Colombian professor, jailed for his ideas, begins hunger strike

Miguel Ángel Beltrán, a sociology professor at Colombia’s National University, is being held in maximum security at La Picota prison in Bogota. He began a hunger strike on Feb. 15. Beltrán studied armed conflict and social division in Colombia. His ideas displeased Colombia’s rulers, and he’s been imprisoned intermittently since 2009.

Why the hunger strike? He was doing it, he explained, out of solidarity with fellow political prisoners, hunger strikers among them, who’ve been protesting anti-human conditions in Colombia’s prisons. He indicated also that he was defending critical thinking, his own cause.

Beltrán recalled that the government of President Juan Manuel Santos had recently promised to ease conditions for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) prisoners of war and to arrange for evaluating their personal situations in order to prepare them for civilian life in a Colombia at peace. Beltrán also cited demonstrations three months earlier by political prisoners in 20 prisons who were demanding the release of prisoners who were very sick, elderly, or handicapped.

He denounced government inaction, adding, “I join with these men and women that today are on hunger strikes [protesting] overcrowding, no sunlight, scanty meals … and sub-optimal medical services.”  He noted his own “commitment to defending critical thinking, to have it articulate theory along with transformative practice.”

Left-leaning historian Renán Vega Cantor is a supporter of Beltrán and in a recent interview explained what “critical thinking” may have to do with Beltrán’s imprisonment.  According to Vega Cantor, the Colombian intelligence service during the previous presidency of Alvaro Uribe “maintained a list of activist intellectuals to be assassinated and did kill several of them. It was in that context that persecution of Miguel Ángel Beltrán was initiated … because he simply had a different point of analysis as to the Colombian conflict.”

He said Beltrán’s analysis was about the “politics of criminalization of critical thinking and of attitudes opposed to the misnamed politics of “democratic security” under the Uribe government.” For Vega Cantor, “Miguel Ángel exemplifies the dignity inherent in critical thinking, with convictions solid like steel, that bend neither to every kind of threat nor to false promises.”

Beltrán was carrying out post-doctoral studies in Mexico when on May 22, 2009, police there arrested him. Disregarding a bi-national extradition treaty, they transferred him illegally to Colombia. Charged with the crime of rebellion, Beltrán would be in prison for 25 months before a judge issued a verdict in his case. Identifying him as “Jaime Cienfuegos,” Colombian officials claimed Beltrán was a member of the FARC international commission. For President Uribe, he was the “most dangerous FARC terrorist.”

Prosecutors supposedly had found incriminating evidence in computers belonging to Raul Reyes, a FARC leader. The Colombian military had taken possession of the computers after its March 1, 2008, bombardment (with U. S. assistance) of a FARC campsite in Ecuador that killed Reyes and others. Later on, the Supreme Court questioned the state’s handling of the computer files and disqualified alleged evidence from that source in prosecutions. The files were being used as a tool for hobbling political opponents, Beltrán among them.

On July 27, 2011, a judge acquitted Beltrán, and he was released. In the judge’s ruling she cited the earlier Supreme Court rejection of the evidence.

In 2013 Colombian Attorney General Alejandro Ordoñez ordered Beltrán fired from his academic post at the National University. Professors and students there protested, and Beltrán was able to return to teaching in early 2014.  Ordoñez soon confirmed his order, decreeing also that Beltrán would be unable to teach at a public university for 13 years. The rector of the university, “functioning as a peon of the establishment” according to Vega Cantor, fired Beltrán.

In December 2014, the Superior Tribunal of Bogota overruled Beltran’s acquittal and sentenced him to eight years in prison. Beltrán returned to prison in December 2015 and has been there since then. At Picota prison he shares space with common criminals and paramilitaries.

On January 25, 2016, Beltrán participated in a “cassation” process before the Supreme Judicial Court. “Cassation” refers to a last-resort appeal before a high court seeking review of previous legal interpretations rather than the facts of a case. Beltrán delivered his statement to the court by means of a video presentation recorded in prison. It’s useful here for elucidating what “critical thinking” means to Beltrán.   

Beltrán begins by emphasizing the “importance of freedom of thought as a fundamental component of knowledge and academic activity.” He continues: “Freedom of thought has served the acquisition of knowledge in the face of interference from the political, economic, cultural, and religious powers.”

Beltrán notes that he “has rigorously debated [his conclusions regarding] armed social conflict in Colombia in national and international settings, defending the thesis that armed social conflict has objective causes and is rooted in social inequality, injustice, and in social and political exclusion.” 

He explains that, “During the [presidential] term of Alvaro Uribe, it was prohibited to speak of armed social conflict, or it was only possible if one referred to the conflict in terms of a terrorist threat.”

Beltrán regards peace being negotiated now in Havana “as a positive sign that it may soon be possible to think differently, to sustain [alternative] opinions.” And, “my students are looking for signs that values proclaimed in my classes like honesty, tolerance, pluralism, and rigorous academic analysis are a really legitimate part of academic work.”

Miguel Ángel Beltrán included an “anti-dedication” in his latest book, written in prison. It reads: “To Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez; to Prosecutor Ricardo Bejarano, and to Judge Jorge Enrique Vallejo – Because with your incessant persecution you have strengthened me in my determination to defend critical thinking.”

Photo: Miguel Ángel Beltrán, Agencia Prensa Rural


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont and now lives in rural Maine. He practiced and taught pediatrics for 35 years and long ago joined the Cuba solidarity movement, working with Let Cuba Live of Maine, Pastors for Peace, and the Venceremos Brigade. He writes on Latin America and health issues for the People's World.