CMWG: Members of Congress Discuss Challenges Facing Afro-Descendants in Latin America

A schoolboy in Florida (Valle), in Colombia UNESCO / Flickr / CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

The Inter-American Dialogue’s Congressional Members Working Group met on April 9, 2008 to discuss challenges facing Afro-descendants in Latin America. The event featured Sir Clare Roberts of the Inter-American Commission, Dr. Marcelo Paixão of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and Ambassador Antonio Patriota of Brazil. It was co-hosted by Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Jerry Weller (R-IL) and co-sponsored by the Inter-American Foundation.

Centuries of slavery brought millions of Africans to the Americas. Today, descendants of these original slaves number an estimated 150 million throughout Latin America. Brazil’s Afro-descendant population is the largest in the world, after Nigeria, and contributes to half of Brazil’s 185 million inhabitants. Colombia, Ecuador, and many Caribbean Basin countries also have significant Afro-descendant populations. Throughout the region, Afro-Latinos face disproportionate challenges, including poverty, illiteracy, shorter life expectancies, political under-representation, and lack of access to education and employment opportunities. These hardships are rooted in racial discrimination.           

Participants first emphasized the need for clear information that quantifies and explains the extent of racial disparities in Latin American countries. Countries must also recognize the negative role that racial discrimination plays in their societies and enact measures to combat it and improve opportunities for Afro-descendants.  

Participants commended recent efforts in Brazil to affirm its multiracial heritage and reduce racial disparities through the new cabinet-level Special Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality Policies and affirmative action programs. They called on other Latin American countries to do more and underscored the role that the United States can serve in funding programs that address the exclusion of Afro-Latinos.

Dinner participants acknowledged the need for greater bilateral and multilateral initiatives to combat racism. Citing the US walkout from the 2001 United Nations’ World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa, many emphasized that the United States’ participation in the next Durban Conference in 2009 would be critical in order to make significant progress at the multilateral level. Participants agreed that the United States should also participate in the drafting of the Inter-American Convention Against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance.

Participants also discussed the US-Brazil Joint Action Plan to Eliminate Racism and Ethnic Discrimination and Promote Equality, which was produced on Secretary of State Rice’s recent visit to Bahia, Brazil. They expressed hope that the new US-Brazilian initiative to combat racism would spur real action and bilateral cooperation.  

Finally, several participants noted the potential value of an inter-parliamentary network to work against racial discrimination and called for the strengthening of such regional relationships.

Hosts: Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Jerry Weller (R-IL)

Other Participating Members: Representatives Donna Christensen (D-VI), Sam Farr (D-CA), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Barbara Lee (D-CA)

Featuring: Sir Clare Roberts, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Afro-Descendants and Against Racial Discrimination and Racism for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; Dr. Marcelo Paixão, director of undergraduate studies at the Economic Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro; Ambassador Antonio Patriota of Brazil.  

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