How Black Colombia Helped to Bring the Left to Power

Young Black activists in Buenaventura

Although mainstream media focuses on a figurehead, Colombia’s historical moment today is not just down to Gustavo Petro and his coalition’s efforts. Without taking from them what was an inspired campaign to win the electorate over with a principled programme, a decisive factor in the victory was last year’s national strike. 

The heroic mobilisation of young racialised working-class youth brought the country to a standstill, bringing all of the radicals and progressives together with impassioned clamours for change. The consequences of the demonstrations are visible everywhere. There should be little doubt that without these mobilisations, where many lost their lives, we would likely not be in the historical moment we are in today. 

To understand Colombia’s recent election results, we must understand the racial and class dynamics that have become somewhat obscured in more mainstream accounts. This is because we are often presented with a top-down perspective. The lowly masses, after all, are mere subjects of history, never its architects, so they will have us believe.  

Last year’s mobilisations began as a narrow response to a government bill, gradually evolving into one with broader and more radical demands. The intolerable material and social conditions that racialised working-class Colombians face are what sparked the uprising and, in the process, pushed the leftist and progressive movement to accept more radical demands, and now what seemed impossible; a leftist government. 

Historically, research into the roots of Colombia’s conflict has been rather narrow. Academics have often focused on a rigid ten-year timeline (1948 – 1958) and labelled this La Violencia – supposedly when the current conflict began. Further, it is often proposed this conflict arose from a feud between the liberal and conservative parties. This narrow view has played a role in shaping the situation in the country as unique – as if this conflict is innately Colombian, perhaps caused by something in our water. 

In truth, we can trace the conditions that have given rise to violence and conflict to capitalist development, state formation, and, importantly, colonial legacies of power. In this broader context, the conditions of poverty, social unrest, and violence plaguing Colombian society are not unique. To some extent or another, conflicts are experienced anywhere that has been integrated into the capitalist world system. 

We can trace the intensification of Colombia’s conflict to the integration of the country’s market into the world system from the middle of the 19th century. We can also trace the social relations between the different social classes to the relations of power inherited from the colonial era, which is well understood elsewhere and continues to have repercussions on social relations throughout the world today. 

To put it differently, Black Colombians suffering the worst rates of poverty and violence today and racialised communities elsewhere facing similar conditions are part of the same global historical process. 

In recent years in the Western world, we have seen a movement rising against the many colonial legacies in society. From the Black Lives Matter movement that exposes the way authorities target and even murder Black people to calls for statues and other symbols of the legacies of colonialism to be taken down and for this legacy’s social and economic consequences to be addressed. This movement to dismantle the legacies of colonialism has taken off in the Western world and globally. 

In late April last year, young working-class Colombians went on a three-month national strike at the height of the pandemic. They, too, brought down several statues of Columbus and other colonialists. Colombia, absurdly, is named after Christopher Columbus, epitomising the legacies of colonial domination up into the present – not just in name and symbols but in the social, economic, and political realities of these communities. 

Black activist Leonard Renteria and other activists closed down a street during the national strike.

The Colombians who have borne the brunt of the inequality, violence, and oppression engulfing the country then are Black, Indigenous, and working-class mixed-race communities – particularly women. The fact that the most oppressed are racialised, and gendered communities are not incidental but a central factor. 

Capitalism as a world system, after all, is not just about exploiting workers; historically, it is racialised and gendered communities that have fared worse. 

Colombian academic Castriela Hernandez Reyez illustrates these communities’ historical and social realities using the example of La Toma, a majority Black town in the Cauca department. She writes that despite the government promising to address the country’s abandonment of Black communities, only twenty per cent of La Toma’s population has running water, three per cent have sewage systems, and the majority cannot afford electricity. 

On top of this, the town’s population has been struggling to defend their lands from government development projects that displace them using violent force, inviting foreign companies to set up shop. 

In other words, the people of La Toma are statistically more abandoned by the state because they are black; their bodies are more likely to be perceived as legitimate targets for violence and forced displacement because they are black. And combined with this extreme racist attitude, their lands and resources are more likely to be taken from them because profit and business matter more than their historical claims to those territories. It is hardly a coincidence that Francia Marquez, Colombia’s vice-president-elect, forged her political prowess in this community. 

