In May 2017, in response to longstanding government neglect, poor living conditions, and insecurity, residents in Colombia’s largest Pacific port city Buenaventura halted all work activity as part of a peaceful protest, calling on the government to address their needs. The protesters, organized by a coalition of 20 civil society groups known as the Buenaventura Civil Strike Committee, had basic demands: access to potable water, sanitation services, dignified work, security, infrastructure, and adequate healthcare.
As part of an agreement reached between the government and the protest’s leaders to end the 22-day civic strike, the Colombian government pledged to create a COP$1.5 billion (US$342 million) fund to fulfill its commitments to the people of Buenaventura. Nearly a year after the civic strike, President Santos’ outgoing administration has not yet moved to create this fund.
Buenaventura is representative of the social contrasts that define Colombia. On one hand, the city and its port is presented as a bastions of development for the country: the Pacific port is Colombia’s main gateway to trade with Asia, as well other countries, including the United States, that have signed free trade agreements with Colombia. At the same time, the city’s residents—the majority of whom are Afro-Colombian—are marginalized, silenced, and kept in perpetual poverty.
Human rights advocacy group the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is pleased to host Senator Alexander López Maya, and leaders of the Buenaventura Civil Strike Committee. The speakers will explain why the agreement negotiated with the Colombian government represents an important opportunity to expand the state’s presence in Buenaventura, provide security for threatened activists, and ensure that the rights of workers are respected. Above all, it is an opportunity for the government to create the proper conditions needed to guarantee the long-term sustainability of the historic 2016 peace accords signed with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Senator Alexander López Maya was re-elected to his third term in Colombia’s Senate in March 2018. A member of the Polo Democrático Party, Senator López Maya is known and respected in Colombia for his work with labor unions and Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. He began his political career working as a leader in a local union, Sintraemcali. He was elected in 2002 to Colombia’s House of Representatives and in 2006 was elected to the Senate, where he currently heads the Senate human rights committee. He is also a member of the Senate committee on Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities and a member of the Senate committee which handles, changes to Colombia’s Constitution.
María Miyela Riascos is an ethno-educator and anthropologist who specializes in human management. Riascos works with various social organizations and victims groups on issues that include defense of territorial and human rights, peace, the environment, and community organizing. She is a member of the Buenaventura Civil Strike Committee. Riascos herself is a victim of the armed conflict, as she was forcibly displaced from her home 17 years ago after armed paramilitary groups threatened her community in rural Buenaventura.
Henry Tobar is a current member of the Buenaventura Civil Strike Committee, where he coordinates areas related to culture, sports, and recreation. In 2015 he founded ASAGETRAN, a trade union that works to improve working conditions for traffic enforcement agents. In 2016 he founded another trade union, ASOTVIAL, which works on behalf of transit technicians and professionals. He is currently the organization’s legal representative. Tobar has a degree in social development and is currently pursuing a degree in pedagogy with the Evangelical Nicaraguan University Martin Luther King Jr.
Victor Vidal is a community organizer with more than 25 years of experience in leading youth organizations, community action boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal), ethnic organizations, and human rights groups in Buenaventura. Vidal has a degree in business administration and marketing from Valle University, a specialization in environmental management from Santiago de Cali University, and a degree in pedagogy,research and human rights training from San Buenaventura University.
Gimena Sánchez is the Director for the Andes and the leading Colombia human rights advocate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Ms. Sánchez is an expert on peace and illegal armed groups, internally displaced persons, human rights, and ethnic minority rights. Her work has shed light on the situation of Colombia’s more than seven million internally displaced people, and has helped expose links between Colombia’s government and drug-funded paramilitaries.