Election in Colombia: Francia Márquez could become the first black vice-president

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — As a prominent activist, Francia Márquez has faced death threats, racist tweets, and even an assassination attempt. Then she was nominated as the front-runner running mate in this month’s election. In a few weeks, the president of The Colombian senate accused her of links with one of the most violent guerrilla groups in the country.

But Mark used to defend himself. Surrounded by journalists, she responded to the attack by a firm and confident voice.

“What really makes the president uncomfortable,” she said, “is that today a woman who might have been the wife of his house, working as a maid, might now be its vice-president”.

It’s a statement Márquez has proudly repeated throughout her historic campaign, reminding supporters and critics alike of who she is: an Afro-Colombian woman. A single mother of two who gave birth to her first child when she was 16 and cleaned houses to pay the bills. An award-winning environmental activist who led a 10-day march to defend her community against illegal mining.

A lawyer who could now become the first black vice-president of Colombia.

The 40-year-old, who has never held political office, stunned Colombians in March when she won the third-most votes in the nation’s presidential primary. She is now one of the most visible candidates in the election, filling places and electrifying crowds as she runs alongside left-wing senator Gustavo Petro. If successful, she would be one of only two black vice presidents in Latin America.

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Of the six candidates running in the May 29 presidential election, four have an Afro-Colombian running mate – a remarkable change in a country historically ruled by men from a small group of elite families.

But it was Marquez whose message got through. His outspokenness and life story forces Colombia to confront its racist, classist and sexist past and present.

“I am part of a community that has always been excluded and marginalized, a community that has been enslaved,” she told The Washington Post. “It’s more than just a matter of skin color. It’s about the elite who think they’re superior, that others are inferior and it doesn’t matter.

Márquez is a kind of leader who has rarely reached the highest levels of power in the hemisphere, and not just because she is a black feminist activist from a working class background. Sheforces people to question their privilege like few other black politicians have.

“She challenges the legitimacy of an elite-led government,” said Mara Viveros Vigolla, professor of gender studies and anthropology at the National University of Colombia. “She tells them, ‘You are speaking on behalf of a community you don’t know.’ ”

Colombia has one of the largest populations of African descendants in Latin America. Census data indicates that Afro-Colombians make up more than 6.2% of the population, but analysts say the true count could be much higher.

Márquez’s discourse on race is disruptive in a country that for generations has identified its people as sharing a single mixed race, called Mestizo. In its 1991 constitution, Colombia officially recognized itself as multicultural, distinguishing between indigenous and black ethnic groups with specific territorial and cultural rights.

But Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities continue to face disproportionate levels of poverty, violence and displacement. About 31% of the Afro-Colombian population lives in poverty, 11 points more than the national population, according to government figures.

“We are not happily diverse, we are contradictorily different,” said Johana Herrera, director of the Observatory of Ethnic Territories at Javeriana University.

Up to 90% of the population along the Pacific coast is Afro-Colombian, most of them descended from people enslaved by the Spaniards to work in the region’s gold mines before abolition legalization of slavery in 1851. Belief among Colombians that blacks live only in the remote forests of the Pacific region, says Herrera. This false narrative—along with an undercount by the census—allows local officials in some parts of the country to deny that Afro-Colombians live within their jurisdictions, limiting the resources and land titles granted to these communities.

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Unlike in the United States, race and racism have rarely been discussed on the national stage.

“The racism that exists in the United States is that of institutional explicitation,” said Colombian anthropologist Eduardo Restrepo. “As there have never been segregation laws here, like in the United States or South Africa, people think that means there is no racism here.”

Márquez did not graduate from a prestigious university, nor did she rise through the mainstream political ranks. She trained as an agricultural technician and in 2020 graduated with a law degree from a university in Cali, near her home.

It’s also what sets her apart from other black running mates. Luis Gilberto Murillo, running mate of centrist candidate Sergio Fajardo, is a former environment minister and foreign-trained governor. Murillo “speaks in the language of the elites”, Viveros said.

Murillo, who was asked if Colombia was racist, replied: “It’s not me saying that; the Constitutional Court has said so many times. If I say yes, then people will call me resentful.

Murillo always wears a suit and tie, he told the Post. “If you dress casually, as a man of African descent, you can be sure you will be arrested.”

Márquez, meanwhile, wears colorful Afro-Colombian prints and chunky jewelry. When she stands next to Petro, she often raises her fist – while smiling.

“The problem people have with Francia is that she’s a bad-behaved black woman who knows she’s black and knows what that means in historical terms,” ​​Restrepo said. “And she is not silent.”

It has not always been so. As a child growing up in a predominantly Afro-Colombian community in Cauca, Márquez said she didn’t want to be black. She linked her roots to images of Africa she saw on television, “showing us malnourished children with flies in their mouths”.

As a teenager, she thought dating a white man would help her move up in society. But when she became pregnant at 16, he abandoned her.

She began to connect with her black identity by listening to the stories of her grandmother, who never learned to read and whose great-grandmother was enslaved. “She told me about the struggle of our people to protect our land,” Márquez said.

Márquez has spoken out against illegal gold mining. Death threats forced her to flee her town. That same year, she led dozens of women on a 217-mile march to Bogotá to protest a mine that threatened a river her community depended on. The Colombian government eventually responded by sending in troops to drive out the illegal miners.

In 2018, Marquez won the Goldman Environmental Prize, awarded to one activist from each of the six regions of the world. A year later, she survived an assassination attempt.

“It forces people to wake up,” said Axel Rojas, professor of anthropology at the University of Cauca, “despite all the real risks that entails.”

In the election campaign, she has been the target of racist attacks on social media. A Colombian singer compared it to “King Kong”. A member of his own party shared an image depicting Márquez as a gorilla and claimed he was trying to defend her.

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Some rivals say she is not singled out. Rodrigo Lara Sánchez, running mate of conservative Federico Gutiérrez, is the son of a justice minister who was killed by Pablo Escobar’s hitmen in 1984.

Asked about the racist attacks on Márquez, Lara said they were no different from the threats and comments he faces as a politician.

“To me, there is no difference between what I suffered and went through and what she went through,” Lara said.

Márquez says racism in Colombia has long been “hidden”.

“It’s harder to be racist here,” she said. “But now it’s not so difficult. And if there’s one thing that makes me happy, that’s it. That people no longer need to tell us that we are angry with them for talking about racism. That they realized he exists, right? »

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