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The Congressional Black Caucus Weighs In On The Plight Of Afro-Colombians

One of the aspects to the worldview of that we have tried to elevate is the fact that "Black" people are a global people that often look the same, yet speak English, Spanish, Arabic, French and almost countless different languages. If you were suddenly stripped of your ability to hear sound and transported to say, various parts of the Western Hemisphere, and laid your eyes on the physical features of "Black" people in Canada, the United States and Central and South America you would almost, without fail, be unable to determine the nationality of those individuals in your sight.

It is always illuminating and at times disappointing when we encounter instances where Black people in the United States of America express ignorance of the fact that people who look just like them are the majority or are significant members of the populations of nations in the Western Hemisphere like Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, Panama etc...Unfortunately, the physical appearance of the most prominent leaders in these nations and others, particularly in the lower half of The Americas, only supports ignorant attachments to racial stereotypes, as the lack of Black-skinned individuals in leading government positions is obvious to just about anyone.

That is why we were so interested when we learned of the Congressional Black Caucus' work relative to many Blacks who are enduring a horrible experience in Colombia.

That racial discrimination and worse exists in Central and South America is a too frequently ignored or glossed-over fact. This is especially the case for those of us who may recognize great achievement and courage exemplified by leaders in that part of the world juxtaposed to the historical imperialist machinations of the United States government in its fulfillment of the Monroe Doctrine. No matter how courageous, bold and effective a leader or government may be in erasing the negative effects of the meddling of external powers, such accomplishment does not exempt that party from being judged by the standard of how they treat their own citizens. An effective external war on political and economic "isms" cannot make up for inadequate attention required to win an internal war on racism.

The CBC is extremely concerned about the evidence that the Colombian government, styled as a partner of the United States government, has been negligent in its responsibilities to its Black or "Afro-Colombian" population. It has raised its concerns with the President of Colombia, Mr. Andrés Pastrana Arango (who recently lost his bid for re-election), and has expressed the same to representatives of the country's President-elect Alvaro Uribe.

Mr. Uribe is scheduled to visit Washington D.C. next week for meetings that will include a sit-down with President Bush. CBC members are working to establish a private meeting between President-elect Uribe and the almost 40 member Black lawmaking body. In addition to discussing allegations of harmful actions by the Colombian military toward Afro-Colombians and other indications of government apathy towards its Black citizens, some CBC members would like to raise the issue of the lack of Afro-Colombians visible in the Colombian government and the country's embassy staffing in Washington D.C.

Here is a letter that the CBC and other members of Congress sent to the President of Colombia voicing some of their concerns:

The Honorable Andrés Pastrana Arango
President of Colombia
Carrera 8 n. 7-26 Palacio de Narino
Santa Fe de Bogotá

Dear President Pastrana,

We are very disturbed by the massacre that occurred on May 2, 2002 in Bellavista, Chocó, in which 119 people were killed, 95 wounded, and approximately 40 missing, nearly all of whom were of African descent. While we deplore the violent and unlawful actions of both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the United Self-Defense Group (AUC) paramilitaries, this letter focuses on the regrettable inaction and reported actions of the Colombian Armed Forces (CAF). We are especially alarmed at the CAF's failure to act upon early warnings of imminent violence issued repeatedly, beginning in July, 2001, and up until one week in advance by the office of the Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman (la Defensoría del Pueblo), and also issued by the Colombian Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.

On April 21, 2002, United Self-Defense Group (AUC) paramilitaries reportedly arrived in the urban areas of Bojayá and Vigia del Fuerte. We have been informed that three days later, the Defensoría del Pueblo warned the Colombian government of imminent violence due to AUC and FARC presence, and of possible massacres and massive displacements. Such early warnings serve little purpose if they are not followed by early action. Since no governmental action was reportedly taken until May 5th, it is not completely surprising that violence erupted in the form of the massacre at the church. So disturbing is this incident in light of the ignored warnings that an editorial in El Tiempo described the Bellavista massacre as "a genocide foretold."

We now have further disturbing reports that after CAF forces finally arrived in the zone, CAF aircraft have been indiscriminately bombing and machine-gunning the area. This has reportedly resulted in the death of a 21 year-old woman, the wounding of two others, and irreparable damage to these Afro-Colombian communities from which many of its residents have fled. Of course, an accurate victim toll is impossible under such circumstances. In addition, we have reports from the United Nations Human Rights office in Colombia and civil society groups that paramilitaries remain in the region and that no actions have been taken by the Colombian government to detain them. Given reported indiscriminate aerial attacks by the CAF and continuing paramilitary presence, civilians who remain in the village and those who fled or disappeared are at great risk. The massive displacement of the population from the region that is occuring is disturbing but familiar, as Afro-Colombians already make up a disproportionate number of the internally displaced persons in Colombia.

Part of United States aid money Colombia has received was directed toward the implementation of an early warning system, with the goal of avoiding such atrocities. Therefore, we respectfully ask that your government explain the CAF's inaction despite having received early warnings, especially given that similar violence and insecurity are not new to the Pacific coast region. We also would appreciate receiving information regarding steps the Colombian government is taking to protect the civilian population in the Bojayá region and the Pacific Coast region in general. We are especially interested in actions that have been taken and procedures that have been instituted to respond rapidly to reports of paramilitary presence while the CAF is also present in the area.

It is our hope that the CAF can avoid deepening this humanitarian crisis by refraining from indiscriminate aerial attacks of the area. We urge you to avoid new military confrontations and to seek a temporary and multilateral cease-fire for all armed hostilities so that humanitarian assistance can reach the civilian population. We also urge you to investigate fully and prosecute vigorously any government officials responsible for collusion with the paramilitaries.

We thank you for your consideration of our concerns and look forward to hearing from you or Ambassador Moreno on these matters.

Wednesday, June 12, 2002

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