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By Jeanne Lieberman, AB’16

As the 2016 Dr. Aizik Wolf Post-Baccalaureate Fellow, Jeanne spent one year working at El Proceso de Comunidades Negras, a network of grassroots organizations that defend the human rights of Afro-Colombian communities dealing with displacement, violence, and threats to their land rights.

In May and June, across Colombia a series of strikes dramatically interrupted any sense of business-as-usual in the post-Havana Accords political environment. While these strikes by teachers across the nation and the entire civilian population of whole states are not directly related to the disarmament accords to which the international community has had its attention turned in recent months, they make visible exactly what is at stake when we talk about peace in Colombia and the kinds of ongoing violence that the official peace process can threaten to paper over. The civic strike in Buenaventura, a port city that continues to suffer from paramilitary violence not addressed by the Havana Accords and where the May protests were met with violent police repression, is a particularly strong example of this.

Structural racism and an exploitative economic system have constructed a mostly Afro-Colombian city in Buenaventura that is riddled with contrasts. As the country’s most active port, the large scale import-export operations are run with some of the most expensive and "modern" technology while the population is left without an adequate hospital, drinkable running water (despite the existence of multiple fresh water rivers within the city’s limits) or quality education, and with an unemployment rate over 60%. The general strike in Buenaventura was highly organized under the leadership of Comite del Paro Civico (Civic Strike Committee), which is made up of representatives of a wide swath of the grassroots organizations active in the city. The demands were clear: address these violations of human rights and injustices. The strikers were demanding that the government invest in healthcare infrastructure, culturally relevant and high quality education from primary to technical and university levels, basic sanitation services, justice and reparations for victims, resources for recreation and cultural activities by the local population, mitigation of environmental degradation, and an expansion of local productive initiatives that provide a just salary and working conditions.

Chanting “el pueblo no se rinde carajo” (the people do not give up), up to 200,000 people per day mobilized in Buenaventura for more than three weeks, all but paralyzing a third of the country’s international trade. They were met by the national government with the prolonged deployment of the riot police whose actions made it clear that their mandate was to protect, not the people, but the cargo trucks dispatched from the port each night. When they were not directly clearing a path for the cargo trucks as a means of intimidation, the riot police resorted to attacking protesters in their homes in the early hours of the morning and in some cases using firearms. Such acts of police violence against Black Americans resonates in a wide variety of contexts across the Americas, from the urban, rural, and suburban U.S. to peripheries of Rio de Janeiro. These invasions were also concentrated in the neighborhoods slated to be destroyed in order to expand the port and build a luxurious beach-front tourist attraction in the near future, communities where for years residents have been resisting displacement. 

Afro-Colombian territories are particularly vulnerable to violence because they tend to be economically strategic (ever more so as trade with Asia via the Pacific grows in Latin America) and resource rich. Buenaventura is an almost entirely Black city, well-aquainted with intimidation and terror tactics deployed against the civilian population by armed actors; the city has been an epicenter of paramilitary violence, a fact that many connect to the privatization of the port in the 1990s. For this reason, in the words of activist and member of the Strike Committee, Danelly Estupiñan, “we [the people of Buenaventura] declare ourselves to be the victims of development.” More specifically, individuals and collective ways of life and autonomous social organization in Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities are threatened by an extractive and exclusionary model that often brings with it violent confrontations between outside actors over control of profits.

The accords reached between the Committee and the national government after 22 days of civic strike are a testament to the dignity, perseverance, and political clarity with which the people of Buenaventura confront these deeply-rooted threats to their livelihoods and well-being. The agreement promises $500,000 in investments in the main demands of the strike including health, education, and aqueducts. If implemented, this would be a considerable step toward investing in infrastructure that provides for the basic human rights of the population of the port that generates enormous profits for those who live outside it.