NEW YORK — Walk into almost any diplomatic office in the world, and you’ll notice that the décor inevitably paints a portrait of the country its occupant represents. On this occasion, intentionally or not, the office of the Colombian ambassador to the United Nations is curated with some of the country’s best-known cultural exports: Gabriel García Márquez’s literature, the paintings of Fernando Botero, the tri-color flag. Signs of the nation’s changing outward visage also peek out, as with a coffee table book depicting the Wayúu Indigenous tribe.
But the most immediate evidence that a deep transformation is taking place in Colombia — and Latin America writ large — is the woman who strides into the room shortly after 11 a.m. with several protocol staffers trailing her yet without much pageantry: Francia Elena Márquez Mina. Two years ago, when she was still a climate and social justice activist in the Pacific region of the South American country, Márquez picked up a pen and wrote a letter to U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who’d just been inaugurated, with the hopes of starting a conversation about the murder of George Floyd.
“I am sure that the majority of the people who voted for you and for President Biden did so in hope[s] of taking the knee off of the necks of African Americans in your country,” she wrote. “As Afro-Colombians and Indigenous peoples, we suffer the same situation; those who have imposed armed conflict, lethal politics, gender-based violence, structural racism — they keep their knees on our necks.”
Although she never received a response from Harris, she pressed on with her activism — weaving it into a career in electoral politics and becoming, in August of last year, Colombia’s first Black vice president, winning on a leftist ticket with now-President Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla rebel. She turned into a symbol of hope for millions of Afro Colombians, who saw in her the opportunity to have a seat at the table in a country where discussions of race and class are often cast aside for fantasies of a post-racial society.
According to official statistics, the Afro Colombian population hovers around 3 million, or 6 percent of the total population, although Black leaders have argued that this figure is a vast undercount. Seventy-seven percent of Black Colombians live in extreme poverty or are at risk for it, and they face disproportionate rates of police violence and diminished access to education. While Black leaders have pushed for better recognition of their human rights from the state, government institutions have accused them of collaborating with armed guerrilla groups — or ignored them altogether.
Márquez, whose strikingly colorful wardrobe pays homage to her African heritage, has approached the history of racial, gender and class discrimination in her country with equal measures frankness and moral resolve, denouncing the unsolved killings of Black leaders and forging a Ministry of Equality and Equity, a government agency aimed at eliminating inequality similar to one proposed by anti-racist scholar Ibram X. Kendi in the virtual pages of this magazine. And the Petro-Márquez administration has assembled a Cabinet of ministers and advisors that looks more like Colombia — in fact, Márquez borrowed this office in an unassuming Midtown East building from Leonor Zalabata Torres, an Arhuaca woman and the first Indigenous ambassador to the United Nations from Colombia.
Born and raised in El Cauca, home to the country’s largest Black population, Márquez says she grew up with the oral histories of ancestors fighting to keep outsiders from taking away their land. In 2014, she led a convoy of 80 women on a 10-day, 350-mile march to Bogotá to eradicate illegal gold mining from her community, which won her the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. The 41-year-old lawyer, single mother and former housekeeper now uses her position to fight for the rights of marginalized communities at home and consolidate support abroad for the ascendant political power of afrodescendientes. In her speeches, she sometimes draws inspiration from the African American civil rights struggle, from citing Sojourner Truth to evoking the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We’re not descendants of slaves,” she says in an exclusive interview with POLITICO Magazine. “We’re descendants of free people who were enslaved.”
Just a few months into her term, she’s already become a voice for all such descendants in Latin America and around the world, too. Last month, she traveled to Geneva, appearing before the United Nations to demand “historical reparations” that would “transform the colonial system”. And last July, she hit the campaign trail in Brazil with then-presidential candidate Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva to highlight the Afro Brazilian fight against racism.
Today, Márquez and Petro face a political path ahead that’s riven with obstacles, as they navigate a rocky international peace process (the subject of the United Nations Security Council meeting she participated in while here) and assuage voters who fear that the country’s first leftist government will mean a reprise of the Venezuelan crisis next door. It’s a path that’s not without danger: Her security team recently found seven kilos of explosives on the road to her family home in what she denounced as an assassination attempt, prompting some members of Congress to ask the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Colombia to help fortify her security.
