A Report from the Black Alliance for Peace
The three-week strike in Buenaventura was a collective human rights struggle which challenged neoliberalism head on. “The strike involved 117 social organizations, from cargo boat operators, to taxi drivers, to business people, evangelical churches, women’s groups, young people’s and student groups and national and local organizations dedicated to the defense of the ethno-territorial rights of Afro-descendant and indigenous communities.”
Victory for the Black Struggle in Buenaventura, Colombia
A Report from the Black Alliance for Peace
“A history of government abandonment, structural racism and lack of investment in infrastructure and basic services has left Buenaventura’s population of just over 400,000 facing widespread violations of basic human rights.”
After many hours of dialogues and negotiations an agreement was reached in the early hours of Tuesday 6th June, bringing an end to a 22-day strike in Buenaventura, Colombia. The strike, in the mainly Afro-descendant and Indigenous city on Colombia’s Pacific Coast was an inspirational reminder of how collective, local level and “people-centered” human rights (Baraka, 2013)[i] processes can challenge economic powers and neoliberal politics.
The strike commenced on the 16th May, calling on the national government to declare an economic, social and ecological emergency in the city in accordance with article 215 of the 1991 Constitution, and commit resources to address urgent human rights issues. A history of government abandonment, structural racism and lack of investment in infrastructure and basic services has left Buenaventura’s population of just over 400,000 facing widespread violations of basic human rights. Over 60% of the population lives in poverty and 9.1% in extreme poverty. Only three-fourths of the population enjoy running water which arrives for a mere few hours of day at most and the sewage system covers just 60% of the city. The infant mortality rate is 27.6 per 1000, and in 2015 the city’s public hospital was closed leaving the population with access only to primary health care. Less than a quarter of the population have access to secondary education and unemployment rates are at 62% with the vast majority of workers surviving from informal work.[ii]
Thus, for 21 days and nights as many as 200,000 members of the community of Buenaventura gathered, marched and protested to demand the government fulfill their basic human rights. But there was another, underlying, much more structural issue being addressed here. The civic strike called into question the very neoliberal economic model that has left the city with some of the lowest socio-economic indicators in the country.
Challenging Neoliberalism Through Grass Roots, Collective Protest
Buenaventura is home to Colombia’s most important international port, through which 70% of the country’s imports and exports pass, generating billions in revenue each year. However since the port was privatized under neoliberal adjustments in 1994, the city has seen a steep rise in unemployment and a lack of investment as the majority of profits go straight into the hands of private owners, most of whom are from outside the city. Ongoing mega-development projects to expand the port, building new terminals, allowing for increased capacity and more container ships to dock, have caused environmental damage to the ecosystem of the surrounding mangrove forest, destruction of traditional livelihoods and the forced displacement of fishing communities who have lived on the sea front for generations. These same development projects are sighted as the root cause of the intense violence faced in many of the poorest barrios closest to the port over the last decade. Violence in which countless people, community leaders, unionists, young people and women have been threatened, tortured, raped or murdered, spreading terror through the communities which many activists assert are a strategy to provoke displacement and clear the territory for development.
“Since the port was privatized under neoliberal adjustments in 1994, the city has seen a steep rise in unemployment and a lack of investment.”
Thus, the strike chants to fulfill human rights to education, health care and decent employment were accompanied by critiques of the economic model which allows foreign and national business people to profit from Buenaventura’s port and resources at the cost of the dignity and the very lives of its population. As members of the Civic Strike Committee called for dialogues with the government, the community upheld the strike by holding cultural events at strategic meeting points along the main roads leading in and out of the port. The meeting points functioned as road blocks, preventing cargo trucks from entering and leaving the port, creating instant concern from private investors and thus forcing the government to pay attention to the strike. After the first day of the strike the Chamber of Commerce reported losses of COP $10,000 million (USD $3.5 million)[iii] and by the 31st May that figure had risen to COP $11,000 million (USD $3,767,170).[iv]
If there could be any doubt that this strike was a challenge to the neoliberal order, the response of the state made it clear. From the third day of the strikes the government sent the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron) to violently repress the strikers, attacking meeting points with tear gas to clear the way for the cargo trucks to reach the port. This soon became a routine. Night after night the ESMAD and SIJIN (undercover police) would arrive to attack the strikers and once crowds had dispersed a caravan of cargo trucks would file into or out of the city flanked by numerous police and military.
