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Obama buoys black LatAm politics

By Henry Mance
Bogota

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (01/09/2008)
Mr Obama's example: A political boost for blacks in Latin America?

Barack Obama's candidacy in the US presidential elections is being seen as historic not only in the US but by some black leaders in Latin America, who hope his run for the White House can encourage change in their own countries.

It is not the first time Afro-Latin Americans have looked northwards for inspiration.

"Obama is a great point of reference for us," says Afro-Brazilian Senator Paulo Paim.

"In Latin America, racism has always been half-disguised. It has always been said that it doesn't exist, while at the same time blacks have been kept out of the spheres of power."

At least 110 million Latin Americans are believed to be of African descent, compared with an estimated 40 million African-Americans in the US.

Brazil has never had a black president, despite the fact that people of African and mixed-race ancestry make up nearly half the population.

Apart from Haiti and the Dominican Republic which have black majorities, only Venezuela and Cuba have had black leaders during the 20th Century.

Realistic inspiration

So, are Latin American voters ready to elect black presidents consistently?

"Of course, when they have black candidates with qualities and charisma," says Epsy Campbell, the leader of Costa Rica's Citizens Action Party.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (file photo)
Many Venezuelans see Mr Chavez as representing the non-white majority

"The obstacles aren't in the voters, but in the media and party structures that you have to face to become a candidate."

Mr Paim offers a similar view: "The money spent on a black candidate's election campaign is much less that the money spent on a white candidate's. My own case was an exception - that's how I got into the Senate."

One current Latin American president who has broken with such traditional political practices is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"By the criteria of many people, Chavez qualifies not as black but as someone of mixed racial ancestry," says George Reid Andrews, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.

Mr Chavez has presented himself as representing the non-white majority of the Venezuelan population against the white elite and middle-class, he points out.

Aspirations

Although racial identitiy is not as explicit in Latin America as in the US, comparisons between African-Americans and Afro-Latin Americans draw on the fact that both groups are largely descended from slaves.

So, when African-Americans pressed for civil rights and then affirmative action started in the 1960s, black leaders in Latin America were quick to take note.

"The example of the US and its civil rights movement shows us what the issues of collective conscience and the creation of opportunities are like", says the Colombian Minister of Culture, Paula Moreno.

Fulgencio Batista (file photo)
Racial equality advanced in Cuba after President Batista was deposed

Recently the US Black Caucus - the grouping of African-American members of Congress - has pushed Afro-Latin Americans' advancement, by raising their international profile and perhaps by even influencing major political decisions.

Ms Moreno's appointment as minister in 2007 was seen by some as a move by the Colombian government to appease the Caucus ahead of a debate on a bilateral free trade agreement.

"Obama's candidacy marks a new stage in recognition and political participation. It generates the hope that as Afro-descendents we can aspire to the presidency," says Ms Campbell, who is herself seen as a potential presidential contender in Costa Rica in 2010.

It is in Brazil where black politicians have made greatest inroads in recent years, elected as state governors and mayor of the nation's biggest city, Sao Paulo.

"As the the level of consciousness of race relations increase, why can't we elect a black president in the not-too-distant future?" asks Mr Paim.

(Black people) have been a very important part of the left-wing of populist movements
Prof George Reid Andrews

However, Ms Moreno expects a significant wait for an Afro-Colombian president. "I think it'll be several years and even decades before that happens," she says.

Even without black presidents, Afro-Latin Americans will continue to wield a significant electoral influence.

"In countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia they've been a very important part of the left-wing of populist movements," says Professor Andrews, who compares their role to that of African-Americans in the US Democratic Party.

For Ms Campbell, political representation offers the chance for "social and economic measures to lift Afro-Latin Americans out of poverty".

'All Obama'

Mr Paim has spent 10 years trying to push anti-discrimination legislation through the Brazilian Congress, and has also pioneered affirmative-action initiatives.

Paradoxically, one of the countries to have made greatest strides towards racial equality, Cuba, did so after deposing President Fulgencio Batista, who was of mixed African and European ancestry, in the 1959 revolution.

"Class-based policies [under Fidel Castro] have benefitted the black population enormously, because to the degree that the policies benefitted poor Cubans they benefitted Afro-Cubans," Professor Reid argues.

"For example, good access to medical care for all immediately starts to reduce racial differences in life expectancy."

There will be celebrations among Afro-Latin Americans if Mr Obama wins in November.

But there is no guarantee that an Obama presidency's policy towards South America would be influenced by any such feelings of solidarity.


SEE ALSO
Obama launches historic campaign
29 Aug 08 |  Americas
Dominican leader wins third term
17 May 08 |  Americas
Haitian senators approve new PM
31 Jul 08 |  Americas
BBC delves into Brazilians' roots
10 Jul 07 |  Americas

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