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

VENEZUELA: Afro-descendants Seek Visibility in Numbers

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Jun 22 2007 (IPS) - As their counterparts in other countries of Latin America have begun to do, Afro-Venezuelans want to stop being statistically invisible, and are seeking more precise figures to help them in their struggle against racism and marginalisation.

“To reinforce our demand for recognition, we want to know exactly where we stand. Perhaps we make up 20 percent of Venezuela’s 27 million people,” Jesús García, head of the Network of Afro-Venezuelan Organisations, told IPS.

He protested that “the Afro-descendant identity is excluded from all of the country’s statistical instruments. But we are going to mobilise to correct that shortcoming with a view to the next census,” which is to be carried out in 2010.

“We don’t only want numbers, but also studies that can shed light on the situation in terms of poverty, education, health and labour. In the case of women, we are also affected by European standards of beauty and femininity as applied in the world of employment,” Nirva Camacho, of the Cumbe de Mujeres Afrovenezolanas, an Afro-Venezuelan women’s organisation, told IPS.

The term “cumbe” refers to free communities created in the Spanish colonial era by slaves who escaped from plantations.

On the health front, “there are also signs that we suffer a higher incidence of illnesses like glaucoma or anemia, and perhaps hypertension and diabetes, but there are no studies on this. In addition, there are discriminatory elements in education and in the justice system, where people of colour are more likely to be seen and treated as criminals,” said Camacho.

With the support of the Ministry of Culture and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Network of Afro-Venezuelan Organisations organised a seminar Thursday and Friday on the experiences of other Latin American countries in counting the number of inhabitants of African descent, who represent an estimated 150 million of the region’s 500 million people.

“There is a growing tendency in Latin America to understand the collection of statistics as an indispensable mechanism to better comprehend the role of people of African descent in our societies,” Marcelo Paixao, an activist with the Afro-Brazilian Observatory and a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, told IPS during a break in the seminar.

Brazil was a pioneer in such studies in the region, in which Colombia and Ecuador have made progress as well, said Paixao. He added that other countries like Peru, Uruguay and Cuba have also begun to understand the need for precise statistics.

“Because Brazil has a strong data collection system and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) trade bloc is harmonising its statistical systems, the tendency will also reach Argentina and Paraguay,” the other full members of the bloc along with Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela, he said.

He pointed out that Brazil “has the second-largest black population in the world, only surpassed by Nigeria, with 79 million people of African descent, who make up 47 percent of the total population.”

In the past, said Paixao, “our intellectuals thought of blacks as a problem, but now there is positive concern about racial issues.”

Measures have been taken as a result. For example, Brazilian students are now taught African and Afro-Brazilian history, and 28 public universities have adopted quotas to guarantee access by black and indigenous students.

“Other measures have been adopted as well, in health and the labour market. But the main contribution of the new focus is the creation of a ‘moral environment’ that is favourable to inclusive policies,” said Paixao. “That is hard to measure, and it is paradoxical that these determined efforts to come up with precise data and statistics should lead to non-measurable results.”

Joan Antón, an official with Ecuador’s Ministry of Social Development, said his country was the only Latin American nation with a system of specific social indicators on people of African descent.

Afro-Ecuadorians, who make up five percent of the population according to the 2001 census, and at least 10 percent according to Antón, have, along with the country’s indigenous people, the worst economic and social indicators, “reproducing the same social and racial pyramid as during the colonial era,” he told IPS.

“That situation translates into Afro-descendants and indigenous people being below the national average in terms of university attendance and above the national average with respect to the proportion of unemployed women, or the proportion of people in jail, as they represent 17 percent of the prison population,” he pointed out.

Fernando Urrea, a researcher at the Universidad del Valle, a university in Colombia, pointed out that his country’s constitution, which was rewritten in 1991, and law on black people provided new political and legal recognition of communities of African descent. Nevertheless, the number of blacks in Colombia is still underestimated in official counts.

After Colombians were asked in the 1993 census whether they belonged to an indigenous or black community, the Afro-Colombian population was counted at 564,000 people, 1.5 percent of the national total.

But the 2005 census, carried out in the wake of surveys on self-recognition and identity that asked people how they considered themselves in racial and ethnic terms, established the number of people of African descent at 4.5 million (10.6 percent of the population).

However, studies by the Universidad del Valle have estimated the number of Afro-descendants at 7.6 million, or 18.6 percent of the Colombian population, while non-governmental organisations put the percentage as high as 40 percent.

“The explanation is that in Colombia, as in Venezuela or Ecuador, the immense majority of the population of African descent is urban, and mainly concentrated in 16 cities,” said Urrea.

He warned the Venezuelan organisations not to use indigenous groups as a reference point in terms of gathering statistics, because “their situation is different. The majority of Afro-descendants do not live in rural communities, but in cities, and the urban experience is totally different,” which leads to a more individual and less community-oriented identity.

García said some of the demands by people of African descent in Venezuela are based on the model of the indigenous-style community, such as the demand for land to farm or for quotas for representatives of blacks in the political sphere.

He also pointed to incentives, in the form of specific projects, for blacks to play a role in preserving the environment, because some communities of people of African descent are located in areas rich in biodiversity and water resources, such as national parks and other areas.

“But above all, what we want are public policies and constitutional and legal recognition of the Afro-descendant dimension of problems like poverty, as well as our potential and the contribution to building the nation that we have made over centuries,” said García.

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