Anna Vogt is the Latin America and Caribbean Regional Advocacy and Context Analyst. This reflection was originally published on Anna’s personal blog.
Jorge says that the twelve days that he has been out of jail have been enough to cure his eyesight. The chance to see beyond brick and concrete has given renewed life to his tired eyes. He doesn’t even need glasses to read his phone anymore, he tells me over lunch on Tuesday.
In fact, everything looks different now. Instead of eating in his cell, we hoped in a taxi and stopped at a wherever seemed appealing, the Casa de la Carne, to be exact. Rather than cold fried chicken in a tupperware, Jorge had steak and and half my chicken breast. Instead of a fellow inmate heating us water using a rigged electric coil connected to a cable, waiters bring us tinto in tiny glass mugs. The freedom to choose off a menu, eat with real silverware, and leave without being counted feels luxuriously ordinary.
On my last visit to jail, Jorge showed me the book he kept in his cell. It’s a thin, cheaply printed, soft cover edition of “Defending your rights from Inside.” The book contains all of the Colombian laws and articles referring to prisoners and lists all of the rights and responsibilities of the different entities involved. It also contains model letters, petitions and applications for different rights. When he can’t sleep, Jorge spends his time practicing writing different legal documents, just in case being ready will help him get out when there is a chance.
His practice paid off. In a remarkable act of hope and desperation, Jorge wrote up a petition for conditional freedom under the new Colombian Amnesty Law, dictated it over the phone to a friend in Bogota, who transcribed it and sent it in to the courts. On September 26th, I was sitting at my desk when my phone started to buzz. What felt like a thousand texts came in all at once. “Have you heard? Jorge got conditional freedom! They gave Jorge conditional freedom!” I held my breath, not daring to believe, until a few minutes later, Jorge himself sent me a “freedom hug.”
That same visit, I brought Jorge a Spanish copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” We spent a long time talking about hope and other people who have also been jailed for daring to demand a different future. Jorge shared what he has learnt about leadership, political organizing, reconciliation, and himself, through being locked up for four years. The belief that things can be different, for individuals and communities, motivates Jorge to keep going. In the end, that hope combined with action also got him out of jail, when no one believed it possible.
After lunch on Tuesday, I headed back to the apartment where Jorge was staying with a friend from Bogota. He offered me a beer and we toast his freedom with Aguila Light, yet I quickly ran out of questions and things to say. Instead of the fluid conversation of the jail cell, Jorge is distracted and excited by his trip back to the Montes de Maria later that night, and all that lies ahead. There are security worries, family visits to make, and a long legal process to undergo in order to finally clear his name. The rest of the group is busy packing. Jorge sends texts and answers calls about the caravan planned for the next day, where his communities will escort him from El Carmen to Cansona, in a ride of honour.
The endless vallento youtube videos on repeat get old. Aguila Light, already the world’s worst beer, is even less enjoyable at 3pm. I feel awkward and out of place, exactly the way I did a million times on the coast. The sheer ordinary nature of the moment annoys me and fills me with gratitude. I am always looking for the profound moments of meaning in life, but really, freedom at its best is simply the chance to make everyday choices, to listen to music, to be distracted, all without fearing the consequences.
During one long pause, I mention the time Larisa and I were almost deported after the march, and how we still have to careful with the activities that we participate in. “That’s right,” Jorge replies, “I remember when the migration office called me to testify about you two and the activities you were involved in, in the Montes de Maria. I told them that of course you were not doing anything illegal, simply accompanying communities.”
I knew that our lawyer had asked some leaders if they would be willing to testify, but I didn’t know that one of them had been Jorge. Our case was eventually closed for lack of evidence, thanks largely to community testimonies. The same participation in the march, however, sent Jorge went to jail. He was imprisoned for his declaration, alongside a thousand campesinos and other leaders, that communities in the Montes de Maria have the same rights as other Colombians and deserve the same conditions that will allow them the freedom to choose their own future.
At that moment, second Aguila Light in hand and Silvestre at full volume, I didn’t have many words beyond thank-you. When I look back, however, it was a chance for me to also see with renewed eyes the often invisible, interconnected, complicated web we all share. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” King Jr. wrote from his own cell. My life is part of your life. Your life is part of my life.
Our freedom depends on the ability to see the connections that stretch far beyond the barriers and bricks that often blind us to each other. The next step is action. “It is not enough to simply dream. We must fight to make our dreams real.” Jorge proclaimed to the gathered community members in Cansona on Wednesday, home at last. We are responsible to act in accordance with the relationships we share. And sometimes, on an awkward Tuesday afternoon, we are even invited to celebrate. Spring up oh well!