For eight long days this August, the majority-Afro-Colombian department of Choco was on indefinite strike.
Shops in this northwestern Pacific coast department of Colombia were closed, classes cancelled, and businesses shut down as thousands of the region’s residents filled the local capital of Quibdo to protest the Colombian state’s persistent “abandonment” of its citizens in this corner of the country.
What Chocoanos were demanding from the Colombian government was nothing more than a dignified life: improvements to roads, health care, education, basic infrastructure, unemployment, public services, and electricity, among other demands. Indeed, when you compare quality of life statistics between Choco and other regions of Colombia, the differences are staggering. While 65.9 percent of Choco’s population lives below poverty (and 37.1 percent in extreme poverty) — the highest rate in the country — the below-poverty level is only about 10 percent in the nation’s capital of Bogotá.
The astounding poverty rate puts a number on the region’s crumbling-to-nonexistent infrastructure. In Choco, any resident requiring serious medical attention must travel outside the department, since the region’s only hospital (infamous for its poor facilities) is going bankrupt. About 11 municipalities do not have access to any electricity, making it the region with the least electrical connections in the country. Roads — the basic foundation of any country’s infrastructure — do not exist between the capital of Quibdó and neighboring cities of Medellín and Pereira, or even within many parts of Choco itself, leaving villages and towns largely secluded from each other.
And everyday Chocoanos are paying the price for it. As of 2014, about 81 percent of Chocoanos have basic needs like potable water unmet, compared to the national average of 37 percent. Quibdó has become a city of internal refugees, as more than half (52 percent) of the city’s residents in 2012 were Afro-Colombians who were forcibly displaced from their land in the last 20 years, the victims of the armed conflict between right-wing paramilitaries, leftwing guerrillas, and state forces.
The children of Choco, the future of the region, are suffering especially. An astounding 42 percent of babies born in Choco die before their first birthday, double the average infant mortality rate in Colombia. As of July 2016, 51 indigenous children and 11 adults have died in Choco from preventable diseases such as malaria and diarrhea as a result of grave malnutrition. A 2014 report found that 36 percent of children in the region did not have a healthy size for their age and weight. And this is merely touching the surface of the devastation faced by poor and struggling Chocoanos, young and old.
But the origins of the strike in Choco run deeper, for Choco’s crushing poverty is a historical product of what Saidiya Hartman calls “the afterlife of slavery.” Dating back centuries, Choco was one of the centers of slavery in the Kingdom of New Granada (what later became Colombia), created on the backs of African slaves and their descendants who were forced to work the region’s famous gold mines for their Spanish and then Colombian overlords. “If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America,” writes Hartman in Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007), “it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.”
The first African cuadrilla (enslaved work gang) arrived to Choco in 1690 to mine for gold at the orders of Francisco de Arboleda Salazar, a slaveholder from Popayán. By 1724, at least 2,000 African captives were working the province’s gold mines. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the once sparsely inhabited province of Choco was transformed into a slavery frontier ruled over by a small class of wealthy, white slaveholders. In 1778, of the nearly 15,000 inhabitants, only 2 percent were whites, 22 percent free Blacks, 37 percent Indigenous, and 39 percent slaves, definitively making Choco a majority-black region.
Gold mining was notoriously harsh work. Throughout the eighteenth into the nineteenth century, many slaves worked long days in large cuadrillas overseen by captains who monitored their work and violently disciplined any alleged infractions, while others, especially enslaved women and children, spent endless hours panning for gold in cold, piranha-infested rivers. Disease, malnutrition, and death were rampant in the gold mining camps of Choco. In the early eighteenth century, several slaveholders estimated that more than 300 slaves had died from hunger in the region. In other parts of Colombia, slaveholders often threatened to send any “unruly” slaves to the gold mines of Choco, the harshest punishment. After slavery was finally abolished in 1852, the black population of Choco was continually blamed for the region’s poverty, while many of Choco’s white inhabitants fled the province.
The struggle for recognition from the Colombian government continued well into the 20th Century, with protests against the Colombian state’s “abandonment” of Choco dating back to the 1910s and 1920s. Echoing the organizers of today’s strike, one writer from the Quibdeño newspaper A.B.C. in 1926 spoke of the “poor abandonment, poor isolation, poor indifference, in an almost chronic form, that is suffered by this beautiful region of the country called Choco.”
This is certainly not the first strike in Choco. Since 1954, Chocoanos have been on strike six times, again in 1967, 1987, 2000, 2009, and most recently this August 2016. As of Aug. 24, the strike is officially over after the Civic Committee for Salvation and Dignity came to a final agreement with the Colombian government. Among several demands, the government agreed to invest 720 billion pesos for the building of two major roads connecting the capital to Medellín and Pereira, the construction of a new, well-resourced hospital, and electricity in those municipalities lacking them.
Direct action gets the goods.
But in the wake of the strike’s end, it is fundamental to remember that this strike, like others before it, was more than just a protest against the recent state of affairs — it was a deep, historical reckoning with Colombia’s ghost of slavery, which gave birth to a unequal legacy of crushing poverty and persistent death that remains with us today in Choco.
Yesenia Barragan is a longtime activist and historian of race, slavery, and emancipation in Colombia, Afro-Latin America, and the Atlantic/Pacific Worlds at Dartmouth College.