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Afro-Colombia City Burns In Protest As Citizens Fight for Basic Human Rights

Last week, images of massive demonstrations, tear gas, riot police and tanks once again filled social media. While many of the pictures and videos resembled the recent #BlackLivesMatter uprisings in Ferguson, New York and Baltimore, this time they came from the city of Buenaventura, a predominantly Afro-descendant community on the Pacific coast of Colombia. Two weeks ago, Buenaventura’s citizens declared a general strike, demanding clean drinking water, health care, education and clear policies to combat drug-related violence. Afro-Colombian communities, like their African-American U.S. counterparts, are defending their human rights by resisting structural and environmental racism, displacement and police brutality.

Embedded in the city’s multiple exits to the Pacific Ocean, Buenaventura’s port is responsible for the transit of about 60 percent of the country’s commerce. The city’s strategic location connects Colombia with the gigantic economies of Asia and the U.S. West Coast. Ironically, while the endless transport of commodities make private fortunes and millions in tax revenue for the country, the unemployment rate in the city of nearly half a million people is 64 percent. Additionally, the city’s infrastructure is literally crumbling, Buenaventura’s only hospital closed three years ago due to structural damage and has yet to reopen. Residents suffering serious illness have to travel three hours to Cali, the nearest major city, in order to receive medical attention. Even more perplexing is the city’s decades-long problem with its outdated water system. Despite Buenaventura’s abundant water sources, its most fortunate inhabitants can only enjoy running water every other day and for only a few hours.

Meanwhile, as the legal economy grows, ignoring Buenaventura and its communities, the transit of illegal commodities brings violence to the city — a usual consequence of any prohibition. Although the rest of the country has enjoyed calmer days following a peace treaty between the Colombian government and Marxist Guerrilla group FARC signed in 2016, drug-trafficking violence has spiked in the seaport city. Massive unemployment and lack of opportunities for higher education have driven young men to join the small armies and gangs that are vying to fill up the vacuum left by FARC and other paramilitary organizations. These organizations, at war for the control of territory and drug-smuggling routes, are known in Colombia for their gory M.O.s: torture, massacres and the display of dismembered bodies to terrorize the local population. Local activists and researchers from Colombia’s Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica have insisted on the suspicious correlation between the spikes of this highly performative violence and interests to displace certain communities from coastal neighborhoods near the port. These are just some of the factors that have pushed activists and communities members into the streets in recent weeks.

“The government only care about the port, not the people,” stated Jackeline Micolta Victoria, a professor at Universidad Del PaPacífico. Micolta Victoria also works with Alianza de Organizaciones de Mujeres de Buenaventura, an umbrella organization that designs and supervises the enforcement of public policy for the prevention of domestic violence and equal opportunities for women.

“This mobilization is the result of three years of work,” she explained. “With the support of international allies and the Catholic church, more than 100 grassroots organizations in Buenaventura came together to discuss and seek out solutions from and for the communities and we decided to declare a general strike.”

The strike began on May 16, as organizers blocked 16 strategic roads that provide access to the port and manifested their demands: running, drinkable water, an appropriate health care system for the size and the needs of the city, improvements in the quality and coverage of elementary and higher education, the recovery of ecosystems polluted by mining operations in the region, an end to displacement motivated by terror and a clear policy to address drug-trafficking violence. Foreseeing bureaucratic diversions, the grassroots organizations and the communities also demanded that the government declare an “Economic, Social and Ecological State of Emergency in the city” — a constitutional mechanism that expedites the allocation of the resources for communities in stress.

“You should’ve seen it,”Micolta Victoria stated. “It was more than 50,000 people peacefully protesting.”

The peaceful protest lasted three days without any eruption of violence. According to Micolta Victoria, the ambiance was rather festive — there was music and food, and the local police watched the demonstrations without interfering. The government responded to the pressure by sending a low-level negotiating committee from Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. Even though they agreed with the demands, the committee refused to consider the constitutional mechanism demanded by the strike’s leaders and abandoned the negotiations.

The next day, chaos ensued. Early in the morning, organizers’ cell phones started lighting up as rumors about the arrival of ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron by its acronym in Spanish), the feared Colombian riot police, spread fast via the popular texting application WhatsApp. The rumors were confirmed when police trucks and tanks rolled into the predominantly indigenous sector of La Delfina, in the outskirts of the city, and dispersed the protesters using extreme force and tear gas. Later that night, the violence took over the city when groups of masked men looted the main grocery stores and retail shops in town. Micolta Victoria was astonished by the turn of events.

“Ours is a nonviolent movement; this has never happened in Buenaventura before,” she stated. Many residents believe this was a coordinated attempt to distort the image and idea of the movement by bringing chaos into the city. In any case, the lootings were used to legitimize a stronger response from the authorities who militarized the city, ended the occupation of roads by protesters and established a curfew.

The morning after that terrorizing night, Micolta Victoria remained at home, frustrated. Many people initially felt that the community’s claims had been brutally repressed once again, but soon after, text messages began to circulate confirming the continuation of the strike. Organizers began to fill the streets again, and  “spontaneously people from every neighborhood joined us,” she described, reaffirming the movement’s power. Today, approximately 70,000 people are continuing to directly challenge the riot police (with their tanks, trucks, and helicopters) by peacefully marching and organizing demonstrations to demand education, drinkable running water and high-quality health care.

“Buenaventura is resilient,” Micolta Victoria said. “We survived the transatlantic trade; we’ve been resisting structural racism since the end of enslavement, and lived through a 50-year-long armed conflict.

“Of course we will resist these attacks from the government.”

She went on to explain how the situation in her hometown has thrown her identity into crisis.  “I feel like an Afro descendant in Colombia, not like an Afro-Colombian citizen. To Colombia, we are people who are good athletes, great artists and musicians. But otherwise, we are strangers to our fellow country men and women.”

The living conditions of Buenaventura are replicated in Black communities nationwide. “Most Afro Colombian communities across the country are also on strike and have been for longer than Buenaventura. We get attention because we can paralyze the port,” she added.

The growing social uprising forced the Colombian government to return to the negotiations, this time with a more robust committee. However, while the government deliberates at the table, local organizers continue to post videos of civilians being attacked by ESMAD, along with more military equipment being brought into the city — what seems at best to be an intimidating tactic, and at worst,  a massive violation of human rights in the making. Despite this, organizers remain resilient: “Even though they own the port, the ocean is ours, and if the corporations and the government benefit from it, so should we,” Micolta Victoria stated.

In many ways, the global struggle of the African diaspora is unfolding right now on the Pacific Coast of Colombia. Just as the residents of Buenaventura have repudiated the police killings of Eric Garner, Mike Brown and the many other African-American victims of police brutality, they ask their brothers and sisters in the U.S. to stand with them in solidarity and express their concerns for the systematic abuse and discrimination inflicted upon Afro-Colombians in Buenaventura and throughout the country.

Fernando Esquivel-Suárez, Ph.D. is a professor of Literature in Spanish and African Diaspora Studies at Spelman College. He specializes in cultural representations of the War on Drugs in the Americas. He can be followed on Twitter at @EsquivelFernand


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