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Racist Latin America? | The World Weekly

La Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires, home of Boca Juniors, shakes whenever the local football club meets its sworn rival, River Plate, in the ‘Superclásico’ derby. This is more than a metaphor: its structure bounces as supporters jump in unison. No other football rivalry is more legendary in Latin America.

When the visiting team scores, River’s ‘barras bravas’ (hooligans) raise their arms, face their opponents and chant: “Go live in Bolivia, all your family is there”. La Bombonera quivers. “You come from Bolivia and Paraguay and live in a ‘villa’ (slum),” they continue. This is a “joke”, not a violation of the discrimination law, argued Luis Cevasco, an Argentine attorney, when the Bolivian embassy took the chants to court in 2009. 

Is this an isolated incident? The most recent poll by the Argentine Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism (INADI) found that 36% of the population think “Argentina should be only for Argentines”. President Mauricio Macri has recently issued a decree to limit access for immigrants. 

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), one of five regional UN commissions, observes a similar trend across the region. One study indicates that hostility against immigrants is more intense when they are not white and originally come from countries with higher proportions of indigenous people or Afro-Latinos. This is reflected in the way Argentines perceive Bolivians, Chileans see Peruvians and Venezuelans view Colombians.

Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru and Mexico have the largest proportion of indigenous people, while the Dominican Republic and Brazil are home to the largest Afro-Latino communities in absolute numbers.

When Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors took control of Latin America in the 16th century, they imposed European culture on native populations, and the subsequent wave of independence movements did not return power to the indigenous population since they were led by elites of European origin. There has been only one indigenous political leader in the region’s modern history.

In Brazil, which presents itself as a rainbow nation, the cabinet of President Michel Temer is entirely white and male. It has recently cut funding for the National Indian Foundation - “a clear policy against the acquired rights of the Brazilian indigenous people,” according to Maria de Lourdes Beldi de Alcantara of Sao Paulo University.

Colombia has been hailed for its peace accord with the FARC rebels, but the process revealed its own ethnic struggle. Afro-Latino and indigenous communities were among those most affected by the conflict but fought hard to have their voices heard in the final negotiations. And Ecuador’s Amazon region is currently the scene of a severe conflict between natives and the government of Rafael Correa, who granted a Chinese company a mine in lands where indigenous Ecuadorians live.

The little progress that has been made is for many embodied in Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia and Latin America’s first and only modern indigenous leader. Since coming to power in 2006 he has sought to empower indigenous people.

Although Latin America has escaped the rise of headline-grabbing right-wing movements opposed to mass immigration, discrimination is pervasive. In one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the world, many life chances are determined at birth.

Skinheads among “mestizos”?

Several years ago, Martin Quispe Mayta of the Quechua ethnic group hung a large red flag bearing a black and white falcon and a symbol suspiciously similar to the swastika on the facade of a wooden house in Lima, Peru. These were the headquarters of the Andean Peru National Socialism movement, a far-right group set up with the aim to expel Peruvian Jews. In a country with a tiny Jewish community representing just 0.02% of the population, his political career did not go very far. Similar movements also failed.

Current right-wing extremists in Europe have focused their hostility on Muslims, whereas immigration flows in Latin America are mainly between neighbouring countries with similar cultures. Religion tends not to be a divisive issue because the region is predominantly Catholic.

Colombian skinheads take part in a demonstration in Bogota

“The far right exists in Latin America, but it does not have the importance that it acquires in the European scene,” Isaac Caro, author of ‘Right Extremists and Neo-Nazi movements’, told The World Weekly. Nonetheless, ethnic discrimination plays out on a daily basis.

The elephant in the room

“Fatal accident in Flores, two people and one Bolivian died,” ran an infamous headline on the Argentine news cable channel Crónica TV several years ago. It was on air for only a few seconds, but continues to generate debate and derision to this day.

Like the football chants in Buenos Aires, the sort of discrimination that permeates Latin America is not proud and self-proclaimed but subtle, latent in everyday expressions and often disregarded by those not subjected to it.

