My article this week is based on a public lecture that I gave in Barbados in honour of Dr the Honourable Lloyd Barnett, OJ. I consider it timely in light of the fact that the 50th Anniversary of the Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream Speech” is being celebrated across the hemisphere.
Afro-descendants in Latin American and the Caribbean
The first reality that struck me very early after I started work as Afro-Descendants Rapporteur on the Inter American Human Commission on Human Rights, was that there was a serious lack of awareness of the existence of Afro descendants in the region. It is estimated that there are some 150 million Afro descendants in Latin America out of a total population of say 590 million. Some say that Afro-descendants account for a third of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean. There are large populations of Afro- descendants in Brazil, Columbia, Peru, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean. However there is not the awareness of the existence of each other. So the Afro-Descendants in the Caribbean are surprised to learn that there is are large populations of people like themselves in many countries of Latin American and vice versa. Let us take Brazil. Brazil has more people of African descent than any country in Africa except Nigeria, making Afro-Brazilians the second largest population of Africans on the planet. Brazil alone has some 89 million Afro-descendants. The United States of America has the second largest population of Afro-descendants in the Hemisphere but it is quickly followed by Colombia. Cuba and the Dominican Republic also have significant Afro-descendant populations as does Peru, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Venezuela.
The reason why we not aware of the numbers of black people living in Latin America is due to a deliberate attempt on the part of these countries to portray an image that they are white countries and to deny the reality of racial diversity within their borders. For instance, if you watch the television in these countries you would not see black people portrayed. There is a conspicuous absence of colour. There is usually not even a token black in the advertisements. Blacks are neither in front of the camera nor behind the camera. Even Latin TV networks in the United States are guilty of the same conduct.
Problems with the count
Unlike in the United States of America where once you have a drop of black blood in you, you are considered black, in Latin America if you have a drop of white blood in you, you can choose to be white. So this self-identification causes problems with the numbers. Brazil, for example, is said to between 45% and as high as 65% Black. In Columbia there is conflicting information on the exact size of the Afro-Colombian population. The Government relies on statistics that suggest that Afro-Colombians comprise 10.5 percent of the population, or just under 4.3 million. However many Afro-Colombian organizations estimate the number at 26 percent or near 11 million. Part of the reason for the difference in the figures has to do with relying on self-identification in areas where “being black” is still strongly stigmatized.
If asked to identify, individuals tend to call themselves white or miztiso or mullato – anything but black. And this makes practical sense. Why declare yourself to be black to face a life of poverty, ignorance, exclusion and discrimination. You would have given yourself a better chance at a decent life just by calling right.
Let me give you an example of how orchestrated the policy of portraying a white mage is in Latin America. In Bahia, Brazil where the largest concentration of Afro-descendants exists, an Afro-descendant father reported to me the difficulty he had in giving his children African names. He informed me that the Brazilian authorities rejected the African names but because he was enlightened and passionate about his race, he insisted. Racial pride – the “I am Black and I am Proud” movement has not reached most of the Latin American countries where Blacks are to be found.
So there is no unified approach in facing the many problems that beset the black population of the region. The old adage that there is strength in unity is true of the situation but lost on the Afro-descendants of region. And that contributes to the invisibility of black people in the region.
In his book Afro-Latin America, George Reid Andrews points out that, “The racial democracy writers of the 1930s and 1940s had assured their fellow citizens that Latin America was racially egalitarian and free of prejudice and discrimination that so deformed life in the United States. For several decades, Latin Americans, including many black and brown Latin Americans, had believed and accepted this message. But as the evidence refuting it mounted and accumulated in the lives of Afro-Latin Americans, they finally demanded that the societies of the region acknowledge that racial democracy was in fact a myth”.
In dealing with the realities of the state of the human rights of Afro-descendants in the region, one cannot overlook the fact that their land rights are being violated. The Afro-descendants share this problem with the indigenous peoples of the region. The issues here have been dealt with in two reports which I commend to you. The reports are Unfulfilled Promises and Persistent Obstacles to the Realization of the Rights of Afro-Colombians – by University of Texas Faculty of Law in 2007, dealing with Law 70 of Columbia and fresh off the press, The Duty To Protect Indigenous Communal Property Rights Over The Land, Territories, And Natural Resources by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights. This last study by the Commission comes with an annex called “Guidelines with regard to the State’s Duty to Consult with respect to Development Projects that May Affect the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”. These guidelines were adopted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Permit me to quote from the Commission’s report –
The relationship between indigenous peoples and their lands, territories, and natural resources is a key factor for the material subsistence and for the preservation of the identities and cultures of these peoples, and the enjoyment of their political, social, economic, and cultural rights in the Americas, and the rest of the world. This special relationship has been widely recognized in international human rights law, including specific instruments on the rights of indigenous peoples such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (United Nations Declaration), and Convention No. 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) on indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries (Convention No. 169).
