Thursday, April 8, 2010

Poverty and Racial Discrimination in Latin America

The Case of Afrodescendientes

Leonardo Reales - Afro-Latino researcher

The poverty and racial discrimination that Afro-descendants in Latin America have historically faced are two structural problems that should be of concern not only to academics and NGOs interested in social development and human rights, but also to governments and regional and international institutions.

There is no doubt that economic, cultural, social and political benefits for the region that would accrue from the implementation of strategies to eliminate such problems are far from insignificant. In fact, international interest in this situation has grown over the last five years, as is evident in the proliferation of articles, reports and documents demonstrating the need for reducing such marginalization in order to achieve development and economic growth for the region.

This need is in keeping with the Millennium Development Goals proposed by the UN, especially the goal of reducing by half the income poverty rate by 2015, a goal that will be possible in the Latin American countries only if their national gross products increase. In other words, the region urgently needs its excluded and marginalized population to have equitable access to the education system, to health services, and to loans and labor markets in order to stimulate economic growth and stabilize its democracies.

Although there is much argument about the statistics on Afro-Latinos, both Afro-descendant and international organizations estimate that the region has at least 150 millions Afro-Latinos, some 30% of its total population. Some studies and reports show that socio-racial exclusion in Latin America is directly related to the Afro-descendants’ economic situation, and their limited chances of improving their income level.

As a matter of fact, the social and economic situation in countries such as Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Ecuador, shows that Afro-descendants are the poorest of the poor, and live below the poverty line. In other words, most Afro-descendants are poor, and most of the poor in the region are Afro-descendants.

This situation, which I studied while carrying out research for my Master’s thesis on Afro-Latinos and racism in Latin America, suggests that there is a social and political framework in which Afro-Latinos suffer constant violations of their economic, social, cultural and human rights, even though the governments in the region deny that such discrimination exists. In fact, this human rights situation was the reason why I began work on that particular project.

In the course of my research, I not only used documents and articles from Afro-descendant organizations, but also referred to recent reports on the subject that have been published by international institutions, such as the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the United Nations Development Program, the World Health Organization, the Pan-American Health Organization, the United States Agency for International Development, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and the International Labor Organization.

In addition, I also turned to material from the historical archive in order to explain the main causes and characteristics of poverty, racism, racial discrimination and socio-racial exclusion in Latin America, and why those problems have not been eliminated by society in any country of the region.

Based on these documents it is easy to conclude that once slavery was abolished in Latin America, both Africans and Afro-Latinos found themselves in the same situation, suffering the consequences of the denigrating discourses created within the framework of slavery. Historical documents also demonstrate the reproduction of the socio-racial pyramid, in spite of political constitutions and laws promoting the existence of a society formed by free men and women living under “the same” judicial and human rights conditions.

The permanence of the socio-racial structure in the region created a generalized exclusion and racial discrimination against Afro-descendants, which can be seen at both public and private levels. There are no Afro-descendants occupying important positions, and most of them do not have the same opportunities to improve their living conditions and social development. This also produced more poverty among the Afro-descendant communities, weakening the region’s productive potential.

In the light of this I decided to propose the following hypothesis: the Afro-descendant population in Latin America, excluded for decades at both public and private levels, is mostly poor, and its poverty produces losses in the income of the region, thus limiting its social development and economic growth.

My thesis’ main objective is to serve as a reference point in the creation and promotion of social policies and economic development programs, at both public and private levels, that aim to improve the living conditions of Afro-Latinos, reducing their poverty and exclusion, in order to further the kind of equal development within the region that will strengthen its economic capacity and income.

The text also has four objectives which seek to encourage universities and public institutions to consider the ethnic component of their research, policies, reports and programs. Those objectives are:

·        to present the socio-economic situation of Afro-descendants based on previous studies and reports;

·        to explain the causes of institutionalized racism in the region, and its consequences in terms of social development and economic growth;

·        to propose the creation and implementation of affirmative action policies and programs for Afro-Latinos in the labor market and the education system;

·        to promote more research among the academic community, in order to point out how noxious socio-racial exclusion is, not only for Afro-Latinos but for Latin-American society in general.

