WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
1 Feb 2016 | Commentary

Afro-Colombians in the United States and Colombia International Relations

By Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, WOLA Senior Associate for the Andes and Marino Cordoba, President of AFRODES and International Representative of CONPA

(Note: this piece is a translation originally published by Actualidad Etnica on January 29, 2016)

On February 3 and 4 of 2016 Colombia and the United States will assess the results of Plan Colombia after 15 years of being implemented. Everything is set in Washington, DC, for Presidents Barack Obama and Juan Manuel Santos to meet at a White House ceremony. In Colombia, President Juan Manuel has extended an invitation via Twitter to former presidents Andres Pastrana and Alvaro Uribe Velez. The first of them was the architect of the “Plan Colombia,” a failed policy from the military and anti-drug perspective, and the second was the great beneficiary of this policy, who under the framework of Plan Colombia implemented the policy of democratic security, a policy that will be remembered for its serious human rights violations, which at some point will land him in jail just like Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

Washington will then be the perfect scenario where the two leaders will tell the world, not the negative impact that Plan Colombia, a crushing machine of billions of dollars had on the poor civilians, campesinos, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous peoples, but the positive results in the military, counterinsurgency and drug policy, and the 15 years of aerial spraying that destroyed the food security and the environment of many. During this neither meeting, nor will it be discussed how members of the military forces (backed by US funding and by politicians and the private sector) achieved alliances with paramilitaries. The truth is that during this time of implementation of Plan Colombia, false positives and paramilitary atrocities increased.

It is also expected that during this meeting the two leaders will highlight the progress in the Colombian peace process as well as the political and economic support that President Obama will continue to provide in the implementation of the post-conflict phase. It is expected that they will also discuss a new phase of US assistance to Colombia that is not centered in war but rather in peace. Many Colombians have had to live and suffer 15 years of intense war where many civilian deaths occurred as well as situations of displacement and humanitarian crises were produced until the US finally understood that supporting peace produces better dividends than investing in war. Peace is the hope and dream of many Colombians that live in rural areas and who have been victims of the conflict. The Colombian government and the FARC-EP expect to sign the peace agreement next March, which will finally put end to an armed conflict that has lasted more than 50 years. A conflict that has had disastrous results in human lives and has traumatized the country. Despite a future peace agreement, social inequality and lack of social and political inclusion for ethnic groups will persist, due to the fact that in the current peace process these groups are not being included as a target population with special rights.

In an interview published by a local Newspaper El Tiempo on January 24 of 2016, President Obama reiterated that there is a strong relationship between these two countries in terms of joint efforts to strengthen security and trade. The President noted that the United States is supporting Colombia’s efforts to achieve peace with FARC, underlining the progress his administration sees in Colombia and the sacrifices made by Colombia to get where it is today. An issue not mentioned during the interview was the contributions made by the United States in the Afro-Colombians issues; this is a population heavily affected by the conflict and historically marginalized who does not enjoy a status of full citizenship. It is noteworthy that in the last 10 years, the United States has been a key actor in making this communities and their serious situation visible, the U.S Congress has specially taken some steps in their favor.

When Barack Obama became the first President of the United States of African descent, the Afro-Colombian community celebrated the victory as their own, just as the rest of the Afro-descendent world and the Afro Diaspora, who couldn’t believe that an African- American was to become the Commander in Chief of the most powerful nation on earth. There was also much expectation that an Afro-descendant President, who was commanding a country that suffered atrocities such as slavery and racial segregation, and a country with an important legacy left by big civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, among others, could be the champion of social justice issues; especially for the black communities in Colombia who have also suffered the atrocities of slavery, now face its legacy of racial discrimination at all levels of society, and have suffered disproportionally, with their indigenous brothers, violence and forced displacement.

Despite being the collective owners of more than 5.5 million hectares of land, collectively titled and with some of the best natural resources in Colombia and the in the world, Afro-Colombians face serious consequences that affect their development and survival.  According to some figures, Afro-Colombians account for 30% of IDPs in the country, of the 6 million the armed conflict left. According to the 2005 Census, the Afro-Colombian population reaches only 4.3 million of the total population. Displaced Afro-Colombians were landowners, who lived as a community, exchanged work, goods and food. They worked in the fields and lived on the banks of rivers, their source of food were the native animals; there was plenty of pure water that came from the natural rivers of the Pacific which they used as a source for daily consumption. They were a free community that was recognized for being hospitable with people from abroad. The war changed their lives, these communities with all their customs and traditions today have entered poverty, they have had to move to big cities and they live now in miserable conditions. Afro-Colombians are treated as second-class citizens, they do not find job opportunities so they can feed their families, and they have not received any special treatment from the state and from the law, as it was stated in the Constitution and Law 70 of 1993 which declared them a “special population, subject of rights”.