Dark skin, slanted eyes and short stature are observed as common traits in Peru, where only 6% of society is white, but it is difficult to find them in a media landscape dominated by European looks. Across the region, Western beauty standards prevail in advertising and television.

Discrimination is “primarily exercised by ‘mestizos’ (mixed racial origin) against two large non-European descendent groups: the indigenous and Afro-descendant populations”, explained Fernando García, an Ecuadorian anthropologist.

The World Bank estimates that Latin America is home to approximately 28 million indigenous people and 150 million Afro-Latinos. Combined, they represent around 40% of the region’s population, yet they remain the poorest segment of society. The largest group is defined as ‘mestizo’.

Poverty, marginalisation and exclusion are endemic among indigenous and Afro-Latino populations, according to CEPAL. These communities have less access to health, education and justice systems than whites, as well as having a tougher time in the job market. The World Bank estimates that 80% of Afro-Colombians live in extreme poverty, while a 2012 Princeton study shows that people with lighter skin colour tend to have higher levels of schooling. 

Take Chocó, a northwestern region of Colombia known as one of the country’s most war-ravaged areas and for its large Afro-descendant population. “It is a jungle with poor infrastructure,” said Paula Guisado, a journalist from Medellín. “It barely has a road system and the most remote villages have to be reached by river”. Water and electricity can be hard to come by.

Children walk in Las Mercedes, rural area of Choco in Colombia

A colonised status quo

Discrimination against indigenous and Afro-Latino populations can be traced back to European colonialism, said Gustavo Verdesio, professor of Native American Studies at the University of Michigan. “The non-European ethnic groups were economically exploited and, therefore, condemned to occupy the lower echelons of the social pyramid.” But he also thinks it is unfair to point the finger solely at colonial injustices, because these structures were maintained and adapted by white elites once the region became independent.

For five centuries, indigenous and Afro-Latino people were pulled away from the spheres of power. “The constant application of unfavourable public policies made native societies increasingly impoverished,” says Javier Rodríguez Mir, an anthropologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

I would like to say above all to the indigenous brothers of America concentrated here in Bolivia: the campaign of 500 years of indigenous-black-popular resistance has not been in vain.”  - Evo Morales, Bolivian president in his inaugural speech

But this started to change in the final decades of the 20th century. Águeda Gómez Suárez from the Spanish University of Vigo thinks “we are witnessing the emergence of indigenous movements as key social and political actors in the Latin American context”. This started in the 1980s and climaxed with the election of Mr. Morales, an ethnic Aymara, as president of Bolivia.

Embracing ‘the good life’?

“Sumaj Kawsay”, translated as ‘the good life’ from Quechua, is the utopian ideology that spiritually and politically guides indigenous leaders. Ollantay Itzamná, an indigenous journalist from Honduras, explained its principles: “The horizon is to make structural transformations, not only focusing on the rights and assets of the human community, but the rights and welfare of Mother Earth.”

Bolivian President Evo Morales greets an 'amauta' (priestess) during an indigenous ritual held in the temple complex of Tiwanaku

Depicted by the international media as an exotic character who participates in rain rituals, Mr. Morales has incorporated indigenous rights, values, institutions and symbols into the constitution. For Mr. Itzamná, this has not only made room for indigenous culture in the Bolivian corridors of power, but also symbolised the official acceptance of diversity in Latin America more broadly.

A 2016 survey by Latinobarómetro shows that support for democracy among Bolivians increased hit 71% in 2009, in part because of Mr. Morales’ inclusion policies, even though critics accuse him of trying to cling to power beyond the term limit.

Mr. Rodríguez Mir thinks the native American ideology may push the continent towards a “fairer, more equalitarian, democratic, multicultural and multiethnic society”. But is “the good life” really gaining ground? Not so, according to data collected by CEPAL since 2000 which shows that indigenous, Afro-Latino and Afro-Caribbean populations continue to record the worst scores in economic and social indicators and get little cultural recognition.

Every year, the eyes of Latin America look at the Bombonera’s great Argentine derby and every time, you will hear “Bolivian” and “Paraguayan” used as insults.

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