Politics and Politicians in Latin America

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Politics and Politicians in Latin America

The black political experience is complex and diverse. The Spanish, Portuguese, and French colonial rulers and their descendants enslaved and exploited Africans and their descendants for four centuries. The exact nature of the black experience varied greatly according to numerous factors, including colonial power, political system, economy, culture, leadership, and the size and concentration of the black population. In general, AfroLatin Americans have struggled to resist, survive, and overcome the brutal conditions into which they were placed.

Some blacks have created majority or all-black associations, organizations, and political parties to articulate their demands and defend their interests. Other blacks have worked across racial lines through armed groups, social movements, labor unions, professional associations, and political parties to achieve their goals. Africans and their descendants in the Americas have had diverse opinions on the relative importance of racial identity and on the best strategies to improve black living conditions. These inevitable differences remain vivid given the large number of AfroLatin Americans and the negative consequences of centuries of white dominance.


Most of the Africans captured in West and Central Africa for shipment to the Americas never completed the journey. Many Africans died before arrival in the New World as a result of the horrific conditions of the African slave trade. At the same time, about ten to twelve million Africans survived the deadly transatlantic Middle Passage.

Blacks have been involved in politics in Latin America since they arrived in significant numbers as servants and slaves in the 1500s. The early African presence was concentrated in the Caribbean and Mexico. Eventually, Brazil received the largest number of Africans. Wherever they were, the black masses were enslaved from the 1500s to the 1800s. Slavery in agriculture, mining, and domestic service comprised Africans' brutal reality in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Americas. From the 1500s to the 1700s, Africans outnumbered Spanish and Portuguese immigrants and represented the largest demographic group. During this period, indigenous people experienced a dramatic population decline throughout the Americas because of colonial European violence and diseases.

Today there are black people in every country in Latin America. Although they represent one third of Latin America's population, they are not distributed evenly throughout the region. In the Caribbean, African descendants are the largest percentage of the national populations. The South American countries of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Uruguay have very small black populations. In Central America and Mexico, the African-descendant communities are small and concentrated on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. There are some majority black communities on the Pacific coast of Colombia and Ecuador. In absolute numbers, Brazil and Colombia have the largest black populations in South America.

The 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s represented a holocaust of death, enslavement, and subordination of the African and indigenous populations by the Spanish and Portuguese colonial forces. Some Africans escaped their oppression and created maroon societies or runaway communities called quilombos in Brazil and palenques in areas colonized by the Spanish. The earliest black political leaders in the Americas were the rulers of these communities such as Gaspar Yanga in Mexico, Benkos Bioho in Colombia, and Zumbi dos Palmares in Brazil. However, most Africans lived and died under slavery. Black women were often raped and abused sexually by their white masters and overseers, thereby creating the initial and ultimately large mulatto population.

Developments during the 1800s brought opportunities for change, and the African-descendant population took advantage. Blacks in Haiti defeated French colonialism and abolished racial slavery with a revolution (17911804) that provoked fear among white elites in the United States, Spanish America, and Brazil. Independence struggles against Spain also created opportunities for AfroLatin Americans to not only take up arms for national sovereignty but also against slavery. In Mexico, Vicente Guerrero, of African and indigenous ancestry, helped lead the military struggle for independence and became Mexico's president in 1829. Generals Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín led the independence struggle in South America and included mulattos and blacks among their followers and supporters. Independence and abolitionist movements, as well as ongoing slave escapes and revolts, led to the abolition of slavery during the course of the century.

Postslavery Trends

Slavery ended last in Puerto Rico (1873), Cuba (1886), and Brazil (1888). In these countries and others, blacks did not enjoy the full benefits of freedom because the ruling white authorities were not committed to assisting the newly freed population with better education, housing, and employment options. The late 1800s and early 1900s were years of extreme white racism throughout the Americas. AfroLatin Americans often lived in slavelike conditions for decades after formal abolition. Many white elites were ashamed of their dark multiracial societies and actively recruited and subsidized European immigration. This whitening signaled a percentage decline of Latin America's black population.