The thesis can be defined as documentary research, because most of the texts I used to write it come from institutional reports which analyze the strong relationship between poverty, racial discrimination and socio-racial exclusion in Latin America.

Moreover, I utilized other research findings, including those from the two theses I wrote in order to get my undergraduate degrees in Political Science and History, and articles from Afro-descendant organizations, human rights activists, academics and community leaders throughout the Latin American region.

However, the research is also descriptive, considering its primary sources, in which there are some personal essays and works, quoted throughout the document, and the opinions received from Afro-descendant community leaders that I interviewed while performing research on Afro-Latinos and racism in the region.

The thesis pretends to promote an academic and political discussion of the local, national and regional benefits that would be produced in terms of social, political and economic development, if the governments in the region eliminate the problems I have mentioned. This discussion should also include the role of the regional institutions that are involved in the implementation of social and development policies.

Furthermore, the text I wrote makes a comparison between the political, cultural and socio-economic situation of Afro-descendants, and the rest of the population in the region. The comparison shows that Afro-descendants require special attention from governments and specific policies in their National Development Plans. That is why the research findings can serve as a political tool to promote socio-racial inclusion in order to help support Afro-descendants and productivity in the countries.

I will write this paper taking advantage of the proposals and conclusions that I wrote in my thesis. Those conclusions and proposals seek to find solutions and ideas that may help to end socio-racial exclusion in Latin America, and improve the living conditions of Afro-descendants, in the frame of the Millennium Development Goals process and the international human rights norms, which have been approved by most Latin American countries in the last decades. The conclusions are:

Poverty and racial discrimination are two complex structural problems that affect all Latin American nations. These problems mainly affect Afro-descendants, who usually are excluded from public and private institutions, and do not have enough political power to participate in the relevant decision-making processes. The socio-racial exclusion persisted in the region as a direct consequence of the socio-racial structure created during slavery, and despite norms and constitutions that promote social justice, equity and equality under the law for all citizens.

Racism, racial discrimination and socio-racial exclusion in Latin America have produced self-esteem problems in their victims, especially the population which has an African background. Moreover, they do not have real chances to end their poverty and little has been done to address these issues. That is why most of the poor people in Latin America are Afro-descendants, and most Afro-descendants are poor.

It is urgent to make international human rights treaties and norms effective, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Covenant 169 of the International Labor Organization, and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, that have been ratified by Latin American states with a view to improving the political and socio-economic situation of all ethnic groups.

The Millennium Development Goals complement the international human rights treaties in so far as they seek the elimination of poverty and the promotion of social development in a non-discriminatory framework. In that sense, it is important to say that if the main objective is strengthening economic growth and development all countries in the region must try to guarantee the elimination of institutionalized racism and racial discrimination.

Although Afro-Latinos in general live in the poorest regions in Latin America, and have the lowest level of income, the situation is even worse when we analyze the gender component. In other words, Afro-descendant women are not only the most excluded people in the region, but they suffer the consequences of domestic and sexual violence, just as other women do. That is why it is also urgent to find solutions to this problem and recognize their relevant role as promoters of culture and values.

In the frame of institutionalized racial exclusion, the Afro-descendant population is the victim of intolerance problems. Many governments and academics have said that there is no racism or racial discrimination in their countries, because legal segregation does not exist. Nevertheless, this fact does not mean the non-existence of racist practices in the region. In fact, some studies demonstrate that institutionalized racism is related to the lack of knowledge and poverty of most Afro-Latinos.  

            External invasions have meant that Afro-descendants have tended to lose their natural resources and lands, which has resulted in massive migrations to big cities and towns, because the population usually considers these are better places to solve their problems, even though they also suffer discrimination there. Sometimes the migrations are forced by illegal groups and/or the State itself, which represents one of the worst human rights violations, if we consider their ancestral rights to their lands.

