On June 4, The Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) held a panel conversation on the “Human Rights Situation of Afro-descendants in Latin America” as a side event to the 48th General Assembly of the Organization of American States. The dialogue featured Afro-descendant leaders and experts from Brazil, Cuba, Colombia, Guatemala and Peru, and sought to present the circumstances of Afro-descendant populations’ rights in the region, and the collaborative work that each country has been doing on these situations.
Washington Office on Latin America President Matthew Clausen opened the dialogue with some introductory remarks. WOLA has been carrying out international efforts with other Afro-descendant organizations seeking to protect Afro-descendant rights in the Americas and has also recently been lobbying the US Congress for the adoption of Resolution 713, which urges the United States Government to support the goals and objectives of the International Decade for People of African Descent by way of establishing global strategies that promote these goals. WOLA’s President took the opportunity to condemn all the recent attacks, killings and acts of intimidation against social leaders in the region and expressed his and WOLA’s support to do all that they can to remedy the situation.
The dialogue also featured the distinguished presence and participation of Epsy Campbell Barr, Vice-President of Costa Rica, and the first Afro-descendant woman in the region to be elected to a high political position – a major political achievement for all Afro-descendant populations in the region. In her speech, Vice-President Campbell reflected that the Afro-descendant movement in the region is not experiencing its greatest moment of progress, due to regressions in the political agendas of countries which have historically achieved spaces for advocacy. Likewise, she stressed that the movement’s advocacy actions have received little political backing in recent years. These conditions are contrary to the necessary conditions and agreements needed to achieve the goals of the International Decade, particularly of encouraging the connection between the goals of the Decade and those of sustainable development. Facing this, Vice-President Campbell stated that “a 2030 (Afro-descendant) agenda should be our aim for the next ten to twelve years. Therefore, it’s of vital importance to use the next five or so years left in the International Decade to achieve more commitments from States.”
Likewise, Epsy Campbell urged better working strategies to tackle poverty, discrimination and criminalization of Afro-descendants, and also the exclusion of Afro-descendants from political participation, as these continue to be realities in our countries, she declared. In conclusion, she stated that the greatest challenge for Afro-descendants in the region lies in aligning national agendas of each State in the region with a commitment towards inclusion of Afro-descendant communities and people.
In relation to the above, Carlos Quesada, Executive Director of the Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights, pointed out that the situation of the rights of people of African descent in the region has many parallels to police violence, poverty, inequality, unemployment and limited access to health and education. However, he stressed that the work carried out by various organizations in each of the countries shows signs of fight and hope for all of Latin America.
Cecilia Ramírez, Executive Director of the Center for the Development of Black Peruvian Women (CEDEMUNEP), shared with the audience the work that the Afro-Peruvian movement has developed in order to participate in the recent national census, and be properly counted for the first time since 1940. The work was a success for the recognition of the Afro-Peruvian people, as it promotes greater advocacy opportunities, participation and expression. This was achieved by working with various social sectors in order to develop the ethnic self-identification question, as well as allowing organizations to report and visualize the accurate living conditions of the Afro-descendant community in Peru. Ms. Ramírez also made mention of the challenges of carrying out a media campaign in favor of the ethnic self-identification question, in a country riddled with discrimination and racism. However, she stressed that such advocacy campaigns are crucial to bring awareness about what it means to identify as Afro-Peruvian. For 2017, the number of Peruvians who identify themselves as Afro-Peruvians totaled 4% of the population.
Norberto Mesa Carbonell, Director of the Cuban organization Cofradía de la Negritud, presented to the audience the human rights situation of exclusion facing Afro-Cubans. “The reality of the situation of Afro-Cubans has been a taboo subject since the Revolution. Although the issue of discrimination was an important topic to work on—of vital importance—it was enough for just a few years to go by until the Cuban State “automatically” closed the issue. As a result, everything related to access and participation of the Afro-Cuban movement, as well as the formation of public policies that benefit and recognize the Afro-descendant movement, were put on hold and were completely delayed. For this reason, and since the decision by the government, any advocacy work and presentation of human rights violations towards Afro-descendants in Cuba has been criminalized. We currently don’t have freedom of association; thus, it becomes a great challenge to work for the inclusion of this population sector in public policies regarding economic and social growth,” explained Norberto.
Cesar Gomes, a Brazilian social leader, presented another element of the conversation by describing the situation of the Afro-descendant LGBTI populations as one of the worst in the world. Cesar shared that Brazil has one of the highest numbers of murders of trans women because of their gender identity, and in particular Afro-descendant trans women. He also revealed that the country has no public policies specifically for Afro-LGBTI individuals, and in recent years, the Ministries of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights within the government have been dissolved, which has weakened the participation of social movements demanding respect for the rights of trans men and women who are also Afro-descendants. Likewise, he pointed out that rates of murder and violence against LGBTI men and women are increasing alarmingly, particularly at the hands of local and/or municipal authorities. Finally, Cesar mentioned the critical situation of young Afro-LGBTI people, as they are the ones who report the highest rates of suicide due to social and family harassment, in addition to being victimized again due to their socio-economic condition, and lack of access to education and health.
On the other hand, Ingrid Gamboa, an Afro-Guatemalan Garifuna leader, stressed that the lack of economic resources represents a major hurdle for the Afro-descendant movement in its efforts to achieve the implementation of an action plan with regard to the International Decade of People of African Descent. Historically, Afro-descendants have been characterized as one of the ethnic groups with the largest inequality gaps in the world. Therefore, the lack of States’ commitment to guarantee the necessary resources for the implementation of said Decade limits the possibilities of participation and the formation of recognition of guarantees for the rights of the Afro-descendant people.
Finally, Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) Vice-President Erlendy Cuero Bravo voiced her profound concern about the lack of visibility of the situation of Afro-descendant populations, which continues to be obscured by State representatives throughout the region, in particular related to assassinations, persecutions, harassment and intimidation which affects social leaders in various countries. Likewise, she declared that many states have abandoned the Afro-descendant population and are unaware of the structural issues related to poverty, discrimination and violation of human rights. “In Colombia, the Afro-descendant population was the group that supported the Peace Agreement the most, because we have suffered the most deaths, but yet the State has abandoned us. We are being killed each day, and yet it seems like the Colombian state has no eyes or ears to recognize our situation, or that the harassment of our people represents a systematic phenomenon. So far nothing has been done to guarantee the life of our men, women and children. Not because of a lack of public policies, because there are many, but rather because of a lack of political will. Today, my people are scared and confined because when someone kills one of our political leaders, they are also killing the entire Afro-descendant movement.”