From 1999 through 2014, the United States made an investment in Colombia of more than 9.3 billion dollars through Plan Colombia. These economic resources where mainly appropriated for security and counter-narcotics efforts. Although the name of Plan Colombia changed several times to Patriot Plan and Support for the Consolidation Program, its primary objective remained the same. During these years, more than 3,400 cases of false positives occurred, more than 2.4 million people were displaced, different massacres where committed by paramilitaries and in some cases the omission or collusion of armed forces also caused civilians deaths. Moreover, the para-politics scandal and wiretapping scandal of DAS have joined the list of failures of these programs. In addition, the aerial spraying program funded with the economic support of the United States, dispersed coca crops to new parts of the country leading to adverse effects for food security, environment and health in different Colombian communities.

In 2009 President George W. Bush gave the Medal of Honor to President Uribe, while his administration supported legislations that weakened the rights of the ethnic communities. Laws such as the forestry law, statute on rural development, changes in the mining code, and diffe
rent efforts to push the expansion of problematic industries such as oil palm into ethnic territories, an official anti-union and anti-indigenous rhetoric, as well as rhetoric against human rights defenders and for those who criticized Uribe’s policies. Meanwhile, President Uribe and his cabinet concentrated on lobbying the US to approve the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia. Part of that included lobbying Congressional offices by hiring lobbyist in Washington, DC to manipulate the subject of African descent in order to convince African-American members of Congress.

Despite the extensive efforts made by president Uribe to get the FTA approved with the US, it was not signed during the Bush administration; the FTA was frozen in the U.S Congress for five years. The Democratic leadership in the U.S Congress questioned an FTA with a country that had the largest number of murders of trade unionists in the world, a record of violations of labor rights as well as infiltration of paramilitaries in politics and in other sectors of the country. The portion of the U.S Congress who were Afro descendants, strongly insisted that there must be clarifications towards the situation of human and humanitarian rights of the black communities. Despite the U.S support for the demobilization process of paramilitaries of the AUC, there were still some questions about the effectiveness of such demobilization and Uribe´s administration was forced to extradite to the U.S several AUC commanders.

The advocacy made by different sectors such as unions sectors, churches and civil society organizations that were in in asylum status in the United States led to changes in U.S policy towards Colombia. Lawmakers insisted that human rights conditions should be linked to the military aid from the United States to Colombia. Taking this into account, they demanded justice in cases of abuses made by the Colombian armed forces and paramilitary groups; they also demanded that trade unionists, human rights defenders and ethnic leaders should be protected. Thanks to these interventions it was possible to see some improvements in several controversial cases of human rights violations such as illegal land usurpation from communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó as well as preventing the eviction of the black communities of La Toma.

Thanks to civil society’s protests where different sectors such as the Afro-Colombian diaspora, labor movements, human rights defenders, and religious activists participated, it was possible to start questioning the abusive policies that where going on in Colombia. In 2007 a reduction in the military aid was approved and instead an increase in thesocial economic package, administered by the USAID under the name of ACIP, was approved. A consultation process between USAID and the U.S civil society was started in order to see how it was possible to improve the programs and make them more effective to see more concrete results in terms of human rights. These consultations are still happening today and now include consultations with civil society organizations in Bogota, which has led to improved relations with civil society.

African-American members of the U.S Congress questioned Uribe on why Afro-Colombians were not part of his cabinet when they were asked to support to pass the FTA with Colombia. Shortly after this, Uribe appointed the first Afro-Colombian woman minister, the first Afro-Colombian general and opened a presidential office for Afro-Colombian issues. The United States insisted through diplomatic channels to change abusive behaviors that lead to cases such as the false positive scandal, the abuse by Colombia’s intelligence agency, DAS, and it also insisted that trade unionists and human rights defenders needed to be protected. Legislators introduced resolutions in the US Congress to promote the rights of displaced persons and Afro and indigenous communities. U.S lawmakers insisted that if Colombia wanted the FTA to be approved, the country had to change their attitude and show results regarding trade unionists and human rights abuses.

During his presidential campaign President Obama said he would not move forward with FTA unless there was prove that behavior against trade unionists in Colombia had changed. Then after many internal pressures regarding economic issues, Obama encountered himself in the position of having to move forward with the FTA. In order to be able to move forward while maintaining the support of the labor movement, the US launched the Labor Action Plan. This plan with its limitations, helped reduce the rate of murders of trade unionists, through the Ministry of Labor it increased trainings to labor inspectors, it helped end the illegal labor cooperatives, and helped to increase the attention towards labor problems in areas where poorer working conditions were affronted by workers, especially in sectors with many Afro-Colombian workers, such as ports and the sugar industry.