Afro-descendants present a dramatic situation in terms of health and housing, and they are also excluded from the welfare system. This has been historically produced by racial discrimination against them, and has resulted in more poverty problems.    Their dramatic situation has also strengthened the noxious cycle “socio-racial exclusion - poverty - low economic growth”.

That means the exclusion suffered by Afro-descendants increases their poverty problems, reduces their potential and possibilities of working under a healthy and efficient environment, and negatively affects the productivity of the countries.

The Afro-descendant population has limited access to the education system in all countries. Socio-racial prejudices that came from slavery became a characteristic of Latin-American societies, and despite the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, the education system continues promoting racist and discriminatory ideas.

The region has minimized how important both Africans and Afro-Latinos during the independence war were, and their role in the national identities building processes. Moreover, the education system itself has promoted the use of racist stereotypes and ideas that have obviously produced self-esteem problems among the Afro-descendant communities. This situation has become another obstacle for Afro-descendants to access to labor markets at both public and private levels.        

Racial discrimination, racism and socio-racial exclusion are responsible for the concentration of Afro-descendants in the low-paid labor market. They earn lower salaries than the legal minimums and they usually comprise the majority of convicted people. Their access to labor markets is influenced by the lack of equity they suffer in educational terms. That is why the States and private companies must implement policies and programs towards the elimination of labor discrimination against Afro-descendants, and promote equal access to all kinds of employment.

Labor discrimination is stronger when the victim is an Afro-descendant, which is a violation of the right to work, which is defended by several international human rights treaties that have been ratified by all States in the region. That is why loans and labor markets for Afro-Latinos are limited, and it is important to emphasize the situation is even worse when we see the gender component. In Latin America, most women with African backgrounds earn less than white people and mestizos with the same academic level and professional background.

If States create political, cultural and social conditions to improve the economic situation of Afro-Latinos, equal development and economic growth would be easier to achieve for the region in the following years. For this reason, Afro-descendants urgently require the implementation of affirmative action policies and programs at both public and private levels, which will lead to them being included in all social, economic, cultural and political activities established by the national constitutions.

Racial discrimination and racism also affect Afro-Caribbean people. As a matter of fact, these problems are the main cause of their poverty. External invasions, and political, social, economic and cultural hegemonies have been the characteristics of institutionalized racism, socio-racial exclusion and racial discrimination against the Afro-Caribbean population.  

Both Afro-Latinos and Afro-Caribbean people are strongly affected by the same structural problems (especially poverty, racial discrimination and socio-racial exclusion) and present the worst socio-economic indicators in terms of their access to the education system, to health and social services, to land and housing, and to loans and labor markets, which make Afro-descendants the poorest of the poor in the Americas.

Latin America is the region in the world with the worst distribution of income, and this situation has increased for the last decades because of the implementation of wrong socio-economic development models and policies. Distribution of income is even worse when we consider the ethnic component. Without a doubt, in all Latin American countries white people and mestizos have more opportunities than Afro-descendants to access to social services and education, and this has produced more poverty, exclusion, inequality and racial discrimination against them.    

Despite the disadvantageous social situation of Afro-Latinos, their contribution to economies in the region has been crucial. Afro-descendants are producers of goods and services, and they represent a market of 150 millions costumers. They are central to many key areas of production, and the standard of living of the middle-classes of most countries in the region could not be maintained without the domestic work contributions of Afro-descendant women and young Afro-Latinos.

Moreover, the informal sector that provides goods and services, and feeds the low-income and poorer sectors of the Latin American population is sustained by Afro-descendants. Latin America’s quality of life today would be unrecognizable without the active economic presence of Afro-descendants. Yet, like their ancestors centuries before them, they are not properly rewarded economically or even respected socially.

The perpetuation of systems and attitudes that confine Afro-descendants to low-paid, racially-defined areas of work, where education plays a limited role in terms of advancement, is therefore seen by many to be only a slightly altered, modern version of slavery.

