Colombian strike: ‘To live with dignity, our people don’t give up’

31 May 2017 - 7:30am
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By Seb Ordoñez, War on Want’s senior international programmes officer, and Patrick Kane who is currently in Buenaventura. A version of this article appeared in Open Democracy [Spanish]

The people of Buenaventura in the Colombian pacific have had enough. For over two weeks, communities and social movements in Colombia's most important port city have been engaged in an indefinite civil strike over the government’s historic neglect of the city's majority Afro-descendent population.

On Tuesday 16 May, in a momentous popular uprising, some thirty community roadblocks sprung up around the city, blocking key routes for trade and commerce. Rural indigenous and Afro-descendent communities also blocked the main highway out of Buenaventura, Colombia's most important trade route.

As is common with social protest in Colombia, the strike provoked a vicious response from the government. On Friday 19 May, Nobel peace prize laureate President Juan Manuel Santos ordered a military attack on the city, the operation by land, sea and air involved thousands of police, military and navy units. The city was put under a state of emergency, with thousands of security forces enforcing a curfew following disturbances that led to rioting. According to communities, the disturbances were caused by were provoked and possibly even encouraged by police.

Resistance has since risen. Mass marches, unlike any ever seen before, have taken place across the city in defiance of the government curfew. Some 150,000 people have marched shoulder to shoulder. People are angry, and rightly so: the situation for the mainly afro-descendant people of Buenaventura is bleak.

Four out of five people in Buenaventura live in shocking levels of poverty. There is a severe lack of access to basic services; the city has no hospital capable of attending to anything more than basic primary care, and thousands of children unable to attend school. The unemployment rate is a staggering 68%. Add to this the silent fear created by years of militarisation, armed conflict and paramilitary violence and life is a constant struggle.

Three years ago, after mass protests in the city, the government of Juan Manuel Santos committed to taking ‘concrete’ steps to address many of these issues. Yet these promises have been broken and now the people of Buenaventura have had enough.

Under the banner 'to live with dignity in our territory - our people don’t give up’, an alliance of over 100 community and grassroots organisations came together around demands concerning healthcare, housing, clean water, jobs and conserving the environment.

Photo credit: Nico

Buenaventura is the port through which it is estimated 75 percent of Colombia's imports and exports pass, generating huge corporate profits and a large chunk of the country's tax revenue. The wealth that passes through the city and the world-class port facilities makes for an uncomfortable contrast with the city’s social realities.

Whilst negotiations slowly progress, human rights monitors report that each night long lines of trucks carrying goods out of the port are escorted out of the city by heavily armed forces firing live firearms and teargas at protestors and into neighbourhoods as they go, causing many injuries and spreading panic. In a symbolic demonstration of where the government’s priorities lie between the port operations and the local population, the government flat out refused the proposal of strike organisers of a 72-hour suspension of the circulation of trucks in order for negotiations to progress.

The government is quite literally bypassing the strike, the different community’s needs, their safety and their well being; in order to continue responding to the needs of global markets which have a marked interest in Buenaventura’s port, but not its people. This is a reality well known to the indigenous and Afro-descendant communities of Colombia who have had to bear the heaviest brunt of the armed and social conflict, which has continuously deemed these lives as less important.

This world of extremes emphasises some of the deep challenges the country faces as it seeks to implement a peace agreement with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed on December 2016.

Despite the total militarisation of the city and the threat of further repression, the people of Buenaventura have promised to continue to take to the streets to demand their rights and an end to the structural discrimination they have faced for hundreds of years.

It’s time the Colombian government guaranteed the human rights of protesters and started listening to the demands made by ordinary Colombians in Buenaventura.  It’s time Colombia’s President Santos dumped the rhetoric and took action to repair the historic damage and neglect in this important city. Black and indigenous lives and livelihoods depend on it. They matter.

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