The Anti-Racist Horizon in Colombia’s Peace Process

For Colombia’s Afro-Colombian communities, a peace process that seeks social inclusion alone will not remedy centuries of anti-Black racism. 

March 23, 2017

A protest by Afro-Colombian communities in Bogotá demanding the resumption of peace talks in 2002. (Jared Goyette / Creative Commons)

In recent months, the tortuous peace process between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government has garnered much international attention.  In particular, the unexpected results of the October 2, 2016 referendum, in which voters rejected the accords by a small margin, bewildered the international press, as well as many Colombian citizens, who had long hoped for an overdue end to the hemisphere’s longest armed conflict. Since then, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and the Colombian Constitutional Court approved a “fast-track” process to expedite the ratification of a revised document, which was finally signed on November 30th of last year.

As thousands of former guerrillas reach disarmament zones and widespread efforts to begin implementing the accords unfurl, it has become clear that Colombia’s violence has not entirely dissipated and that the challenges ahead are formidable. It is especially imperative to look closely at the consequences of the peace accords on the lives of those who have been most directly affected by the war. 

Colombia’s war victims are numerous, but it is now well known that Afro-Colombians make up a disproportionately large percentage of war victims and that their historical position within the nation continues to place them in particularly vulnerable situations.  For this reason, it is important to ask: what are the possibilities that this peace process presents for the pursuit of an anti-racist agenda? As the enthusiasm for a peaceful Colombia grows—now that peace dialogues with the National Liberation Army (ELN) have begun as well—the question of whether the peace process will move us closer to dismantling one of the central mechanisms of inequality in Colombia looms large.

The Afro-Colombian Struggle for Inclusion

After more than two years of negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, in February 2015, a coalition of Black organizations created the Afro-Colombian National Peace Council (CONPA) to demand inclusion of Afro-Colombian concerns in the peace process. CONPA’s demands were based on a simple yet strong argument: that Black victimization in the war is the result of structural racism. CONPA members argued that the spread of extreme violence across their communities weakened the effective exercise of cultural autonomy, their right to political participation, and further impoverished Afro-Colombians—both by destroying livelihoods in rural areas and triggering massive displacement to urban areas where their participation in the labor market is marked by racism and informality.

CONPA, which included both several well-known national-level Black organizations, such as the National Conference of Afro-Colombian Organizations (CNOA), the Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES), and the Black Communities’ Process (PCN), and many smaller regional and local organizations, pursued an international strategy to mobilize support for their inclusion in the peace talks.  Starting in early 2015, they wrote several declarations targeting both the national press and international networks of support to make visible their exclusion and trigger external pressure on the Colombian government.  Still, despite their tireless mobilization, which included meetings with grassroots Black organizations across the country and with international allies, when asked why there had been no response to the CONPA’s request for inclusion of Black communities, officials of the High Commissioner for Peace continued to state as late as March of 2016 that ethnic rights would not be included in the negotiations because they were already constitutionally recognized

In June 2016, after the creation of an Indigenous-Black coalition, known as the Ethnic Commission for Peace and Defense of Territorial Rights, Black representatives were finally invited to Havana for a hearing. There they presented their demands, which included: the right to collective reparations, safeguards from the demobilization process, and active and permanent participation in the ongoing peace process. In the end, a permanent seat was never created and the Commission’s demands were instead superficially included in a three-page “Ethnic Chapter” within the accords. 

Although the “Ethnic Chapter” came far from fulfilling the CONPAs demands, many Black organizations welcomed it as a triumph.  In particular, they noted that the chapter included a set of important principles that amount to effective protections for Black communities. These include two important statements from the state.  First, a commitment to uphold all previously signed international agreements with respect to ethnic populations, and  second, a public recognition of the disproportionate brunt of violence and destruction that Black communities have suffered. In addition, the chapter provides several “salvaguardas,” or protections, which are intended to defend the hard-earned territorial rights of Black communities, such as the right to previous consultation (consulta previa) and a yet-to-be-interpreted “right to cultural objection.” 

Overall, the chapter guarantees the employment of an ethnic lens (enfoque étnico diferencial) across all five negotiated points of the peace accords: land reform; political participation; security and demobilization; truth, justice and reparation; and implementation.  But, barring a few exceptions, the Ethnic Chapter is very vague about the mechanisms through which adequate participation, reparation, and political inclusion of Black and Indigenous communities will be guaranteed.

And yet, despite its evident weaknesses, the Ethnic Chapter was fiercely defended by proponents of the accords after the October 2 referendum and former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe’s call for major revisions. Of these demands for revision, two points clearly threatened the thin guarantees that had been included in the Ethnic Chapter.

Specifically, Uribe’s proposed revisions suggested that “[t]he accords must not affect honest owners and property-holders, whose good faith is proof of their absence of guilt.” This was a thinly-veiled effort to legalize the more than eight million hectares of land that were illegally acquired by paramilitary groups and their allied networks of large-scale empresarios (businesspeople) who trade in both illicit and licit crops.  In many cases these lands were within legally protected Black communities and/or resulted in the forceful displacement of Black, Indigenous, and mestizo campesinos.

