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CENTRAL AMERICA: Identity of Black People Recognised, But Needs Neglected

MANAGUA, Oct 8 2010 (IPS) - Although their human rights are increasingly recognised, blacks in Mexico and Central America are the poorest and most marginalised people in Latin America, according to experts.

“People of African descent in Central America and Mexico are among the most vulnerable, poor and excluded on the continent,” Alta Hooker, vice-chancellor of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua (URACCAN), told IPS.

“Ever since the first World Conference against Racism and Discrimination (held in Durban, South Africa in 2001), our people have gained recognition of their human rights, but have not seen much progress in terms of having their social and economic needs met,” Hooker said.

Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama have signed international agreements to protect the living standards of blacks and ensure they are equal to those of the rest of the population, but in practice these rights “are ignored,” she said.

In spite of legal and institutional advances towards recognition of the ethnic, cultural and social identity of people of African descent over the last 20 years, their economic status and poverty rates in Central America are worse than in other subregions of Latin America, she said.

Hooker is one of the authors of the study “Derechos de la población afrodescendiente de América Latina: desafíos para su implementación” (Rights of the Afro-descendant Population in Latin America: Challenges to Implementation) that was presented Wednesday at a workshop on the issue in Managua.

The workshop was sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme (UNPD) as part of its regional project, Afro-descendant Population of Latin America.

“A complete legal framework exists, which some countries respect more than others, however. Rights are well established on paper; what is lacking is the will to enforce them,” Hooker emphasised.

“There are more than 159 million Afro-descendant people in Latin America, but to date, nine years after the Durban conference, official statistics still cannot tell us how many we are, where we live and what we do. We are the only ones aware of our situation,” she complained.

Hooker’s views are shared by Dorotea Wilson, general coordinator of the Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean Women’s Network (RMAA), a Nicaragua-based organisation with branches in 24 countries of the region.

According to Wilson, inequality is still abysmal, and it is even worse for black women.

“Since Durban, very little has changed for women of African descent in the region. Eighty percent of the more than 150 million Afro-descendants in Latin America continue to live in a state of poverty and have no opportunities to improve their lives, due to ethnic and racial discrimination,” she told IPS.

Blacks in Central America “continue to be subjected to forced displacement, illegal migration, the criminalisation of young people and genocide under the guise of fighting crime,” she said.

Sidney Francis Martin, head of the Honduras-based Central American Black Organisation (ONECA), expressed a similar view.

“For 20 years we have been signing agreements, treaties, and international conventions on human rights, but in spite of them all, our people grow poorer every day,” he told IPS.

“Our identity as Afro-descendants is recognised and respected, and laws are approved on our behalf, but our rights to decent work, better schools and political representation continue to be denied. In these areas we are still invisible,” he said.

In the view of Ricardo Changala, a human rights adviser appointed by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the conditions of inequality and poverty endured by blacks “are practically the same throughout the continent.

“Every country has made progress in one way or another, but the gap is still wide,” he told IPS.

According to Changala, there have been positive changes in the legal framework in support of the rights of people of African descent, but many challenges remain.

“It’s a more than 400-year-old problem that has only begun to be addressed in the last 20 or 30 years, but I am optimistic. I think these barriers will be overcome, so long as the black population continues to claim its rights and make itself heard. The silence has been broken, and that itself is a big step forward.” he said.

According to the study presented in Managua, social inequality, poverty and exclusion are among the major problems faced by Afro-descendant populations in Central America and Mexico.

Official statistics cited in the study indicate that 46 percent of the Central American population, some 20 million people, are poor, and one in five of these are extremely poor.

Silvia B. García, the coordinator of UNDP’s regional project, said the study set out to measure the gaps between international conventions on human rights and the actual protection and promotion of the rights of black people.

“The study was also used to assess the real and effective compliance with the instruments in signatory countries,” García told IPS.

The goal was “to identify the different degrees of visibility of the Afro-descendant population in the countries covered by the study, as well as the diversity or absence of affirmative action, and the varying degrees of progress made by national legislatures in tackling these barriers,” she concluded.

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