By 1900 sovereignty in Cuba and Puerto Rico was thwarted by U.S. occupation. Cuba witnessed the efforts of independence leaders José Martí and Afro-Cuban Antonio Maceo distorted by various U.S. interventions and support for corrupt national leaders. Despite formal independence in 1902, some Afro-Cuban independence fighters such as Evaristo Estenoz and Pedro Ivonet remained unsatisfied with low Afro-Cuban political representation, jobs, and veterans benefits. Estenoz and others formed the Independent Party of Color (Partido Independiente de Color, or PIC) in 1907, the first black political party in the Americas. Frustrated with their marginalization and the eventual banning of their party, PIC leaders mobilized their supporters and called for armed rebellion. The Cuban government's response was unexpected. In 1912 the government killed the PIC's leadership and led a massacre of thousands of blacks. The killings had a chilling effect on independent Afro-Cuban political organizing for decades.

Under even greater repressive occupation than Cuba, Puerto Rico's independence movement declined because of external and internal forces. Pedro Albizu Campos, a Puerto Rican of African ancestry, was one of the most articulate and dynamic leaders for independence from the 1920s until his death in 1965. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Albizu Campos was familiar with American culture and politics. He returned to Puerto Rico in the 1920s, joined the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and dedicated his life to working for independence from the United States. Because of his effectiveness, Albizu Campos was imprisoned by U.S. authorities in 1936 and spent more than twenty years incarcerated in the United States and Puerto Rico.

In the 1930s there were two attempts to organize black political parties as a way to mobilize the black population and maximize its influence within the political arena. In Brazil, the Brazilian Black Front (Frente Negra Brasileira) was founded in the city of São Paulo in 1931. The Front's leaders such as Jose Correa Leite, Gervasio de Morães, Raul Amaral, and Arlindo and Isaltino Veiga dos Santos, protested desperate living conditions and racial discrimination and encouraged Afro-Brazilians to participate in politics. Expanding to different states throughout the country and enjoying increased popularity, the leadership transformed the Front into a political party. The "New State" dictatorship of President Getulio Vargas banned all political parties from 1937 to 1945. The Front never recovered.

In 1936 in Uruguay, black activists founded the Black Autochthonous Party (Partido Autoctono Negro, or PAN) to improve educational opportunities, fight racial discrimination, and support Afro-Uruguayan political participation. The party's founders were Elemo Cabral, Ventura Barrios, Pilar Barrios, and Salvador Betervide. Like the Brazilian Black Front, the PAN promoted black unity rather than racial separation. Both groups wanted to racially integrate their country's government by increasing black political representation. Although unsuccessful in getting blacks elected to public office, the Front and PAN expressed deep concerns about the political, social, and economic situation of blacks in their respective countries. The PAN fragmented and declined by the early 1940s.

One of the first successful black Latin American politicians of the twentieth century was Colombia's Diego Luis Córdoba. First elected to Congress in 1933, Córdoba held a series of distinguished elected and appointed positions until his death in 1964. A member of the left wing of the Liberal Party, Córdoba defended the poor and working classes and denounced racial discrimination against blacks. He successfully supported the legislation that passed in 1947 creating the new department (equivalent to a U.S. state) of Choco, a majority black area on Colombia's North Pacific coast. Initially elected to Congress as a deputy from the department of Antioquia, Córdoba later represented Choco as a senator from 1947 until 1964.

Contemporary Black Politics: 1960sPresent

In the 1960s and 1970s most Latin American countries experienced some type of authoritarian rule. The dictatorships routinely violated the rights and liberties of the people and often cancelled or manipulated elections. Many governments were actively hostile to explicit political organizing by blacks. Governments generally accused black activists of being racist, threatening to divide the country, and creating problems where they did not exist. However, because of poverty, racial inequality, racial discrimination against blacks, inspiring examples of black activism in the United States, African nations, and the English-speaking Caribbean, and their own traditions of political struggle, AfroLatin Americans continued probing for ways to exert political power. Since the 1980s most Latin American countries have made the transition to civilian rule, and this process has increased black opportunities for partisan electoral competition and popular participation.


