African–Latin American Relations

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African–Latin American Relations

Africa's relationship with Latin America dates to the earliest days of European expansion in the Atlantic world. It was European, particularly, Portuguese, attempts to expand the slave trade to the West African coast during the fifteenth century that led to the shipbuilding and navigational innovations that enabled Europeans to cross the Atlantic. Because African slavery already existed in Europe, both free and enslaved Africans accompanied the earliest European voyages of exploration and conquest, including the Cortez and Pizarro expeditions.

The widespread introduction of African slaves to the Americas followed the Portuguese success at transferring plantation techniques to Brazil from islands off the West African coast. The technologies of sugar monoculture and refining, along with the use of coerced labor, soon spread to other European colonies. In total, between eight and ten million African slaves were brought to the Americas from the sixteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. Their presence was heaviest in the Caribbean, the most intensely exploited parts of Brazil, and the coasts of Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

The slave trade marked Latin America culturally and demographically, cementing means of production and social organization based on the inequitable participation of peoples of African descent. In Africa the trade caused political instability and the drain of productive labor. The exchange changed food culture, especially by introducing manioc and corn to Africa, and introducing sugar, rice, and open-range cattle ranching to the Americas. In the nineteenth century, a contraband slave trade sustained direct contact between Africa and Parts of Latin America, particularly Cuba, Puerto Rico and Brazil, where slavery was still practiced until the last decades of the nineteenth century. Slave ships also carried African goods—particularly religious artifacts—to Latin American markets and carried some former slaves to Africa, especially from Brazil. These created neighborhoods of merchants, and their descendants continued to consider themselves ethnically Brazilian. Brazilian districts survive in Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. Ironically, the suppression of the slave trade during the nineteenth century spurred the formal European colonization of Africa and closed African societies to external trade, virtually ending contact between Africa and Latin America.


African decolonization changed this equation. African nationalism in the aftermath of World War II addressed not only the struggle to be rid of colonial masters but also sought liberation—the breaking of webs of dependency and exploitation. This conception coincided with the rise of developmentalism in Latin America, which aimed as well to liberate these countries from economic dependency. Whereas the coincidence of these goals brought Africa and Latin America back to each other's attention, in practice they proved unreachable. African countries succumbed to neocolonial economic relations with their former colonial rulers. Latin American countries failed to reconcile the more radical implications of developmentalism with their conservative social structures.

Still, the decolonization of Africa reshaped the Atlantic. Brazil, revolutionary Cuba, and to a lesser extent Mexico and Argentina, sought to develop ties with new African states. The most ambitious of these initiatives was that of Brazil, which opened embassies in Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Zaire, South Africa, Kenya, and Ethiopia during the 1960s. For Latin Americans, the multiplication of states in the developing world seemed to increase their leverage with the developed world. This was the focus of the 1955 Bandung Conference of Asian and African states, which led in 1961 to the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement, an alliance of countries seeking autonomy from the United States and the Soviet Union. Latin American countries participated in this movement to varying degrees. Brazil sent observers. Fidel Castro led the movement during part of the 1970s.

Since 1960, African-Latin American relations have been focused on four areas: 1) generating coalitions within international organizations; 2) forming producer's associations able to improve market conditions for such commodities as coffee and cacao; 3) direct trade; 4) political alliances in favor of specific foreign policy goals.

An example of these relationships can be found in the case of Brazil, the Latin American country with the most extensive involvement in Africa. Through the influence of foreign ministers Mario Gibson Barboza (1969–1974) and Antonio Azeredo da Silveira (1974–1979), Brazil built coalitions with African cacao- and coffee-producing countries and gained support for its candidates for positions at the United Nations and other international organizations. It imported Nigerian oil and exported cars and trucks as well as consumer goods particularly suited to African markets (such as refrigerators that ran on propane and could be used in areas without electricity, promoted by soccer star Pelé). It succumbed to African pressure to support the decolonization of Portuguese Africa in 1974–1975 and to oppose South African apartheid.

A dramatic moment in Latin America's relationship with Africa was the deployment in 1975 of Cuban troops to the former Portuguese colony Angola. Eventually, 45,000 Cuban soldiers were sent to help the Marxist Angolan government fight an invasion by South Africa, and they remained until 1991. The Cubans fought South African soldiers on Angolan soil, eroding the white South African regime's confidence in its ability to sustain apartheid militarily, especially as white families became increasingly reluctant to enlist their sons.

While Cuban involvement in Angola was conducted initially without the knowledge of the Soviet Union, which reluctantly backed its ally, in 1977 it was the Soviet Union that compelled Cuba to take part in Ethiopia's war with Somalia. Cuba's legacies in Africa were the preservation of Angolan autonomy, the destabilization of Ethiopia, and an extensive program of deploying doctors and teachers to different countries. It was the only one of the warring factions in Angola that left behind maps of its landmines.

The Cuban commander in Angola and Ethiopia, General Arnaldo Ochoa, was the figure most visibly identified with that country's military successes. He was executed in 1996 on drug smuggling charges, though some argued that he was really executed because he rivaled Castro in popularity. Castro visited Africa in 1977, and Brazilian President General João Baptista Figueiredo did so in 1983. Brazilian president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva made four trips that included seventeen countries between 2003 and 2005, reigniting Brazilian efforts to forge a united front among developing countries on world trade, the manufacture of generic drugs for diseases such as HIV, and debt relief.

See alsoCuba: Cuba Since 1959; Slave Trade.


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                                          Jerry DÁvila

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African–Latin American Relations

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