Latin America’s Silent Racism

By Ivet Gonzalez (IPS-Cuba)

A protest against racism and president Jair Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo: Guilherme Gandolfi / Fotos Públicas

HAVANA TIMES – The age old silence regarding racism in Latin America and the Caribbean puts a drag on the activism stoked by worldwide demonstrations over the death of African American George Floyd in the United States, and spotlighting each country’s own victims of police brutality, at a moment when the impact of COVID-19 has widened the racial gap.

“This social explosion brings to light the hypocrisy that prevails in our Latin American countries,” Paola Yanez, general coordinator of the Afro-Latinx, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women’s Network, told the IPS news service. The network has representatives in 21 of the 33 countries of the region, as well as among immigrants living in the United States.

“They’re demonstrating in rejection of the violence against African Americans in the United States, but they’re incapable of recognizing the structural racism in our counties,” lamented the activist from La Paz, Bolivia. “We live in societies that deny racism just because there wasn’t a history of racial segregation like in the United States,” she explained.

“The struggle against racism never stopped,” Yanez continued. “What we’re seeing now is people’s fatigue with a system where racism is one of its pillars, and a retaking of the streets,” in the United States, Europe and even Australia. However, in the area that houses more than 130 million people of African descent, protests have been reported only in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

In addition, a group of ultra-nationalists interrupted the homage “A flower for Floyd” that the NGO attempted to hold on June 9, at Independence Park in the Dominican Republic. The NGO defends the rights of the children of Haitians born in the Dominican Republic, one of the two nations that share the Antilles isle of Hispaniola.

“The denunciations of young black men killed by the police have always been on the agenda of black activists from Brazil,” university professor Patricia Alves informed IPS from the city of Florianapolis, in the country where the number and proportion of deaths of black people at the hands of the police exceed those of the United States.

According to the 2019 edition of the Brazilian Annual Report on Public Safety, 75.4 percent of the deaths caused by the police are Afro-descendants, the majority of them young. In this South American country, 55 percent of the population are black or mestizo.

“The novel Coronavirus brought a new vulnerability, if that’s possible. Teenager Joao Pedro, killed by the police, was proof that the majority of the black population has no rights during the quarantine, even when they’re at home,” Alves stated, referring to a case that predated the May 25 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of the police.

In a Rio de Janeiro slum, Joao Pedro Mattos, 14, was playing with other kids at his uncle’s home on May 18, when he was fatally shot, supposedly during an altercation between delinquents and police forces. The incident is now under investigation. His parents located the lifeless body of their son 17 hours later, at the Institute for Legal Medicine.

A monument to the rebel slave in Matanzas, Cuba. Photo: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

“So many lives have been taken (…) it’s impossible to call out so many names,” lamented a member of the Brazilian Association of Black Educators. “Poor black people who live on the outskirts of the city have to choose between dying from the Coronavirus or dying of hunger.”

On May 19, another example of extreme police violence occurred in Colombia, in the town of Puerto Tejada, in the Cauca department. Twenty-one-year-old Anderson Arboleda apparently violated the quarantine. His subsequent encounter with police agents left him with grave head injuries which caused his death on May 22, in the city of Cali.

“In Brazil, a black person dies at the hands of police forces every 23 minutes. Colombia has the highest incidence in the world of assassinations of activists, many of them of African descent,” Puerto Rican sociologist Agustin Lao-Montes asserted from Bogota.

To Lao-Montes, “The Black Lives Matter movement has gone viral over social media, and that has resonated in Latin America and throughout the world.”

“The global wave of anti-racist protests that followed the assassination of George Floyd (…) feeds the awareness and capacity for action of the forces against racism in the Latin American region, which had already been growing through the robust activism maintained since 1990,” he felt.

Other activists in defense of black people’s rights note some negative effects of the current phenomenon on the movement for racial democracy in Latin America.

Comments from Cuba

“I don’t know if it gives me hope or rage to see certain media outlets, institutions and social movements now appearing to pay attention and take note of the seriousness of these murders in the Latin American region,” indicated activist Alberto Abreu from the city of Matanzas in the west of Cuba.

“If only those crimes had merited all of the media coverage and negative responses that they provoke when they happen in the United States,” he felt.

In Cuba, the local problem has received scant recognition. The reactions to Floyd’s death have been limited to social media, with some mentions of incidents of internal police violence, incidents for which there are no public records, especially when they’re against political activists that oppose the socialist government. The latter refuses to recognize them.

Activists made declarations and collected signatures, and performance artist Luis Manuel Otero organized an online event: “One minute of oxygen for Floyd”. Photos circulated of five antiracist activists who held protest signs on June 10th at a monument to Afro-American martyr Malcolm X in a park in downtown Havana.

“An atmosphere is created in the Latin American social and political mentality that downplays the seriousness and specificity of racism in our countries, assuming that racism in the United States is more ferocious than ours,” Cuban activist Roberto Zurbano reflected from Havana.

“The social and antidiscrimination movements will have to think about the larger lesson. These have scaled back their antiracist demands in the last decade, and have seen how their struggle has been coopted by the politicians, academics and the bureaucracy of international organizations during this Decade of the Afro-Descendants,” Zurbano, also a researcher, concluded.

The current situation occurs in the middle of the International Decade of Afro-Descendants (2015 – 2024) that was declared by the United Nations, whose proposals for recognition, development and justice for the African population have barely been heard or implemented by the governments of the region.

“But we’re not throwing in the towel. Let’s not forget that the Decade is the creation of our movement’s networks, and one of its principal objectives is to establish a Permanent Forum for Afro-Descendants in the UN, similar to that established with the indigenous populations,” Lao-Montes maintained.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean estimated in a December 2017 report that the population of African descent included some 130 million people, representing 21 percent of the total population of the region. Brazil is home to the greatest number of Afro-Descendants, followed by Cuba, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama.

On April 28, the United Nations Population Fund issued an alert and recommendations to the different countries regarding the disadvantages and inequalities of this portion of the population in its report, “Implications of COVID-19 among the Afro-descendant Population of Latin America and the Caribbean.”