Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port

An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

May 28, 2017
7 min read

Communities and social movements in Colombia’s most important port city, Buenaventura, are engaged in an indefinite civic strike over the Colombian state’s historic neglect of the city’s majority Afro-descendent population, as protest continues to spread across the Colombian Pacific. From early on Tuesday 16 May, 2017, community roadblocks around the city shut down key routes for trade and commerce, in a momentous popular uprising. Traffic in and out of the city was paralysed, other than agreed exceptions, whilst virtually all businesses remained closed. Participation in strike activities snowballed during the first days, and took on an almost festival-like atmosphere. Roadblocks were staffed by communities playing football and music. Roadblocks were also set up by rural indigenous and Afro-descendent communities on the main highway out of Buenaventura, one of Colombia’s most important trade routes.

Originally organisers had planned 8 blockades of key roads, but by the end of the first day an estimated 30 had sprung up around the city as more and more communities mounted their own roadblocks: clear evidence of the levels of social discontent with conditions in Buenaventura. Mass marches have taken place across the city. Infused with chanting and traditional music, the marches are a sign of defiant hope and determination . Entire families, young and old have taken to the streets to tell the government and the world that Buenaventura is more than just a port. Danelly Estupiñan, of the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (Black Communities Process), one of the organisations involved in organising the strike, said ‘today, after 30 years of institutional violence and murderous policies, the people of Buenaventura are raising our voices to say that we will not yield, no matter how long it takes or whatever it may cost, we will fight for our rights’.

The response of Nobel peace prize-winner President Juan Manuel Santos has been vicious. On Friday 19 May, he ordered a military-style attack upon the city in an operation by land, sea and air involving thousands of police, military and navy units, and the city has been placed under a state of emergency, with the security forces imposing a curfew. The city is currently flooded with heavily armed military units and ESMAD anti disturbance units, renowned for their willingness to use lethal force to put down protests. State forces have used live bullets and tear gas against protestors on an almost daily basis in order to force the passage of large convoys of lorries into and out of the port. Despite this repression, mass protests have taken place in defiance of the state of emergency, including a march of historic proportions on Sunday 21 May in which over 150,000 people participated, whilst the phrase, ‘we don’t have weapons but we have dignity’ has become a slogan of the strike.“they took so much from the people of Buenaventura that they took away our fear”

The strike’s list of demands include the provision of a hospital; a decent, clean and reliable water service, employment that provides for a dignified existence, and an end to environmental destruction in the area. An alliance of over 100 community and grassroots organisations came together to organise around 8 demands (see list below), under the banner ‘to live with dignity in our territory’.

Buenaventura is the port through which it is estimated 75 per cent 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, make for an uncomfortable contrast with the city’s social realities.

The population of Buenaventura live with shocking levels of poverty (80.6 per cent) and unemployment (68 per cent), lack of access to basic services, and the silent fear created by years of militarisation, armed conflict and paramilitary violence. In 2015, the city’s public hospital was closed, leaving the population of around 400,000 without a hospital capable of delivering anything more than primary care services. Clean water and basic sanitation services are lacking in many areas of the city (despite the city being in one of the most water rich areas on the planet), and tens of thousands of children do not have access to education. In 2014, after mass mobilisations in the city, the government of Juan Manuel Santos committed the government to taking concrete steps to address many of these issues- but these promises remain unfulfilled.

To understand the current uprising, and the government’s violent response, it is important to look to the 17 Free Trade Agreements which Colombia has signed to date, including with the EU and the USA. A common feature of all of these is the creation and expansion of further infrastructure to allow for the export and import of goods to and from Colombia (and in particular the export of natural resources). Government development plans for Buenaventura, designed with the support of Spanish and British consultancy firms, envisage a huge expansion of the port to increase its capacity, as well as the construction of a corporate tourist zone, requiring the displacement of large chunks of the population over the coming decades.

Since their arrival in Buenaventura at the turn of the century, paramilitary death squads have terrorised communities and committed mass human rights violations and crimes against humanity. The violence has displaced over a hundred thousand from the city, and made Buenaventura the capital of forced displacement in Colombia, a country with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world (6.9 million according to UNHCR, 2016). Community leaders argue that paramilitary violence in zones corresponding to the expansion of the port and other proposed developments is not a coincidence, but in fact are related to specific economic interests, intimately tied up in those trade agreements. This pattern is one all-too common in Colombia: economic development of this type accompanied by displacement and violence.

Negotiations began this week in Buenaventura between representatives of the strike organising committee and the government, as protests in predominantly Afro-Colombian Pacific regions of Colombia continue to grow. At the heart of these uprisings are demands for recognition of the Colombian state’s historic debt to the Afro-Colombian populations after generations of neglect, exploitation and discrimination.

Despite the military response to their legitimate demands, almost two weeks into their Civic Strike the people of Buenaventura are more determined than ever to take their destiny into their own hands. In the words of one leader this week, “they took so much from the people of Buenaventura that they took away our fear”.

Demands of the Grand Civic Strike to ‘live with dignity in our territory’:

  • quality healthcare and hospitals with secondary and tertiary care capacities
  • quality and relevant education
  • water and basic environmental health
  • our territory- because this territory is ours
  • healthy environment and the preservation of our natural wealth
  • dignified employment and a decent life for our working population
  • justice and attention for the victims of violence
  • the right to recreation and spaces for leisure, sport and culture.
Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament


37