s trials. Also they should pressure with letters and petitions to the Colombian government demanding a humanitarian agreement to exchange prisoners. Finally, there is another method to pressure the Colombian government; you should pressure your members of Congress here in the U.S. to end Plan Colombia. Plan Colombia is not to fight nacro-trafficking. It is instead against the FARC insurgency. The only thing Plan Colombia has done is to increase the violence. It is absurd American taxpayers are paying for the war in Colombia.

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