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Increasing political participation for African Descendants in Latin America

Rathi M. Mani   www.thedialogue.org

Enhanced political participation and representation are imperative to the advancement of African descendant movements throughout Latin America. Despite the accomplishments of Afro-Descendant legislators such as Epsy Cambell, Edgar Torres and Paulo Paim, there is little known about the less than 100 black legislators who represent the interests of African descendents who make up a third of the region’s population. African descendants live in impoverished conditions while having unequal access to education, employment, healthcare, and basic sanitation – conditions that are endemic to non-white populations throughout the Americas. Afro-descendant political leaders in Brazil, Colombia and several other countries are working to remedy the plague of institutionalized racism. In Brazil and Colombia, the two countries with the largest African descendent communities, there are fewer than fifteen black congressional members in total.

The participants at the historic III Conference of Black Parlamentarians held in Costa Rica in August declared 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”. Afro-Colombian Representative Edgar Torres of the National Congress, present at the Costa Rica conference, reports that 76.4% of Afro-Colombians have incomes that are less than minimum wage, and like Brazil only 2% of blacks have a university level education. Torres is one of less than ten black representatives in the Colombian Congress – an institution that elected its first Afro-Colombian representative, Zulia Mena from the state of Chocó 12 years ago. Despite limited political representation, there have been historic events that serve as catalysts for the Afro-descendant movement in Latin America.

Most notably, Brazil is 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 current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, four Afro-Brazilians were appointed to cabinet-level positions in the government and one to the Supreme Court. Not surprisingly Brazil served as the site of the first Black Legislators Conference in 2003, with leadership from Congressman Luiz Alberto from Bahia. Numerous initiatives have been shared and discussed to enhance Afro-Latino participation in government as a result of this conference. The most important is the formation of a Black Congress of the Americas, which will ultimately, create a network for black parliamentarians to share ideas and formulate new social inclusion policies.

Increased political participation and representation will help to convert legislation concerning racial equality from rhetoric into reality. Afro- Brazilian Senator Paulo Paim from the Workers Party introduced a landmark piece of legislation called the Statute for Racial Equality in 1998. The Statute has been debated in the executive branch and in the National Congress since 1998 and finally was passed in the Senate in November 2005. The Statute, which addresses issues such as healthcare, education, employment, human rights and land ownership, is one of the most ambitious initiatives ever seen for Afro-descendants in the Hemisphere and its recent passage in the Senate is considered a major victory for African descendants throughout Latin America. In this manner, Afrodescendants must continue to enter politics in order to fuel necessary social change for their communities.

Countries with smaller black populations have also made great advances. In Costa Rica, a country with only 2% Afro-descendant population, Epsy Bar-Campbell, considered the most popular political figures in Costa Rica, former head of an Afro-Costa Rican women’s NGO, and president of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), has been nominated for the vice presidency of the nation. Campbell has been a life-long advocate for gender equality and social inclusion policies for Afro-descendants. Her determination is setting a precedent for future Afro-Latino politicians and she believes that the numbers of Afro-descendants in Parliament will increase as rigid social barriers are broken down.

In Uruguay, where Afro-descendants comprise 4% of the total population, a black literature professor, Edgardo Ortuño, was recently elected to Congress. Ortuño’s election is considered one of the most significant advancements for Afro-Uruguayans since slavery was abolished 170 years ago.

February 2006

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