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Abandonment, civil life and black rage in Colombia’s port city of Buenaventura

What the government’s responses indicate is that because black lives do not matter, to be heard black protest must to disturb civil life, or be domesticated under the politics of multicultural rights. Español

Jaime A. Alves
26 May 2017
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Afro-Colombian dances with colorful traditional clothing. VWPics/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

When I first visited Buenaventura, back in 2013, my orientalist curiosity of the “capital of the Pacific” was confronted by the social, political and economic disaster that marks this strategic region. My colleagues were visiting the city as part of a research group on violence and drug trafficking and having just arrived in their country I was trying to get a glimpse of the celebrated “Afrocolombianidad” in Colombia’s geographic imaginary. Buenaventura is a metaphor of Colombia’s antiblackness.

Although the city is celebrated for its vibrant black presence (according to national census 89% of the population is black) and for housing the country’s main port, it denies to the black population basic citizenship rights. Life in Buenaventura is not that different from life in other racially-driven depressing zones of social suffering of black Americas but here, the contrast between black misery and the port-service economy of Colombia’s gateway to the world market is insidious.

The deficient water supply service leaves most of its 390,000 inhabitants without potable water, 62% of the population is unemployed (the national average is 10%)[i], 42% of the population is direct victim of the armed conflict that plagues the region, 64% live in poverty and 42% of primary and secondary school-age population is out of school.[ii]

To complete the scenario, the territorial dispute between a ‘new’ version of paramilitarism (the Bacrim or Bandas Criminales), fractures the city into zones of death. Although homicides have significantly reduced in the last two years, the city is far from being a “peace territory” as promised by the national government. 

The contrast between black misery and the port-service economy of Colombia’s gateway to the world market is insidious.

Back in 2013, during a round-table with local activists at a local university, residents denounced the sinister economy of state, narco-paramilitary and gang violence that defines black urban life in Buenaventura.

As in other contexts of black disposability, these dynamics could well be synthesized as ‘accumulation by evisceration.’[iii] In this macabre regime, the black population becomes the ‘raw material’ not only for the narco-business that targets Buenaventura as an strategic international smuggling route (using black youth as volatile rank-and-file soldiers[iv]), but also for the Colombia government’s “war on underdevelopment,” of which the black presence in strategic areas of national interest is an obstacle to be removed.  

This ‘new’ war targets “competitivity and strategic infra-structure” in port cities like Buenaventura as new battlefield to security and economic growth.[v] In president Juan Manuel Santos’ plan, Buenaventura is promised to become a “territory of peace,” one that secures foreign inversion and facilitates export expansion.

As the ongoing expansion of the Panama Canal opens new possibilities for Colombian’s international trade and as the country signs a peace accord with the Farc that hopefully will put an end in the 50-year old armed conflict, social activists anticipate an intensification of urban displacement, violence and death.

The thousand of displaced population to and from Buenaventura, and the body counting of disappeared or killed in the casa de pique [chopping houses] where victims bodies were (are?) scattered, is only one dimension of the dialectically constituted evisceration of black lives and accumulation of capital in Colombia’s racing to development.

The demonstrators demanded president Santos to declare Buenaventura as a zone of political and social emergency.

Would Buenaventura be dispossessed of basic infrastructure as it has been if its population were other than black? What makes Colombia’s main gateway to the global market one of the country’s poorly developed urban settings plagued by an explosive combination of poverty, structural racism and homicidal violence?

Responding these questions may help us to contextualize the “paro cívico” (civic strike) social movements launched since May 15, 2017 to denounce the abandonment of the city by the state-level and central government. The demonstrators demanded president Santos to declare Buenaventura as a zone of political and social emergency, what would facilitate the urgent release of federal fund to meet the legitimate demands of a population historically excluded from the Colombian economy.

While president Santos refused to declare the state of social emergency, he went to his twitter account to say that he respects the right to protest but “vandalism and looting are not allowed” and that “the situation in Buenaventura is under control of the public force.” He was referring to the special police unity Esmad, deployed to tame the urban riot that broke out in the evening of May 19 as the frustrated population erupted in anger.

While the president and the state governor Dilian Toro were negligent in providing basic services to the population and hesitant in making concessions to the negotiators, they were quickly in condemning the protests as vandalism and in expressing concerns with the economic lost for Colombia with the blockages in the access to the port. Blacks were, once again, an obstacle to the national interest.

The riot was a moment of hyper-visibility in a nation black matters do not appear as a national concern. 

What the government’s responses indicate is that because black lives do not matter, to be heard black protest must to disturb civil life, or be domesticated under the politics of multicultural rights.

The riot was a moment of hyper-visibility in a nation black matters do not appear as a national concern. Predictably, to respond to the black civic strike as civil society’s legitimate demonstration, the state would have to consider the demonstrators as right-bearers entitled to make claims as members of the Colombian national community.

