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Letting Down Afro-Colombians: The Shameful Failure of the Black Congressional Caucus

As the debate over the U.S.-Colombian free trade deal heats up in Washington, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has grown concerned. On the Hill, the deal faces an uncertain future. Many Democrats have opposed the initiative because Colombia’s labor and human rights record continues to remain atrocious. Currently, the agreement is in a state of legislative limbo as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has moved to postpone consideration of the deal.

In order to ram through his free trade agreement, Uribe must win over key African American legislators in Washington. In the unfolding debate over free trade, the Congressional Black Caucus could play a key role. Founded more than 30 years ago, the group of legislators seeks to achieve greater equity for people of African descent through domestic and international programs and services. What’s at stake with the Colombia trade deal, and why have African American legislators showed an interest in the issue?

Afro-Colombian Communities Displaced by War

Colombia is a country with the hemisphere’s third largest population of Afro-descendants, one million more than Haiti’s approximately 8 million predominantly African descendants. While Afro-Colombians make up more than 25 per cent of Colombia’s population, they are disproportionately affected by the ongoing violence in the Andean nation.

Indeed, approximately 40 per cent of Colombia’s 3.8 million internally displaced persons are of African descent. Whether they are caught in the crossfire or specifically targeted, Afro-Colombians are frequently forced to abandon their communities and ancestral lands.

Alba María Cuestas Arias, a displaced Afro-Colombian and board member of AFRODES (or the Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians), has said that displacement is used as a weapon of war. “Towns are destroyed, lives are destroyed,” she remarked. “The social fabric is also destroyed. People are forced to leave that which they have been constructing for years and years.”

Aerial spraying of coca leaf, backed by the Bogotá government and Washington, has posed another thorny problem for Afro-Colombians. “Plan Colombia,” started in 1999 under Bill Clinton, was launched to stop cocaine production by supplying the Colombian government with helicopters and other aircraft to spray fields. Unfortunately, the U.S., which gave $2.5 billion of aid through the program, only hastened the displacement of Afro-Colombian peoples.

The reason is clear to see: coca fumigation has destroyed many of the food crops traditionally grown by Afro-Colombians.

Fighting for Their Ancestral Lands

Nevertheless, Afro-Colombians have achieved some notable victories in recent years, including passage of the so-called Law 70. Enacted in 1993, the measure validates Afro-Colombians’ right to their historical territories. Under the law, communities must be consulted and must first give their approval prior to any new projects planned on their land.

Having a law on the books however is one thing and enforcing it is another.

According to Nicole Lee, Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum, the Colombian government “has used every ploy to cheat Afro-Colombians out of their traditional titled territories” since the passage of Law 70. Fundamentally, Afro-Colombians’ lands are valuable, and powerful people want to get their hands on the prime real estate.

Marino Córdoba is the founder of AFRODES. He played a critical role in the struggle to secure Colombia’s progressive Law 70 granting land rights to Afro-Colombian communities. After surviving many attempts on his life, Córdoba was forced into exile in the United States. He says that the Colombian government and its right wing paramilitary allies have targeted Afro-Colombian leaders in the Chocó region who have been pressing for land rights. By allowing the attacks to continue, President Uribe and his wealthy backers pave the way for the entry of oil palm plantations, logging operations and mining projects on Afro-Colombian lands.

Afro-Colombians and the Palm Oil Curse

Palm oil, which has been a social and environmental disaster world-wide, is now affecting Afro-Colombian communities for the worse. Producing palm oil takes a high toll on the environment as it involves clearing and draining the rainforest which in turn sends huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Moreover, oil palm plantations also require large amount of toxic fertilizer which pollutes local streams and wildlife.

Formerly used just for cooking, palm oil is now a major source of bio-fuel. Today, Colombia is the largest palm oil producer in the Americas, and 35 per cent of its product is exported as fuel. Fedepalma, the palm oil owners’ association, plans to expand production to a million hectares (about 3,861 square miles). Palm oil production stands to benefit only a handful of planters in Cali and Medellín while Afro-Colombians are displaced from their land.

One of the major forces helping to spur the palm oil boom in Colombia is none other than the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has allocated money to resettle right wing paramilitaries. According to journalist David Bacon, the paramilitaries are frequently resettled on Afro-Colombian lands. Writing in the magazine Dollars and Sense, Bacon adds that paramilitaries often wind up being employed by the oil palm companies which seek to displace Afro-Colombians.