Not only did forces attack protestors in the streets, but tear gas was also fired into homes in some of the most vulnerable communities, and there were reports of an attack on a health center in the barrio of Independencia on the 31 May. A commission, made up of local, national and international human rights organizations was set up to monitor the human rights situation during the strikes. It reported that excessive use of force by public security forces, including the ESMAD and the SIJIN had left more than 300 people injured, at least 10 from fire arms. By the end of the strike over 200 children had been severely affected by tear gas and tragically at least two pregnant women had lost their babies. The city’s main clinic, heaving with casualties from the nightly attacks, was completely militarized and there were reports that injured victims were being threatened and intimidated so as not to make official complaints about the actions of the public security forces.
“Excessive use of force by public security forces left more than 300 people injured, at least 10 from fire arms.”
The human rights commission condemned the war-like tactics used by the state against a community exercising its right to peaceful protest. In a press conference on the June 1st, Human Rights defender and member of Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), Danelly Estupiñan asserted “we reject the Colombian State’s military response to an issue that could have been resolved by political means, it’s as if social protest were a crime.”[v]
The scenario was a chilling example of Enrique Dussel’s (2000) model of the “myth of modernity” in which he describes the so-called “just colonial wars” waged against colonised peoples when they dare oppose or present themselves as an obstacle to modernity.[vi] Or perhaps Maldonado-Torres’ depiction of the “coloniality of being” in which, drawing from Fanon, he shows how racism functions to naturalize the non-ethics of war, creating a situation in which during supposedly peaceful times, war-like actions are carried out against colonized peoples, those wretched of the earth, in defense of the colonial project of modernity.[vii] Indeed, at a time when peace agreements between the government and the FARC are just being implemented in Colombia, the military actions of Nobel Peace Laureate President Santos against his own citizens caused outrage. His denials of the excessive use of force[viii] in the face of evidence contained in countless videos caused further indignation.
The corporate media also played its part in upholding the discourse and agenda of the neoliberal establishment. While channels such as RCN and Caracol, Colombia’s main TV news stations dedicated endless segments to ongoing opposition protests in neighboring Venezuela, they barely reported on the strikes in Buenaventura during the first few days. While opposition in Venezuela were described as peaceful protestors, resisting state oppression, and fighting for their rights, strikers in Buenaventura were “vandals” and “looters.” While the Venezuelan state was critiqued for its use of force, there was little mention of the violent repression exercised by the Colombian ESMAD, police and military in Buenaventura. Only after the people themselves released countless video evidence of attacks by the security forces did the media begin to report on the reality. Yet for some media outlets the focus remained fixed on the loss of profits the strike was causing for the port and the country. As has often been asserted by politicians and media alike, Afro-descendant and indigenous strikers were presented as an obstacle to development and progress.
“Colombia’s main TV news stations dedicated endless segments to ongoing opposition protests in neighboring Venezuela, they barely reported on the strikes in Buenaventura during the first few days.”
Yet, in the face of such opposition, violence and repression, the people of Buenaventura stood firm and remained committed to the strike throughout the 22 days. Defying state imposed curfews and bans on marching, they took to the streets and demanded their rights. This is not the first time such an historic and unique public protest has taken place in the city. In June 2016, in the context of the National Agrarian Summit strikes, a fleet of over 100 fishing boats took the waters surrounding the port for an entire day blocking the entrance of cargo ships into the port terminal amid chants and calls for human rights, territorial rights and justice.
