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SANTIAGO, Jul 29 2010 (IPS) - Concentrated mainly in the arid northern region of Arica y Parinacota, Chile’s small black population is seeking formal recognition as an ethnic group and inclusion on the 2012 census form, to put an end to what they describe as “structural discrimination.”
“People of African descent have always fought against structural racism, not only in Chile but throughout the Americas,” Cristián Báez, head of Lumbanga, one of the three groups that make up the Afro-Chilean Alliance, told IPS. “The fact that we do not even exist in the statistics is a result of that racism.”
In his view, “Chile has failed to really see itself as a country where different cultures coexist,” even though eight indigenous groups were legally recognised in 1993. (A ninth was added in 2006.)
Chileans who identify as blacks live mainly in Arica y Parinacota, the northernmost region in this long narrow South American country. The region is known for its cultural diversity. There are also Afro-Chilean families in the north-central region of Coquimbo, principally in the towns of Salamanca and Ovalle, Báez said.
Last year, the three organisations comprising the Afro-Chilean Alliance — Lumbanga, Oro Negro (Black Gold) and Arica Negro (Black Arica) — carried out a survey of 500 families. Although the final results are not yet available, the preliminary estimate is that there are more than 8,000 people of African descent in Arica y Parinacota.
Fabiana Del Popolo, an expert on population issues with the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), pointed to the high poverty levels among blacks in Chile.
The Afro-Chilean community is “invisible and ignored at the national level,” concurred José Manuel de Ferrari with Corporación Participa, a non-governmental organisation that supports the Afro-Chilean Alliance in its efforts to influence politics.
“Their institutional and legal inexistence leads to their exclusion from public policies that target other vulnerable groups, like indigenous peoples,” and this translates into “marginalisation and discrimination,” he told IPS.
Báez said that when he travels to Santiago, people think he is from another country, like Peru, Ecuador, Brazil or Cuba. On one occasion he was nearly attacked by a group of neo-Nazis because of the colour of his skin, he said.
“People of African descent have been in Chile since the dawn of colonialism,” de Ferrari said. “Towards the end of the colonial period, blacks were estimated to represent more than 12 percent of the population, and up to 20 percent in some regions.”
Later, as a result of the 1879-1883 War of the Pacific, which pitted Chile against Peru and Bolivia, the Peruvian province of Arica was annexed by Chile and its significant black population became part of this country.
“Lastly, towards the end of the 20th century there was a new wave of immigration to Chile from other Latin American countries, mainly of people coming here because of economic troubles — an influx that has included people of African descent,” he said.
“The situation is thus both strange and unfair,” de Ferrari said. “Afro-Chileans are here, they exist, but we don’t see them or take them into account.”
As one of the country’s few black public figures, Chilean footballer Jean Beausejour has helped bring visibility to the Afro-Chilean community. Beausejour, a midfielder for Mexico’s America club and a member of Chile’s 2010 FIFA World Cup squad, has a Haitian father and a Mapuche mother.
In their argument that they should be included as a category in the next census, Afro-Chileans point to their shared African ancestry, and to the survival of certain traditions, such as the ones based on religious syncretism.
They also stress that Chile has signed and ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and International Labour Organisation Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.
A draft law that would recognise the existence of the Afro-Chilean ethnic group, introduced in Congress in August 2009, states that the country’s folklore, music and national dances contain “African features” and that the national language and cuisine have also been enriched by the heritage of African slaves.
This “silent past has not been taken into consideration in formal educational programmes,” says the draft law, which would incorporate the subject in school curricula.
The country’s first Afro-Chilean community development office began to function in June in the city of Arica, headed by Báez, who described it as “a historic achievement.”
The Afro-Chilean Alliance has met with the official in charge of the 2012 census form in the National Institute of Statistics (INE), and will participate in a seminar in August where different social groups will outline their demands for the census, which is carried out every 10 years.
Latin America is home to some 120 million people of African descent, 23 percent of the regional population, according to ECLAC estimates cited in the book “Afrodescendientes en América Latina y el Caribe: del reconocimiento estadístico a la realización de derechos” (Afro-Descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean: From statistical recognition to the realisation of rights), of which Del Popolo was one of the authors.
“Black” or “Afro-descendant” is one of the racial categories on census forms in other Latin American countries like Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.
“In the current round of censuses, more countries are incorporating the category, like Panama, which carried out its census in May, Argentina, Uruguay, and probably Bolivia,” said Del Popolo, who underlined how important it is for all countries to provide such information.
“This is a crucial moment,” said Báez, noting that this year Chile celebrates the 200th anniversary of its independence from Spain, and that the United Nations and the Organisation of American States declared 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent.
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