Editor’s note: This story is the third in a three-part series looking at the fight for rights of black people in Colombia. The first story explored the history of Afro-Colombians and the impact of the recently ended war with the FARC. The second looked at radicalized violence against blacks in Colombia. This final story looks at the political fallout from the peace process with Colombia’s FARC rebels.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) had an authentic Afro-Colombian experience. “I was stopped in the airport and profiled, a case of racial profiling by police,” he says. Two officers requested to see his ID and asked him about some luggage found at another airport. The activists accompanying Johnson, who doesn’t speak Spanish, had to explain to the officers that they stopped the wrong black guy.
While this scene could easily have taken place in the United States, the history of racism in Colombia is quite different. The myth of racial democracy—a Latin American ideology that posits that inequality and discrimination exist because of class differences, not racism—persists. Still, the results of racism affect black people in similar ways.
Colombian racism today not only can get you stopped for looking suspicious, or prevent you from getting into some nightclubs and restaurants, but also can severely reduce life opportunities, says Hugo Vidal, an activist with Black Communities’ Process, or PCN. It limits access to jobs and contributes to an 80 percent rate of poverty among African descendants.
“In the United States, it was very clear you weren’t wanted: ‘No Blacks Allowed.’ Here, you’re left thinking, ‘Why didn’t they call me for a job interview?’ The racism in Colombia isn’t in-your-face,” Vidal explains. “They don’t tell you anything.” That’s true for everyday interactions as well as high-stakes politics.
Racism also results in government neglect of traditionally black territories. Fed up, Afro-Colombians recently spent several weeks shutting cities down with massive protests they call “civic strikes.” It’s the latest eruption of activism in five centuries of Afro-Colombian rebellion.
Tens of thousands of demonstrators blocked the roads of Buenaventura, home to Colombia’s most important international port. Protesters also poured into the streets of several cities in Chocó, the blackest department (comparable to a U.S. state), with an 80 percent African-descendant population. It’s where Eugenio Rentería Martínez, a 27-year-old Afro-Colombian activist who helped carry out the civic strike in Chocó, was killed.
Nearly a year ago, a much smaller show of force led to a strategic political win.
Despite the disproportionate victimization of Afro-Colombians during the 52-year civil war, which ended last year, it wasn’t until the last day of four years of peace negotiations that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos permitted input from black organizations.
This exclusion communicated a strong message. Says PCN leader Charo Mina-Rojas, “This just is absolutely clear evidence of the racism of this country and the lack of political will of this government to really recognize and respect and promote, as is its obligation, the rights and lives and well-being of indigenous and Afro-descendant people.”
The negotiations, hosted in Cuba, began in 2012. The Afro-Colombian Peace Council, a collective of black human rights groups, including PCN, joined with two indigenous organizations to form the Ethnic Commission. It drafted an ethnic chapter stating demands for the implementation of peace for inclusion in the treaty. Because many guerrilla combatants are Afro-Colombians from ancestral territories—Pacific-coast areas with the highest concentration of black citizens—and encampments are in these areas, black Colombians will be directly affected by the processes of disarmament, reintegration of soldiers into society and other demilitarization issues addressed in the peace accord.
In August, Ethnic Commission activists had been tipped off that the peace agreement would be signed within a few days, so they invited themselves to the negotiating table.
On Aug. 23, Mina-Rojas and two indigenous activists flew to Cuba. More arrived the next afternoon. Santos’ announcement of the historic peace deal was scheduled for 6 p.m. The Ethnic Commission got a meeting with the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC, at 3:30 p.m.
The ethnic chapter, originally 50 pages, had already been edited down to 10 after government warnings that it was too long. At the Aug. 24 meeting, a government official told the delegation that it could submit one page. It negotiated four.
Ethnic Commission members condensed the chapter in less than one hour. They consider four pages on black and indigenous rights, out of a 297-page peace accord, a significant victory.
Then an even bigger victory began with protests that started in May. Coincidentally, that’s Colombia’s African Heritage Month, but that wasn’t what lit the fuse. It wasn’t even the massacres, rapes, displacements and other human rights violations that happened during the civil war.
“They are asking for water. They are asking for infrastructure and electricity. They are asking for basic needs for survival,” says Aurora Vergara, sociology professor and director of the Afro-Diasporic Studies Center at Icesi University in Cali.
In the case of Buenaventura, black leaders negotiated an agreement with government officials, which brought three weeks of protests to an end.
In a public statement, Minas-Rojas said:
This is a major and historical moment, not only for the people in Buenaventura, but for the black movement and the people in Colombia. The strike showed the indifferent racist Colombians and Colombian government that people who have been suffering, for centuries, the racism and exclusion and the excruciating situation of poverty and violence, eventually [raise] up and turn things around.
The four-point agreement includes an investment of about $5 billion for infrastructure improvements like sanitation and running water.
Vergara is cautiously optimistic. “In the case of Chocó, they have already in the past had 10 different civic strikes in a period of over 50 years,” she says. “They have been demanding the same things. They have been demanding infrastructure, schools, hospitals.
“There have been agreements in the past … but the government has not kept their word,” she adds.
No matter what the government does, Afro-Colombian activists know what they will do. Despite being subjected to racism and violence, they will keep strategizing, building alliances and demanding their human rights.
Says William Mina, an activist in Buenaventura: “What motivates us to keep fighting is our culture, our tradition, the legacy that our ancestors have left us. We want to live for our children so they can live in tranquility.”
Lori S. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and the author of I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing From Sexual Assault and Abuse. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Ebony.com, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune and several national magazines. In 2016, Robinson was selected as a Bringing Home the World fellow by the International Center for Journalists.