Fighting Racism to Find Work in Colombia
ED GORDON, host:
I'm Ed Gordon and this is News & Notes. Last year, U.S. Senator Barack Obama called on Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to help improve the social conditions of black people in that nation. All along the nation's Pacific coast, scores of people of African descent have been driven from their homes by leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries.
And in large tourist cities like Cartagena, Afro-Colombians find it difficult to land jobs. Often, they are barred from entering nightclubs based solely on their skin color. Here's reporter Anthea Raymond. ANTHEA RAYMOND, reporting:
RAYMOND: On the northwest corner of Latin America, just above Panama, Cartagena sits at the literal nexus of Latin America and the Caribbean. With a monopoly on the Spanish slave trade, the port thrived for centuries as the gateway into and out of the continent. Cartagena is still going strong, but now as a beach and historical tourist destination. Many Afro-Columbians work in the tourist industry, but usually in jobs that other will not take.
(Soundbite of beach water)
RAYMOND: On the waterfront that surrounds Cartagena's historic old city, Afro-Columbian fishermen still make a living the way they have for centuries. Herado is fishing underneath a bridge that connects the old city to a newer neighborhood. It was built by Arabs and other merchants who came to Cartagena in the 19th century.
As cars whir across the bridge to the city's Polytechnic University, Herado tosses his net, just like the one used in the Caribbean for centuries. He pulls it in with tiny perch and bay crabs that he'll sell in the local fish market. A young boy, Alvarro helps. He plucks the seafood from the hem of his net. He drops the creatures into plastic bags, as the sun glints on the pleasure boat's moored nearby.
According to one estimate, there are nine million people of African descent in Columbia out of a population of about 44 million. Many are still struggling to live down the legacy of slavery. Most well paying jobs and businesses are in the hands of people of white or light skin, including ones to meet and greet tourists.
(Soundbite of music)
RAYMOND: At the Cartagena's Visitors and Convention Bureau, Bernard Gilcrest(ph) greets tourists, as music plays from the plaza below. Gilcrest is the Bureau director. In the last decade, he's seen Cartagena old wall city go from shabby to chic after being declared a UNESCO historic site.
BERNARD GILCREST (Director, Cartagena Visitors and Convention Bureau): (Spanish Spoken)
RAYMOND: He says, blacks don't own many of the new hotels and businesses here, but it's because they don't have the capital, not because they're black. But after Afro-Columbians do own some businesses of sorts. Most vendors you see are black. Over the last few years, they've started wearing nametags to show their members of one of the guilds organized by the Corporation for Tourism.
Vendors sell all kinds of stuff, fruits, arapas, seafood, cocktails, bracelets and massages. The buyers are mainly white sunbathers shielded by rented canopies all along Cartagena's clay-colored beaches. The sellers are confined to the water's edge.
(Soundbite of music)
RAYMOND: At night in Cartagena, tourists move to the clubs and restaurants of Gethsemane. Mr. Babilla's is top of the line, and it's almost always packed with tourists staying in the old city. The club is run by the same family that owns El Universal, one of the city's biggest newspapers. Pedro, who is of Indian descent, spends time at Mr. Babilla's during the day. He's rebuilding the club's kitchen.
Pedro says while the young pack the club at night it's the old guard of long time Cartagenans who meet for power lunches here each week.
Mr. PEDRO (Contractor): The same people every Friday. They came 15, 40, 28, you never know.
RAYMOND: Two Cartagena nightclubs were sued recently for discriminating against blacks at the door. In what some see as a sign of progress, the clubs lost. Mr. Babilla's wasn't among the clubs sued. But at least one dark skin person I spoke with said he had a hard time getting in. This past summer, Columbian president Alvaro Uribe created a new cabinet level position in his administration. It will address the inequalities faced by Afro-Columbians.
The move was lauded in a statement by U.S. senator Barak Obama. But he and many others believe Columbia still has a long way to go in ending long entrenched racial discrimination. For NPR News, I'm Anthea Raymond.