Afro-Colombia denied

September 25, 2007

A HUNDRED BLACK LEADERS AND PEASANTS from Colombia's Pacific Coast and northern Cauca Valley gathered in the southwestern city of Cali on May 26 of last year to discuss how the country's new constitu- tion would affect them. The founder of the National Maroon Movement, Juan de Dios Mosquera, told them that, like the previous 1886 constitution, the new charter would fail to protect the rights of the descendants of slaves brought from Africa between the sixteenth and the mid- nineteenth centuries. The crowd was anxious to know why the progressive politicians they had elected to the Constituent Assembly -among them, regional Indian leaders, and members of the leftist Patriotic Union Party (UP) and M-19 Demo- cratic Alliance-had not defended black rights.' But these politicians did not even bother to show up, leaving their advisers to face an avalanche of criticism.' This misadventure and the exclusive character of the new constitution both stem from the enduring legacy of socio-racial castes predominant in the Spanish colonies. The racial nomenclature may have disappeared, but the discriminatory conduct associated with it has not. The Spanish and Portuguese developed an intricate series of denominations to classify people according to shades of skin color, shapes of noses, type and color of hair and eyes, and stature, set up to determine how close or far each type was from white Europeans.' Words like quinter6n or cuarterdn were invented to denominate the descendants of whites who had a fifth or fourth part black "blood."' Ascendancy was character- ized by terms like tentenelaire (literally "grope-in-the- air") for the child of a quinterdn and a cuarterona, and saltatrds("leap-backwards") for the progeny ofa quinter6n and a mulata. The term negro ladino not only specified "racial purity," but also indicated that the person was of Spanish or Portuguese culture. This taxonomical system helped sustain a vertical society of socio-racial castes so rigid that Indians, blacks REPORT ON THE AMERICAS Jaime Arocha Rodriguez teaches anthropology at the UniversidadNacional de Colombia and is an editor of the journalAm6rica Negra(UniversidadJaveriana, Bogotd).or mulattos who failed to use the prescribed dress or dared to kneel in Church pews could be sanctioned with the full weight of the law. 5 Yet it was progressive in the sense that it lent support to people's identity in daily and political life. It allowed for distinguishing degrees of physical diversity, correlated with degrees of cultural diversity. Moreover, it facilitated the recognition and conservation of diversity-a diversity that began to wither in the early nineteenth century as soon as Latin America's indepen- dence movements took shape. The ideas that inspired the struggle for liberation from Spain were inseparable from the trinity of the French revolution: equality, fraternity, liberty. For some, the importation of these ideals by Antonio Nariflo was the cause of the 1810 declaration of independence; for others, it was the excuse. 6 For all it became the source of a fundamental myth that sustained the official ideologies of the new nations being born: that mestizaje (race-mixing) was the route to freedom. According to this myth, a new race of "equals"-the "mestizo" race-was forged from the fusion of Indians, blacks and whites, despite the rigidity of the Spanish castes, the lack of European women, the paternalistic relations with those of an inferior level, and the search for social advancement through blanqueamiento ("whiten- ing") of offspring.' THROUGHOUT THE NINETEENTH CENTURY the close association of "mestizaje" and "equality" gave the notion of "liberty" a peculiar meaning in Colom- bia. For example, when the Indians were made "equals," they lost their protected status and with it the communal reserves that the Spanish Crown had recognized in order to prevent the total annihilation of native peoples. And for blacks, independence meant only that children conceived after the conclusive break with Spain in 1819 would be free.8 The rest continued to be treated by whites as torturable and mutilatable merchandise, as if the old laws were still in effect.' Slavery wasn't abolished until 1851, and many believe that conditions worsened after emancipation, when sla- very laws were replaced by those which outlawed va- grancy. Slaves who acquired their freedom, without capi- tal or tools, left the sugar mill where they had worked from dawn to dusk, only to be immediately forced back in. All that was required was an accusation of having been found "vagando " in the street." Attempts to disperse private property more widely, by appealing to citizens' rights to equality, were blocked by the agrarian structure that held sway in regions like the Cauca Valley. There the large haciendas were not eco- nomically viable without the indigenous labor concen- trated in the reserves. For this reason, combined with the belligerency with which some of the communities de- fended their communal rights, Indians' historical and cultural identity, as well as their territorial and political rights, were once again recognized in 1890. Colonial titles to communal lands were ratified, and autonomous Indian self-government was conferred. However, as soon as individual Indians became integrated into national society-that is, once they became mestizos-they gave up these rights. Until 1991, the law recognizing indigenous rights was the exception to the constitutional