WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – In the minds of most people, Latin America is the exotic land of travel brochures, south of the equator, where racial issues don’t exist.
The reality is distinctly different.
“The truth is, we wish you heard more about race as a central element in the inequality in Latin America,” Jacqueline Mazza, an expert about African Descendant Issues at the Inter American Development Bank (IDB), told reporters Dec. 16.
The problems facing Blacks in Latin America are magnified because the Black presence has been overlooked until recently.
While much attention has been properly given to the struggle of 40 million or so Blacks in the United States, up from chattel slavery through Jim Crow-apartheid legal segregation, little attention is paid to the plight of Brazil’s Black population of 80 million, the largest anywhere outside the African continent, and second only to Nigeria in one single country.
Race is an all-important factor in gross inequality throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. “If you would ask, how many people would think that there are more Indigenous peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean than there are African descendants,” Ms. Mazza opined, “most people would say yes, the Indigenous population” is larger. But the reality is that the Indigenous population throughout Latin America and the Caribbean is only 10 percent. The African-descended population, on the other hand, “is in the 30, 40 percent range and we have very poor data, so it could actually be higher than that,” she continued.
“So what we’re talking about is race playing a very central figure in the high levels of inequality in Latin America. In almost all cases, the African descendants are among the poorest of the poor.” The IDB, said Ms. Mazza, has just begun to study the links of race as a factor in education and labor markets.
“We generally feel it is extremely significant, because the numbers that we do have show African descendants at the lower levels of quality of education. That is, that Black children in Latin America are usually schooled in the lower quality schools. Not so unlike what you might incur in the United States.”
Because of the invisibility of their plight and struggle for equality, race makes all other negative social problems worse there.
“What is more significant for us in Latin America is use of this term ‘exclusion’ because it’s much more profound, and much more multi-sectoral–the dimension of race across Latin America,” Ms. Mazza explained. Black people don’t even try to get benefits to which they are entitled because of racial fear.
“People don’t even try to walk in to certain health service(s); they feel so unwelcome,” she revealed. “They don’t ask for the basic services that are their rights.”
Beginning in the early 1990s, Blacks started organizing themselves in Latin America. By the time of the UN World Conference Against Racism in September 2001, the African-descendant movement had gained political traction throughout Latin America.
In December 2000, there was a regional, preparatory conference in Santiago, Chile, according to Claire Nelson from the Social Development Division of IDB. “That was the first time Latin American governments were openly admitting that there was an issue of race and racism in their countries,” she said. “So what you find now is three or four major networks of organizations working mostly on economic development and social development issues, not so much on political development. However, there has recently been formed a caucus of Black elected officials. I believe they’ve had two meetings, one in Brazil and one in Colombia.”
Colombia is where the first Latin American organization, modeled after the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, was formed. Ironically, the Afro-Latino racial equality movement has spread back to the U.S., according to the IDB experts. The U.S. Latino civil rights organization “La Raza” has created its own Afro-Latino contingent.
“Even La Raza is beginning to recognize how large the Afro-Latino community is,” Ms. Mazza noted. “This is a really recent phenomenon, for the organization of the Black legislators in Latin America and the Caribbean.” The group is planning its next meeting scheduled for March 2005 in Costa Rica.
“There, they’re beginning again to try and parallel or gain support from Black legislators here in the United States. The lack of political voice obviously goes with the economic and social development issues. So the Black legislators are very cognizant of the fact that they have to advance as a political organization,” she said.
The legislators have agreed to meet again, five years after the Santiago conference, which was the precursor to the Durban conference, but for the African-descendant community in Latin America, she explained, “a more significant international commitment to human rights was (made) in the Santiago conference.”
The broad, Afro-Latino non-governmental organizations are going to meet again in a June preparatory meeting, and Brazil will host a major conference in December 2005.
“For most of the Afro-descendant organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean, this is the major international focus of where they can bring the attention of their respective governments to issues of African descendants,” said Ms. Mazza.