Afro-Latin-American social movements

By Agustín Laó Montes | February 27, 2015
  • Author: Agustín Laó Montes
  • Journal: América Latina en Movimiento

2015 has been named as the year that begins the Decade for People of African Descent declared by the United Nations Organization.  The announcement has raised a number of proposals concerning its meaning and its implications.  Few have noticed that the ten-year period is the product of an agendum of  Afro-Latino-Americans in the context of the Third World Conference Against Racism celebrated in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, just as few have noted that the idea of representation in the United Nations Organization was first proposed by Malcolm X as spokesman for the Organization of Afro-American unity.

From this social movement perspective, the designation of 2011 as the International Year for People of African Descent and of 2015 as the beginning of the Decade are steps towards the creation of a Permanent Forum in the United Nations for the affairs of persons and peoples of African descent in the world, that is to say, the African continent and the global African diaspora.  From the angle of vision of social communities and movements, this should create a space for a wide participation in which representatives of the many areas of the African world can discuss problems, work out solutions, plan strategies for their well-being, organize collective actions, design and negotiate policies with governmental and transnational powers.  One example of the relevance of this institutional framework in which social movements play a leading role is the Permanent Forum of Indigenous Peoples in the United Nations Organization.  With this in mind, there is need for an analysis of various movements of peoples of African origins in Latin America and the Caribbean in today’s world.

Networks in action

In the 1980s and 1990s, networks of a social movement were appearing through Latin America and the Caribbean, movements that, in the beginnings of the XXI century established a modest political and cultural revolution in the region, whose expressions were the public recognition of racism as a problem and the creation of entities for racial equality and the representation of peoples of African origin throughout the region. These gains were result of the historical development of black movements that had put together a regional and global agenda against racism and for collective empowerment in the process towards the 2001 Durban conference.  The organization of the network of Afro-Latin-American and Caribbean women in 1992 and the Strategic Afro-descendant Alliance in 1998 were milestones in this organizational process.

The recognition of Afro-descendants as political subjects, with their own demands and complaints, became a double-edged sword; that is to say, as it opened the way to combat racism and to promote black power, it also made way for a relative integration of their political action in the institutions of the State and agencies of international cooperation, involving such pillars of transnational capital as the World Bank and the imperial State such as USAID.  This led to a split in the area of Black politics in the region to the point where, in 2011, the international year saw a division between the sector that Chucho García called the Afro-Right and the Afro-Latin-American left.  In this context, there were three key areas in debate: 1) the question of democracy considering the criticism of an “Africania” Summit in Honduras that was sponsored by the coup government of that country; 2) the position of people of African descent on the neoliberal capitalist globalization that the Afro-Right sees as a source of resources and power; while in contrast, the left understands it as a regional and world situation that establishes development programmes that expel black communities from their territories accompanied by neoliberal multicultural policies that recognize cultural rights for Black and indigenous peoples, and even denounce racism, even as they maintain the political and socio-economic status quo through which wealth and power remain in the hands of historically dominant whites and mestizos;   3) the relevance of distinctions between right and left for social movements of people of African origins.

In June of 2011, black Leftists of the region organized the Regional Articulation of Afro-descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean (ARAAC, for its Spanish acronym) with two consecutive conferences: the first in the Juan Marinello Centre of Cuba, and the other for the 4th Meeting of Afro-descendants and Revolutionary Transformations in Latin America and the Caribbean in Venezuela.   ARAAC is a social movement network that, as such, enjoys autonomy from the States and transnational institutions (NGOs, cooperative agencies, etc.). ARAAC promotes Afro-descendant causes, such as the elaboration and implementation of policies against racism and for ethnic-racial equity at every level, from local governments to regional initiatives of integration such as ALBA, UNASUR and CELAC.  In accord with its own programmatic alignments, ARAAC has opened up participation in State meetings for new regional integration, where resolutions against racism have been approved, along with representation and programmes for Afro-descendant peoples, as well as in regional meetings of social and political movements, such as the São Paulo Forum.  Nevertheless, there has not been much impact beyond resolutions, nor in the conditions of social and economic inequality, nor in the lack of political power, nor has the daily experience of racism lessened significantly for the majority of Afro-descendants.  This is the overwhelming situation throughout the region, even though there have been some relative achievements, especially in countries where historic change has taken place.