Indeed, this historic action was just the latest in a long history of activism by Afro-descendant and indigenous communities. As with previous actions, this was a participatory and people-centered human rights process, which from the beginning sought to involve the community in the mobilization and decision-making processes. Dialogues between the Civic Strike Committee and the Government delegation were transmitted live on local television and streamed on the internet, the public was invited to meetings and a general assembly was held to discuss the dialogues. The strike involved 117 social organizations, from cargo boat operators, to taxi drivers, the association of business people, to the association of evangelical churches, women’s groups, young people’s and student groups and national and local organizations dedicated to the defense of the ethno-territorial rights of Afro-descendant and indigenous communities.
A Special Heritage Fund for Buenaventura
Early on in the dialogues the government asserted it would not declare a state of emergency as demanded by the strikers. Instead it called on the Civic Strike Committee to come up with alternative proposals in relation to the main issues presented in the original demand. After many days and nights of negations the government accepted an alternative demand to create an exclusive fund to invest in Buenaventura. The agreement, which was signed on the morning of Tuesday 6th May by representatives of the government, the civic committee and guarantors including the representative of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, included commitments to:
* Create an integrated ten-year development plan for Buenaventura, financed by a special autonomous fund with resources considered as the “heritage” of the people in Buenaventura and which includes certain institutional reforms and effective community participation;
* Adopt programs and projects to ensure the full enjoyment of social, economic and cultural rights for the people of Buenaventura including rights to health, water and sanitation for the entire city, access to quality and culturally relevant education, rejuvenation of ancestral livelihood practices and adequate housing in rural and urban areas;
* The heritage fund will initially be funded by 50% of the taxes from the businesses and companies that profit from activities related to the port, plus US $76 million dollars that the government will raise from credits with international banks;
* These initial funds will address immediate needs in the city including the construction of a hospital complex, the first phase of a master plan for urban sanitation and rural aqueducts, and an intensive care unit, among others.
* The development plan and projects will be presented to congress in an urgent legal bill on 20th July 2017[ix].
Importantly one of the conditions of the proposal was that the funds would be administered by a board of directors in which not only the government, but also the leaders of the strike will participate, with international monitoring from bodies such as the United Nations. The government also agreed to carry out proper investigations and penalization for the abuses and human rights violations committed by state forces, guaranties for those who has been criminalized and assurance of security and protection for the many leaders that guided the 22 days of peaceful, organized and successful struggle.
Buenaventura Will Accept No More Empty Promises
For the Afro-descendant communities of Buenaventura, and around the country, this is not the first time that agreements for resource allocation and guarantees of rights have been made with the national government. Since their ancestors fought for their emancipation from slavery, activists can point to a long history of broken promises. One of the most important achievements in the history of Afro-descendant struggle in Colombia was the adoption of Law 70 in 1993 which guarantees collective territorial rights for black communities. Yet while many thousands of hectors of lands have been given collective titles, communities still face ongoing battles against transnational corporations and the state to protect the environment and natural resources of their territories.
In the framework of Colombia’s “Victims Law” of 2011, Decree law 4635 of 2011 created processes for collective reparations for Afro-descendant communities affected by the armed conflict, but so far only one claim for collective reparations has been completed and it has not yet been implemented. Even in the recent peace process indigenous and Afrodescendant communities had to fight to be recognized and included as collective victims of the armed conflict. They submitted a 20 page document safeguarding ethnic and territorial rights in the post-conflict era, but this “ethnic chapter” was reduced to just 3½ pages that were only included in the now more than 300 page peace agreement, in the last minutes of negotiations and due to huge pressure from activists.
The very strike held this month in Buenaventura was a follow-up after agreements had not been implemented from a previous strike in February 2014. The 2014 strike resulted in the creation of a fund Todos Somos Pazcífico (A play on the phrases “we are all peaceful” and “we are all from the Pacific”) which allocated US $400 million for infrastructure projects in four cities across the region, but has faced serious delays and political obstacles.
“So far only one claim for collective reparations has been completed and it has not yet been implemented.”