What if citizenship and rights are categories that stubborningly refuse to accommodate black social existence? What happens when the skin color and territorial origin of those protesting render their lives meaningless, unless their demands are articulated in terms of ‘culture’ and autenticity?[vi] While one does not advocate violence as a mean to access social and political rights something pricy to Colombians (and in the case of the paro civico there are conflicting narratives of paramilitary/gang members taking advantage of the protest to disseminate chaos)[vii], the overtly present and unmistakably clear official vandalism of the state, explicit in its unwillingness to provide basic services (such as potable water!) to a population historically treated as third class citizens, authorizes, if not justifies their frustration and anger.

How to name the deaths by lack of public health care (many residents die while taking a 150 Km ride to Cali, the nearest major city), the lack of sanitation, the malnutrition and the state-neglecting conditions for homicidal violence if not an expression of state delinquency?

What if citizenship and rights are categories that stubborningly refuse to accommodate   black social existence? 

Before the reader disregards this text as a conspiracy theory or racial victimization card, it is imperative to say that structural racism does not necessarily operate as an isolated and deliberate act of an individual (the president, the mayor, the governor, the police officer or so on) against someone or a group of people.

This naïve understanding of racism would certainly deny the structural violence of mundane state practices as racially motivated. As critical race theory has taught us however, violence does not need to be articulated in racial terms to produce racial outcomes. 

Instead of question whether state policies (and responses to them) are racially motivated or not, we should ask ourselves what are the racial conditions that make the black population of Buenaventura a disposable group of people?

How does antiblackness inform the national imaginary about Colombian’s pacific coast and its population? And finally, what kind of protest is needed so black matters becomes democracy’s matter in Colombia’s post-peace accords momentum?

As in other parts of black Americas, Buenaventura is one of those black spatialities in which to be legible black suffering needs to take the form of disorder and disruption. If we pay attention to the voices in the streets, the message is quite clear: “they took away so much from us that they ended up taking away our fear.” Insofar as Colombia continues to fade away from the national debate its historical debt to the black population, the assertion “black lives matter” will continue to be nothing but a lonely protest or a wishful thinking.

This piece is part of a larger project on racial violence and black protest in Brazil and Colombia. Jaime is the author of “The Anti-Black City: police terror and the struggle for black life in Brazil (Minnesota Press, forthcoming). Click here to follow and read his publication.

[i] It does not include the population self –employed. According to the government, the official unemployment rate is 18%. See DANE, Boletín Técnico. Available at https://www.dane.gov.co/files/investigaciones/boletines/ech/ech_buenaventura/boletin_buenaventura_16.pdf  See also El País, Cuantos desempleados hay en Buenaventura? Available at http://www.elpais.com.co/valle/cuantos-desempleados-hay-en-buenaventura.html

[ii] Plan de Desarollo (2016-2019). Consejo Distrital, Buenaventura-Valle. Available at  http://www.buenaventura.gov.co/images/multimedia/acuerdo_no_05_plan_de_desarrollo_del_distrito_29_de_mayo_de_2016.pdf

[iii] I borrow the expression from RM Williams, “Accumulation as evisceration: Urban rebellion and the new growth dynamics.” Reading Rodney King, Reading Urban Uprising, 1993, pp.82-96.

[iv] See Colombian anthropologist Inge Valencia Peña’s work on “Narcotráfico y políticas públicas: Entre seguridad y Oportunidad.” Boletín Polis no. 2013. Observatorio de Políticas Públicas, Universidad Icesi, 2013.

[v] Presidencia de la República, Plan Nacional de Desarollo de Colombia, 2014-2018. Development and security is a pricy and deadly combination in Colombian geopolitics. For reference on this dialectics, see for instance, Cristina Rojas "Securing the State and Developing Social Insecurities: the securitisation of citizenship in contemporary Colombia." Third World Quarterly 30.1 (2009): 227-245 and Diana Ojeda, "War and tourism: The banal geographies of security in Colombia's “retaking”." Geopolitics 18.4 (2013): 759-778.

[vi] In that regard see for instance Carlos Efrén Agudelo, "No todos vienen del río: construcción de identidades negras urbanas y movilización política en Colombia." Conflicto e (in) visibilidad Retos en los estudios de la gente negra en Colombia (2004): 173 and Roosbelinda Cárdenas, "Multicultural Politics for Afro-Colombians." Black social movements in Latin America: from monocultural mestizaje to multiculturalism, e. J. Rahier (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012): 113-134.

[vii] See for instance La Semana, ‘Detenidos por protestas en Buenaventura’, Available at http://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/detenidos-y-heridos-por-protestas-en-buenaventura/525913

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