The gap between governmental discourse and decrees and the reality lived by the subaltern majorities is one of the principal challenges of social movements.  Since the constitutional change in 1987 in Nicaragua, the rhetoric has defined countries as inter-cultural, multi-ethnic and, in the cases of Bolivia and Ecuador, as pluri-national. But this relative ethnic and racial recognition has not resulted in substantive change in the Euro-centric/occidental curricula in educational systems and even less in changes in the redistribution of wealth and power in societies.  It is hardly surprising that the World Bank still regards Afro-Latin-Americans as “the poorest people of the Americas”, that the proportion of black students in the universities tends to be less than 3%, and that even the Afro-descendant political elites lack a share in the State pie. Indeed, if neoliberal capitalism has increased the gaps of inequality, we still cannot deny that the “progressive” or “post-neoliberal” States, or those of “21st century socialism” have failed to demonstrate the will to change these conditions.  The driving forces against structural racism, that is to say, against the historic inequalities, be they economic, political, or cultural, that characterize the condition of oppression of the subaltern majority of Afro-descendants in the region, are social movements, both the Black movements themselves, as well as through the participation of Afro-descendants in peasant, worker, feminist, ecological, urban and student movements and the like.

Progressive movements and governments

The collective actions of Afro-Latin-American movements have been opening spaces over time.  If Afro-Colombians had no representation in the constitutional assembly of 1991, when they were still not recognized as political actors, it was in that assembly that the bases were laid for the adoption of Law 70 (the so-called Law of the Blacks) in 1993, with stipulations for collective land ownership, Afro education, political representation and previous consultation.   This precedent, together with collective action of black movements across the region, traced the paths that later led to constitutional changes in Venezuela and Ecuador where there was recognition of rights for people of African descent.  Considering this, it can be asked: What difference does it make for Black movements and communities to be in a country actively under neoliberal capitalism and supportive of the U.S, imperial State such as Colombia, or to be in an anti-imperialist “progressive” country like Ecuador or Venezuela?

There are three key differences between neoliberal States and the projects for post-capitalist States: 1) the universal re-distributive strategies promoted by the neo-development policies of the post-neoliberal governments have benefited subaltern sectors up to a point, they have lessened but have not resolved the gap of social inequality of Afro-descendant groups; 2) in the new paradigms of emancipation there is greater political and ideological affinity with forms of differentiated citizenship where a plea for radical democracy is defined by multiple claims for justice concerning not only class but also ethnic-racial, ecological, gender and sexual oppression; 3) The States that pretend to engage with participatory democracy and identify, at least partially, as “governments of movements” have a moral obligation, at least rhetorically, to provide access to government to the constellation of movements.  Strictly there is no exercise of radical democracy in any country of the region, but the power of “clientelism” and political parties to intermediate is greater in the neoliberal States. In addition, at the level of foreign affairs, the anti-imperialist policies have had some impact, both in the importance that Cuba, and then Venezuela have given to diplomatic relations with African peoples, as well as with black movements in the United States.

With the Constitution of 2008, Ecuador approved the best laws in the world for Afro-descendants, declaring them to be a people, recognizing collective rights to land and education, calling for Afro-reparation in general and affirmative action in particular.  In 2010 the constitutional will was strengthened by a presidential decree that serves as the basis for a Pluri-national Plan against Racism and Discrimination.  Nevertheless, there are few visible changes, either in the situation with respect to daily racism, or in the building of a new project for a country where the Afro-descendant people would have greater recognition and power.  The First Afro-Ecuadorian Congress brought representatives of the whole country together in Guayaquil, in September of 2012, to draw up a political platform that still acts as a banner for mobilizing the grass-roots that took part in the meeting in order to fulfil political and organizational objectives.