The attitude of the government ministers and delegations throughout the dialogues demonstrated a lack of political will to meet the demands of the strikers, and the use of force clearly showed that their loyalties lie, not with the people, but with private profit. Thus, while the signing of the agreement was a cause for celebration, as people were able to return to work, to move freely through the city, to sleep at night without fear of tear gas attacks, Buenaventura entered this post-strike era with its eyes wide open. When signing the agreement, in front of thousands of spectators watching online and on local television, the Civic Strike Committee members were clear about this. The strike had not ended, it was merely suspended on the condition that the government meets its commitments. If the agreement is not honored by August 2017, the community of Buenaventura will take to the streets again.
But whatever happens with the implementation of the agreement, one thing is for sure. Twenty-two days of collective action and community education through direct participation in the strike has created a new level of consciousness and resistance among the population of Buenaventura. The achievements of the strike may well be material, but they are also symbolic and ideological. The main chant of the strike “el pueblo no se rinde carajo” (the people won’t give up), first emerged during the “Mobilization of Black Women in Defense of Territory and Life,” members of PCN who in November 2014, marched to Bogota to demand the removal of mining equipment from their river in Northern Cauca. To hear hundreds of thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds in Buenaventura and across the country chant these same words was incredibly powerful and shows the reach and significance of the strike.
The protests in Buenaventura reminded the country and the world of the urgent situation in the city. The fact that people, described by the city’s Mayor after the first day of the strike as rebuscadores (people who live day to day, surviving on informal work) were able to hold out for 22 days is both historic and heroic. Buenaventura showed the world that it would fight for its dignity and would no longer allow the state to violate its rights. It showed the world that its people had had enough. As Strike Committee member Victor Vidal declared before signing the agreement “we have achieved agreements that will leave some important actions for Buenaventura in terms of management, projects and resources. But this is not their main significance, their main significance is that the people of Buenaventura have shown the world what we are, we are great, important and capable people.”
“The strike had not ended, it was merely suspended on the condition that the government meets its commitments.”
Solidarity and political pressure both from national and international colleagues and friends of the Afro-descendant movement in Colombia was also fundamental in this strike. While mainstream media largely ignored the situation, social media was abuzz with articles, videos, testimonies and tweets that were shared internationally. Colleagues and friends of movement from the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP) and the Afro-Colombian Solidarity Network (ACSN), The Group of Academics in Defense of the Afro-Colombian Pacific (GAIDEPAC), the Institute of the Black World (IBW 21), the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and many others mobilized support, writing petitions, releasing statements and calling on congress people to put pressure on the Colombian State. Letters of solidarity and calls to the Colombian president from unions and activist groups were sent from the US and the UK and protests were held outside embassies.
Afro-descendant activists all over Colombia held marches, rallies and protests in support of the strike. Brothers and sisters in the Chocó Department who also held a an 18 day civic strike and who celebrated the signing of an agreement on the 27th May continued to show solidarity and support for the ongoing strike in Buenaventura. In Cali a group of black women, many who had taken part in the march to Bogota in 2014 entered the offices of the regional Ombudsman and declared permanent assembly until the office would give an adequate response to the human rights violations in Buenaventura.
This was indeed a collective process and a struggle that will not only affect the people of Buenaventura but the Afro-descendant and indigenous movements throughout the country. There is no doubt that this historic strike will be a source of inspiration and important learning for social movements struggling against the harsh impacts of neoliberal policies around the world, demonstrating how grass roots collective action and community-based education can achieve change in the face of powerful oppression. As the strikers of Buenaventura chanted as they marched through the streets of their territory, “pueblo unido, jamás será vencido” “A united people will never be defeated!”
This report was prepared by Esther Ojulari, Human rights consultant and researcher, Member Black Alliance for Peace (BAP), a People(s)-Centered Human Rights Project Against War, Repression and Imperialism. Contact BAP at Blackallianceforpeace.com
[vi] Dussel, E. (2000). Europa, modernidad y eurocentrismo. In E. Lander (Ed.), La colonialidad del saber: eurocentrismo y ciencias sociales. Perspectivas Latinoamericanas. Buenos Aires: CLACSO, Consejo Latinoamericano de Ciencias Sociales.
[vii] Maldonado-Torres, N (2007) 'On the Coloniality of Being', Cultural Studies, 21:2, 240 - 270