After the FTA was approved in the U.S, the Labor Action Plan lost its priority for both countries. This was a big mistake because the plan set the foundation for establishing stronger and closer relations between both countries and this plan could have brought transformative changes in the labor sector. If the United States had insisted in the elimination of labor subcontracts, the end in impunity of cases of murders of trade unionists, and ensured that the inspection system would work in favor of the workers, this would have help combat inequality in the country, which is one of the roots causes of the conflict, violence and criminality.

Labor informality has led to a situation where Afro-Colombians have not been able to accumulate capital, educate themselves and organize in groups to address their socioeconomic problems that they face. Advocacy efforts led to change the way that the U.S was funding Afro-Colombians and indigenous issues. The United States was financing projects that were linked to armed groups, corruption, and without any accountability methods and therefore it wasn’t possible to see positive results for communities. In contrast, the ACIP program has now focused on strengthening state institutions, ethnic organizations capabilities, improve economic opportunities for young people and promote positive messages on issues about ethnic minorities in the media, which has had very good results. A positive effort is the different partnerships that where built between the public and private sectors and Afro-Colombian organizations to get young people, many of them displaced, trained. Some of these young people have been hired because of the knowledge they have acquired. Now thousands of young Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples of deprived areas in urban sites, including many single mothers, who were unemployed, have received training and employment in different economic sectors. It is important to highlight that the program itself consists of employees who are 31% Afro-decedents and 7% indigenous. Like any program, it is not perfect and there are areas that can be improved, but it can be concluded that progress has been made on Afro and indigenous issues in a society where these problems are not of major importance for the government, the political sphere, the media and the economic elites. The program also has taken significant risks in their efforts to be inclusive and has cut funding to organizations that have not achieved their goals.

Another plan that was also born under President George W. Bush and that as continued under President Obama’s administration is the Racial Action Plan between the United States and Colombia, better known as CAPREE. The CAPREE aims to combat racial discrimination in both countries towards Afros and indigenous peoples, and involves several U.S agencies that work in diverse themes. Do to the fact that the issue of racial discrimination is a daily problem in Colombia and that Afros are in a disadvantage position in society, it would be very important that CAPREE carry out stronger efforts. The best w
ay to do this would be that these exchanges weren’t left at the governmental or official levels, but instead involve grassroots organizations in both countries that can lead to open discussions on how to combat racism in both countries.

With the current peace process with FARC, Colombia is going through a historic moment. Despite the importance of the moment, the negotiating parties in the Havana have not invited and received a delegation from the Afro-Colombian community nor has a committee on ethnic people been formed. The Afro-Colombian National Peace Council -CONPA continues to insist that an analysis and differential perspective that corresponds to the realities, needs and rights of ethnic peoples as collective subjects, is necessary for peace to be effective. Apart from being the populations most affected by conflict and violence, it is in their territories where the demobilized populations are going to be received and where peace-building will be more difficult if these communities are not fully involved during the negotiations.

The inclusion of the recommendations made by the ethnic authorities and the Afro-Colombian leaders is needed to ensure that the peace agreements are going to be supported and implemented in these areas of the country where these communities live. It is important that President Obama ends his term as the first African-American president that leaves a great legacy for Afro-Colombian communities. The best way to do this is by ensuring the participation of regional organizations and the organized civil society in the peace process. Ensuring that the parties in the Havana receive a delegation of Afro-Colombian and indigenous ethnic groups before the final agreement is signed is the best way to ensure that a future agreement will consider the rights and needs of ethnic communities in order to avoid future conflicts. For the agreements to be effective in all the ethnic zones of the country, it is necessary that ethnic authorities and their organizations play a role of leadership in its implementation. It is necessary to insist with President Santos, that it is a necessity to create mechanisms for understanding the agreements and their implementation process in the Afro-Colombian areas, as well to continue the consultation mechanisms with ethnic authorities. The United States must commit to helping Colombia in the peace building. This support must not only be on the political, but also as a robust economic package for the post-conflict phase that last at least 5 years.

This package should include an important component that strengthens the ethnic groups that are part of civil society. This package should also ensure that Afro-Colombian organized civil society groups are part of all the mechanisms of transitional justice such as the truth commission and additional post-conflict programs that come about.

In particular, it is important that the ACIP program continues and becomes a support plan for the construction of peace with ethnic groups. This new aid package should ensure the political participation of ethnic groups in all spheres of the peace agreement’s implementation, it should also ensure support to victims and displaced persons, it should have a differentiated component for strengthening Afro-descendants and indigenous protection, as well as a component that helps to strength judicial institutions in order to be able to combat impunity cases. This package must incorporate the goals of the Labor Action Plan and the Racial Action Plan to ensure that while peace is built Colombian institutions are being effective. It is also important to guarantee the protection to trade unionists and workers and it must combat racial discrimination.