I submit that the same applies to the Afro-descendants.
Civil Rights Movement Nascent
The United States of America went through its civil rights movement in the 1960’s. Great men and women came forward to lead the movement and drive it. You know the cast well -– the Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Angela Davis and I would add Mohamed Ali, to name a few of the civil rights leaders. The civil rights movement in the rest of the Americas is barely nascent. And this is part of the problem. The leadership has not come forward as yet; therefore the movement is barely nascent at this time. There is not then the pride in being black. There is no telling of the story of the proud ancestry of Afro-descendants – that they are not descendants of slaves but rather descendants of Africans who were enslaved. That their history and lineage go back well before the unfortunate era of slavery. Therefore the curricula of the people of African descent do not take into account their African background. For example in Columbia I met with the Columbian education minister and asked her whether the school curricula took any account of the significant African Colombian population and she confessed they had not but indicated that she would look into it. I have to tell you that Columbia has made strides in correcting the situation.
When you are invisible you are neglected. If you are invisible it means that you do not exist, you are then denied your share of the wealth of the nation, you are denied proper health care, proper education and housing, and your land rights are trampled upon.
I will give you an example of what I mean. I visited Brazil in 2005/2006 and was appalled at the conditions of the Afro- descendants and Indigenous people in the Quilombo regions. I asked the leadership how could it be that a country as wealthy as Brazil could have some of its citizens living in that condition. The conditions were as bad as those suffered by the people of Haiti. Ironically at the same time there was an art exhibition in Bahia entitled Brazil/Haiti. From the paintings it was impossible to detect which sceneries of sheer poverty were of Haiti and which were of Brazil. These conditions of degradation and neglect among Afro-descendants can be found in all parts of Latin America.
The prevailing view of race in Cuba follows the official propaganda in assuming that racial discrimination in the island is practically non-existent. However the reports coming to the Commission paint a different picture. In a book called The Open Wound –The Scourge of Racism in Cuba from Colonialism to Communism, Ivan-Cesar Martinez, analyses what he calls “the ideology of White supremacy”. He states that his work “is intended to serve as a tool to eradicate this terrible scourge by demystifying the so-called color blindness of Cuban society by showing clearly the existence of a hierarchical color-structure of power that has never changed and that keeps the majority of the population – Cubans that have been sentenced for the crime of having been born with a darker skin color- at the bottom of the society, permanently excluded and reined in” . Martinez points to a study by the Havana Center of Anthropology, a governmental agency, that found that white Cubans continue to believe in black intellectual inferiority, inferior values , inferior culture, inferior decency and they are opposed to racial intermarriage much more than in the United States. White Cubans are more racist today, after five decades of socialism, than white Americans who were the world champions of racism four decades ago” Racism is alive and well in Cuba today.
The Dominican Republic like Venezuela and other Latin America countries are engaged in whitening their society. In Reversing Sail (A History of the African Diaspora), Michael A. Gomez states, “Race in the Dominican Republic highlights the extent to which it is an arbitrary and politicized concept, and it is significantly conditioned by Haiti; the fear of being labelled a Haitian led many to undervalue their African heritage. Sixty percent of the country is of mixed ancestry, but those of the upper class are classified as white, illustrating the principle that class ”whitens” throughout and 12 percent of the “purer” African ancestry are invariably poor”.
The English Speaking Caribbean
There is a notion among Afro-descendants of the English Speaking Caribbean that there are no serious issues of racial discrimination in their countries. This is far from the truth. There is in all of the islands what I call “shadism” where the lighter your skin, the higher up the economic ladder you will be. Racial profiling is also prevalent in the islands where unequal treatment is meted out to black tourists by black hospitality workers. In a recent incident that was brought to my attention a group of offshore medical students went to a night club to celebrate the birthday of one of them. Seven white students were allowed to pass without incident but there was a marked difference in the treatment of the 8the student who happened to have been a black Bahamian student and the one whose birthday was being celebrated. He was pulled aside by a female black woman who declared that she was a police woman and began to push and pull the black student, tearing his shirt in the process. He was denied entry although he had paid and had his band on his wrist as evidence and he was cursed and embarrassed for the committing the crime of being of a dark skin-colour. I am convinced that the thesis of Na’im Akbar that he expresses in his essay, Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery accounts for phenomenon of shadism in the English speaking Caribbean. Deep psychological damage of slavery still influences our conduct towards other blacks.
