I had the opportunity to visit Bogota, Colombia for a meeting of representatives of public sector unions from the Western Hemisphere. The focus of the meeting was on issues of race and xenophobia.
One of the things that struck me in the meeting was the discussion of the situation facing the Afro-Colombian population. Descendants of slaves brought over by the Spanish, the Afro-Colombian population is on the lower rungs of the economic ladder of Colombian society. They have been subjected to racist discrimination, as well as atrocities at the hands of narco-terrorists, paramilitaries and elements of the government. Those who speak up about their conditions and take up various social justice struggles, e.g., the fight for land, are subject to death threats, attempts on their lives, or actual murder.
Colombia, like much of Latin America, has been in deep denial of race and racism, whether it is racism carried out against the indigenous population or the Afro-descendant population. One of the reasons for this is that in Latin America, the racial divide is not always as clear as it is in the U.S.A Shades of skin color are far more important in Latin America than they are here in terms of how one is treated in the larger society. Whereas a light-skinned African American in the U.S. is still recognized as an African American [Black], albeit sometimes having access to some privileges, in Latin America, the extent to which one’s skin shade is closer or farther from Europeans can make all the difference. But here is the catch: because there is so much African blood in the veins of Latin Americans, they can equally deny that there are any special problems facing those who are quite evidently of African descent. As someone once said to me in Venezuela, “…we all have African blood…” While this may sound quite revolutionary when thinking about what it would mean for White Americans to say such a thing, in Latin America it essentially means that no special attention needs to be placed on race.
There are organizations throughout Latin America of Afro-descendants that are trying to bring greater attention to the situation facing Afro-Latinos. In Brazil, there has been an explosion of Black consciousness organizations, but there have also been important developments in Venezuela, Colombia, Uruguay, Ecuador and Central America. These are efforts to watch carefully, and where possible, support. These groups are calling attention to the manner in which White supremacy developed over time in Latin America and the lasting impact on Afro-descendants and the indigenous.
In Colombia political dissent is punished quickly and brutally. Trade unionists are killed in record numbers, and so, too, are Afro-Colombian and indigenous leaders. The U.S. government likes to pretend that the Colombian government is taking steps to address these crimes, but what is closer to reality is that the Colombian government has a very effective public relations campaign underway.
I would join with others in suggesting that the covers must be ripped away from this farce so that we are all made aware of the utter brutality of the Colombian system. We must also be aware of those who have had the courage to stand tall in the face of such repression in the name of human rights and social justice.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions. Follow him on Facebook and www.billfletcherjr.com.