They took on the government and won. After years of state neglect, the people of Buenaventura in the Colombian pacific took to the streets to demand peace and dignity. Following three weeks of intense civic strike and non-stop negotiations, they emerged victorious.
On 6 June strike organisers – including War on Want’s partner, the Process of Black Communities (PCN) - and the Colombian government reached an agreement which they hope will begin to address the centuries of abandonment and exclusion of Afro-Colombian people.
During the strike, the government chose violence over dialogue in order to protect their economic interests.
At the beginning of the strike, President Juan Manuel Santos (a Nobel peace prize winner) ordered a military attack on the city. From this point on the city was put under a state of emergency, with thousands of security forces enforcing a curfew which was put in place – we now know – to allow long rows of trucks to transport goods in and out of the port while police forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas at unarmed civilians in neighbouring communities. Over 200 children were severely affected by tear gas.
War on Want’s other partner in the region, the Social Research and Action Association (Nomadesc), accompanied protestors every step of the way, providing real-time coverage of the events and human rights observation and verification missions. Nomadesc works to strengthen the ties between vulnerable groups, giving them the tools to defend their human rights and protect themselves from violence and displacement.
International solidarity also played an important role in making sure the government and mainstream media weren’t able to divert attention from the human rights abuses caused by state forces, or from the momentum generated by the wave of energy and people power which swept the city.
A tale of two cities
Buenaventura is the port through which some 75% of Colombia’s imports and exports pass. Many of these are natural resources destined for global markets in the global north, which generate huge corporate profits and a large chunk of the country’s tax revenue. Consecutive Free Trade Agreements – which now total 17 in Colombia – all require an exponential increase in the country’s export capacity; however the influx of infrastructure and port expansion projects have been regularly accompanied by paramilitary violence designed to cause terror and displace communities from those areas. This, communities say, is not a coincidence and is in fact intimately tied up in the economic interests of multinationals and the government’s neoliberal agenda.
The agreement is a significant moment not only for the people in Buenaventura but for the afro-Colombian movements who have long spoken out about state neglect and structural racism, but have seldom been listened to. It represents an important first step to tackle the mass unemployment, the lack of access to basic services and the silent fear created by years of violence. It has four key components:
1. The creation of a special autonomous fund with resources which are recognised as the heritage of the people of Buenaventura.
2. An initial investment of around £40 million pounds to meet immediate needs for basic infrastructure for water, health and sanitation services in rural and urban areas
3. A strategic plan to to make Buenaventura a port-city for people and not simply for profit.
4. The need for proper investigations into the abuses and human rights violations committed by the state forces during 22 days of peaceful strike.
However, this is not the end in the struggle for dignity. The government has failed to uphold agreements in Buenaventura in the past. Further, business people have condemned some of the leaders of Buenaventura for the significant loss of money that the strike represented, and there are concerns that these leaders may be indiscriminately penalised on trumped up charges of incitement to violence.
Communities continue to condemn the violent repression and violations committed by the state forces and are demanding proper investigations into the abuses by state forces so that proper action against those responsible can be taken. The movement that has grown out of these historic mobilisations seems set to ensure that these claims are not dismissed as they have been in the past; the actions taken by the people of Buenaventura mark an unprecedented step forward for the people of African descent in the country.
War on Want will continue to support the people of Buenaventura, and specifically the Afro-Colombian community’s right to a life with dignity; free from discrimination, racism and poverty.