Brazil has the largest population of African ancestry in the Western Hemisphere. Afro-Brazilian politics were reinvigorated with the emergence of new black movement organizations in the late 1970s. These groups protested racial discrimination and violence against blacks and criticized the Brazilian military dictatorship (19641985). Since 1970, black activists and intellectuals have been fighting to improve the oppressive conditions under which the vast majority of Afro-Brazilians live. Groups such as the Unified Black Movement (Movimento Negro Unificado, or MNU), the Black Cultures Research Institute (Instituto de Pesquisas das Culturas Negras, or IPCN), and Geledesthe Black Women's Institute (Instituto da Mulher Negra, Geledes) have been leaders in challenging the racial status quo in Brazil.

Many black politicians have also worked to change government inaction against racism and racial inequality. Activists-turned-politicians such as Abdias do Nascimento and Benedita da Silva took the arguments of the black movement into the Brazilian Congress. During the 1980s and 1990s black elected officials worked within the national Chamber of Deputies and Federal Senate to condemn the Brazilian "myth of racial democracy" as a smoke screen preventing government recognition of pervasive racial discrimination against blacks. One of the problems Nascimento and da Silva faced was the underrepresentation of blacks in Congress. In a country in which Afro-Brazilians officially represent almost fifty percent of the population, they made up less than five percent of Congress. Overcoming great obstacles, Nascimento, da Silva, and other progressive politicians and black movement activists persuaded political parties and the government to address the issue of race.

In Latin America, Brazil has experienced the most extensive range of state action. Nationally, the Brazilian government in 1988 created the Palmares Foundation (Fundação Cultural Palmares) whose purpose is to work with educational, governmental, and private institutions and the public to increase awareness of Afro-Brazilian contributions to Brazilian society and culture. The foundation publishes materials by and about Afro-Brazilians and sponsors educational forums. Moreover, President Fernando Henrique Cardoso's administration (19952003) welcomed and encouraged political debate and discussion regarding public policies to improve the situation of blacks.

By the end of the Cardoso administration, the national government and some state governments began passing controversial affirmative action legislation. Several states, including the large state of Rio de Janeiro, have adopted racial quotas for public university admissions. At the state and local levels in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and Rio Grande do Sul, government agencies such as the Council for Participation and Development of the Black Community (Conselho de Participação e Desenvolvimento da Comunidade Negra) and the Special Office for Afro-Brazilian Affairs (Secretária pela Promoção e Defesa Afro-Brasileira) were created to assist blacks.

The administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (20032007) has also addressed racial issues in innovative ways. Strongly influenced by the Workers Party's black activists and elected officials, the government created the Special Office for the Promotion of Racial Equality (Secretária Especial de Políticas de Promoção da Igualdade Racial, or SEPPIR) on March 21, 2003. The head of the Special Office is Matilde Ribeiro, a black activist who has been given cabinet minister status to recognize the government's commitment to pursuing pro-racial equality policies. Her efforts are based on "Brasil Sem Racismo" (Brazil Without Racism), a twenty-page document outlining the Lula presidential campaign's pledge to work toward eliminating discrimination, prejudice, and racism. The Lula administration has given greater visibility to its pro-black initiatives than any previous presidential administration. In a related and unprecedented move, President Lula appointed three additional Afro-Brazilians, Marina Silva (Environment), Gilberto Gil (Culture), and Benedita da Silva (Social Welfare), to cabinet minister positions.


In contrast to Brazil, Latin America's largest and most populous nation with 180 million citizens, Ecuador is geographically small and has a population of thirteen million. Afro-Ecuadorians are often neglected when national governments develop their policy priorities. During the 1980s and 1990s, leftist lawyer Jaime Hurtado Gonzalez, leader of the Democratic Popular Movement (Movimiento Popular Democratico, or MPD), was the most visible Afro-Ecuadorian politician. Hurtado served as national representative in Congress from 1979 to 1984 and was later a presidential candidate. He and an aide were assassinated on February 17, 1999, in the capital of Quito near the national Congress. Hurtado did not attempt to organize the Afro-Ecuadorian community around issues of racial empowerment or political advancement. He consistently emphasized exclusion and exploitation based on class. Hurtado's political party is influential in the majority black province of Esmeraldas. Rafael Erazo, an activist and member of the MPD from Esmeraldas, is a first term member (20032007) of Congress and Ecuador's only black provincial deputy.


