Friday, May 24, 2013

Cosmopolitan apartheid? The racial landscape of Contemporary Colombia

The disproportionate marginality and victimization of Colombia’s ethnic minorities has its origins in what Cristina Rojas describes as its ‘regime of representation: a space of presences and absences [including] things that appear, that are visible, as well as those that are suppressed, condemned to remain backstage’. The two administrations of President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) were characteristic of this enduring regime. Uribe watered down the complexities of the nation’s history, diversity and political landscape to make it more manageable, prosperous and secure. In his Colombia, the business world, multinationals, and a concentrated executive power base had starring roles, with ethnic minorities and peasants appearing as extras in the background. Regard for the environment, land reform and the local ceded in favor of mining and energy megaprojects. In sum, rural territories were finally converted into little more than the ‘primary sector’.

That the discovery of ‘strategic lands’ suppresses the right to ‘ancestral lands’ is an implicit notion of Eliana Rosero’s description of the ‘three key eras’ of the official history of Afro-descendent Colombians: Following their total marginalization and invisibility for centuries, in the 1980s they were granted specific rights as an ethnic group, culminating in the institutionalization of their traditional laws and collective territories with the 1991 Constitution. From 2000, a third phase began: the discovery of resource-rich deposits in these territories and the ensuing attacks, displacements and violation of their right to self-determination. The ongoing reorganization of territory by armed groups complements the imperative of certain economic and political elites to use forced displacement to 'homogenize' the population in a given area.

Afro-descendants comprise nearly a quarter of Colombia’s population, and are concentrated in the regions of the Pacific Coast and the southwest of the country, although the Caribbean archipelago of San Andres and Providencia is home to an almost exclusively Afro descendent population. The category itself refers to citizens with varying proportions of African heritage. As the most recent census suggests, identification with this ethnic category is loaded and complex: In 2005, for the first time, Colombians were asked to assign their own racial category. Ironically, this ‘enlightened’ process of self-ascription deflated the earlier official figure of 26% to 10.6%.

Peter Wade describes how ethnic minorities in Colombia tend to be regarded as the ‘guardians of the natural environment’, a category that, while vital to the institutionalization of the rights for traditional communities, has calcified a stereotype of ‘blackness’ as antithetic to economic growth and modernization. From the late nineteenth century, Bogota’s elites proliferated a European cultural imaginary and political order of the capital that denigrated the attitudes, behaviors – even dress styles – of ethnic minorities and the urban mestizo labor force. This centralist hegemony retained formidable power even as its population soared and the city became a patchwork of economic migrants and displaced persons from all over the country. A tradition of regionalism, the location of ethnic minorities as exogenous to the major urban commercial hubs, and the concentration of wealth and power in elite institutions, have generated glaring disparities, particularly as the gulf widens between cities and regions. Currently, some one million Afro-Colombians are estimated to be living in Bogotá, a city with a population nearing nine million.

Bogota is nowadays an emblem of Colombia’s improved security and place on the global stage as a cosmopolitan metropolis. In April 2008, African-American sociologist Fatimah Williams Castro found herself at the sharp end of this process when she joined with her Afrocolombian friends for a night out in Bogota’s Zona Rosa, an upmarket zone frequented by the capital city’s young white elite and foreign tourists. Castro and her friends attempted to enter a number of venues, but were consistently met with vague reasons for why they could not go inside. The event drew the interest of local lawyers, who assisted the group to petition the Supreme Court, which later ruled that certain parties had violated their fundamental rights to equality, honor and dignity.

Feature article of a 2011 issue of Hello! Magazine, Colombia. The text reads: 'The most powerful women of the Valle de Cauca region in their stunning Hollywood-style mansion'. At the rear of the photo are two Afro-Colombian women dressed in traditional maid outfits. The image generated scathing criticisms of racism and moral bankruptcy amongst the country's upper classes

In my interviews with residents on social class in Bogota, one Afro-descendent respondent emphasized that it is ‘not easy being black’ in Colombia, one should not assume that a solidarity exists amongst Afrocolombians based on a shared narrative of discrimination. ‘I am a relatively successful, economically comfortable, well-educated Baptist woman. My outlook is completely different to that of a displaced Colombian living in hard conditions. The fact that we might both happen to be black doesn’t mean anything really’. No single demographic category expressed a consensus toward the primacy of race as a discriminating factor. The closest I came to a consensus reflected what human rights lawyer Mauricio García describes a prominent ‘class-based racism’ in Colombia, by which racial differences have ceased to be clear-cut and yet the ‘upper class tends to be whiter and the lower class darker’.