As I asked of Brazil so must I ask of the rest of Latin America, why do we still have a particular set of our citizens living in conditions of squalor? How is it that in all of the Latin American countries where Afro-descendants exist, they find themselves at the bottom rung of the economic ladder and excluded from participation in government? Why is it that as declared by the participants at the Conference of Black Parliamentarians in Costa Rica (which I attended) that “millions of Afro-descendant children born today are more likely to go to jail than to a university, to be in the streets instead of in school, to work in the informal economy rather than to develop their talents, and to be excluded from exercising their rights as first-class citizens.” Why do African descendants in Latin America live in impoverished conditions while having unequal access to education, employment, healthcare, and housing?
I can find only one answer: discrimination.
What Can/Should Be Done
I use Brazil as an example of what can and should be done to change this picture to bring about a new reality for the Afro-descendants of the region. Under President Lula, Brazil started with the admission that it had a problem. It moved from what was called “racial democracy” – from the idyll that there was perfect racial harmony in Brazil to a realization that there was racial injustice caused by racial discrimination. It came to the realization that Brazil was not a white country but a racially diverse country. The President held a series of consultations on race in the provinces culminating in a national conference on race relations. He invited me to attend that conference and I did. It was a wonderful convergence of people of all races in Brazil. It was a catharsis for the nation. President Lula himself made trips to Africa and re-established the African origins of the majority of Brazil’s population. Most notably, Brazil was the first country to have established a government agency to work on social inclusion and racial equality, called SEPPIR (Special Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality). Furthermore, under the President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, four Afro-Brazilians were appointed to cabinet-level positions in the government and one to the Supreme Court.
Regional Convention Against Racism
OAS member states, meeting in Guatemala, on 6 June adopted the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of Intolerance and the Inter-American Convention against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance. I take this opportunity of highlighting the leadership role that Antigua and Barbuda played in drafting the new regional instruments. I pay special tribute to our own Joy-Dee Davis-Lake, Alternate Representative in the Permanent Mission of Antigua and Barbuda to the OAS for her sterling work in ensuring that the original focus of the Convention against Racism and Racial Discrimination was not lost. The instrument is of particular significance in that it will be a tool for the effective promotion of equality and the elimination of all forms of discrimination and racism in the region.
In looking at what should be done to redress the dire situation of Afro-descendants in the region we have to give serious consideration to affirmative action. In an article entitled “Affirmative Action in Brazil: Challenges and Prospects” Flávia Piovesan gives an overview of the theory and practice of affirmative action in Brazil. She points out that …” the right to redistribution of wealth requires measures to change social and economic structures combined with redistribution policies to fight economic injustice, marginalization and economic inequity.” In response to her question, How should we handle the problem of discrimination? She stated
Within the scope of International Human Rights Law, two strategies stand out: a) the repressive-punitive strategy, which aims at punishing, banning, and eliminating discrimination; and b) the promotional strategy, which aims at promoting, fostering, and advancing equality.
The repressive-punitive approach seeks to speedily eradicate all forms of discrimination. Fighting discrimination is fundamental in the process of guaranteeing full exercise of civil and political rights, as well as social, economic, and cultural rights”.
But Pievesan continues, “The ban on discrimination must be coupled with compensatory policies that can promote quicker achievement of equality… It is essential that promotional strategies be adopted to help socially vulnerable groups to join and participate fully in social spheres……
In that regard, affirmative action stands out as a powerful tool for social inclusion. Affirmative action consists of special and temporary measures that are designed to redress a history of discrimination by accelerating the process of promoting equality. It reaches the substantive equality of vulnerable groups such as, for instance, ethnic and racial minorities and women.
Affirmative actions, as compensatory policies aiming at relieving and redressing the results of a past of discrimination, fulfill a decisive public purpose in the democratic process: they ensure social diversity and plurality. They should be understood both from the retrospective viewpoint – as they alleviate the burden of discriminatory past – and also from the prospective viewpoint – as they foster social change and bring forth new circumstances. They are concrete measures that turn the right to equality into something feasible, based on the notion that equality should take the shape of respect for difference and diversity. Affirmative action converts formal equality into material and substantive equality. I could not have put it any better.
The challenge then is to work to eradicate racism and racial discrimination in the Caribbean and the region. The Afro-Descendants of the region must unite to ensure that there is justice for all and particularly the discriminated in the Caribbean and the region. Human Rights for All is in the struggle to change the present reality to ensure that Martin Luther King’s dream will become the reality of the region and the Caribbean in short order.
 Oxford University Press, 2004, p.187
 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigneous Peoples, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly by resolution A/61/295, 61st session (September 13, 2007). [Hereinafter, “United Nations Declaration”].
The Open Wound (The Scourge of Racism in Cuba from Colonialism to Communism), Arawak Publications, 2007
 Cambridge University Press, 2005, p199