Cuba is a unique case for examining the role of blacks in Latin American politics. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 brought Fidel Castro to power, where he remains more than four decades later. This Caribbean socialist revolution succeeded in transforming the country's political institutions and culture. Cubans worked hard to create an egalitarian society with an emphasis on free education and health care. The revolution has survived despite the sustained hostility of the U.S. government and the Cuban exile community concentrated in southern Florida. As the poorest segment of the country, blacks participated in and benefited from the revolutionary government's policies.

Under the revolution, Afro-Cubans have improved their levels of educational attainment and health care access while expanding political participation with increased government positions. Afro-Cubans have been government ministers, ambassadors, and members of parliament. The Cuban government is ruled by one political party, the Communist Party. Some blacks such as Esteban Lazo Hernandez and Pedro Saez Montejo have risen to positions of national leadership within the Communist Party.

At the same time, the official ban on political opposition outlaws independent black political organizing. Afro-Cubans cannot create groups to protest racial discrimination and pursue their race-specific political interests. This prohibition became a volatile issue in the 1990s during the Cuban economic crisis. The disappearance of Eastern European socialist regimes and the Soviet Union devastated the Cuban economy. The Cuban government responded by opening the economy to foreign investment, promoting tourism, and allowing Cubans to open small businesses. Afro-Cubans experienced a new racism as they were denied equal opportunities to work in the revitalized tourist industry. They protested their treatment and forced President Castro to acknowledge their concerns. As the economic situation remains difficult, resulting in increased prostitution and other crimes, racial inequality has reemerged as a significant issue.

dominican republic

Sharing the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, the Dominican Republic has developed a strong racist ideology, antihaitianismo (anti-Haitianism). Rooted in the white supremacy of Spanish colonialism and the Haitian occupation of the country from 1822 to 1844, the ideology holds that Dominicans are different from and better than Haitians. By exaggerating and idealizing the Hispanic and Catholic heritage of Dominicans and demonizing the African and vodou characteristics of Haitian culture, this ideology has penetrated significant sectors of Dominican culture, society, and politics. Reinforced through various political and military conflicts between Haiti and the Dominican Republic over the years, antihaitianismo has evolved into an elite control mechanism that allows Dominican leaders to divert attention away from serious domestic problems by blaming them fully or partially on Haitians. Thus, Dominican poverty, political instability, economic crises, corruption, and other major issues have been frequently blamed on Haitians.

One of the glaring ironies of the popularity and usefulness of antihaitianismo is that many Dominicans are

black and some proponents of antihaitianismo are black Dominicans who de-emphasize their African heritage and lighten themselves culturally by claiming nonblack ancestors and describing themselves as Indian. Blas Jiménez, the Afro-Dominican scholar, writer, and poet, has led the fight against this ideology and called on Dominicans to embrace their black identity and respect their Haitian brothers and sisters. The most successful Afro-Dominican politician was Peña Gomez, former mayor of the capital, Santo Domingo, and leader of the leftist Dominican Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Dominicano, or PRD). A strong opponent of American intervention in the country, Gomez ran unsuccessfully three times for president. He likely was denied election in 1994 through electoral fraud. Throughout his career and especially during his presidential campaigns, Peña Gomez was subjected to racist, anti-Haitian advertising that criticized his dark complexion, religious beliefs, humble origins, and even accused him of being Haitian. Throughout his political career, Pena Gomez refused to publicly confront and denounce the white racism of antihaitianismo. Following in the footsteps of Peña Gomez, Afro-Dominican entertainer Johnny Ventura was elected mayor of Santo Domingo, the country's largest city. Many Dominican politicians are mulattos, but few celebrate the country's African heritage and criticize the widespread white racist stereotypes of Haitians and Afro-Dominicans.


