(TODAY COLOMBIA) What the Afrocolombian leaders of La Toma are doing is taking matters in their own hands to resist the agents of death.
The 21st of this month marks the annual Afrocolombian Day (el día de la Afrocolombianidad), commemorating the final abolition of slavery in Colombia, decreed 164 years ago on May 21, 1851. Across the country this month, cultural and educational programs, festivals, and other public events will be held in honor of the contributions of the nation’s Afrocolombians.
Indeed, it wasn’t until 1991 that the Colombian constitution officially recognized the Black population of Colombia and the nation itself as “pluriethnic” and “multicultural,” transforming the nearly two-century old perception of Colombia as a strictly “mestizo” nation in the process of continual whitening. For many, the día de la Afrocolombianidad is viewed as a moment for Afrocolombians to, as El Mundo recently wrote, “commemorate their freedom.”
But what does it mean to celebrate Afrocolombian “freedom” when Black life is continually rendered expendable in Colombia? Quality of life indicators for the 4 to 10 million Afro-descended Colombians more than a century and a half after the abolition of slavery are staggering. According to a 2011 report in Americas Quarterly, 78.5% of Afrocolombians live below the poverty line, as compared to 49.2% of the general population. Only one Afrocolombian out of every 50 graduates with a university degree.
Caught in between the long-standing violent conflict between guerrillas, paramilitaries, domestic and multinational corporations, and the government’s military forces, poor Afrocolombians constitute a disproportionate number of internally displaced peoples. In one finding, nearly 52,000 Afrocolombians were displaced in 2012 alone.
As has been documented time and time again, when Black activists and communities in Colombia self-organize and collectively resist this existential crisis, their lives are routinely threatened. Governmental officials, past and present, have also perpetuated the long legacy of anti-Black racism. In August 2013, for example, a few days before Colombia’s historic first Afrocolombian Congress, the current president of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, publicly claimed that the legal mechanisms of “prior consultation” and “public councils,” created after the 1991 Constitution to protect Afrocolombian territories, were “a headache” and “a very perverse instrument to delay the progress of the country.”
In the eyes of the Colombian state, these hard-won rights of the Afrocolombian movement continue to inhibit the nation’s so-called “progress.” Most recently, in March 2015, Senator Paloma Valencia proposed creating a quasi-apartheid system in her department of Cauca when she proposed dividing the region into two departments, one for the indigenous population “so that they can have their strikes, demonstrations and occupations” and another for the pro-development “mestizos,” while the Black population would have to figure out for themselves where they would prefer to live.
This culture of discrimination against Afrocolombians can also be found in the hallways and classrooms of universities, as seen earlier this May when the University of Cartagena officially found that the director of their engineering program was guilty of racially discriminating against an Afrocolombian professor. In another instance, a close Afrocolombian friend of mine once told me that a white professor in one of her first classes at the Universidad del Cauca in Popayán asked her why she was in his classroom since “Blacks” were only “useful for cooking and cleaning.”
Without a doubt, the Black Lives Matter movement has resonated deeply with Black activists and organizers in Colombia. While the streets were filled with Black Lives Matter demonstrators in New York City and across the United States in mid-December of 2014, photos were being circulated of Afrocolombian members of the Port Workers’ Union in the Pacific coastal city of Buenaventura holding a banner declaring “Black Lives Matter, Buenaventura = Ferguson = NYC.” In their declaration of support, the port workers affirmed that “the residents of Buenaventura are uplifted by the tidal wave of people who have swelled into the streets of cities around the world to put an end to state-sanctioned violence against communities of color. We stand in solidarity with Ferguson and New York City and can feel the rumblings of marching feet in our own community.”
This past April, a large group of Afrocolombian activists demonstrated in Plaza Bolívar, the main square of Bogotá, to protest the murders of Black Bogotanos. Since the beginning of 2015, fourteen Afrocolombians have been murdered in the capital. Among these were two young Black men, Edward Samit Murillo and Dnaiel Perlaza, who were killed in Bogotá in early April. According to witnesses of the murder, the hitmen yelled “we need to get read of these Blacks” at the scene of the crime. Meanwhile, there is growing evidence of actions and plans by the extreme right to target Afrocolombians. Meanwhile, in an inspiring act of global solidarity, Black Lives Matter and the Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network recently came together to launch a fundraising campaign in support of the ancestral Black communities of La Toma in northern Cauca, Colombia.
Just a few months earlier, in December of 2014, a group of twenty-two Afrocolombian women from La Toma courageously occupied the office of the Ministry of the Interior in Bogotá after a long march from their village.
These brave women marched miles across Colombia as a demonstration against the violence and threats unleashed upon their communities by national and transnational corporations and paramilitaries who are trying to displace them to build large-scale gold mining projects. Despite the fact that the government agreed to shut down the illegal mining operations and revoke the unconstitutional mining titles awarded to multinational corporations, they have ultimately failed to honor the agreements. In the days after, many La Toma leaders were forced to flee as a result of death threats from paramilitary groups, while illegal mining continues to operate with ease.
In order to help strengthen their movement, the campaign will support the creation of a community radio station and the development of a self-sustainable agricultural program to strengthen relations between Black rural communities in La Toma with displaced Black community members in the city. What the Afrocolombian leaders of La Toma are doing is taking matters in their own hands to resist the agents of death. It is truly remarkable.
These are the movements and campaigns—in Buenaventura, Bogotá, and La Toma—that should be honored as el día de la Afrocolombianidadcomes upon us. And honored, more importantly, in the days after that for that matter. But as their struggles show us, true freedom was not born 164 years ago when slavery was abolished in Colombia.
It is continually being fought for in the now, in the fishing ports of Buenaventura, the central plaza of Bogotá, and the lush mountainside of La Toma.
Yesenia Barragan is a PhD Candidate in Latin American History at Columbia University, where she is writing her dissertation on freedom and the abolition of slavery on the Pacific Coast of Colombia.