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How unexpected: Colombia's northwest department (province) of Chocó is suddenly en vogue. After the scandalous death of 49 children from hunger in the last three months—adding to countless others we’ve never heard about—everyone seems to have an opinion about Chocó. Some say the department is simply unviable and that it should be absorbed and divided up between neighboring departments.
Others say the problem is not a lack of funds, but rather that politicians steal all the money. While still others say the issue is about management, and that the government is just too distracted with things elsewhere.
Incredibly, what no one talks about and what all the pictures accompanying news reports about Chocó scream out, is that the skin color of those victims of hunger is Black. Black are the malnourished children who pose with their bloated soccer-ball like bellies. Black are the parents that cry before the cameras. Dark, too, is the copper-tone skin of the indigenous shown recently in videos, stranded in the middle of nowhere and drinking from the sewers of the Atrato River.
That nobody is willing to talk about such a sizable, not white, but black elephant says much more than all the ink spilled about the problem. Indeed, a collective silence is the clearest symptom of most deep social ills, those that are so firmly entrenched that we simply deny and ignore them.
And that ill, in this case, is none other than the racism that permeates all of Colombian society, from the poverty stricken Chocó to the ritzy Bogotá neighborhood of Chicó. These two places typify the two distinct kinds of racism that have emerged. The Chocó’s is the racism of geographical apartheid: the subtle and not so subtle forms of spacial segregation that keeps Afro-Colombians in marginal areas of the country and of cities. It’s the racism of Cali, with its very Black barrio of Aguablanca, as segregated as the South African townships, where that country’s Black population was confined by the state during apartheid. It’s the same racism of the barrio of Nelson Mandela in Colombia's touristy city of Cartagena. And that of Chocó itself with an 85% Black population and a human development index that competes with the even Blacker Haiti.
This is why Afro-Colombian movements and academics talk about “structural racism.” As Carlos Rosero, leader of the Process of Black Communities movement, commented about the Chocó scandal: “The poorest and most left behind municipalities of the country have Black and indigenous faces, and we have lived an historic inequality that is not resolved with band-aid solutions.”
“Structural racism” is no smoke screen, one need only see a recent report on the subject by the UN, using the Colombian government's own statistics. Illiteracy and infant mortality rates are three times higher among Afro-Colombians than among the rest of the population. Seventy-six percent of Afro-Colombians live in extreme poverty and 42% are jobless. Moreover, the educational system effectively reproduces these huge inequalities: only two of every 100 young Afro-Colombians reach university.
If we go from Chocó to Bogotá’s upscale Chicó neighborhood, the racism changes form, but it runs as deep as the geographic apartheid of the Chocó. It is the racism of the owners of the “good” music clubs who order their bouncers to “not let in Blacks,” as still happens in Cartagena despite successful lawsuits against the practice. The racism is evident in the whiteness of almost every sphere of the state and the private sector, where the country’s important decisions get made. It comes out in the comments left on the Web pages of the largest Colombian news magazine: “Hungry Blacks won’t work, and one with a full belly even less,” is how one reader responded to a blog posting I wrote on the subject. A similar case were the comments made by radio listeners over a speech made by Afro-Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba on a recent trip to Mexico that caused a minor diplomatic spat. “A Black that doesn’t screw you on the way in, will do it on his way out,” was the comment about her actions that about sums up the opinions expressed by several listeners.
What both these racisms (Chocó and Chicó) have in common is that they lay to rest the egregious myth of Colombia as some racial paradise. It is one of the foundational myths of Colombian identity, as described by historian Alfonso Múnera in his book Fronteras imaginadas (Imgained Borders): “…the old and successful myth of a mestizo nation, in which Colombia has since the end of the 18th Century supposedly always been a country of mestizos, is actually a history marked by racial conflict and tension.”
If the Chocó scandal can bring us down from that cloud, then it will have served at least some purpose. If not, the tragedy of poverty and hunger will remain tied to the racisms reproduced with identical force in the Chocó and in Chicó.
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