Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

LATIN AMERICA: Afro-Descendants Marginalised and Ignored

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, May 19 2005 (IPS) - There are almost four times as many people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean than indigenous people, yet the poverty and discrimination they suffer are largely ignored, despite the fact that they are just as severe, or even worse, than the conditions facing the region’s aboriginal inhabitants.

The indigenous population, which comprises an estimated 40 million people, has taken on an increasingly active political role in Latin America.

By contrast, the 150 million Afro-descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean have extremely limited political power and lack cohesive organisations to represent their interests. Their situation also receives far less attention in international forums and academic research.

Available studies reveal that over 90 percent of the descendants of slaves brought from Africa to the Americas during the colonial era live below the poverty line, have access to only the most poorly paid jobs, and have low levels of formal education. They also face intense discrimination based solely on the colour of their skin.

Blacks remain the most excluded sector of the population, even more so than indigenous people, noted Quince Duncan, a Costa Rican researcher and member of the International Scientific Committee of the Slave Route Project.

The project, launched in 1994 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), is aimed at “breaking the silence” surrounding the slave trade and promoting greater awareness of its causes, modalities and consequences, especially the interactions between the peoples involved in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean.

A 2001 study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) noted that the Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean population, which represents almost 30 percent of the region’s total population, is characterised by “high density and little resonance.”

The study, titled “Ethnic-Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia in Latin America and the Caribbean”, shows that while there are 150 million people of African descent in the region – with the largest numbers concentrated in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela – they have a highly limited presence in politics and government, while very little detailed information is available on their economic conditions.

Essentially, the problems facing the black population in the region are ignored to the point of being invisible, the study concluded.

In Brazil, the white population is 2.5 times wealthier than the black population; in Colombia, 80 percent of Afro-descendants live in extreme poverty; and in Cuba, the only country in the hemisphere with a socialist economic system, blacks are largely relegated to the worst housing and the poorest paid jobs, according to studies conducted in these countries.

“The situation of blacks has received less attention than that of indigenous people, because they arrived in the Americas after the European conquest, they do not constitute an aboriginal culture in the region, and their integration into the workforce was faster and more complete,” Duncan told IPS in a telephone interview from Costa Rica.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, “racism is focused above all against blacks, even more so than against indigenous people, and this is evident throughout the Americas, although some countries are making significant efforts to change this situation,” he added.

Mexican President Vicente Fox sparked an uproar last Friday when he stated that Mexicans living in the United States take jobs that “not even blacks want.”

Fox was criticised for his comments by a U.S. State Department spokesman and subsequently apologised, in addition to meeting on Wednesday in the presidential palace with the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a leading U.S. civil rights activist. He is scheduled to meet Friday with the Reverend Al Sharpton, another prominent African-American activist.

“The criticisms levelled at Fox were fair, because he resorted to the typical stereotypes about blacks, but we should recognise that a large part of the population of the United States thinks the same things,” stressed Duncan.

In Mexico itself, the Afro-descendant population accounts for less than two percent of the country’s 104 million people. A survey published in October 2000 by the Mexico City newspaper El Universal revealed that 56.6 percent of respondents believed that there was racism in Mexico, while 61.1 percent said that there was discrimination based on the colour of people’s skin.

Earlier this year in Ecuador, the government sponsored the First National Survey on Racism and Racial Discrimination. Of the 37,500 people interviewed, 65 percent believed there was racism in their country, and 88 percent said that blacks suffered the worst discrimination.

Studies conducted by the Ministry of Education in Brazil – the country with the largest number of Afro-descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean – show that a mere 2.2 percent of university students are black, 18 percent are of mixed-race heritage, and the vast majority, 80 percent, are white.

The illiteracy rate in Brazil is 2.5 times higher among people of African descent than in other racial groups.

In Cuba, where blacks make up 30 percent of the population of 11.2 million, racism persists despite the efforts made by the socialist government that came to power in the 1959 revolution, and has even worsened in the last 10 years, according to a 2003 study commissioned by the Cuban government and carried out by the Academy of Sciences

Cuban President Fidel Castro acknowledged in a speech that the revolution has not managed to overcome “the differences in the social and economic status of the country’s black population.”

Meanwhile, in Colombia, the state National Planning Department acknowledges that 80 percent of Afro-Colombians live below the poverty line.

“But the problem of discrimination is changing throughout the Americas, because efforts are being made to address it, even if they are still relatively small,” noted Duncan.

The United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination has been ratified by almost all of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, and the commitment to combat racism has been reiterated in declarations issued at numerous meetings of heads of state and government held to address the issue.

Duncan pointed to Brazil as an example of a country that has made particularly impressive efforts over recent years to fight racial discrimination, noting that there are now a number of black government ministers and high court magistrates.

The ECLAC study also acknowledged the progress made in some parts of the region, stating that the marginalisation of blacks “is beginning to change with a greater presence of Afro-Latin American social movements in Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil and other countries, which not only put forward their demands in international forums and to their respective governments, but also promote the visibility of their cultural particularities as groups that have a unique identity with a long history.”

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