order adopted in 1886. The essence of the 1886 charter boiled down to an either/ or proposition in which "people" equalled mestizos, and "not people" equalled Indians. The constitution even glorified as the ideal goal of progress the conversion of Colombians into a single "race" that speaks a single tongue and believes in a single God. Using such binary acrobatics, the elites sought to elide the existence of the descendants of African slaves who, due to geographic isolation or political resistance, did not have children with either whites or Indians, just as they denied the identities of other Colombians impregnated with African-American culture. The former constitute 10% of the population; the latter, 30%--hardly insignifi- cant compared to the 2% who are Indians. The diversity of non-Indians has been made invisible by the diffusion and consolidation of the idea that Colom- bia is a nation of mestizos and that mestizaje represents a democratic force." This notion is based on the belief that equality of rights is not compatible with the conservation of identity. In other words, to accede to such rights one must neither perceive oneself as different, nor declare oneself to belong to a different people. The educational and other systems by which Colombi- ans are socialized have proven very efficient in this regard. Not even the guerrilla insurgency discovered that by underscoring homogeneity, the concept of mestizaje makes diversity invisible, negates the right of dissent, and allows for the exclusion of anyone who strays from the "norm." Such consequences became glaringly apparent over the past two years during the process of writing a new constitution. IN A MAY 1990 PLEBISCITE, COLOMBIANS voted to replace the 1886 constitution with a new charter. The Constituent Assembly elected the following December was unique. For the first time in Colombia's history, a national public body included representatives of ethnic, religious and political minorities: a Guambiano and an Emberi Indian, an evangelical pastor, and nearly three dozen ex-guerrillas from the April 19th Movement (M-19), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), the Revolu- tionary Workers Party (PRT) and the armed Indianist group Manuel Quintin Lame. 1 2 The agitation for a new constitution began in January of the previous year, when the M-19 made it one of their conditions foraccepting President Virgilio Barco's peace offer. Over the next six months, public roundtable dis- cussions held in Bogoti's Capitol building returned continually to the task of trying to imagine an inclusive nation. 3 black control over much of the valleys of the Magdalena, Cauca and Patia rivers, as well as the Pacific Coast. Finally, Bonilla denied the importance of the clandestine political organizations that blacks have maintained since the sixteenth century to rally their gods and other allies and to plot against their rulers. An outstanding recent example was the May 26, 1987 civic strike in Quidd6, the capital of El Choc6, a province on the black Pacific Coast. As with so many black leaders of the past, the leader of the strike, a man who took the name of Kunta Kinte, was "disappeared." After long hours of bitter debate, the preliminary sessions of the Constituent Assembly came up with a compromise proposal, agreed to by the Indian and black organizations which took part, as well as their advisers and lawyers and those of us who participated as concerned academics. Despite its limitations, the proposal did away with the distinction between "indigenous peoples" and "eth- nic groups" that the Indians had intro- duced. 6 And it broadened the concept of ethnic territory to make room for the communities that line the rivers of the Pacific Coast. Finally, it broke with the restrictive vision of ethnicity, such that state programs in ethno-education and ethno-medicine could now be imagined outside of Indian communities. Pacific Nevertheless, at the final preparatory session I overheard several members of this one "have been occupying vacant lands." One of the preparatory steps leading up to the actual constitutional convention was an October 1990 meeting of the Subcommission on Equality and Ethnic Rights. At the opening session, indigenous organizations revived a line of argument made originally by Victor Daniel Bonilla, an academic who for many years has acted as the Indians' adviser. In a 1989 article, with the emblematic title, "Todos Tenemos Derecho, Pero No Todo Es Igual" ("We All Have Rights, But Not Everything Is Equal"), he argued that only Indians-and not blacks-have territo- rial, historical, social, legal and political credentials to merit recognition of rights concordant with their identity.' 