But she’s undaunted — and clear-headed about her mandate to push for reparations abroad and the role Washington should play in the fight for climate justice.
“The United States should be the first country to acknowledge that its global politics have helped keep Black people around the world and in Africa in a state of subjugation,” she says.
One thing Biden could do? Forgive the foreign debt of the nations hardest-hit by climate change.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jesús Rodríguez: Let’s start by talking about your background. You grew up in El Cauca, a rural region close to Colombia’s Pacific coast, in a strongly Afro Colombian community. How has that influenced the way you think about politics?
Francia Elena Márquez Mina: I grew up in an ancestral land. When I say “ancestral,” I mean that we have occupied that territory as Afro-descendants since the 17th century. My ancestors were brought as slaves to work as miners and farmers, and ever since then, my forebears have fought to free themselves from slavery. We grew up with that history, with my grandparents telling us: “This is the land of your ancestors, of ‘the ancient ones,’ and they passed it down to us.” My grandmother didn’t know how to read or write, nor did my grandfather, but they were really wise and they carried with them this history, which they also inherited from their forebears.
When I was little and I went to work in the mines with my grandmother, we always stumbled upon these well-placed stones along the way that marked the places where enslaved Africans worked, and my family would tell us their stories. It’s a place where folks have always fought for themselves. El Cauca is one of the most rebellious states in Colombia. The Indigenous people have been rebellious, Black people have been rebellious, farmworkers have been rebellious. But it’s also where the Spanish Crown had its seat.
My ancestors kept on mining even after the abolition of slavery because they had no other choice. The slavers were compensated for freeing their slaves, but those who were enslaved, who toiled for years and years, were never paid. They were just freed and told to make a way out of no way. That’s the history I come from — from that rebellious people who never accepted slavery.
We’re not descendants of slaves. We’re descendants of free people who were enslaved.
Those memories have been passed down from generation to generation. Each generation has had to fight for the land, for natural resources, for our biodiversity, for the riches that our territory holds. My grandmother also had to fight against development projects that were being imposed on the land in the ’80s, such as the Salvajina dam.
So, the forebears of my grandmother had to fight to wrest free from slavery; my grandmother had to fight against the development of the dam, which was going to impact their land; my mother had to fight so that the Ovejas River wasn’t re-routed toward the dam; and I had to fight to keep illegal large-scale mining out of the land, so they wouldn’t exploit our resources. Each generation of my community has been in a constant struggle — for survival, for freedom, for the land. I’m not here today as the vice president of Colombia because of something that started three years ago. It’s because of a lifelong fight. My community and my family have fought for all their lives to live in peace, to live within their rights, to live with dignity.
Rodríguez: Amid all those fights, you decided to go to law school and to become a lawyer, a profession guided by rules and norms. Now, you’re in a position working within the trappings of the state. What is your relationship to activism now that you’re working within the government and not organizing outside of its structure?
Márquez: I became a lawyer to wield the legal system’s tools. As a community, we didn’t speak the language of the institutions. They would tell us of a “right to petition” and we didn’t know how to access it. They would speak of “administrative review,” which in fact were eviction orders against our community, because the state had given the land away to multinational companies, choosing to protect corporations over communities. So I said, “I’m going to study the law to understand, to fight and to struggle.” And I have fought and struggled to defend my community to the point where my life and those who surround me have been at risk, because we have confronted power.
I grew frustrated that in spite of my advocacy and my efforts I couldn’t get answers for my community in terms of stopping femicides and preventing the persecution of our social leaders. I felt powerless to see how leaders who fought like me were being killed. I expected that someday, it would be my turn.
I thought about Martin Luther King’s dream. Even though I’ve read a lot of Malcolm X’s writings, I listened a lot to King’s “I have a dream” speech. [On Aug. 11, 2020,] there was a massacre in Cali, where five children went to a sugarcane plantation to grab some sugarcane — surely to have fun or because they were hungry, or just because that’s part of our culture. (We’re raised to be able to go grab fruit from a neighbor’s farm. It’s something that’s passed down through the generations, and it’s part of our culture as Black people.) But when those children went to practice the same customs that they were used to doing in their communities, they were murdered [by civilians]. I felt a lot of pain and a lot of powerlessness. I have two children, and I worried that they would meet the same fate.
