Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Bolivian Immigrants Complain of Racist Football Chants

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 19 2003 (IPS) - The Bolivian immigrant community in Argentina is upset over football – not because of the recent defeat of the Bolivian club Oriente Petrolero at the hands of Racing, a local team, but due to the indifference of football authorities to repeated complaints of racial taunts in the stadiums.

”In the past, clubs have been sanctioned in response to reports of anti-Semitism,” Victoria Rocha, director of the newspaper Vocero Boliviano, published by the Bolivian immigrant community, told IPS. ”But we have been waiting for a long time, and not only have we failed to get the club or the players sanctioned, but we have not even received an apology.”

The newspaper is one of two organisations that filed a complaint in December with the Argentine Football Association (AFA) after players on the Independiente team celebrated their victory in the local championship with racist football chants against Bolivians.

Although they were in the locker room, TV crews were present.

Independiente had beat Boca Juniors, Argentina’s most popular club, which is traditionally the target of racially-tainted slurs alluding to the fact that among the team’s fans are many Bolivians (disparagingly labelled ”bolitas”), Paraguayans (often referred to as ”paraguas”) and Argentines with indigenous features similar to those of immigrants from the two neighbouring countries.

The population of Argentina is in large part descended from European – mainly Italian and Spanish – immigrants, and Argentines of indigenous or mixed-race origin are often contemptuously referred to as ”cabecitas negras” (”little blackheads”).

Shortly after the offensive locker room celebration, the president of Independiente, Andrés Ducatenzeiler, shrugged off the team’s chants as just part of ”the folklore of football.”

The sports media all but ignored the case, and several reporters downplayed it, saying it occurred in a ”private setting.”

Since then, Gustavo Morón, a lawyer representing the organised Bolivian community, has been waiting for a response from the AFA discipline panel as to whether it will fine the club or the players, as it did when anti-Semitic incidents in the stadiums were denounced.

The cases of anti-Semitism occurred in matches played by the Atlanta club, which is located in a Buenos Aires neighbourhood where many Jewish families have traditionally resided. (Argentina’s Jewish community is the largest in Latin America).

Fans of other clubs carried flags with Nazi symbols when they attended games against Atlanta, and on one occasion hurled bars of soap at the Atlanta players before a match (an allusion to the atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II concentration camps).

There are currently around 1.5 million Bolivians living in this Southern Cone country of 37 million. But there were two million until the all-out economic collapse and crash of the Argentine peso in 2002, which drove many immigrants back to their home countries, said Rocha.

Many immigrants complain of blatant discrimination and racism in Argentina, which drew large flows of immigrants from neighbouring countries during the relative economic prosperity and stability of the early to mid-1990s, and in earlier periods as well.

According to a survey carried out in 2000 by the New Majority Studies Centre, 65 percent of Bolivian respondents said they did not feel safe in Argentina.

In 2000, more than 80 Bolivian families were the victims of a wave of violent assaults. The attackers broke into the homes of immigrants who were taking care of the summer homes of middle class and wealthy Buenos Aires residents, on the outskirts of the city.

The Bolivians were beaten, tortured with electric shocks for several hours, robbed, and told that they had better not report the incident, according to the Buenos Aires province office of the public prosecutor.

Analysts, human rights groups and poll results indicate that discrimination against Bolivians is based on two basic prejudices.

On one hand, many Argentines accuse Bolivian and Paraguayan immigrants of competing for jobs in the construction and textile industries and other segments of the economy.

But racism is also a major factor. ”In Argentina, white (European) immigration has almost always been welcomed, but Latin Americans with indigenous features have occupied the place of blacks in the United States, in the public mind,” said sociologist Dalía Szulik at the Gino Germani Institute of Social Sciences Research.

Football authorities, far from condemning the expressions of racism, have waved them off as just another part of the sport’s popular culture.

”Chants in the stadiums frequently include attacks on the fans of the other team, insulting them as ‘blacks’, ‘queers’, ‘Bolivians’ or ‘Paraguayans’,” sociologist and sports journalist Sergio Danishewsky told IPS.

Danishewsky was sceptical about the possibility of the AFA discipline panel speaking out against the insults hurled by players or fans. ”Independiente is a large club, and besides, everything in football is justified as part of the ‘folklore’,” he said.

The reporter recalled that Alfredo Davice, former president of the River Plate club, told the sports newspaper Olé last year that his club had the biggest number of fans in the country, even though Boca, its classic rival, is recognised as the most popular.

When Davice was asked whether Boca did not have more fans, he responded: ”If we count only Argentines, no. I don’t count Bolivians or Paraguayans” – a kind of justification of the racial epithets that River Plate fans often fling at the followers of Boca.

Morón, the lawyer for the Bolivian community, was also pessimistic that the AFA would impose any sanctions. But, he said, if it failed to do so, the decision would be appealed. ”We don’t want a fine, we want a public apology from the players,” he told IPS.

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