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
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