Afro-Colombians and Indigenous: From Hope to Invisible Again?

By Luis Gilberto Murillo Urrutia*

Firma de la paz

Signing of the peace accords between the Colombian government and FARC, 2016/ Gobierno de Chile/ Wikimedia Commons/ https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jefa_de_Estado_participa_en_ceremonia_de_la_Firma_de_la_Paz_entre_el_Gobierno_de_Colombia_y_las_FARC_E.P._(29953487045).jpg

Colombia’s delicate and fragile transition to peace, a process enshrined in the 2016 peace accord between the government and the FARC guerrillas, has brought some benefits to Colombia’s Indigenous peoples and communities of African descent but has fallen far short of expectations – with troubling implications for those groups in the future.

  • Official figures tend to understate the size and influence of the Afro-Colombians and Indigenous. According to the government, 15 percent of Colombia’s population is of African descent, and 4 percent (from 82 different ethnic groups) are Indigenous. But other estimates, such as that of the Centro de Investigación en Ciencias Sociales y Económicas (CIDSE) of the Universidad del Valle, estimate that Afro-Colombians could be as much as 25 percent of the national population, and Indigenous ethnic groups occupy some 15 percent of the national territory. These groups suffered deeply during the half-century of conflict that the peace accord intended to stop. One of many examples is the massacre of Bojayá, in the predominantly Afro-Colombian department of Chocó, which left more than 100 people dead – mostly women and children who had sought refuge in a church. The Indigenous also suffered great losses.

These historically neglected communities – which numerous observers report experienced a disproportionate deepening of poverty and discrimination during the conflict – saw in the peace accord and its implementation the opportunity to push longstanding demands for full exercise of their rights, especially control over their own territories in places such as Chocó, the Indigenous free farm labor system in Cauca and Nariño, and the ethnic region of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

  • The chapter of the peace accord dealing with ethnic matters, included as a result of the activism and leadership of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous organizations, encouraged those hopes. As accord implementation started, these groups focused on achieving protection for social leaders; the removal of anti-personnel mines from their territories; substitution of illicit crops; protection for, and expansion of, traditional homelands; and various environmental protections.
  • Last March, ethnic organizations reported some advances during the early stage of the implementation of the peace accord, during the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and, more recently, when President Iván Duque’s government, in the planning process for regional programs and projects, included about US$5.5 billion in the four-year mandatory National Development Plan 2018-2022. If faithfully carried out, which appears doubtful, such expenditures would benefit Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities.

At the same time, however, leaders stated that, of the 13 specific provisions in the accord’s Ethnic chapter, implementation of seven had not even started – significantly less than the accord as a whole. Even more troubling to them, security in their communities has continued to deteriorate.

  • Some 35 percent of citizens displaced since 2016 have been Afro-Colombians and Indigenous. An estimated 40 percent of social leaders murdered have been from these groups, including 11 percent of those promoting manual eradication of coca production instead of forced aerial spraying. Disputes among armed groups with roots in both paramilitaries and guerrilla groups have increased the vulnerability of these communities.
  • Ethnic organizations blame this poor performance on the lack of a fluid dialogue between government and community leaders; the ignorance (willful or not) of the current government to embrace the deals made by its predecessors; and the lack of dedicated budget resources. The government has not convened a meeting of the Special High-Level Authorities of the Ethnic Peoples established by the accord. Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders have been largely excluded from critical decisions related to peace process implementation affecting their communities.

Growing challenges to accord implementation further complicate prospects for progress for Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities. Political tensions in Bogotá, the government’s efforts to unilaterally alter implementation, the assassination of social leaders, and – most recently and perhaps most disturbingly – some FARC negotiators’ decision to abandon the accord and take up arms anew, all have dire implications for them. Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders – lacking a viable alternative – seem likely to continue betting on the peace process and fulfilling their obligations under the accord. The bottom line, however, remains that the slow, inconsistent implementation and the absence of serious dialogue and coordination suggest that, once again, these important communities may become invisible.

September 12, 2019

* Luis Gilberto Murillo is a CLALS research fellow and former Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia, with 30 years of experience in the areas of environment, sustainable development, and peace building.

Political Upheaval in South America

By Eric Hershberg

MarchaVenezuela

Thousands of protesters in Maracaibo, Venezuela. Photo Credit: Google Images / Creative Commons

2016 is proving to be this century’s most complicated year to date for South American political systems, and the coming months will be critical to assessing how well the region’s democracies can govern amid declining economic conditions and spiraling corruption scandals.  Brazil and Venezuela – two very different systems with very different problems – are suffering the most visible crises.

  • In Venezuela, where the Bolivarian project has descended into an incompetent Putinism in the tropics, is collapsing under the weight of monumental mismanagement of the economy. Many of the ills of the Venezuelan petrostate predate Chavismo, but during a collapse in oil prices President Maduro has doubled-down on profligate economic policies introduced by Hugo Chávez, bringing the country to catastrophe made worse by increasingly draconian repression of loyal and disloyal opposition alike.
  • President Dilma Rousseff’s mismanagement of coalitions in a presidential system predicated on coalition-building has opened the way to political and economic implosion in Brazil.  Contrary to the fervent assertions of important segments of the Workers Party (PT), her impeachment does not precisely constitute a coup, but it may indeed amount to an ill-advised bending of institutional mechanisms by cynical legislators and aggressive judges, egged on by rightist sectors whose commitment to democracy is in fact dubious.  Dilma didn’t invent the corruption and footloose budgetary practices that have been her undoing, but her fall does respond to overwhelming popular rejection of her performance.  Interim President Temer’s appointment of an entirely white male cabinet that includes representatives of some of the country’s most retrograde interests suggests abandonment of many of the most laudable achievements of more than a decade under PT rule – and more backlash as well.

Other institutional crises may be on the horizon.  Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa pursued a high-risk strategy of debt-driven expansion of the state, which is not sustainable amid economic contraction.  Argentine President Mauricio Macri’s honeymoon may prove short-lived.  Much-needed economic reforms are likely to provoke even greater inflation and have already stoked resistance from the Peronist opposition.  Macri enjoys some unprecedented assets – for the first time non-Peronists also control the city and province of Buenos Aires– but Argentine public opinion overwhelmingly favors statist economic policies that he aims to dismantle, and no non-Peronist elected president has completed his term in office since the rise of Peronism as a political force.  Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, wounded by a drop in mineral export revenues and comparatively minor corruption allegations involving her daughter-in-law, reshuffled her cabinet earlier this month but continues to tank in the polls.  Latinobarómetro reports that 70 percent of Chileans believe their political system doesn’t work.

It’s not hard to envision other relatively stable South American democracies facing hard times ahead.  The June 5 presidential runoff in Peru could leave the country deeply polarized, especially if Keiko Fujimori, heiress to the country’s darkest episode in recent history, wins.  It is not a foregone conclusion that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his second term on a long-awaited and much-needed peace accord, will secure its ratification, risking lameduck status for the remainder of his administration.  If the presidents elsewhere appear to be weathering the storm, democratic governance nonetheless faces important challenges.  It would be rash to predict that democracy will fail the test – and that such failure will give rise to a new era of authoritarian rule – but it’s clear that the region will witness widespread instability during the coming years.

May 26, 2016