The Colombian case

Colombia, the country with the third greatest Afro-descendant population in the Americas (after Brazil and the United States) is the scenario of the greatest disputes in Afro-Latin-American politics.  The first National Afro-Colombian Congress was celebrated in Quibdo, Chocó, in August of 2013, after 35 local congresses across the Colombian territory.   This meeting brought together all the tendencies in the vast and varied Afro-Colombian social movement, including the Afro-Right (both grass-roots and elite) to the plurality of identities, communities and sectors on the left that make up the whole.

The differences in this arena could be clearly perceived in the discourses.  President Santos, in the Congress of Quibdo and in the Global Summit of African Leaders, Mayors and the diaspora (celebrated in Cali and Cartagena in September of 2013), in addition to statements against racism, defended the neoliberal Alliance of the Pacific and its development plan through large mining projects that, together with armed conflict, is one of the main sources of the five million internal refugees in Colombia.  In contrast, the community councils and the platforms of social movement organizations (such as the Black Communities Process-PCN and CONAFRO), reject the neoliberal megaprojects, denounce the appropriation of ancestral land by armed actors and promote local autonomy for self-government and ecological production that is sustainable in consideration of food sovereignty.

The National Afro-Colombian Authority (ANAFRO), elected in the Quibdo meeting, is an authentic collective leadership, product of a deliberate and participatory process that represents not only the regional variety of the Afro-Colombian people, but also its diversity in terms of gender, generation and sexuality.  In their programmatic alignments, ANAFRO proposes that, given that the majority of the Afro-Colombian people live in cities, urban questions such as the collective consumption of education, health and housing, struggles against racism in urban areas, urban policies for the well-being of Afro-descendants (for instance, displaced families who live in marginal conditions), and political power in local government should enjoy priority.  In this sense, Colombia is much like Brazil, the only country of Latin America where the majority of the population identify as Afro-descendant and a stronghold both of black social movements as well as governmental policies for racial equity, issues that we do not discuss in this article.

As Fernando Martínez Heredia noted in the above-mentioned conference in the Centro Juan Marinello, in 2011: “the deepening of socialism in Cuba must necessarily be anti-racist”.  In September of 2012, a chapter of ARAAC was organized in Cuba, bringing together many of the key figures in intellectual, as well as cultural and political areas, who are in favour of racial equity and with a view to full valorization of Afro-Cuban culture.  More than fifty years of post-capitalist society in Cuba have demonstrated both advances against racism and in favour of equality, as well as the persistence of racial inequality and hence, the need to prioritize its elimination for any project of liberation.  Because of this, if the notion of socialism for the 21st century is to move beyond a slogan without substantive content, it must be anti-racist as well as anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and anti-patriarchal.

Many of us argue that we live in an epoch of crisis of western capitalist civilization, in which a new wave of anti-systemic movements incarnate the hope of a new world order, weaving rainbows of liberation against all the chains of oppression: of class, ethnic-racial, gender, sexuality, generational, ecological.  In all the previous waves of anti-systemic movements, the movements of Africa and the African Diaspora have been strong protagonists since the Haitian revolution, to the radical Pan-Africanism of the 1930s (Black Marxism, Afro-feminism, the Movement of Negritude, the Harlem Renaissance) to the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and the Caribbean, together with the Movement of Black Liberation in the United States from the 1950s to the 1970s. Today, there is a challenge for black movements to assume responsibility and leadership; while leftist currents that failed to recognize the centrality of racism in capitalist modernity should acknowledge the fundamental historic significance of African peoples as key actors for the liberation of humanity as a whole.

- Agustín Laó Montes, originally from Puerto Rico, is an intellectual-activist, professor-researcher in the University of Massachusetts and a member of the Articulación Regional Afrodescendiente en América Latina y el Caribe-ARAAC.

First published in Spanish in América Latina en Movimiento, No.  501, “El Decenio Afrodescendiente”: http://alainet.org/publica/ 501.phtml

SOURCE: http://alainet.org/active/ 81004

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