Academics Sheila Gruner and Charo Mina Rojas have come to similar conclusions. According to them, violent conflict in Colombia has affected Black communities disproportionately, with over 70 per cent of Black communities displaced from their territories due to violence and dispossession. They argue convincingly that the extreme violence that this community faces as part of the neoliberal capitalist project is part of the continuation of colonial violence. In other words, it must be understood within a race and class framework. 

They demonstrate that Black and Indigenous communities are more likely to face displacement and violence, but women in these communities are primarily targeted. Gruner and Mina Rojas discuss a tendency to inflict brutal violence on women; “their bodies are used as weapons of war to infuse terror throughout their communities, with cases of extreme torture and gender violence targeting Afro-Colombian women especially.” 

Black women are forced to become housemaids for the elites

Displaced and terrorised from their lands by ‘development’, Black communities, especially Black women, are forced to flee to the country’s major cities, Bogota, Medellin, and Cali. Black women in cities, subsequently, form the absolute base of the most discriminated against in the labour market and society in general. 

With the above as context, it is not surprising that the city of Cali was the epicentre of the national protests last year and where statistics show that state violence and repression against protesters were more likely to lead to death and disappearance. In a report released by CODHES and the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), they show that during the protests, most of the violence took place in Cali and particularly in its Black neighbourhoods.  

Colombian authorities are already known to repress protests violently. However, the data from last year’s protests highlights that Black and racialised people taking part was a factor in amping up the intensity of the violence and repression. 

We must point out that it was not just the state and the traditional conservative elites eager to stamp out the protests and the movement built around them. Liberals and even some more left-leaning progressives in official positions were uninterested. The union leaders who organised the strike started to call for people to abandon the protests as, in their view, it was getting out of hand. In their view, the protests were too chaotic, disruptive, and violent, and there was no proper leadership or organisation. 

Some went as far as to claim that criminal gangs led the sustained strike. The young, mostly Black, and impoverished mixed-race communities, who were protesting, argued back that you must be well organised to sustain a strike for the many weeks they did; and repeatedly voiced their political demands. 

It was not that the protesters were disorganised or that they lacked serious demands; these demands were too radical to be heard by those in power and those who formed part of the official opposition to that power.  

The ideological differences that came to the fore during the protests can be partly explained by the massive material and social disparities observed in the country. Black, Indigenous, and impoverished communities who came out onto the streets have less to lose from a radical transformation of the existing political and economic structures. Middle-class liberal progressives, especially those with official roles, are betting solely on institutional arrangements and official negotiations, explaining their hesitancy towards radical protests and demands. 

Despite the lack of support, it is not far-fetched to argue that those who protested last year pushed the country to break with two centuries of uninterrupted elite rule. Francia Marquez, now the Vice-President-elect, joined the protests and was one of the leaders that best articulated the demands of the young racialised youth. Her political ability to garner the support of those traditionally uninterested in electoral politics is a decisive factor. 

Followers of Francia Marquez. Photo: Iván Valencia

None of this should be seen as a coincidence. Marquez has lived the conditions of the most oppressed communities and therefore embodies the urgency for the radical transformation of the country. In fact, the never-before-seen turnout in majority Black and Indigenous areas of the country, the forgotten and neglected regions, secured the victory of the country’s first leftist government. 

Racism and classism in combination create the unliveable material and social conditions experienced by many, perhaps most Colombians. Those conditions and those who experience them are undoubtedly spearheading the radical transformation of the country. Unlike the more cautious professional politicians surrounding her, Marquez has drawn a line between the movement towards change and neoliberal opportunists scrambling to jump on the bandwagon. 

Ultimately, the surest way the new progressive government can repay the masses that brought them to power is to urgently address the historic racial and class divisions that continue to envelop the country. Anything less and those same unliveable conditions that inspired the youth to bring about today’s historic change in who governs will indeed show at the next elections, perhaps sooner.

La lucha es larga, comencemos ya! 

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