Erlendy Cuero Bravo was honored by Johns Hopkins University on February 18 in a ceremony in Baltimore for her tireless defense of Afro-Colombian human rights despite repeated threats to her life.
While global attention has concentrated on the grave humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, Cuero Bravo focused her Washington D.C. on sounding the alarm about neighboring Colombia’s protracted civil conflict and the fragility of the 2016 peace deal that faces daily threats from the Colombian government.
Cuero Bravo is the vice president of AFRODES, an organization fighting for the rights of Afro-Colombians displaced by armed conflict. AFRODES was founded in 1999 and represents a coalition of 96 organizations with over 90,000 members. Cuero Bravo accepted the Anne Smedinghoff Award and presented her work before Johns Hopkins students and faculty.
“I am originally from a small village in Buenaventura,” she said. “But I fled to Cali after my father was murdered.”
Beginning with the loss of her father, Cuero Bravo has endured a succession of threats and tragedies from her activism. One of AFRODES’s most visible leaders, she represents a default target for armed groups. Though finally granted state protection after a series of bureaucratic delays, she now lives in hiding in a situation she compares to a drug trafficker evading the law.
Armed groups have gone so far as to threaten Cuero-Bravo’s children. “I thought that if I am going to die defending the work I do, that’s one thing, but I will not stand to allow anything to happen to my child,” she said.
Cuero Bravo dismissed many state protection measures as completely ineffective. She described one protection protocol as simply a daily visit from police to see if the social leader is still alive. In another, a social leader is taken to a hotel for five days before moving back to the threatened area.
“The only weapon we have is our words,” she said.
In a separate meeting with WOLA and other human rights organizations, Cuero Bravo detailed disproportionate impact of both poverty and violence on Afro-Colombian women. Threats of physical violence come from criminal gangs, paramilitaries, small-scale drug traffickers, and false accusations from the police that target human rights defenders.
The circumstances of deprivation that displaced Afro-Colombians and others are enduring have recently become obscured by the Venezuelan refugee crisis.
“We want to help our Venezuelan sisters and brothers,” Cuero Bravo said during the event with WOLA. “But it’s hard to see President Duque promising immediate aid to them while we [the displaced population in Colombia] still don’t have access to education, housing, or schools for our children.”
Cuero Bravo expressed her concern that the influx of Venezuelan refugees will present Colombia’s internally displaced population with a competition for resources and exacerbate the unemployment that feeds the country’s cycle of violence.
The high unemployment and economic stress afflicting displaced communities and ethnic minorities creates an environment that enhances the vulnerability for young people to be recruited into illegal trafficking or gang-related groups. Many armed groups focus on recruiting children due to the reduced legal penalties for children under the age of 18.
What worries Cuero Bravo most is the lack of hope she sees in her community’s youth. “The young people see the toll it takes to fight for our rights, and now they don’t want to be social leaders anymore.”
Still, Cuero Bravo pointed to several positive signs of progress in the Afro-Colombian community. Youth programs, like one in Cali that supports 1300 young people with access to education and job training, have the potential to significantly decrease the violence in the region.
“There are so many resources in Colombia,” Cuero Bravo said. “There’s no reason why Colombia shouldn’t be a rich country.”
Written by Julia Friedmann, Colombia Program Intern