Amid all that impotence I thought, too, about King’s speech, and I said, “I have a dream that one day our children won’t be murdered for picking sugarcane.” And that’s when I made the decision to run for president. I didn’t give it too much thought. I have to admit, I rejected politics because of everything that I had lived through, because my community has always had to defend itself from the state. Even though they say that we’re all one nation, Black people, Indigenous people and farmworkers have been the most excluded and marginalized. I didn’t want anything to do with the state or politics because the politics I knew didn’t make me feel proud of my people, of my country. It’s a politics based on corruption, based on violence, based on dispossession.
Taking a risk that I might get trapped in all of that, I decided to participate in the system and change it. I made the decision, then, to run for the presidency. After many political attacks and rampant racism, I ended up as Gustavo Petro’s running mate and we were both elected.
Politics isn’t easy. It’s hard. It’s not like I have changed much, but we’re planting a seed to grow a politics that’s different from what I have known, from what my parents knew, from what my grandparents knew.
Rodríguez: Now as a vice president, do you continue facing those racist attacks? Just two days ago, your security team foiled an assassination attempt. How are you processing that, and do you feel like that has to do with your race and gender?
Márquez: It’s tough. I’ve been through a lot of violence. I’ve been compared to monkeys, to animals, and I’ve been disparaged as someone who has no capacity for rational thought. Fortunately, I’ve read the writings of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, [so] I see history repeating itself. They lived through all of that — the same kind of violence, which hasn’t been reformed, which remains untouched in society today. But we have to face up to them — they had to face them and now it’s our generation’s turn to face them.
There’s also a younger generation who is much more aware of what this all means, and that’s really important to me. That younger generation in Colombia that’s more aware of racism, of gender violence, of patriarchal violence was the generation that elected me and Gustavo Petro. Without them, it wouldn’t have been possible.
Rodríguez: In January 2021, just as your American counterpart Kamala Harris was being inaugurated as vice president, you sent her a letter, in which you asked to establish relations so you two could collaborate on issues like police violence and the peace process in Colombia. Two years after that letter, do you think the Biden-Harris administration has been a good ally in the fight against global racism?
Márquez: Well, I sent that letter when I was an activist. I wasn’t on this path. But I have to say I never got an answer. It may be that she never received it.
But I was really excited to see a Black woman become the vice president, just as we were really excited when [Barack] Obama became the president. In Colombia, we felt that he was our president. And I’m not saying that just because my skin is black. As Angela Davis says, a Black man won’t replace the millions of Black people who are incarcerated and living without dignity. But when I go to my community having been only the third woman in the Americas to reach this post, I see Black or Indigenous boys and girls saying “Thank you, vice president,” and they cry happy tears as they hug me, and I understand that it’s worth doing this.
There are children now who are going to grow up with a different role model. It won’t just be the role model of Black women working for wealthy households as cleaning ladies — although it’s not a dishonorable job to hold — or Black women on TV playing the role of witches or villains. It’ll be Black women and Black people occupying other spaces. It was only just a few years ago that we saw, for the first time, a Black woman anchoring news programs with natural hair, because they used to make them straighten their hair to look “presentable.”
In terms of our relationship with the United States, we are going to maintain a relationship of mutual respect. We have to keep building our relationship around fundamental issues like peace and the challenge of climate change.
We can’t talk about climate change without talking about racial and gender justice, and it’s really important to keep in mind that this market economy that today has brought the planet to its deathbed was built on slavery, colonialism, racism and patriarchy. Deconstructing that is what’s going to slow down the planet’s climate crisis.
Rodríguez: On the topic of climate change, and speaking of debts, one of your policy proposals has been the forgiveness of foreign debts for nations in the Caribbean and the Southern hemisphere. Should the United States play a role in that?
Márquez: There’s no doubt that the United States has a role to play. The United States should be the first country to acknowledge that its global politics have helped keep Black people around the world and in Africa in a state of subjugation.
