Afro-Colombians - Political Organization

Positions of informal status and authority are achieved through seniority and personal attributes (e.g., strength of character, breadth of experience, success in providing material goods, and skill in storytelling). Some decision making and conflict management is handled at this level. In Palenque de San Basilio, there are also cuagros, or age groups, into which people are recruited informally in infancy and formally initiated at puberty, when male and female leaders are chosen. Intracuagro relations are of mutual aid and solidarity, and male-female relations are often formed within the cuagro; intercuagro relations are competitive, at times expressed through boxing matches.

In formal terms, regions where Black people live in Colombia come under the umbrella of national administrative and political structures of the departamento (a province, headed by a governor) and the municipio and corregimiento (a municipality and its districts, headed by a mayor). The staffing of bureaucratic posts is managed through a system of patron-client relations in which votes are exchanged for goods and services, mostly channeled through the traditional Liberal and Conservative parties. The Liberal party has a long-standing advantage in many Black areas, purportedly because it was in power when slavery was abolished, but also because its more federalist stance favored the peripheral regions where most Blacks live. Generally, formal politics is not "racialized": Black senators, for example, do not generally speak from a self-consciously "Black" platform.

From the 1960s, however, a small educated minority of urban Blacks, spurred mainly by the Black Power movement, tried to create organizations that encourage "Black identity"; these had a marginal existence. In the late 1980s, several self-help Black peasant organizations, often sponsored by the church, began to emerge in rural areas of the Pacific region. In the early 1990s, both types of organization strengthened when constitutional reform opened an arena for issues of ethnic identity and multiculturality to be voiced, mainly by more experienced Indian organizations. The constitution of 1991 included a clause promising collective land rights for rural Black communities in the Pacific region. After two years of negotiation, in which representatives of Black organizations were involved, Law 70 of 1993 was passed, which enshrined these rights in legislation. Black organization thus reached a new stage of intensity, identifiable as a social movement; issues of the specific conditions of life in the Pacific region and generally of the status of blackness in national society and culture became more public than ever before. Black people in the Caribbean and Cauca regions, however, tended to have a peripheral position in all this, since the legal process targeted the Black communities of the Pacific region.

This Black social movement is related to government plans to "open up" the Pacific region to development. Since the 1980s, there have been grandiose plans to finish the Pan-American Highway (which runs through the region), build more deep-water ports on the coast, and build an interoceanic canal. More prosaically, road building has progressed apace since 1980. Immigration by non-Blacks into the region increased, and pressure on land and natural resources grew, prejudicing many Black communities. This pressure was also transmitted to Indian-Black relations in the area as Black people involved in logging and mining began to encroach on Indian lands. Other Black communities suddenly found themselves within Indian reserves newly created as a result of Indian lobbying of the central government. Church-sponsored Black and Indian organizations were instrumental in mediating these conflicts. The overall experience fomented organization and the lobbying of the constitutional reform process by the Pacific region's Black people.

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