Independence movement emerges on island claimed by Nicaragua, Colombia

In December, we noted the World Court ruling on the long-standing dispute over the San Andrés Islands in the Caribbean—held by Colombia but claimed by Nicaragua. The New York Times reports Feb. 1 on the emergence of an independence movement on San Andrés, in repudiation of both Colombian and Nicaraguan claims. Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe recently inaugurated a new hospital on the island unsubtly named “Amor de Patria” (Love of Fatherland), and sent 12,000 troops to march through the streets in last July’s Colombian independence celebrations. But many Raizals, the English-speaking African descendants of the archipelago, are coming to support what the Times calls a “nonviolent separatist movement.”

“This fight is taking place as if it were some abstract matter over unpopulated atolls,” said Enrique Pusey Bent, a director of the Archipelago Movement for Ethnic Native Self-Determination, which symbolically declared independence last June by replacing Colombia’s flags on the island.

Thanks to a policy of “Colombianization” and officially-encouraged settlement of the island from the mainland, Spanish is now the dominant language on San Andrés, and Raizals account for but a third of the 100,000 residents. “Step into a shop or a court of law and it’s almost always the same: no Raizals work there,” independence advocate Jairo Rodríguez Davis told the Times. “It’s a subtle kind of apartheid, but more cruel than the colonialism Colombia threw off from Spain.”

Colombian officials insist the independence movement remains small. Gov. Pedro Gallardo Forbes, a Raizal from a prominent political family with ties to the mainland, agreed. “I’m first of all an islander, but I’m also Colombian, more than 100 percent,” he told the Times

Luis Guillermo Ángel, the presidential counselor for San Andrés, said Raizals had representation in local government (not national?), enjoyed subsidized health care and benefited from greater state spending per capita than residents of any other part of Colombia. “No Colombian has more privileges than a Raizal,” Ángel said in an interview in Bogotá.

Countered Jaime Arocha, an anthropologist at the National University in Bogotá: “The presidential counselor for San Andrés is a kind of modern viceroy who arrogantly refuses to recognize the value of Raizal culture. Why can’t a Raizal occupy that post?”

Many Raizals say state spending focuses on the needs of tourists, not local residents. The most poignant quote came from a middle-aged woman named Janice Bent who reporter Simon Romero found scavenging at the San Andrés garbage dump for metal scraps and discarded food to feed her four children. “I don’t see how Nicaragua or Colombia would give me more to eat,” she said. “If I can survive doing this, I can survive under independence.”

See our last posts on Colombia, Nicaragua and Central America.