Another important player in the unfolding oil palm imbroglio has been the Uribe government. Indeed, the authorities have passed new Forestry and Rural Development Laws and amended the Mining Law so as to extinguish the rights of Afro-Colombians and further empower palm oil, logging and other companies which have relied upon the paramilitaries to enforce their will.

The new laws dealing with forests, water and other natural resources, passed at the behest of conservative parties in the Colombian Congress and USAID, declare that such resources must be commercially exploited. Unfortunately, if a community doesn’t exploit the resources it can lose title to the land.

The Colombian President, who has nothing but contempt for Afro-Colombians and their culture, envisions a bleak future for blacks in which the latter become junior partners to the oil palm companies, maintaining and harvesting the trees and turning over the product to the companies for refining.

What’s more, Uribe wants to turn over more land for monoculture. During Fedepalma’s 2006 congress, Uribe went so far as to remark to the growers’ organization that he would “lock up the businessmen…with our Afro-Colombian compatriots, and not let them out of the office until they’ve reached an agreement on the use of these lands."

Incensed by the Colombian leader’s attitude, Afro-Colombian representatives wrote Uribe that, “it [the President’s plan] would bring with it great environmental, social and cultural harm." Afro-Colombians argue that encouraging monoculture on the Pacific coast, which is full of rich mangrove forest, could lead to the depletion of one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet.

If that were not bad enough, Afro-Colombians suffer from some of the worst socio-economic conditions in the country: an estimated 86 per cent of people of African descent lack access to basic public services such as sewers and running water. Most white and mestizo communities have such services.

The Colombian health care system isn’t all that great, having suffered from budget cuts to fund Uribe’s counterinsurgency war. Still, it manages to cover 40 per cent of white Colombians. Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of Afro Colombians receive health services, while a pathetically low 3 per cent of black workers receive social security benefits.

Consider the statistics on illiteracy: whites 14 per cent, blacks 45 per cent.

About 120 of every 1000 Afro-Colombian infants die in their first year, compared to 20 white babies. At the other end of life, Afro-Colombians live to only 54 years of age on average while whites live to 70 years.

Only 38 per cent of Afro-Colombians attend high school, compared to 66 per cent of non-Black Colombians. Just 2 per cent of Afro-Colombians go to university.

Non-black Colombians earn $1,500 a year on average. Afro-Colombian families take in only $500. Meanwhile, 76 per cent of Afro-Colombians live in conditions of extreme poverty.

Brutal Past to a Brutal Present

That level of poverty is particularly jarring in light of the fact that Afro-Colombians often live in areas of rich natural wealth. A case in point is Chocó, the department with the largest Afro-Colombian population in the country. The area is one of the most neglected in the country and, disgracefully, receives the lowest per capita government investment in health, education and infrastructure of any department in Colombia.

"They [government authorities] see Black people as objects that have no value," declared Juan de Dios García, an Afro-Colombian community organizer. "Therefore sacrificing us, even to the extent of a holocaust, doesn’t matter. That’s the kind of racism to which we’re subjected. We believe all acts against a people’s culture should be considered crimes against human rights, because there is no human life without culture."

Sadly, such conditions are nothing new for Afro-Colombians who have long faced institutionalized racism and discrimination. Confronted with a declining native population and labor shortages in the 16th century, the Spaniards imported African slaves to Colombia and forced them to work in sugar plantations, cattle ranches and gold mines.

Fleeing the harsh conditions, many slaves managed to escape. Later, they settled along the Pacific coast in Chocó and formed their own towns or palenques. There, the slaves were able to live out the rest of their lives as cimarrones or freemen. Slavery was not abolished into well into the Republican period in 1851.

Today it is the Chocó, rich in natural resources and home to many of these ex-slaves, which is at the heart of the debate over the free trade agreement with the United States. Chocó, a cocaine-producing area sandwiched between Panama to the north (a common destination for smugglers) and Valle del Cauca province to the south (home to Colombia’s toughest drug cartel) is prime real estate for palm oil planters.

Encircled by an increasingly nefarious web of palm oil interests and Uribe government officials, Afro-Colombian leaders have traveled to Washington, D.C. in an effort to sway lawmakers to vote against the proposed U.S.-Colombian free trade deal which, they say, will expand palm oil production on their lands.

Speaking recently at New York University, Córdoba decried the underlying economic and political agenda of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. One part of the initiative, he said, calls for more mega-agricultural projects along Colombia’s Pacific coast. Under the deal, Colombia would supply the world with bio-fuels produced from large scale cultivation of palm oil, sugar cane, and corn.

