HAVANA TIMES — Strolling around Cartagena, surrounded by tourists, both national and abroad, seaside hotels, rows of restaurants and coffee shops, enormous malls, fruit and craft stands – in short, by prosperity–, it’s easy to forget this city is located in Colombia, a country with a legacy of decades of violence, drug trafficking and armed conflict.
Cuba, which once sought to export revolution throughout the continent, is now the stage of peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). The parties are trying to establish the terms of a truce and the country’s future. In recent history (from 1982 to 2002), Colombia has seen 11 peace processes under five different presidents. In all these processes, part of the population, an important percentage of those displaced by violence, has always been excluded: African-Colombians.
To travel to Cartagena is an opportunity to get to know a beautiful city and to be dazzled by the sort of material abundance we are not used to seeing in Cuba. It is also an opportunity to speak with leaders of African-Colombian communities and to hear of the suffering and struggles of these communities directly from them.
Slavery was abolished in Colombia in 1851, after centuries in which many of our ancestors, brought over from Africa, were cruelly exploited. Those who received financial compensation later, however, were not the victims of slavery but the slave traders who had been stripped of their “possessions.” For the descendants of Africans living in Colombia, the end of slavery merely marked the beginning of a new era of poverty and marginalization. Today, they continue to be the poorest sector of Colombian society and to be excluded from the political sphere as well. At the assembly where the country’s constitution was drafted in 1991, African-Colombians didn’t have a single representative. In the twenty-five years since, they have been under-represented or not represented at all in government.
Two years ago in Havana, I met a young Colombian who had indigenous, African and European blood and who was very proud of this “mixture.” When I asked him what he thought about his country’s conflicts, who he considered the “bad guys” to be, he replied: “There are no good guys there, both the government and the FARC have caused civilian casualties.” More than six million Colombians have been displaced as a result of armed conflict. Three out of every ten displaced persons are the descendants of Africans. There are 4.3 million African-Colombians in Colombia.
Historically, these communities have suffered as a result of the economic and geopolitical interests in the regions they have inhabited for ages. No Colombian government has ever guaranteed respect for their rights. Currently, many of these communities report illegal mining activities being carried out in their lands. Using the pretext of the fight against guerrillas, paramilitary units have forcefully displaced the members of these communities. Even today, the lives of community leaders are in danger.
Many African-Colombian organizations have emerged over the course of decades to defend the rights of these communities: the Solidaridad Choco Inter-Ethnic Forum (FISCH), the Association of Displaced African-Colombians (AFRODES), the Black Communities Process (PCN), the National African-Colombian Authority (ANAFRO), the National African-Colombian Council (CLAF), African-Colombian Women (CAMBIRI) and others.
In recent years, these organizations have managed to put together a National African-Colombian Peace Council (CONPA), a coordinating entity for African-Colombian issues that seeks to contribute, from an African-Colombian perspective, to the peace talks, secure a stable and lasting peace and impel the social and institutional processes of the post-conflict stage.
In 2014 and 2015, CONPA carried out important activities at the national and international levels, chiefly in Colombia and the United States. The international support secured has helped persuade Colombian authorities to offer more positive replies to CONPA’s peace proposals, though the organization has not been included in the preliminary peace accord processes.
CONPA has seen the support of USAID, the Race and Equality Institute, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), the Congressional Black Caucus, congressmen Hank Johnson and Keith Ellison, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, members of US civil society organizations and US and other citizens.
It’s interesting that the government of Cuba, the stage of the negotiations, a country that, for years, has claimed to lead a struggle against all forms of racism and even sent soldiers to fight against Apartheid in Africa, hasn’t joined in on the demands to have African-Colombians take part in the peace negotiations.
On February 29, at the end of Cuba’s nightly Round Table TV program, the panelists rightly criticized the fact that, in looking for a solution to the conflict in Afghanistan, the US government wasn’t taking the Afghan people – the real victim of the war – into account. Though it is always easier to criticize the US government, we should not forget Colombia is far closer to Cuba than Afghanistan, and that the peace negotiations are being held in Havana. Let us hope our government decides, sooner rather than later, to support the international call to include African-Colombians in the negotiations that will also decide their future.