Attendees of the “Afrodescendants: 15 Years After Santiago. Achievements and Challenges” symposium at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center, Dec. 4-5, 2015
Marcus Halevi

“This is the most important event of the first year of the United Nations Decennial on Afrodescendants.”

That is how Celeo Alvarez, leader and founder of ODECO (Organization of Community Ethnic Development), the best-known organization of Afrodescendants in Honduras, characterized a recent gathering of activists, government representatives, academics and agency representatives from international organizations at Harvard University. Participants came together to reflect on the state of the Afrodescendant movement in Latin America and to articulate a new continental agenda in line with the goals of the decennial: recognition, justice and development.

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Hosted by the Afro-Latin American Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, the symposium “Afrodescendants: 15 Years After Santiago. Achievements and Challenges” convened an unusual group of activists, government representatives, academics and agency representatives from international organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Organization of American States. Activists from Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras, Costa Rica and Cuba participated in the event.

The Latin American Afrodescendant movement, which emerged out of the Regional Conference Against Racism in Santiago de Chile (December 2000) and the subsequent World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa, has had an extraordinary impact on the formulation of anti-racist policies in Latin America. Coined at the Santiago conference to designate the roughly 150 million people of African descent who live in the region—between one-fifth and one-third of the total population—the term “Afrodescendant” has been deployed to denounce exclusion and to articulate claims for cultural, economic and political representation, using a new transnational language of human and ethnic rights.

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In response to the movement’s demands, numerous countries in Latin America have promoted constitutional changes that acknowledge the existence of racial and ethnic minorities, condemn discrimination, and, in some cases, recognize the cultural and territorial rights of ancestral populations of African descent. Numerous countries have also enacted specific statutory measures against discrimination and implemented different forms of race-based redistributive policies in education and employment. There are now government structures charged with the enforcement of those anti-discrimination laws and policies in 18 different countries in Latin America.

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Yet the participants in the Harvard symposium emphasized the limited impact of these institutions, which are frequently understaffed and underfunded. “They are utterly ineffective,” asserted Ambassador Romero Rodriguez, from Uruguay, one of the founding members of the Afrodescendant movement in the region. Congressman Jorge Medina, from Bolivia, author of an anti-discrimination law in his country, concurred with the need to reactivate these government bodies: “They must respond to the needs and challenges that Afro communities constantly face in their own countries.”

The biggest of those challenges, he noted, is the persistence of a “structural racism” that prevents Afro-Bolivians from developing fully as citizens. Many other participants agreed. As Congresswoman Epsy Campbell, from Costa Rica, asserted, Afrodescendants are now included in numerous international and national agendas, but there is no “sustained commitment” from international agencies or national governments to achieve racial equity.

One of the central themes that emerged at the meeting was that of visibility. Although the movement is now active in virtually every corner of Latin America, people of African descent remain invisible in the formulation of development plans and are frequently sidelined in national politics. Even though visibility does not automatically lead to government action, as Judith Morrison, senior adviser for the Gender and Diversity Division of the Inter-American Development Bank, noted, it is necessary to highlight and disseminate the multiple actions, initiatives and efforts launched by the Afrodescendant movement in Latin America.

The first point of the United Nations Decennial Agenda, “recognition,” is intimately linked to visibility and represents an area of fruitful cooperation between academics, activists, government officials and international agencies. “Visibility is power,” Agustin Lao-Montes, a sociologist from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, remarked at the meeting.

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The Harvard symposium is the beginning of a conversation with a variety of actors involved in the production of knowledge and the formulation of policies concerning racial justice in Latin America. The participants have already agreed to meet again, a year from now, at the University of Cartagena in Colombia. For the time being, however, activists are invoking the symposium to denounce government inaction and to call attention to the United Nations Decennial of Afrodescendants.

“Harvard University has sided with the Afrodescendant cause,” Celeo Alvarez has written, even though governments, “in a shameful game of diplomatic hypocrisy, remain silent and indifferent to the International Decennial of Afrodescendants.”

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Alejandro de la Fuente is the Robert Woods Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics and a professor of African and African-American studies in the history department at Harvard University.