Reminder—celebrate Columbus Day by learning about human rights in Colombia. On the North Shore you’ll have two chances to hear Adil Meléndez, human rights lawyer and activist from Cartagena.
Wednesday October 12, 10-11, Sullivan Building 109, Salem State University
Wednesday October 12, 12:30-2, IUE-CWA Local 201, 112 Exchange St., Lynn
Adil Meléndez is an Afro-Colombian attorney and community leader. He is active in an array of social movements on the Caribbean coast and has worked with the United Nations Development Program, the International Center for Transitional Justice, and the Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State. As a candidate for public office in 2007 he was the victim of two assassination attempts.
He will discuss the full range of social, political, and economic phenomena that make life on the central Caribbean coast of Colombia difficult and at times intolerable, especially for indigenous and Afro descended populations and for the poor in general, and all based on his own experiences.
Adil has participated as an organizer in community organizations in San Onofre, campesino movements in the wider region, and the national Movement of Victims of State Crimes, known in Colombia as MOVICE, which has put him in contact with leaders from around Colombia and international guests including representatives of the Argentinean mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Thanks to the national work and international outreach of MOVICE, a significant amount of attention has been drawn to the reigning impunity with respect to violations of human rights and the humanitarian situation in the Caribbean departments of Atlántico, Sucre and other parts of Colombia. For example, a public hearing in San Onofre was attended by a number of members of the Colombian Congress and documented more than 300 cases of paramilitary crimes. As a result, the local mayor, several council members, deputies, and members of Congress have been tried and sentenced to prison terms.
At this time, Adil is continuing his activity as an attorney for individuals and organizations victimized not only by the para-political nexus, but by the unjust and destructive social system that makes Colombia the most unequal country in the hemisphere. He is the coordinator in Cartagena for the National Movement for Human Rights in Afro-Colombian Communities– known as CIMMARON– as well the Center for Action and Justice against Racism, and he was a founder of the Corporation for the Reestablishment of Vulnerable Communities, known as RESTAURAR, which represents displaced and vulnerable populations in collaboration with the Movement of Victims in Sucre and Bolívar. In addition to direct work with these organizations he represents them in their relationships with international aid organizations, the Colombian government, and the United Nations Development Program – UNDP.
Adil lives and works in the two Cartagenas: the beautiful tourist Cartagena comprising the walled city with its narrow cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, the sea wall, the Castillo de San Felipe, and beautifully restored colonial architecture with its evocative balconies and the breathtaking Teatro Heredia. But the theater is named for Pedro de Heredia, the most prominent slave trader of the colonial city, and the Cartagena’s role in the colony was as its major port, dedicated to importing African slaves and exporting the gold and silver that was extracted further south.
Cartagena’s contrasts boggle the mind. The building boom of the last decade and more has made the modern city unrecognizable. A four lane highway is being extended northeast to Barranquilla and is being lined with gated communities, many of them complete with their own mini town centers, where tract houses are selling for over half a million dollars while black residents a couple of kilometers away are engaged in difficult and contentious negotiations to maintain road access to their communities, which lack paved streets and modern plumbing.
A few kilometers to the southwest of the central city and overlooking the industrial port and natural gas facilities is the favela called Nelson Mandela, where the multiethnic population is desperately and universally poor. Nelson Mandela is a destination for both new and historically displaced people from throughout the coastal region, where raw sewage seeps down steep, rutted streets and a sense of hopelessness is pervasive.
But one does not need to travel the few kilometers to Nelson Mandela to see neighborhoods where people live in desperate poverty. Just drive from the colonial city to somewhat newer sections on the bay, still out of sight of the high-rises and condos advertised as bargains when compared to prices in Miami, to see the unpaved streets, flooded properties, and naked children in dangerously substandard housing as you approach the sweltering and teeming public market.
San Basílico de Palenque is a nearby town founded by escaped slaves and declared a world heritage site by UNESCO due to its unbroken African heritage over the course of centuries, but a sad example of massive unemployment, social neglect, and abandonment by the state.
Within its few square kilometers Cartagena demonstrates striking symptoms of a society gone wrong, contrasting the kind of poverty endemic to the poorest countries in the hemisphere such as Haiti, Nicaragua, or Honduras with the opulent glitz of an incipient Miami at bargain prices for the elites but unimaginably out of reach for the vast majority.
Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American Studies
Salem State University
Salem, MA 01970