HAVANA TIMES, August 11 (IPS) — “I accept this apology as a sign of a new time in Colombia, when democratic participation by all political forces will be possible,” leftwing legislator Ivan Cepeda said – and a ripple ran through the crowd in the packed gallery in Congress.
In compliance with an Inter-American Court of Human Rights sentence, the Colombian state apologized to the family, friends and fellow party members of Manuel Cepeda, a senator of the now-defunct leftist Patriotic Union (UP) party, 17 years after his assassination.
Addressing a joint session of the two houses of Congress that was broadcast live Tuesday afternoon, Interior Minister Germán Vargas acknowledged the state’s responsibility for Cepeda’s murder.
Vargas read out parts of the Inter-American Court ruling handed down in May 2010, with which the previous government, of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), refused to comply.
Cepeda was killed by agents of the state – in other words, by the state itself, Vargas admitted, adding that such incidents must “never happen again.”
“That is, and must continue to be, our unwavering commitment,” he added.
The UP was founded in 1985 as the result of peace talks between the government of Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which emerged in 1964 from the embers of the first phase of this country’s civil war, that began in 1946.
Under the peace deal, the guerrillas were to participate in political life through the UP, seeking political and institutional reforms through peaceful channels.
But the systematic elimination of members of the new legal party began immediately, all across the country. The main political force in the UP was the Communist Party, and Cepeda, a journalist, headed the party’s newspaper Voz for 18 years.
His extrajudicial execution “was a sort of coup de grace, after nearly 5,000 murders (of UP members and supporters), nearly all of which have gone unpunished, in a long line of communist martyrs which has not yet stopped growing,” the current director of Voz, Carlos Lozano, said at the ceremony.
Tuesday’s was the most solemn of the ceremonies held so far, at the instructions of the Inter-American Court, for the Colombian state to publicly apologies to the victims of state agents and the far-right paramilitary units – now partially demobilized – who worked in tandem with members of the security forces.
Many people attending the ceremony had mixed feelings. In the gallery, two men silently held up signs that said “no apology has yet been given for 3,999 UP victims”.
The collective case of the UP is still making its way through the Inter-American human rights justice system.
“Like any long march, it starts with one step,” Ivan Cepeda, the son of the UP leader who was killed in 1994, told IPS.
“After this ceremony, it’s going to be very difficult for them to continue arguing that the UP killings were the work of drug traffickers,” he asserted.
“The state has recognized that it killed Manuel Cepeda, that it left the crime unsolved and unpunished, and that it did everything possible to avoid making an acknowledgment like today’s,” he said.
“I feel happy, after so many years of difficulties. Because the damage that was done has been at least partially compensated. And because this can help thousands of other people who weren’t in this hall today, to see a glimpse of hope in the midst of it all,” he said.
For retired teacher Ruth Cepeda, Manuel’s twin sister, Tuesday was “a very rough day.”
“This morning we visited him at the cemetery,” she said. The two were so close that there was a period in their lives when they would get sick at the same time.
Has this brought her consolation? “No. It’s like hope. It’s a mixture of light and shadow at the same time. What hits me at times it that everything that was achieved today, which people have welcomed with so much respect, might not be fulfilled or enforced. That’s the only shadow over this,” she told IPS.