As the well-documented study Afro-descendants, Discrimination and Economic Exclusion in Latin America [i] concludes, in Latin America and the Caribbean freedom of movement and advancement in the economic arena is blocked by racial discrimination in education, recruitment and promotion, and by workers’ lack of knowledge about their human, social and economic rights. This forces a large mass of workers to be available consistently to function only as cheap labor in sectors where the “white” population does not wish to work. This not only stifles the self-development of Afro-descendants, but also guarantees the continuation of the unequal distribution of income that I have already mentioned.

This dispensation may guarantee a better quality of domestic life for the middle and upper classes in Latin America but, as in prior eras, it is achieved at the expense of Afro-descendants’ rights. It could also be argued that, if theses are the economic gain for the region, from a population that has been educationally and socially suppressed, one can only wonder what Latin America’s economy may be missing by condoning or by continuing to do nothing about eliminating their social and economic exclusion, and poverty. [ii]      

Some studies and reports [iii] have shown how these practices contributed to the slow economic growth of Latin America and the Caribbean. Discriminatory employers and institutions that invest less in training Afro-Latinos than white people and mestizos, fail to invest in a very large section of the population and limit the economic potential of the entire region.

It is perhaps important to recall at this stage, that the demise of both slavery and apartheid owed as much to their economic inefficiency as to their moral. In the long term, market discrimination and segmented economies established along racial, ethnic and gender lines diminish productivity, growth and economic development. [iv]  

The creation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas would undoubtedly serve the best interests of the region to promote the inclusion of Afro-descendants, with a focus on increasing educational opportunities, and decreasing the racial discrimination and other factors that perpetuate their socio-racial and economic exclusion.

It is important to point out that many governments in Latin America are parties to key Conventions and Covenants that have an impact on Afro-descendants’ rights. Therefore, there is - at least - an understanding of the need for rights and an agreement about the basic equality of rights. The performance of these states on issues of racial discrimination and the treatment of minorities show that progress has been made on the legislative front - at least in terms of enacting legislation - but there is far less progress in implementing such legislation. [v] When it comes to policy enforcement, the racial prejudices of the civil servants involved prevent effective application.

Afro-descendants are generally not considered, nor are they involved, in the design of policies and programs that affect them, particularly those policies such as the decentralization of resources to municipalities where Afro-descendants are demographic majorities, and in socio-economic policies related to non-traditional exports. [vi]

Although many countries have begun to introduce legislation to recognize Afro-descendants as minorities, and to punish racial discrimination, few of these laws are really enforced. When they are enforced, their application by the authorities usually discriminates against the interests of Afro-descendants.

This is achieved via delays, when the outcome is likely to be beneficial to Afro-descendants, or by undue swiftness when it will work against them. This occurs especially in the titling of property for peasants who have encroached upon and occupied Afro-descendant ancestral lands.

The most detrimental omission by Latin American governments, however, is their failure to establish appropriate institutions to denounce the violations of the social, cultural and economic rights of Afro-descendants, and to demand retribution. [vii]

There is a need to transform the public perception of Afro-descendants through changes in the formal education curriculum, to incorporate an accurate history, and the contribution of both Africans and Afro-descendants in Latin America. Yet, apart from developing a bilingual education curriculum in some Central American countries, no known efforts are being made at any level in the region to change attitudes about socio-racial exclusion and discrimination. [viii]

Afro-descendant invisibility in socio-economic development programs began to be addressed in 1999, via the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Census Departments of the region. Since 2002, the censuses have been encouraged to include several questions of ethnic identity and “race”, but with mixed results, often because neither questioner nor questioned are clear about the benefits of counting or being counted. [ix]

For most Afro-descendant organizations and community leaders, there are still no significant programs being designed or implemented expressly for their communities and towns, especially at the kinds of levels required to make an appreciable difference, given their long history of exclusion and racial discrimination.

