(Photo: Unad Afrocolombiana)

Wednesday marks Colombia’s Afro-Colombian Day, which pays homage to the contributions of Afro-Colombian communities and calls attention to their ongoing struggle for equality. 

Specifically, the day commemorates 159 years since the official abolition of slavery on May 21, 1851. Since then, the country has continuously failed to guarantee the environment in which the multicultural and multi-ethnic society outlined in the 1991 Constitution can be realized. Even the process of abolishing slavery in Colombia was long, with many ups and downs and inconsistencies.

Slavery Timeline

  • 1812: The Constitution of the State of Cartagena banned the slave trade. Project frustrated when in 1815 the Spanish Reconquest began under Pablo Morillo
  • 1814: The dictator Juan Corral ordered the release of the children of slaves born in Antioquia
  • 1851: May 21, President Jose Hilario Lopez signs the legal abolition of slavery

Through Act 725 of 2001, the Congress of Colombia established May 21 as the National Afro-Colombian day.

Today, various organizations — including the ministries of Education, Culture, the Interior and Justice as well as international cooperation agencies such as the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the US Embassy and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – have collaborated in efforts to make the day an example of equality and cultural recognition in the country.

In honor of the day, President Juan Manuel Santos issued “a salute of admiration and affection from all Colombians [to Afro-Colombian communities], with an appreciation for what you have done for our nation.”

“Since the liberation struggles, you have helped to build this country and strengthen our democracy. Today you continue to represent the homeland in such diverse areas as sport, culture, research and science,” it continued.

“I am aware that we are indebted to you, and it’s never too late to recognize it.”

Racism has continued to disadvantage the Afro-Colombian population, as evidenced by economic disparities, a large educational performance gap, and dramatic under-representation in politics.

MORE: How political exclusion affects Colombia’s Afro-descendant minority 

The Afro-Colombian population, concentrated along Colombia’s Pacific and Caribbean coasts, has also been disproportionately affected by the country’s longstanding armed conflict. The national Ombudsman’s Office released an Afro-Colombian Day report that claimed 47% of Colombia’s displacement victims in 2013 came from Afro-Colombian communities, which make up just over 10% of the total population.

MOREAfro-Colombians battle racism and socio-economic exclusion

Santos’ statement made reference to the cost of the armed conflict on the Afro-Colombian people, saying, “In my efforts to achieve peace, I have to make clear the enormous impact that the armed conflict has generated among the Afro-Colombian people.”

“So peace – seeking peace and working for it, with all its benefits – is the best hope that today we can share,” continued Santos.

Santos promised that the implementation of an Afro-Colombian Presidential Programme would benefit the position of Afro-Colombians in society by the adoption of a law which criminalizes racism and racial discrimination.

Santos has taken criticism for the government’s meager response to human rights situations on the Pacific coast in particular. Just last week, almost 3,000 people were displaced in the heavily Afro Choco department in northwest Colombia. Buenaventura, the coastal port city whose population is over 80% Afro, has the highest levels of urban displacement in the country and an unemployment of over 60%.


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