4 Bonilla failed to note that blacks have exercised terri- toriality in communities on both coasts, in the Patia Valley and on the northern plains of the Cauca River, as demonstrated by several ethnographic censuses." Nei- ther did he consider the solidity of black organization evident in those regions. He also negated the significance of 300 years of subversive flight known as cimarronaje, or "marronage," by which runaway slaves established -tl, NaslJa. l rllalnatulI Ill uf 0 OlUMRciat Indians (ONIC) say, "We signed onto it, but we won't keep it." When the Constituent Assembly met the follow- ing April, Guambiano Indian Lorenzo Muelas, leader of the Movement of Indigenous Authorities of the South- west, standing with Orlando Fals Borda, pioneer of mod- ern sociology, researcher, writer and member of the M-19 Democratic Alliance, read a new proposal titled, "On Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Groups." Muelas and Fals not only reiterated the distinction voted down during the preparatory sessions; they denied that the majority of black Colombians had any ethnicity at all. "Ethnicity," they claimed, should be reserved for the traditional resi- dents of Colombia's Caribbean islands, San Andr6s, Providencia and Santa Catalina. Theirargument idealized "indigenous peoples" to the disadvantage of "ethnic groups" in such sensitive matters as political autonomy, the exercise of traditional communal territorial rights, the consolidation of unique familial, social and community organizations, and the rational management of the envi- ronment."' REPORT ON THE AMERICAS I nPNOll\n'll m'ln7nl r\lnmnnEFUSAL TO RECOGNIZE AND GRANT ETH- nic status and rights to Colombian blacks is neither new nor exceptional. In places like the Pacific Coast, pro- Indian individuals, institutions and organizations have struggled continually for the demarcation of territories without taking into account centuries of black occupa- tion.' 8 Many Indian advisers tend to agree with the government's tendency to characterize traditional black residents as invaders or colonos en tierras baldias (set- tlers on vacant land), and, consequently, to request their expulsion. Such policies are what anthropologist H6ctor Diaz Polanco calls "fourthworldist": ones which "unilaterally enumerate the elements of the Indians' vision as an independent and separate proposal," as if their problems were not caused by the same political and economic structure responsible for the problems of other minorities.9 These policies are based Women of t on the premise that Colombia, in the words ethnic status of anthropologist and adviser to indig- enous groups Luis Guillermo Vasco, "is not a pluri-ethnic nation, but rather a bi- ethnic one, made up of mestizos and Indi- ans."20 This fiction is the result of a tradi- tion of binary calculations that the one- time insurgents who became delegates to the Constituent Assembly did nothing to challenge. Not surprisingly, the constitution pro- mulgated on July 4, 1991 contains a key contradiction. Article VII defines the pluri- ethnic and multicultural character of the Colombian nation. However, Transitory Article 55 conditions the ethnic rights of "...the black communities [of]...the rural riverbanks in the Pacific basin" to the future recommendations of a parliamen- tary commission, which has not yet been formed even though the new legislature was seated in mid-January. In the mean- time, leaders of the National Maroon Move- ment report that hundreds of families of African descent are losing their lands to migrants from the departments of Risaralda and Antioquia, attracted by a new road linking the city of Pereira with the Pacific Ocean. Due to their political connections and knowledge of laws protecting colo- nists' rights, these "white" people have obtained land titles that blacks have been unable to secure during the last 200 years. What's more, Transitory Article 55 maintains that these black communities "...have been occupying vacant lands..." In light of multinational plans to mine the forests, subsoils, rivers and seas of the entire coast, preserving this old notion of he GOelmambi River region. The new constitution grants and special rights to indigenous peoples, but not to blacks. VOLUME XXV. NUMBER 4 (FEBRUARY 1992) "vacant lands" effectively favors the territorial ambitions of a few individuals who can claim no ancestral rights whatsoever. Today, these interests are showering the state with petitions for title to lands on which others have labored for centuries. Although I greatly sympathize with indigenous move- ments, it is frustrating to find once again that the mechani- cal transfer of legacies-such as the one that was born when liberty was linked to equality and fraternity-gives rise to simplifications that mask Colombia's cultural diversity. Diversity is the primary source of dissent with- out which democracy is a hollow exercise. I am saddened that an opportunity has been lost to broaden the param- eters of the indigenous movement so that it could benefit peoples who, following the Indians' example, today struggle for their own ethnic rights. Afro-Colombia Denied 1. As a result of the March 1984 peace treaties between the Revolutionary Armed Forces ofColombia (FARC) and the government of President Belisario Betancur, the Patriotic Union (UP) was founded, independently from the Colombian Communist Party. In spite of the failure of these treaties and the numerous assassinations of a significant number of UP militants and two of its presidential candidates, the party continues to participate in electoral politics. After the members of the M- 19 guerrilla movement put down their arms and returned to civilian life, they formed the M-19 Democratic Alliance (Alianza Democratica M-19), which now constitutes a significant political force. 2. Anthropologist Nina S. de Friedemann and I questioned representatives from various black groups about why they had not supported a local man, Carlos Rosero, who sought to represent them in the Constituent Assembly. They answered that since the indigenous and left-wing candidates had more money and better connections to the media, they decided to support Emberi Indian leader Francisco Rojas Barri. They added that others had chosen to support the candidates from the Patriotic Union or the M-19 Democratic Alliance, also under the assumption that these parties would support black issues, particularly territorial disputes on the Pacific coast. 