Uribe’s proposed revisions included a second threatening amendment, which stated that “consultations with communities may be limited in time by government decree in order to ensure that they do not obstruct the balanced development of the nation.” This second point was a clear attack on the right to consulta previa.  In essence, it was an attempt to strip Black communities of their most robust mechanism to protect their territories against the advance of large-scale extractive industries and to regain a right to self-determination.  As if Uribe’s sly proposal wasn’t offensive enough, it was unapologetic in pitting “communities” against “the balanced development of the nation,” thus casting Black and Indigenous people as an obstacle to progress.

Although in the end, the “ethnic focus” was maintained in the final document of the Peace Accords that was approved in late November 2016, its actual implementation remains to be seen.  And yet, in the midst of this unfolding process, a few observations can be gleaned.   

First, it is evident that despite two decades of multicultural reforms, ethnic rights cannot be taken for granted. The ultimate refusal to create Indigenous and Afro-Colombian permanent seats at the negotiating table in Havana are a sobering reminder of this. 

It is also clear that the actual content of the Ethnic Chapter was a watered-down version of a much more robust set of demands advanced by Black and Indigenous organizations. The concessions read like a last-minute addition, intended to appease Black and Indigenous communities and save face in light of international pressure and observation.

Finally, it is worth noting that neither CONPA’s demands nor the Ethnic Chapter make more than a quick reference to racism. In general, the terms under which this struggle for inclusion is being waged are those that were set by the principles of multicultural recognition, which focus on the right to cultural difference, not anti-racism.

Beyond the Accords: Disputes Over the Meaning of Peace

There is no simple way to define what peace means to Afro-Colombians, and numerous organizations and activists are mobilizing strategies in pursuit of their vision.  In some cases these visions overlap, while in others they conflict. However, for the sake of simplicity, I present three major tendencies here, which can be thought of as a spectrum of approaches rather than a set of discrete groups

The first of these tendencies includes those who seek inclusion and participation in the state-defined vision of peace.  In addition to demanding a seat as rightful participants in the negotiations, activists of this tendency seek to secure their share of the resources that will be distributed during the implementation process. This includes the protection of existing territorial rights as well as the distribution of new resources, such as ethnic-specific funds that will be earmarked as part of the Plan Paz Colombia (Peace Colombia), and which is being negotiated between Santos and the U.S. government [or was, under the Obama administration]. Although the details of this negotiation are still unknown, it is believed that Peace Colombia will include between $450-500 million USD for implementation of the peace process. Some $187.3 million of the funds are expected to be earmarked for “social and economic aid” at-large and a specific portion of this will be destined specifically for Afro-Colombian communities. This vision of peace seeks inclusion in the state-led project of national renewal but does not fundamentally question the national project itself. 

A second tendency seeks to use the peace process as a means to continue the unfinished struggle for multicultural rights. For these activists, the peace process is an opportunity to reinvigorate Law 70, the 1993 law that formally recognized Afro-Colombians as a distinct ethnicity, and turn back the attacks on their hard-earned territorial and cultural rights. In brief, this vision of peace is one in which the multicultural promise issued a two and a half decades ago is finally fulfilled.

Finally, there is a vision of peace that is pushing at the limits of the negotiations to open new political routes for Afro-Colombians. This vision is espoused by a broad set of actors that is too diverse to characterize. Although their lived experiences and political persuasions span a broad spectrum, what these groups have in common is the fact that they are all situated at the margins of the negotiation process and are therefore not limited to the current terms set by the Colombian state. For activists of this tendency, the peace process can be used as an opportunity to pursue a more radical reconstruction of the nation. Their vision includes dismantling the neoliberal economic model based on extractivism; expanding the conversation around victimization to one of historical reparations; and shifting the conversation from a state-led enfoque diferencial étnico to grassroots anti-racism.

Dreaming Peace Outside of the State

The possibility of ending a fifty-year war in Colombia ushers in a moral imperative to imagine an alternative and less violent future. While it might seem only logical to suggest that an avenue towards a just resolution of the conflict would be the inclusion of these excluded sectors into the remaking of the Colombian nation, history has taught us otherwise. Inclusion into the state’s project is not enough. In other words, so long as Afro-Colombian struggles for justice remain framed within the limits of state recognition, anti-racism is unlikely to flourish. 

I find much more potential for anti-racism in the work of those who have remained on the margins of the state, such as a group of Black women who resist extractive polices in the mountains of northern Cauca. Independently funded, autonomously organized, and internationally connected, the political work of this group of women suggests that the most promising possibilities for anti-racism perhaps lie outside of state recognition—not in the struggle for national inclusion or recognition but in the spaces for autonomous existence. 

For more on anti-racist organizing in Colombia and across the hemisphere, be sure to check out the Spring 2017 issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas.

Roosbelinda Cárdenas is a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor of Latin American Studies at Hampshire College.

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