Countries that have participated in slavery and colonialism are the ones that have their Black population living without the barest of necessities, in a state of precarity. Those countries most responsible for colonialism and slavery are today’s developed countries, the world superpowers, which paradoxically also emit the most greenhouse gasses.
The consequences of climate change are disproportionately affecting those populations that have withstood this systemic violence — Black people, Indigenous peoples and women. It’s also African and Caribbean nations. Therefore, foreign debt forgiveness could be a necessary [route] for these countries to free up resources and invest those resources to improve the living conditions of those historically marginalized and oppressed communities.
The United States should be at the forefront of that policy. I know there’s been some reckoning, some conversations about acknowledging that this country is responsible for slavery and racism and now also climate change. But now it’s necessary to translate that reckoning into concrete action.
Rodríguez: There was a lot of chatter in the United States, around 2019 and 2020, about the topic of reparations for African Americans descended from enslaved ancestors. But many non-Black Americans have allowed the conversation to fall by the wayside (though some local initiatives have moved forward). How do you keep that conversation alive?
Márquez: Given that we’ve seen so many acts of violence in the United States against Black people, such as with George Floyd and so many others who have died at the hands of police violence or racism, I think it’s an issue that should be top of mind. Sometimes it comes up as a trending topic, but then it becomes muted, and it’s hard [to keep it alive] if there’s no political will from the government to acknowledge and move policies forward with concrete actionable steps.
From Colombia, we’ve put forth these discussions on the global agenda, and we hope that the United States and other countries will join in that fight so that we’ll be able to achieve a solution. … Now, reparations doesn’t mean, as many who oppose them have claimed, that people have to take money out of their pockets to give it back to those who have suffered. It means that the state will take up a set of transformational policies that will lift up these communities that have lived through a history of violence.
Rodríguez: Shifting gears to talk about migration: More than 2.6 million Venezuelans have migrated to Colombia to flee the humanitarian crisis in their country. The previous administration enacted a policy of welcoming those migrants (even if some faced xenophobia) by giving them work permits and a path to regularization. Do you plan to continue this policy?
Márquez: We’ve made our policy clear. Venezuela is not our enemy, it’s our brother. The elite that used to govern Colombia cast Venezuela as our enemy, but for us that’s not the case. We have to lend a hand to our neighbors, not step on them to help them sink.
Indeed, Venezuela is having some economic problems, just as Colombia has had them other times. There’s been times when a lot of Colombians immigrated to Venezuela, when Venezuela was at its peak. We can’t do the opposite now that Venezuelans are leaving due to the political and economic situations that the country is going through and put our foot on their necks, as the previous administration did. That’s not our policy.
Therefore, we’ve started to mend our relationships. Venezuela is offering its territory to solve the armed conflict we’ve had [for many years] and which has caused a lot of suffering for many communities. The Maduro government has offered its country as a negotiating table [for peace talks] with the National Liberation Army, something we salute and are grateful for.
This isn’t a question of who’s on the left or the right, it’s a human question. I come from a place that has suffered and continues to suffer from the armed conflict. We have communities who couldn’t leave their homes for Christmas and who didn’t have food on the table. Solving the armed conflict in Colombia is, without a doubt, a huge opportunity to give back some peace and stability not just to Colombia, but the entire region.
Rodríguez: In recent years, the left has had a lot of electoral success in Latin America. How do you respond to critics who fear that the Colombian left could create a situation like Venezuela’s?
Márquez: I don’t think people voted because they belong to the right or to the left. People voted [how they did] because they have problems and want them fixed. Problems with access to health care, education, drugs — which, of course, is a topic we discuss with the U.S. government — violence, armed conflict. The women of my country voted because they want their basic social and political rights guaranteed. People voted for change, for peace, to close the gaps of inequity and inequality. People voted because they didn’t want to be murdered anymore, because they didn’t want their leaders murdered. People vote because of the policies that candidates propose.
We face a danger now, and that’s what I’ve seen in Brazil: Bolsonaro’s followers doing the same thing that Trump and his followers did in the United States — to try to mount a coup d’état. I think that’s an internalization of fascism, sectarianism and a hard-right that’s gotten used to using violence and that believes that with violence they can bring a people to their knees.
I think they’re making a mistake. That’s not the way.
John Yearwood contributed to this report.