Riding the Colombia Gravy Train

In line with his feverish desire to promote foreign investment, Uribe has been pushing hard for a free trade deal in Washington. Though the Colombian government has already received billions of dollars in military assistance and economic development from the United States, it’s clearly not enough: the Uribe regime wants more and is hiring Washington lobbyists and power brokers to push for its free trade agreement.

Collectively, the Colombian government has paid more than $1 million to firms that have negotiated or lobbied on behalf of the deal. Recently, it was disclosed that Mark Penn, an advisor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, was employed by the Colombian government to help win passage of the trade agreement in Congress.

Husband Bill was paid $800,000 by the Colombia-based Gold Service International to give four speeches throughout Latin America. The organization is ostensibly a development group tasked with bringing investment to Colombia and educating world leaders about the country’s business opportunities.

Even as Uribe’s sleazy PR handlers in Washington join forces with U.S. corporations like Caterpillar, WalMart and Citigroup in an effort to secure a trade agreement, the Colombian government has been doing its utmost to railroad Afro-Colombians at home.

According to AFRODES, the Colombian government did not consult with Afro-Colombian communities when it was negotiating the free trade deal with the U.S. As a result, the Uribe regime fundamentally undermined Law 70.

In a slick PR move, Uribe has created the so-called Commission for the Advancement of Afro-Colombian people which, according to Córdoba, undermines communities’ ability to advance their own development strategies. “President George Bush…and the vast array of lobbying firms hired by the Uribe government are now trying to tout this outrageous Commission as evidence that Afro- Colombian concerns are being addressed as they push to pass the FTA [free trade agreement],” declares Córdoba.

The commission, he adds, is stacked with Uribe supporters and is designed to feign “consultation” with Afro-Colombian communities so as to give the illusion of participatory democracy.

Pushing Afro-Colombians towards “Economic and Cultural Extinction”

Unfortunately, Afro-Colombians don’t have an army of public relations firms at their disposal to make their case, and the U.S. media has all but ignored the free trade agreement as a story, save to briefly mention the Mark Penn scandal in the run-up to the Pennsylvania primary.

If the U.S. press investigated, however, it would find a whole host of problems associated with the deal.

Take, for example, the issue of agriculture.

Afro-Colombians are particularly concerned because, they say, the agreement stands to protect the rights of corporations while adversely affecting local agriculture. Initially, they claim, the deal could force 80,000 families off the land but this could be only the tip of the iceberg: in Mexico, 1.3 million farmers have been displaced as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

According to Nicole Lee, Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum, the agreement would “legalize the appropriation of constitutionally-protected collective territories by the government and corporate interests, furthering displacement, poverty and discrimination faced by these marginalized communities.”

In late 2006 a host of local Afro-Colombian groups wrote the U.S. Congress expressing their concerns. “The people in our communities are mostly subsistence…farmers,” they wrote. “They depend on access to land in order to produce the food necessary for their own survival, as well as to sell to local markets in order to procure the currency necessary to buy food, medicine, clothing, and school supplies for their children.” What Afro-Colombian farmers most needed was increased access to credit and technical assistance, improved transportation and land use policies, and fairer prices for commodities.

Unfortunately, the letter added, the free trade agreement did not offer a single one of these development alternatives for local communities. “To the contrary, the deal would increase unfair competition for our local markets. Our families will have to compete with heavily subsidized agricultural products from the United States, pushing us toward economic and cultural extinction.”

Congressional Black Caucus: Failing to Protect Afro-Colombians Through H. Res. 618

Given the appalling human rights situation facing Afro-Colombian peoples, you would think that the Congressional Black Caucus would organize a solidly anti-Uribe bloc. Bizarrely, however, African American legislators have failed to provide a united front.

Take, for example, black legislators and their record on House Resolution 618. Congressman Donald Payne, a Democratic African American legislator from New Jersey, has introduced the measure urging the United States and Colombia to take steps to respect the cultural, territorial, and human rights of Afro-Colombian communities.

H.Res. 618 calls on the Colombian government to end racial discrimination and protect Afro-Colombians’ constitutionally guaranteed lands. The resolution encourages the U.S. and Colombian governments to consult with Afro-Colombians when developing policies which stand to affect their communities.

The measure is currently in the first stage of the legislative process and is being considered by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Co-sponsors of the bill include prominent African American lawmakers such as John Conyers, Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Barbara Lee. But, out of 38 African American members in the House, a whopping 13 refused to become co-sponsors of H.Res 618.

What does this say about the leadership abilities of veteran legislators such as John Conyers?