One Colombian anthropologist asked: ‘Have you ever seen a black person driving a car in Bogota?’ I relayed this question to an Afro-Colombian researcher writing her postdoctoral dissertation at Colombia’s most elite university. ‘Well, my Dad has a car’, she said with a smirk, ‘but I can tell you that there are very few Afros in Bogota’s upper strata. I could count them on my hand’. A local historian was emphatic: ‘You can see hundreds of black people driving cars in Cali, which is a more Afro-populous city’. A politics student expressed a similar territorialization of ethnic groups: ‘There are black elites, but in the black regions’.

Select cultural and aesthetic hallmarks are mobilized as part of Bogota’s performance of cosmopolitanism and the projection of a tourist and business-friendly global city. Condemned to remain backstage are the stark division of black and white social spaces and the tacit exclusion of ethnic minorities. The subtle forces of spatial distancing and socioeconomic exclusion of ethnic minorities do not fit neatly with any claims of an institutionalized racial segregation. When Castro discussed her experience with Afro-Colombian residents of Bogota, most were simply mystified as to why she even wanted to spend time there.

Black residents have trickled into the domains of Bogota’s upper classes in recent years – but more so in professional environments, rather than social circles. Ana recounted her ‘rebellious adolescence’ in which she dated a black guy and was forbidden to bring him into the house. Now she is engaged to a currency trader with German heritage, and they both dine with her parents on a weekly basis. Another resident described how, in recent years, a handful of black Colombians have become members of the country club he and his family frequent: ‘This is a racist society, but it is not apartheid’. For many, black residents are not shunned, but they are anomalies in the city landscape.

As head administrator of the science faculty at one of Bogota’s top universities, many appear in Claudia’s doorway in search of signatures. ‘When they see a black woman sitting behind the desk’, she tells me, the following exchange tends to occur:
“I’m looking for the head program authority”
--- “Yes, that’s me”
“I mean the head of administration. The person who can approve my admission”
--- “Also me”
Her father, born in the predominantly Afro department of Chocó, was determined to not end up working as a laborer his whole life. By the time he completed secondary school, he knew he had to move to the nearest city, Medellín, and find his way into a private university. After graduating in veterinary science, he established his own clinic in Barranquilla, and began to save money for her education from the moment of her conception. ‘Not birth – conception’, she reiterated.

In spite of decades of positive economic growth and democratization, the recurrent application of economic and political paradigms originating in the Global North have negatively impacted the country’s rural-dwelling populations and ethnic minorities, while facilitating the illegal expropriation of land and public resources. This monopolization of wealth is greatly aided by illegal groups, who engage in clandestine alliances with powerful officials and economic elites determined to uphold rigid traditions and inhibit change in economic, political and social structures (Acemoglu et al, 2009; Lopéz et al 2010). The extreme right-wing ideology and willingness of paramilitaries to swiftly circumvent state functions complements a range of neoliberal principles, namely its preference for a monocultural logic and the accelerated internationalization of the economy (Springer 2012).

In the meantime, as Maria Clemencia Ramirez captures in her ethnography of community leaders in Putumayo, those from remote regions make every effort to attain formal education in cities so as to ‘gain access to the level of social and cultural capital necessary to make connections between local and national struggles’. The painstaking process of attaining this symbolic capital contrasts violently with the whirlwind speed with which privileged and violent actors pilfer, hoard and commodify the country’s natural resources – a quite literal case-in-point of what Teresa Brennan describes as capitalism’s ‘inherent need to occupy more space’.

‘It is jarring for them to see me sitting behind the desk’, Claudia chuckles, while imitating a serious of incredulous expressions, ‘They think I’m here because I must be cleaning it’.

Steven Bunce


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