Black Latin Americans Dream Obama Will Mean Better Times

Sara Miller Llana, Christian Science Monitor, February 1, 2009

While this country’s indigenous population has been on the march for new rights, Bolivians of African descent still find themselves living on the sidelines of society.

There are no black legislators or justices; their history is left out of school textbooks; they are not even specifically counted in the census.

“When we go into the city, they think we are Venezuelans or Colombians,” says Reina Ballivian, a resident of Tocana, a tiny community made up mostly of Afro-Bolivians in the lush Yungas Valley. “It’s hard to convince them that we are black and Bolivian.”

But last Sunday, Afro-Bolivians received a major boost with the passage of a new Constitution that gives them their first legal recognition.

Many black activists here hope the charter is the first step in ending years of discrimination and say it is one of many victories for African descendants across Latin America, where blacks are demanding new rights, winning key political posts, and ushering in a new black pride movement.

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“Obama stands as an example that we can follow,” says Marfa Inofuentes, a leader of the Afro-Bolivian Center for Comprehensive Community Development in La Paz. “We, like him, want to have our own representative in Congress. And we dream than we can also have an Afro-Bolivian president some day.”

While activists don’t expect Obama to specifically reach out to their communities, they do hope that the dialogue between him or his administration with Latin American leaders could have a positive impact.

Between 30 and 40 percent of the population in Latin America is of African descent–compared with just 10 percent for indigenous.

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The black civil rights movement in Latin America is strongest in Brazil and Colombia, which boast the largest populations of black Latinos. Brazil has made major advances with affirmative action and its first black Supreme Court justice, Joaquim Barbosa, who is considered one of the most influential justices. A major advance for Afro-Colombians came with a 1993 guarantee of rights to formal titles to their ancestral lands. Today they are also guaranteed representation in the federal Congress.

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Many Afro-Bolivians say racism remains a part of daily life. Mario Medina, a resident of La Paz, says it takes many forms, but the one he notices most often is on the football field. “They’ll say, hey, Juan, pass the ball. But to me they say, hey, ‘negrito.'”

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The activist movement in Bolivia began about 20 year ago as a cultural movement: preserving their music and dance called saya. On a recent evening in La Paz, a hip clientele crowded around a group of Afro-Bolivians beating drums and swirling in circles–a clear sign that their culture has been embraced by mainstream Bolivia.

Afro-Bolivians descend from slaves brought from Angola and Congo in the 16th century. They were sent to the mines of Bolivia and later the sugar plantations in the Yungas Valley, a semitropical region about three hours from La Paz. Today there are communities across the country, as many have migrated to cities for jobs, but the largest concentration is in these valleys. Leaders estimate their population to be about 30,000.

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As in other countries, the gains made by the indigenous here–in 2006 Bolivia elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales–have inspired black activism. As the indigenous pushed forward for demands to rewrite the Constitution, Afro-Bolivians saw an opportunity to promote their own causes.

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[Editor’s Note: You can read about the new Bolivian constitution and the “indigenous peoples” here.]

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