People of African descent in Latin America: a one way ticket

The struggle of African descendants for the recognition of their rights is as relevant as ever. The racism and inequalities facing this community remain prevalent in many parts of the world, stretching from South Africa, still shaped by the vestiges of apartheid, to Belgium, where racism is an everyday reality or as seen with the reactions to Italy’s first black minister.

In the United States, the persistent violence against the African-American community makes headline news on an almost daily basis.

Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act and with the first African-American president in its history, this country still has serious difficulties providing equal rights for the communities comprising it.

In other words, it is still struggling to extend the rights and opportunities enjoyed by white people to its other communities.

In Latin America, the plight of people of African descent goes more unnoticed, although they account for between 20 and 30 per cent of the population. This is what makes the UN’s proclamation of the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) such great news.

The Decade is the result of a long fight waged by social movements and popular organisations. The Durban Conference against Racism (2001) marked the start of a key stage in the integration of peoples of African descent and the defence of their rights.

The agenda, set collectively, was, however, distorted by the global right-wing, the institutional mechanisms of the big corporations and the formalities of multilateral bodies.

Other obstacles have been deeply entrenched bureaucracy and, more fundamentally, the neoliberal thinking of certain leaders who saw the funding as an opportunity to advance their own personal interests.

The United States and its international partners set themselves the task of penetrating the social movements of people of African descent, with a view to neutralising any actions planned in the immediate future.

Our communities of African descendants, for the most part, tend to live in areas of immense natural wealth, with important water reserves, hydrocarbon deposits or, in some cases, in districts susceptible to neoliberal urban or tourist development.

The emergence of the Afro-right grew out of the plan to create an elite designed to expropriate the voice of our communities in negotiations with the governments serving the interests of the big multinationals.

The fragmentation of the organisations, the dispersion of the alternatives and the very incoherence of the fights waged are indicative of how these schemes have weakened us.

The road to the Decade for People of African Descent

During the International Year for People of African Descent (2011), the most important task was tackling the Afro-right, with the formation of the Regional Network of People of African Descent in Latin America and the Caribbean (ARAAC) at the 4th International Forum of African Descendant Social Movements and Social Change in Latin America and the Caribbean, held Caracas in June 2011.

In its final declaration, it “called on the United Nations to establish a Permanent Forum on People of African Descent and a UN Decade for People of African Descent”.

This relaunch of the integration of peoples of African descent was built on the foundation of participatory democracy and an international agenda with a progressive, revolutionary vision, connecting with the continent’s new cooperation and integration processes.

The African descendant social movements called on the governments of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) to implement the agenda set at the Otavalo Summit (Ecuador) in June 2010.

This Summit set out our governments’ commitment to prioritise indigenous and African descendant communities. There is an ethical imperative that the participating governments must meet. African descendant communities hope that the concrete actions taken to fulfil this pledge will stand out from those of right-wing governments.

Formal structures such as the Council of Social Movements need to discuss proposals such as the ALBA’s African Descendants Fund as a tool for tackling poverty and social inequalities, together with the political intervention hindering progress in our countries.

The integration of African descendant communities within the ALBA is the model hoped for by our brothers and sisters in the continent. The lack of progress is paradoxical.

A “Mercosur of African Descendants”

It seems that the conditions are now ripe for the creation of a Mercosur of African Descendants. Despite having three governments with progressive leaderships over the last decade, each one of which has implemented affirmative actions in their respective countries (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay), there has not been any coordination within cooperation structures.

Overcoming the commercial and neoliberal vision that gave birth to Mercosur is a challenge. The goals set by African descendant social movements during this decade are challenges linked to their capacity to mobilise and to negotiate with these governments.

Brazil alone is home to over half of the continent’s African descendants living in exclusion and poverty. A dialogue is urgently needed between our social movements to overcome technocratic mindsets and ensure that our historical demands are met and the social debts still pending are settled.

Establishing a Mercosur of African Descendants in 2015 should be a task in the process of integrating our peoples. The sluggish working group on people of African descent needs to be overcome and turned into a Mercosur of African Descendants.

The progressive experience of African descendant social movements in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) requires greater dedication. The declaration of the International Forum of CELAC in Caracas (2011) underlined the need to recognise the contribution made by people of African descent to the construction of the continent.

The solidarity-based relations and fraternal debate between the African descendant social movement and the Foreign Ministry of Venezuela led to the inclusion of this point in the founding charter of CELAC as well as to the ongoing proposals for the construction of a vision and action strategies on this issue.

The Foreign Ministers’ resolutions on people of African descent were ratified at the 2nd CELAC Summit in Havana in January 2014, and were included in the final declaration.

The recognition of our social movements has not been presented to us on a silver platter; it is the result of a hard-fought battle won in recent years.

The recently held 3rd CELAC Summit welcomed the United Nations declaration of the Decade for People of African Descent and included a special declaration on the victims of slavery.

The diplomatic bureaucracy does not defend the interests of African descendants; those of us who must defend the Decade are the social movements, seizing it as an opportunity to turn the Decade’s slogan “People of African Descent: Recognition, Justice and Development” into the banners of our historic struggles.

We must also fight poverty, defend our material and immaterial cultural heritage, stop the expropriation of our lands, fight the violation of our human rights, protect our women and our children and build intercultural education in which a leading part is given to the African descendant variant.

We must take on the fight and mobilise for our rights.

The article is an adapted version of the original, published on Alainet.