Views of Panama

Resisting Structural Racism in the Americas

It is estimated that around 130 million people of African descent live in Latin America. Through organization and resistance, they are achieving greater visibility and recognition. The objective? To bring about specific public policies to reverse the consequences of structural racism.

By  Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Javier Pinzón, David Mesa y Ana Teresa Benjamín

Poverty, absent states, limited access to health and education, and higher unemployment rates —the products of structural racism inherited from colonial times— are all part Afro-descendant life throughout Latin America.

According to the ECLAC, this situation affects approximately 22% of the population of Latin America: about 130 million people, descendants of more than 12 million Africans who were brought to America and enslaved between 1500 and 1867. These populations still face depravations and difficulties that the “white” population does not suffer and these conditions are aggravated by “their invisibility and the denial of their existence” in some countries in the region.

But in the face of this discouraging panorama, the ECLAC also highlights the progress that has been made. Historical resistance, for example, has facilitated cultural preservation and awareness raising as well as the structuring of groups and organizations of people of African descent who work to promote recognition, specific public policies, and the incorporation of the identity variable in censuses, among other topics. 


A report titled, “Situation of People of African Descent in Latin America and Policy Challenges for the Guarantee of their Rights” states that, in recent decades, “countries have advanced, although to varying degrees, the creation of normative and institutional frameworks for combating racial discrimination, as well as in the realization of affirmative actions and the application of inclusion policies.” The International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024) is expected to contribute by giving Afro-descendants greater visibility, both in the areas of self-identification and securing rights.

Where are they?

Afro-descendants exist in all countries, as history and several cultural practices suggest, but in places such as Brazil and Cuba, where they represent 50% and 36% of the population respectively, their presence is more evident. In other countries, however, they are just beginning to gain recognition as an ethnic or tribal group. 

This is true of México, for example, a country with strong ties to its indigenous population, but that also boasts a significant black population along the Costa Chica in the state of Guerrero. It is also true of Chile, where, according to the leader of the Lumbanga Organization, Cristian Báez, the Afro-Chilean population was the victim of “a process of ‘chileanization’ or ‘whitening’” that kept them invisible for a long time.

But people of African descent are also very present in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama, countries in which they represent 7% to 10% of the population, and in Perú, where black populations equal approximately half a million people. 

Their geographic dispersion is linked to historical processes and migratory pressures. In Colombia, black ancestral territories are on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, as well as in the Cauca Valley, but the armed conflict has forced many people to migrate to cities such as Medellín or even Bogotá. The black Garifuna populations along the Atlantic coasts of Nicaragua, Belize, and Honduras are the descendants of people from the islands of Jamaica, San Vicente, and the Grenadines, who were used as slave labor on cocoa, sugar, and banana plantations. In Honduras, English or Antillean blacks also populate the Atlantic coast, as happens in Costa Rica (the Limón area) and in the provinces of Bocas del Toro and Colón, in Panama.

In Chile, black populations are concentrated in the northern Arica and Parinacota region, bordering Perú and Bolivia, given the area’s strategic importance to the trading of silver extracted in the Potosi mines (Bolivia) during the colonial years. As Báez from the Lumbanga organization explains, the African presence in Chile is at least 100 years old. Only recently, however, on March 7, 2019, was the Law of Recognition of Afro-Descendant Tribal People passed, following an advocacy process begun in 2000, which, “together with the help of organizations of African descent in Perú, Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina, [worked] to achieve two main objectives: a law of recognition, and inclusion in statistics, in censuses.” 

Inclusion in censuses is a shared objective. It is not only a matter of self-identification, though that is in itself important: self-identification serves to disaggregate data that, in turn, can be used as a foundation for demanding and developing public policies that meet the specific needs of the Afro population. “Differentiated statistical data are important because they seek actions in benefit of our communities,” said Yimene Calderón, executive director of the Organization for Ethnic Community Development (ODECO) of Honduras. 

And, as John Jairo Blandón Mena of the Process of Black Communities of Colombia (PCN) pointed out, the statistical data help to make visible and appropriate spaces that have been historically, socially, politically, and culturally denied. 

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