Since the 1960s, armed insurgents have been active in Colombia. This ongoing state of civil war as well as the country's central role in the international drug trade has contributed to widespread violence. A majority of Afro-Colombians are poor and especially vulnerable to the armed conflict in various parts of the country. Although traditional black communities are located on the Pacific and Atlantic coastal regions, blacks have migrated to other regions, including the capital of Bogotá, to seek better employment opportunities and to avoid the violence.

The national government has rarely conducted a racial census. As a result, there is uncertainty regarding the most accurate figure for the black population. Many Afro-Colombian scholars and activists argue that minimally between twenty-five and thirty-five percent of the national population is Afro-Colombian. There are black mayors and local elected officials in the historic Afro-Colombian regions, but blacks remain underrepresented politically at the national level. In the 1990s and in more recent years, Juan de Dios Mosquera, leader of the black human rights group Cimarron, has been one of the most visible and articulate activists demanding greater black representation in Congress and public policies to improve Afro-Colombian educational, employment, housing, and health care opportunities. High-profile black activists and politicians include Senator Piedad de Córdoba, former Choco senator Daniel Palacios, and former representatives Augustin Valencia and Zulia Mena.

The Colombian constitution of 1991 defined the nation as pluri-ethnic and multicultural in recognition of the important, but neglected, roles of indigenous and black groups in the country's development. Two years later, Law 70 was passed recognizing the Afro-Colombian population as an ethnic group with certain territorial, economic, political, and cultural rights. In 1994 the Office of Black Community Affairs (Dirección de Asuntos para las Comunidades Negras) was formed within the Interior Ministry to develop public policies to assist black communities in attaining their full constitutional rights. Despite these achievements, black community leaders like Carlos Rosero of the Black Communities Process (Proceso de Comunidades Negras, or PCN) argue that the government has not done enough to implement Law 70 and other policies to improve Afro-Colombian living standards.

latin america

Black political leaders and organizations are gaining visibility in Latin America. They are being elected to office in greater numbers, rising in the ranks of political parties and labor unions, and participating more in public debates. Nonetheless, they have fewer resources than other groups and are thus at a distinct disadvantage in their political struggles. This resource deficit and ongoing political struggles have prompted some Afro-Latin American activists to internationalize their struggle by establishing relationships with each other and taking their concerns to major international financial and governmental institutions around the world.

Many Afro-Latin Americans are protesting, organizing, and fighting. Although these efforts are rarely frontpage news, they illustrate that important segments of the black population refuse to be ignored and refuse to be quiet. AfroCosta Rican leader Epsy Campbell, in her capacity as an elected official (deputy) and as a leader of the Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Women's Network (La Red de Mujeres Afrocaribeñas y Afrolatinoamericanas), has emphasized that the issue of gender and sexism must be raised by black politicians and political organizations. The network has worked since the early 1990s to give black women a mechanism to organize against racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. The ongoing activities of Epsy Campbell and black women activists throughout Latin America demonstrate that they are challenging male chauvinism in black communities.

Blacks are underrepresented in national legislatures as well as state assemblies and city councils. As a result, some black politicians and activists who have supported race-specific government initiatives have built alliances and coalitions with nonblacks to achieve their goals. Black leaders have attempted to convince nonblack members of political parties, legislatures, and government bureaucracies of the necessity for state action to combat racial discrimination, poverty, and racial inequality.

Black legislators from Latin America organized two unprecedented meetings creating the foundation for new Afro-Latin American activism. On November 2123, 2003, in Brasília, Brazil, and May 1921, 2004, in Bogotá, Colombia, black elected officials from Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, and Honduras met to examine the situation of Afro-descendants in the Americas. The deputies, representatives, and senators agreed that black people in different Latin American countries often face similar hardships. These leaders have decided to meet again and discuss how they as elected officials can best work to improve the living conditions of their people.

See also Albizu Campos, Pedro; Anti-Colonial Movements; Anti-Haitianism; Coartación; da Silva, Benedita; Emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean; Frente Negra Brasileira; Maroon Societies in the Caribbean; Movimento Negro Unificado; Nascimento, Abdias do; Palmares; Racial Democracy in Brazil


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Politics and Politicians in Latin America

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Politics and Politicians in Latin America