Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

LATIN AMERICA: Blacks See Ray of Hope in Obama

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Jan 23 2009 (IPS) - Members of the black community in Latin America and the Caribbean hope the rise to power of Barack Obama, the first U.S. president of African descent, will help raise awareness about the discrimination and other problems they face.

It would have been impossible for someone like Obama to become president of the United States even a few years ago; his arrival on the scene “shows a change we should all pay attention to, and which creates expectations in all of us,” Nirva Camacho, a member of the Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and the Diaspora Women’s Network, told IPS from Venezuela.

Obama, who was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on Tuesday, is the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from the U.S. state of Kansas, both of whom are deceased.

Juan Montaño, a newspaper column writer in Ecuador, said the inauguration of an Afro-American president has “extraordinary significance for us.”

The new U.S. leader conveys a “clear message” to Latin American governments against the racism and marginalisation that affects millions of black people, Montaño told IPS from Esmeraldas, a city in northern Ecuador with a mainly black population.

According to studies, in Latin America and the Caribbean there are some 150 million people descended from African slaves, most of whom are poor and suffer social exclusion because of the colour of their skin.

The region’s black population is characterised by “high density and low impact,” and suffers discrimination, according to a study by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

In spite of the numbers of black people, most of whom live in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, their negligible political presence and their lack of access to government decision-making is deplorable, says the ECLAC study, titled “Ethnic-Racial Discrimination and Xenophobia in Latin America and the Caribbean”.

A research report by the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights (IIDH) says that in nearly every country in the region, Afro-descendants are victims of racial discrimination and exclusion which cause great economic and social deprivation, as well as preventing their access to more than a handful of decision-making posts in society.

“Obama’s presidency has boosted hopes for change among Afro-descendants, particularly in Venezuela. But our expectations are moderate, because I have to say we have already been disappointed by his first statements about (Venezuelan President Hugo) Chávez,” Camacho said from Caracas.

In an interview for the Univisión television network, Obama said Chávez was an obstacle to progress in Latin America and that he was concerned about reports that the Venezuelan president supported the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

This frequently repeated allegation has never been substantiated.

Chávez, for his part, predicted that Obama “will be a fiasco for his people and for the world.”

Camacho maintained that President Chávez has given black people a voice, and that he is working on a “revolutionary project that we hope Obama will understand and respect.”

Ecuadorean columnist Montaño, who also works as head of environmental management for the municipality of Esmeraldas, said that Obama’s success demonstrates that black people’s power is on the rise.

“There is tremendous symbolism in this, which we hope will be understood and taken on board in Latin America as well,” he said.

Montaño said that over the last few days he has noticed “great enthusiasm and anticipation” among the residents of Esmeraldas because of Obama’s triumph. “Many people are interested in what he has achieved and in what he could do,” he said.

During his election campaign, Obama avoided radical comments against racism and specific remarks about the social rejection that black people face.

In the United States, where Afro-Americans make up 12 percent of its 305 million people, the poverty rate of the black community is three times higher than that of whites, and their unemployment rate is twice as high.

In Latin America, where black people comprise one-third of the total population, their situation is considered to be even worse.

“Here in Ecuador, for example, where the constitution recognises our rights, we are still excluded from high-level public positions in the government,” said Montaño.

Camacho, whose regional Afro-descendant women’s network is made up of groups from 33 countries, said that black people in Latin America and the Caribbean have made unprecedented conquests in organising and expressing themselves, but she added that “there is still a long way to go.”

Obama will be food and strength for the journey, she said.

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