3. These were analogical and probabilistic systems, as opposed to fixed digital ones. Gregory Bateson wrote, "Numbers are the product of counting. Quantities are the product of measurement. This means that numbers can conceivably be accurate because there is a discontinuity between one integer and the next. Betweentwo andthree there is ajump. In the case ofquantity there is no such jump; and because the jump is is impossible for any quantity to be exact.... [N]umber is the world of pattern, gestalt, and digital computation; quantity is the world of analogic and probabilistic computa- tion..." Gregory Bateson, MindandNature (New York: Bantam, 1979), p. 51. 4. Nina S. de Friedemann, Presencia Africana en Colombia (Mexico, forthcoming). 5. Nina S. de Friedemann and Jaime Arocha Rodriguez, De sol a sol: genesis, transformaci6n y presencia de los negros en Colombia (Bogota: Editorial Planeta de Colombia, 1986), pp. 185-197. 6. Javier Ocampo, "El Proceso Politico, Military Social de la Independencia," Manual de Historia de Colombia, vol. 2, (Bogoti: Instituto Colombiano de Cultura, 1979), p. 23. 7. The previous calculation of probabilities, the delineation of quantities and the formulation of analogies were replaced by a simple process of addition. For many, the fusion of"the three races" was not only a source of equality, but of supernatural strength. Picking up on Mexican philosopherJose Vasconcelos, Orlando Fals Borda writes in the first volume of his Historia Doble de la Costa (Bogota: Carlos Valencia Editores, 1989, p. 15I1B) of the "cosmic race" to which he attributes a fundamental role in the formation of the anti-feudal society of the Caribbean basin. The last comandante of the M-19, Carlos Pizarro, assassinated in 1990 while running for president, wrote in his Tres rectificaciones hacia la democracia (mss., 1989, p. 15) that he was encouraged by " in the virtues of this mestizo nation ... (and by] the tenacity which our women have sown in our race" (emphasis added). 8. Alvaro Tirado, Introduccion a la Historia Econrmica de Colombia (Bogota: La Carreta, 1978), p. 64. 9. de Friedemann and Arocha, De Sol a Sol, p. 199; and Comisi6n de Estudios sobre la Violencia en Colombia, Colombia: Violencia y Democracia (BogotA: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 1987), pp. 105-109. 10. de Friedemann, Presencia Africana. 11. Such digital sleight-of-hand cannot be understood unless one accepts the notion that convictions can determine perception. See Bateson, Mind and Nature and his Steps to an Ecology ofMind (New York: Ballantine Books, 1972). 12. These guerrilla organizations were being reincorporated into civilian life after signing separate peace treaties with the state between January 1989 and February 1991. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) andadissidentfaction of the EPL-which make up the Sim6n Bolivar National Guerrilla Coordinating Body (CNGSB)-have yet to sign peace agreements, though they have held talks with the government. See William Ramirez Tob6n, "Nuevas Ceremonias de Paz," Andlisis Politico, No. 14, (1991), and "La Liebre y el Galgo Corredor: La paz actual con el M19," Andlisis Politico, No. 7 (1989). 13. Jaime Arocha Rodriguez, "Hacia una Naci6n para los Excluidos," Magazin Dominical del Espectador (BogotA), No. 329 (1989). 14. Victor Daniel Bonilla, "Todos Tenemos Derecho, pero No Todo Es Igual," Derechos Humanos y Modernidad (Cali, 1989). 15. Nina S. de Friedemann and Jaime Arocha Rodriguez, Herederos del jaguar y la anaconda (BogotA: Carlos Valencia Editores, 1985); Nina S. de Friedemann, "Estudios de Negros en la Antropologfa Colombiana," in de Friedemann and Arocha (eds.), Un siglo de investigation social: antropologfa en Colombia, (BogotA: Etno, 1984), pp. 507-572; Nina S. de Friedemann, Ma Ngombe: Guerrerosy Ganaderos en Palenque (BogotA: Carlos ValenciaEditores, 1987); Nina S. de Friedemann, Criele criele son: Del Pacifico Negro (BogotA: Editorial Planeta, 1989); de Friedemann and Arocha,Desolasol; ConstanzaUssa, "De los Empauta'os a 1930" (thesis, Universidad del Cauca, 1989). 16. To introduce such a distinction into the constitution would have enshrined Bonilla's thesis that Indians are better organized than blacks. As was pointed out during the discussion, the lack of anthropological, historical and sociological studies of black Colombians, particularly regarding politics and territoriality, as well as anthropologists' tendency to study only Indians, distorts the image of blacks' capacity for organization and political action. The compromise proposal was published in Revista Colombiana deAntropologia, Vol. XXVIII (1991), pp. 183-191. 17. They could not have been unaware of the multifaceted ways in which blacks have adapted to the fragility of Pacific Coast ecology. See Jaime Arocha Rodriguez, "La Ensenada de Tumaco: Invisibilidad, Incertidumbre e lnnovaci6n," AmLrica Negra (Bogotd), No. 1, pp. 87-112. 18. Arocha, "Hacia una Naci6n para los Excluidos" 19. H6ctor Diaz Polanco, "Etnifas y Democracia Nacional," Ameirica Indigena, Vol. XLIX (1989). 20. Luis Guillermo Vasco, "El Movimiento de las Autoridades Indigenas del Sur Occidente," lecture at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogota.

Tags: Colombia, race, afrolatinos, indigenous politics

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