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Date: Sat, 7 Aug 1999 17:49:34 -0400
Message-Id: <199908072149.RAA20339@lists.tao.ca>
From: Thomas L Blair <tlb@thechronicle.demon.co.uk>
Reply-To: editorial@thechronicle.demon.co.uk
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] Afro-Latin Americans: One-third of a Continent Breaking Free
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Afro-Latin Americans

From The Chronicle, issue 7, 7 August 1999

One-third of a continent breaking free

After centuries of doubt, fear and silence, Afro-Latin Americans have found a collective voice. Heeding the call for black cultural unity and economic development, representatives of 150 million Afro Latin Americans - from Puerto Rico down to Argentina - gathered in Barlovento, Venezuela in July.

Largely invisible

Unnoticed and unheard in the corridors of Latin American power debates, Black Latins comprise an estimated African ethnic minority of 90 million and at least an additional 60 million of mixed African ancestry, according to the organisers. They constitute one third of the continent's 450 million people.

Two groups have sparked the initiative. The charitable Organisation of Africans in the Americas (OAA) works for the social, political and economic empowerment of communities. The ad hoc group Afroamerica XXI represents communities and leaders in 9 countries and has lobbied major finance and assistance agencies for development funding.

Strengths and needs

OAA director, Jamaican-born Michael Franklin is clear about one essential goal. He says the Barlovento reunion in a region with strong African influences "will contribute to the spiritual and familial strengthening of the Black community in Latin America and the Caribbean".

But the poverty of millions of Afro-Latin Americans will also be highlighted. National and inter-governmental organisations, like the Inter-American Development Bank based in Washington D.C., will be urged to invest in projects beneficial to and determined by Afro Latin American communities.

Black communities exist in all Latin America countries as a result of the slave trade and imigration. Significant groupings are found in Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico. Black populations range in size from less than 1% to as high as 30% in Colombia and 46% in Brazil. They are majorities in some Spanish speaking Caribbean nations: Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Social limits

Though Blacks have gained education, social status and high office in their countries most endure lives of persistent poverty and disenfranchisement on the basis of their colour and ancestry. Some live on the edge of poverty as manual factory, plantation and mine workers and rural peasantry; others eke out a meagre existence as petty traders and live on the streets or in shanty towns.

Blacks remain victims of a history of what can be called "skin-colour apartheid". According to the authors of No Longer Invisible, a survey of Afro-Latin Americans today: "Colonial and postcolonial society partitioned off people, classifying and categorizing skin pigmentation with a bewildering array of legal codes and linguistic terms".

New goals

Overcoming this legacy of uprooting and separation is a fundamental goal of the Barlovento reunion, say Franklin and his associates. The organisers highlight the affinity of Afro-Latin Americans and their life styles. They call for a Declaration of Rights of Peoples of African Descent in the Americas.

The reunion echoes the historic heritage of black rebellion against slavery. It will sing the praises of the Black Family and thereby reject the degrading belief that embranquecimento (whitening) offers the only route to improvement and social mobility.

Crisis of choice

Equipping Afro-Latin Americans to tackle the social institutions that make "black" synonymous with poverty must also be an important goal. The central challenge will be achieving beneficial change for Afro-Latin Americans as global and technological forces emanating from the USA and Europe engulf the continent.

Notwithstanding, there are pervasive problems of racial exclusion, governmental violence and societal repression of black traditions of African origins. The remedy may require specific legislation, never forthcoming after slavery's abolition, that identifies and manages contemporary race relations.

The crisis of choice facing Franklin and his associates is fundamental. Can blacks gain common, valued nationality with all other citizens and also obtain public legitimacy for their Afro-identity? This set of issues, with their human rights implications, resonate in all parts of the world where blacks are minorities in majority white or ex-colonial societies.

(See No Longer Invisible: Black Latin Americans Today (1995), reviewed in The Chronicle Black Books section, and Afro-Central America: Rediscovering the African Heritage (1996), both published by the Minority Rights Group, London; NACLA Report on the Americas, The Black Americas; Britannica Yearbook; and Leslie Rout, The Black Experience in Hispanic America: 1502 to the Present.

Copyright (c) 1999 The Chronicle

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