On Strike: The people of Buenaventura have had enough

22 May 2017 - 4:15pm

Communities and social movements in Colombia's most important port city, Buenaventura, are engaged in an indefinite civic strike over the state's historic neglect of the city's majority Afro-descendent population. Over 150 000 people have shown their discontent and shut down the city and its port, bringing the economy to a grinding halt.

In a momentous popular uprising, some 30 community roadblocks sprang up around the city, blocking key routes for trade and commerce. Traffic in and out of the city was paralysed, halting all economic activity. Further roadblocks were also set up by rural indigenous and Afro-descendent communities on the main highway out of Buenaventura, Colombia's most important trade route.

The Afro Colombian community in Buenaventura are angry. They have been living with shocking levels of poverty and unemployment, 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), 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 taking concrete steps to address many of these issues- but these promises remain unfulfilled, people have had enough.

The response of Nobel peace prize winner President Juan Manuel Santos and his government has been vicious and one all-too common to the people of Buenaventura. On Friday May 19, Santos ordered a military attack on the city in an operation by land, sea and air involving thousands of police, military and navy units. The city has been placed under a state of emergency, with the security forces enforcing a curfew after disturbances led to riots. Communities say the disturbances were caused by the violent and provocative conduct of the National Police and the Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD).

The strike’s organisers are calling for the government to declare an economic, social and ecological emergency under article 215 of the Colombian constitution. Some of the demands include the re-opening of Buenaventura's hospital; a decent, clean and reliable water service, and adequate employment.

For the strike, an alliance of 117 communities and grassroots organisations – including War on Want partners, the Association for Investigation and Social Action – Nomadesc and the Process of Black Communities (PCN) - came together to organise the strike around eight demands, under the banner 'to live with dignity in our territory – our people don’t give up' and under the umbrella of the Civil Strike Committee (Comité del Paro Cívico):

  • Increased healthcare coverage (preventive, advanced medical treatment, and traditional medicine).
  • Recovery and conservation of degraded ecosystems.
  • Increased education spending at all levels, from elementary to university.
  • Government support for cultural and recreational activities.
  • Basic sanitation and infrastructure, and the public and community operation of public services.
  • Access to justice and reparations for individual and collective victims.
  • Urban planning and new housing.
  • Strengthening of regional production, along with economic, judicial, and political measures that create dignified jobs and salaries.

Buenaventura is a microcosm of the contrasts that define Colombia. On the one hand the city and it’s port is presented as one of the bastions of development for the country, providing a clear access route to the Pacific capable of meeting the demands of the 17 Free Trade Agreements the country is currently signed on to, including a bilateral agreement with the UK.  On the other there is the situation where communities are marginalised, silenced and kept in perpetual poverty.

This world of extremes is exacerbated by the historic moment facing the country as it seeks to implement a peace agreement with the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – FARC signed on December 2016. Despite the total militarisation of the city and the threat of further repression, the people who live there have vowed to continue to take to the streets to demand their rights and an end to the structural discrimination they have faced for hundreds of years.

War on Want supports our partner’s demands to the Colombian government to guarantee the human rights of protesters; to duly investigate the actions of paramilitary and armed groups against strikers; and to listen to the demands being made by protestors.  

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