Colombia’s Minister of the Interior, Guillermo Rivera, submitted a bill to the Colombian congress last week to create an autonomous development fund for Buenaventura.
The proposed bill, negotiated by representatives of the national government and the Buenaventura Civic Strike Committee, calls for the Colombian government to allocate 1.6 trillion pesos (approximately $530 million USD) to support major infrastructural and social sector developments in the port city over a ten-year period. The bill follows an agreement reached between the government and the Civic Strike Committee in June to end three weeks of mass, peaceful protests in Buenaventura.
If Congress passes the bill, the Colombian government will be able to say it has fulfilled a major part of its commitment to end the protests. But first the bill must go through four rounds of debate in Congress, during which representatives may propose amendments, rewrite the bill in its entirety, or not pass it all.
Although the bill proposes to allocate 1.6 trillion pesos over a ten-year period, La Silla Vacía reported last week that the government has only secured enough funding for the first two years of implementation.
Yet even with the uncertainty surrounding the proposal, the fact that a bill was submitted marks a rare move for an administration that often struggles to meet the conditions of its own agreements.
“This is only one of the great achievements of the May/June civic strikes,” said Victor Vidal, a leader of the Strike Committee, in a statement last Tuesday. “This bill will provide a legislative platform to materialize the demands we made in the agreement to end the civic strike in Buenaventura.”
The strike in Buenaventura began on May 5 with roadblocks and large, peaceful demonstrations in the street. Over the course of three-weeks of protest, shops and schools in Buenaventura closed and main roads were blocked as tens of thousands of strikers attempted to shut down one of the country’s most important international ports.
Strikers’ demands to the government included the fulfillment of basic and long-neglected needs for the city’s 400,000 residents—over 90 percent of whom are Afro-descendant or indigenous Colombians.
“We’re talking about potable water. We’re talking about a sewage system, roofs over our heads, actual roads,” said Euclides Rengifo, a member of the External Civic Strike Committee, based in Washington.
“In Buenaventura, where more than 60% of Colombia’s economy passes through the port…how can there be children dying of malnutrition?”
“Every two days we get access to water for two hours,” said Fredy López, one of the strike leaders in Buenaventura. “And that water isn’t even safe enough to drink.”
According to La Silla Vacía, 64 percent of the urban population of Buenaventura, and 94 percent of the rural population, lives in abject poverty.
Recently the port city has seen expanding development projects, brought about largely by free trade agreements with the United States. While these agreements have allowed billions of dollars’ worth of goods to pass through the city, the resulting development projects have exacerbated issues of inequality and displacement that have persisted in the city for decades.
Divalizeth Murillo, a founder of the External Civic Strike Committee in Washington, which used social media and public protests in the U.S. capital to support the strike, said the protest in Buenaventura was a “ticking time-bomb.”
Beyond the fulfillment of basic public health and sanitation needs, residents of Buenaventura also demanded the government improve security conditions in the city.
In November, the national government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed an agreement to end the hemisphere’s longest armed conflict. Over the course of the fifty-two year war, the predominately Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities of the country’s Pacific coast were disproportionately impacted by violent conflict.
Now in Buenaventura, where one in every two residents is a registered victim of the conflict, illegal paramilitary groups are taking over where the FARC left off. These groups are threatening and killing social leaders and human rights defenders at an alarming rate, disrupting any positive efforts to build peace in a new post-FARC era.
Throughout the protests in Buenaventura, members of the Civic Strike Committee received numerous public and private death threats from armed groups. On June 30, one month after the protests ended, one of the Civic Strike leaders was murdered.
“We suffered through massacres of our people and killings of our leaders [during the armed conflict]. And now the government won’t guarantee that these armed groups leave,” said Euclides Rengifo, who received death threats for supporting the strike from Washington.
Criminal groups also took advantage of the disorder during the protests to destroy property and loot local businesses. In response to the looting, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos called in the anti-riot police (ESMAD) to restore control. According to reports from human rights organizations and media outlets, ESMAD police repeatedly used excessive force on protesters in Buenaventura, resulting in multiple injuries and one death.
Since the Buenaventura strike ended on May 26, leaders have called for investigations into ESMAD’s conduct. “We need to make sure that the victims of attacks by ESMAD and criminal groups remain safe and have their rights violations recognized by the government,” Mr. Rengifo commented.
Moving forward, strike leaders and supporters like Mr. Rengifo have said, “the end of the strike is only a new beginning.”
“The Colombian government made agreements [to end the strike], and now we need to ensure they follow through and the implementation of the agreements is sufficiently monitored.”
“In Chocó,” a predominately Afro-descendant department on the Pacific coast, “the government has signed at least eight previous accords [following mass protests]. And they haven’t fulfilled a single one.”
Ms. Murillo, who also received death threats for her work on the External Civic Strike Committee, encouraged Colombians around the world to continue using social media to monitor the situation in Buenaventura. “You don’t need to be a media professional to make yourself heard,” she said. “Our External Civic Strike Committee [in Washington] was launched through protests in front of the White House and the [Colombian] Embassy. That’s when we realized the power of mobilization to promote our issues and get people involved.”
Mr. Rengifo agreed. “We’re not the first group to have done something like this, and we certainly won’t be the last. The goal is to keep growing, to never stop defending the advancements we’ve made toward a more dignified life for our people,” he added.
“No more death. No more poverty. No more displacement. No more misery.”
Written by Atticus Ballesteros