Even more disgracefully, Charlie Rangel, Democrat of New York and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, refused to sign on to the legislation. In fact, African Americans from New York have been particularly derelict. Yvette Clarke, who represents one of the most liberal districts in the state comprising Park Slope, Brooklyn, also failed to support the legislation.

Rangel and Clarke were joined by Gregory Meeks of Southeast Queens. Meeks in particular has become a huge thorn in the side of anti-Uribe activists in Colombia and the United States (for more on the peculiar case of Rep. Meeks, see below).

When you add up the overall scorecard of Congressional Black Caucus members on Colombia for 2007, the results are even more dismal. Last year, legislators faced a number of important legislative decisions concerning the Andean nation.

For example, they had the option of signing on to a letter calling for more U.S. aid for rural development in Colombia and a strengthening of the nation’s judicial system.

Another important measure, introduced by Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, called on the U.S. to increase aid to the internally displaced in Colombia and to help refugees rebuild their lives successfully.

Legislators also had the option of signing on to a letter addressed to Uribe, expressing concern over a series of politically-motivated break-ins targeting human rights and peace organizations. The letter urged the president to condemn such attacks and publicly express support for the work of human rights organizations.

So, how did the Congressional Black Caucus fare on the three key measures? I have compiled the shameful result, below:

Bishop, 0-3
Brown, 0-3
Butterfield, 0-3
Cleaver 0-3
Clay, 3-3
Clarke, 1-3
Clyburn, 0-3
Conyers, 1-3
Cummings, 1-3
Danny Davis, 1-3
Artur Davis, 0-3
Ellison, 1-3
Fattah, 3-3
Green, 0-3
Hastings, 1-3
Jackson-Lee, 2-3
Jackson, 0-3
Jefferson, 0-3
Johnson, Eddie-Bernice, 1-3
Johnson, Hank 0-3
Kilpatrick, 1-3
Lewis, 1-3
Meek, 0-3
Meeks, 0-3
Moore, 2-3
Norton, 0-3
Payne, 1-3
Rangel, 0-3
Richardson, 0-3
Rush, 3-3
Robert Scott, 0-3
David Scott, 1-3
Thompson, 0-3
Towns, 0-3
Tubbs Jones, 0-3
Waters, 2-3
Watson, 1-3
Watt, 0-3
Wynn, 0-3

As we may see, with the rare exception of such legislators as Clay, Fattah, and Rush most African American legislators are undistinguished when it comes to Colombia. Meanwhile, an astounding number, 21, have failed to show any backbone whatsoever when it comes to reining in Uribe.

Uribe’s Booster on Capitol Hill: Congressman Gregory Meeks

If these votes are not bad enough, it is clear that some African American legislators would vote for a free trade agreement if it ever came up for a vote. One such politician is Representative Gregory Meeks, whose boosterism of the Uribe regime is so bizarre as to be perverse.

Meeks, who has traveled to Colombia to meet with Uribe personally, is a member of the Clintons’ Democratic Leadership Council. Currently, the New York legislator is seeking to broker a compromise between House Democrats and the Bush Administration that could allow for congressional consideration of the free trade agreement.

"I would like to see a situation where we give [Colombian President Álvaro Uribe] a list of parameters of the things that we need to see, and give [Colombia] an opportunity to accomplish them," Meeks said in an interview. He suggested that there needs to be more of an effort in Colombia to prosecute individuals who have victimized labor leaders.

Meeks said he was confident Uribe would do his utmost to meet those conditions, even as evidence mounts of the government’s ties to right wing paramilitary death squads who assassinate labor leaders. Colombia’s Supreme Court has even ordered the arrest of fourteen members of congress on suspicion of collaboration with death squads; thirteen of the legislators back Uribe. The president’s former intelligence chief is also facing charges of passing information to the paramilitaries to help them target and kill opponents.

Recently, Uribe’s cousin, a Senator, was forced to resign in an effort to avoid a Supreme Court inquiry into whether he had ties to the paramilitaries. Mario Uribe was a key ally of the President. So far, Álvaro Uribe has not been directly implicated, but the President has been accused of letting paramilitary groups use his family’s farms to kill opponents during the 1990s. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy cut off $55 million in military aid to Colombia over the allegations.

It’s bad enough when the Bush White House and its Republican allies in Congress seek to prop up the paramilitary government of Álvaro Uribe and try to secure a free trade deal. On the other hand, at least the Republican right is consistent in its philosophy. Not so with the Congressional Black Caucus, a hypocritical body which prides itself on displaying solidarity with Africans of the Diaspora but which does nothing to rein in a racist regime which is doing its utmost to eliminate Afro-Colombians and their culture.

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