Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The cumbia of the disconnected

Marches in Colombia are often colorful and vibrant, and the Carnival March for Life, Dignity and Popular Identity in Medellin on October 9th was no exception. Drummers, clowns on stilts, clowns in tutus made up the parade, and a band played the “Cumbia of the Disconnected”:

I had a full salary
I had many dreams
I paid all the utilities
And nothing was left for food
Nothing was left for food

If you paid the utilities
And want to go grocery shopping
Don’t come with that story
You only have enough to pay on credit
You only have enough to pay on credit

Doña Luz was already blind
From saving money
But nonetheless
The bill always went up
The bill always went up

The phone in my house
Answering it is always a problem
Because calls appear
To Holland and Cartagena
To Holland and Cartagena

The march, which I accompanied at the petition of our partner organization the Medellin Youth Network (Red Juvenil), was the symbolic closing of the Medellin Social Forum, in the tradition of the now-geographically-dispersed World Social Forum. The Forum, held October 2-11, brought together communities and organizations from Medellin, the region and other regions of Colombia to, as the website explained, “address the problems caused by neoliberalism, authoritarianism y privatization, with the aim of creating alternatives and proposals to transform the situation of poverty and social exclusion in the city of Medellin, Antioquia and Colombia.”

As described in the “Cumbia of the Disconnected,” a primary focus of the march and the Forum itself was access – or lack thereof – to utilities like water, electricity and telephone. In the comunas, or shantytowns, of Medellin, many of the poorest, most of whom are displaced people from other regions of the country, either have never had connections to such utilities, or have been disconnected because of their inability to pay the high fees on their scant to nonexistent income.

A primary complaint of the Red Juvenil and other organizers of the Forum and march is that Public Companies of Medellin (EPM for its Spanish initials), which provides utilities in the region, does not fulfill its obligation as a public company supposedly at the service of the public. EPM is only 51% publicly held, and the Red Juvenil and others accuse it of acting very much in the predatory and profit-focused manner of private companies, at the expense of the most needy.

While accompanying the march and listening to the charges against EPM, I was struck by the sad irony of the way problems for Colombia's displaced population are so intertwined. Three weeks ago I accompanied a 3-day series of workshops and meetings in Amalfi in the northeast of Antioquia, where EPM has gotten declared what in Colombia is the equivalent of eminent domain in order to construct a fourth hydroelectric damn in the Porce River. Over 8,000 independent miners and small farmers will be displaced by this dam, many of whom were displaced by the construction of the previous dam upriver. The community, with the support of FOR’s partner organization the Antioquian Campesino Association, is working to achieve fair compensation and relocation in the area, in order to avoid the fate of many of those displaced by previous dams, who for lack of better options ended up in the shantytowns of Medellin and victim to the extravagant rates EPM charges for utilities.

Though this seems like a pretty depressing situation, I was inspired by the way that the Red Juvenil and the other organizations of the Forum made it a point to bring the march/carnival to the people in the comunas themselves. So often, forums and marches and other such manifestations of protest and articulations of alternatives happen in city centers, universities, and other sites where dwellers of shantytowns don’t have access. The comuna residents may be disconnected from electricity, but the Red Juvenil and the Forum is making sure they are not disconnected from the struggle for a better Medellin, Antioquia, and Colombia.

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