That is why Afro-descendant organizations have identified the following key strategies, not only to make effective Afro-descendants’ political, social, cultural, constitutional and economic rights, but also to guarantee socio-racial inclusion and development with equality throughout Latin America:

First, the governments in the region have to educate professionals with African backgrounds in the evaluation of public policies, especially those regarding Afro-Latinos; second, it is important to strengthen Afro-descendant networks in order to design socio-racial inclusion projects and plans; third, both governments and Afro-descendant organizations must establish priorities in the face of problems such as unemployment, racial discrimination, institutionalized racism and poverty.

Fourth, it is necessary to support and promote laws regarding Afro-descendant issues; fifth, Afro-descendant organizations should create partnerships with the public and private sectors, and the universities in the region, to get an important labor force of Afro-Latinos with a high educational level; and sixth, it is indispensable to work on equal development while eliminating the problems that I have been mentioning in this paper.

These strategies make us suggest the following development proposals, in order to not only eliminate the poverty of all Afro-descendants, but also to achieve more economic growth and respect for human rights in the region:

First, both governments and Afro-descendant organizations have to work on the promotion and implementation of programs regarding Afro-descendant enterprises and small businesses; second, they also have to work on the creation of working groups on health and social services for Afro-Latinos; third, they have to support the establishment of regional events and forums on Afro-Latinos, in order to obtain a clear comprehension of those programs and policies regarding the Afro-descendant population.

Fourth, Afro-descendants must create a political culture that allows them to negotiate their votes in an efficient way with candidates that are running for the Presidency and other electoral positions in order to promote policies that benefit Afro-descendant communities; fifth, governments and Afro-descendant organizations have to promote and support affirmative action policies and programs, especially to improve the access to higher education and employment.

Sixth, they have to promote the assistance and international cooperation to make effective their proposals; seventh, they have to promote the creation of an Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination against Afro-descendants and indigenous people, and support the Inter-American Human Rights Commission at the Organization of American States, which has been working on Afro-descendant issues for the last five years; and eighth, they should empower the regional integration under a context that promotes socio-racial inclusion and equity development, and demands international respect for them.

Finally, all countries must make political decisions that support Afro-Latinos, and eliminate socio-racial exclusion in the region, not only because this exclusion causes poverty and human rights violations, which is against both international and national norms, but also because of its negative impact on social development and regional economic growth.

[i] BRYAN, Maurice and SÁNCHEZ, Margarita, with MRG partners. “Afro-descendants, Discrimination and Economic Exclusion in Latin America”. Minority Rights Group International, London, May 2003

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] See Bibliography. Note: This essay as well as other documents on Afro-descendants and Afro-Colombians can be downloaded from and

[iv] BRYAN, Maurice and SÁNCHEZ, Margarita, op. cit., p. 15

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid. p. 16

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.


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BRYAN, Maurice y SANCHEZ, Margarita. Afro-descendents, Discrimination and Economic Exclusion in Latin America. Minority Rights Group International. London, 2003.

CARLSON, Beverley. Social dimensions of economic development and productivity: inequality and social performance. CEPAL. Santiago de Chile, 1999.

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MORNER, Magnus. Race Mixture in the History of Latin America. Little, Brown and Company. Boston, 1973.

MYERS, Aaron. O valor da Diversidade Racial nas Empresas. En: Revista Estudos Afro-Asiáticos No. 3. Río de Janeiro, 2003.

OAKLEY, Peter. La exclusión social y los afrolatinos. Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo. Washington DC, 2001.

REALES, Leonardo. Racial Discrimination and Lack of Empowerment. The Afro-Colombian Case. Paper. CSHR / Columbia University. New York, 2002.

REALES, Leonardo. Pobreza y exclusión socio-racial en América Latina. El caso afrolatinoamericano. Monografía para optar al título de Magíster en Asuntos Políticos, Económicos e Internacionales. Universidad Externado / IAED. Bogotá, 2005.

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