From May 26 to May 31, I was in Cali, Colombia serving as an election observer with an international delegation of mostly Black women. This is a preliminary report.
On May 26th, in my capacity as the co-coordinator of the Haiti/Americas Team for the Black Alliance for Peace, I traveled with a delegation to Colombia to serve as an official observer of its presidential elections. The elections were historic: not only was a leftist presidential ticket leading in the polls, but the vice presidential candidate on that ticket was Francia Márquez, a popular and well known Afro-Colombian feminist activist. As observers, our roles were to bear witness to history by ensuring there was no impropriety or fraud at the voting booth or in the democratic process.
The impetus for the delegation came after the results of the March 13, 2022 primary elections in Colombia clearly indicated that the two leading candidates of the leftist “Pacto Historico” party were Gustavo Petro (a former guerilla activist turned mayor of Bogota) and Francia Márquez. After Petro won the Pacto Historico’s presidential nomination, the party chose Márquez as his running mate. But as they led in the polls, the candidates began receiving death threats . In a country with a long history of right-wing racist and paramilitary violence against Black and indigenous communities – and especially against Black and indigenous leftist activists – there was growing concern about the integrity of the elections, especially in terms of electoral fraud and voter intimidation.
My delegation was composed primarily of Black women activists and scholars. It was organized by AfroResistance and the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance (GGJA). Afro-Resistance is a “Black Latinx Womxn-led” group that organizes and educates around human rights, democracy, and racial justice throughout the Americas. GGJA is an alliance of over 60 grassroots groups of working and poor and communities of color working for gender justice, climate change, and an end to war. In coordination with the Misión de Observación Electoral (Electoral Observation Mission organization), AfroResistance and GGJA brought 29 election observers to Colombia. It was the largest group of observers in the history of elections in Colombia, and one which was over 95% Black women.
As a delegation, our mission was to learn more about the electoral landscape of Colombia, observe the elections in an official capacity, and to help ensure free and safe participation in the democratic process. We also hoped to build relationships and solidarity with Black/Women led groups and social justice organizations in the country. To that end, our five days in Colombia were packed with meetings, workshops, and events meant to foster transnational Black solidarity. This was in addition to a number of pre-departure orientation programs.
Our group was focused on Cali, Colombia. We arrived in Cali on May 26th, 2022, three days before the presidential elections. On Friday, May 27th, we spent the day engaged with regional grassroots organizations. We learned from Black women organizing around and against militarized state violence, genocide, and femicide; we learned about the history of Black Colombian organizing, about Márquez’s decades-long activism, about the invisibilization of Black Trans folk and Black prisoners in Colombia. Most significantly, we learned that, though the Black activists support the candidates of the Pacto Historico, they are clear eyed about both the right wing nature of Colombian society and politics and the limits of a singular focus on one particular politician, and on electoral politics in general. It was also not lost upon us that a shift in political power towards the left in Colombia would have wide-ranging domestic and international impact on the balance of forces in the region – especially since Colombia has served as U.S. imperialism’s vassal over many decades. Recently, Colombia has accepted a role as Latin America and the Caribbean’s first and only NATO partner .
On Saturday, May 28th, our delegation continued learning and building by making a visit to Cali’s Asociación Casa Cultural del Chontaduro . “El Chontaduro” is a community center located in one of the most vulnerable areas of the city. We were warned that it was a very dangerous neighborhood and that we needed to be extremely careful. The center, open to all members of the community, “promotes the construction of a just and equitable society based on the principles of eco-feminism, non-violence and gender equity.” Being in “El Chonatuduro” brought into clear relief the ways that Black Trans people are at the forefront of grassroots organizations.
Sunday, May 29th was election day. Our group was sent to two key cities with large AfroColombian populations: Cali and Buenaventura. While both have large Black populations, Buenaventura has a Black super-majority. It also has a higher percentage of poverty and suffers constant militarized state violence.
Within each city, each observation group was further split into two groups. In Cali each of the two groups were assigned six different voting locations, with the two groups meeting for joint observation of the last polling place, for a total of 11 sites. The Buenaventura groups also visited around 11 locations, including five in rural areas.
Significantly, in both cities, we all made a similar set of observations. In Cali, the stark segregation of the cities was reflected in the differences in voting locations and access to electronic biometric machines (which seem to only be located in more affluent places) for identification verification. Polling locations where the population was Blacker and Browner had a larger military presence and a greater presence of national police forces. Our colleagues in Buenaventura reported more heavily armed military forces outside and inside the voting locations. In the Blacker and Browner neighborhoods, the populations had longer waiting lines, were searched and patted down by local police to enter the polling places, and had relatively fewer voting booths. In contrast, in the polling locations in whiter and wealthier neighborhoods, people were often not searched by police, and there were hardly any waiting lines.
At the last polling site, our two Cali groups came together to observe the last few minutes of voting (which ended at 4pm), and the counting of the votes. For this, each person was assigned a voting table. At my assigned table, I, alongside another outside witness, closely observed the deliberations of the electoral workers, and the official counting of the votes – an especially intensive process. In this voting location, the clear winners were the Pacto Historico candidates. Each table in the polling location had an average of a few hundred votes. Petro and Marquéz received the vast majority of those votes, with the other candidates coming far behind. We all remained until the last votes were counted, and by the time we were leaving the site, we received news that more than 70% of the results had already been counted and reported. In the end, Pacto Historico was said to have received 40.9% of the votes, with the runner-ups of the two right-wing parties (Rodolfo Hernández, the long time ally of far-right ex-president Alvaro Uribe, of the Liga; and Federico “Fico” Gutiérrez, the conservative candidate representing the establishment and also linked to Uribe), receiving 28.1% and 23.9%, respectively.
The Petro/Márquez Pacto Historico received around 8.5 million votes. While this was a clear victory, they did not receive the more than 50% that would have allowed them to claim an outright win. And, at this point, there is no guarantee that this will lead to a win during the runoff elections on June 29th. Already, the right wing candidate who came in third place, Ferdando Gutierrez, vowed to unite with second place winner, Rodolfo Hernández – a clear consolidation of the right wing elite forces against the popular leftist Pacto Historico.
More importantly, there is a fear that those working class and poor nonwhite communities who supported Pacto Historico will be subject to violence and intimidation. Analysts remarked, for example, on the relatively low voter turnout (anywhere between 47% and 55%), with the understanding that most in the militarized areas have been intimidated away from the polls. In fact many of us in the delegation worried that right-wing violence would ensue if the Pacto had won in the first round. At the same time western newspapers, especially those in the mainstream US, have made ominous predictions of a military backlash if the leftist ticket wins.
On a personal level, the experience of serving as an official election observer in Colombia has had three major impacts. First, it reminded me, as a person born and raised in Haiti, of the fact that the white western world, led by the U.S., France, and Canada, have stripped Haiti and its people of its sovereignty. As a result of direct U.S. and Core Group actions, Haiti does not have the privilege of holding elections or having its people choose its president. No elections, no president, and no sovereignty. Second, the significance of an international group of Black women serving as election observers and working to help guarantee marginalized people’s right to self-determination needs to be appreciated. Finally, our solidarity meetings with local grassroots Black organizations provide a road map for us to reclaim Black transnational solidarity – with Black women, always, at the forefront.