Buenaventura, Colombia’s largest port-side cities, generates US$2 billion in revenue for the Colombian State, yet over half the city doesn’t have access to drinking water. Furthermore, unemployment is above 60%, it lacks a major hospital to serve its 400,000 residents, and illegal armed groups have been inflicting heinous violence on the civilian population for more than 20 years. In the face of total state abandonment, on March 16th the people of Buenaventura, 89% of who are black, declared a general strike.
The General Strike Committee, composed of community organizers from Buenaventura, outlined eight points that needed to be addressed to end the strike: healthcare, education, water, territorial rights, environment, employment, justice, and recreation.
“We’re here today because we’ve been discussing healthcare, education, employment for more than 20 years and, fundamentally, we haven’t had any sort of positive answer,” said one of the leaders of the Strike Committee during discussions with the government.
The Committee blames unacceptable living conditions and ongoing violence on a lack of State presence,. Such conditions have been well documented. In 2016, the Center for Historical Memory released a 400 page report on the city, documenting the role of illegal armed actors and privatization of the Port have played in shaping the current living conditions. Human Rights Watch has also released a report.
Given the historical debts and the humanitarian situation in Buenaventura, the committee demanded that President Juan Manuel Santos declare a state of emergency. This would allow the government to use special procedures to allocate and dispense money immediately to get started with public works projects. It would also allow for legislative changes that the city requires.
“What we’re asking for by declaring of a state of emergency are three elements: special times, special budget, and legislative changes. That is the declaration. If alternatives to a declaration of this type exist, we’re waiting for you to explain them to us,” said Victor, one of the leaders of the strike committee. “If some proposal from the government contains these three elements, we can end the discussion.”
The government refused to declare the emergency under the guise that the Constitutional Court would declare the emergency unconstitutional or invalid. A state of emergency can only be declared when the conditions were “unforeseen”. In Buenaventura the conditions are structural- conditions totally foreseen.
The well-spoken Interior Minister Guillermo Rivera Flórez was the government’s chief negotiator with the General Strike Committee. Behind Mr. Rivera’s articulate words were the ESMAD- anti-riot police. The ESMAD’s role was to protect and escort cargo unloaded from the port- which meant suppressing peaceful protests. Reports of use of excessive force by the ESMAD were prolific. Congressman from the United States and the Interamerican Court of Humans Rights have also raised concern of the ESMAD’s behavior in Buenaventura.
Human Rights organizations that formed a sub-commission of the General Strike Committee put out bulletins documenting the human rights abuses committed by the ESMAD. You can find bulletin 4 on NOMADESC’s website here, which contains an index with photos.
“We totally reject the aggressions against the people of Buenaventura by the ESMAD,” continued the community leader from Pastoral Social, “We deeply reject these actions which the national government has taken against the Community of Buenaventura through its armed forces. We aren’t violent Mr. Minister- we are merely demanding our rights. We are just claiming our constitutional rights.”
But in Buenaventura, stiches and bullet wounds are the price for demanding clean water.
The role of racism is apparent in the violence suffered by this city. Buenaventura is 89% black and as Jaime A Alves articulated in his article in democracia abierta , the black population becomes part of “the Colombian government’s ‘war on underdevelopment’ of which the black presence in strategic areas of national interest is an obstacle to be overcome.” Facts which are not lost on the people of Buenaventura.
“We — men and women of peace- why do you impose so much violence on us? Because the port cargo is more important to you, because the trucks coming and going are more important to you, because the freight that enters and leaves is more important to you- more important than the population that has built Buenaventura,” the same community leader from Pastoral Social said to Mr. Rivera.
On June 6th, the government and general strike committee came to an agreement for creating a special development fund in Buenaventura, to be administered by the leaders of the general strike. The fund will be created in a bill made by the strike committee, representatives of indigenous communities, and the departmental and municipal governments. The bill should be passed on July 20th.
Human Rights organizations monitoring the agreement will be crucial to assure the government fulfills its obligations. Meanwhile, the people of Buenaventura haven’t lost sight of their real enemy. “Our fight isn’t with the ESMAD,” said one demonstrator during a march, “our fight is with ignorance.”