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Can Obama boost cause for Afro-Latinos?

Activists hope that Bolivia’s new Constitution, which legally recognizes Afro-Bolivians for the first time, is just one of many new gains for blacks across Latin America.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2009

Juana Vasquez, who has lived in the mostly Afro-Bolivian community of Tocaña, Bolivia her entire life, says that Bolivians of African descent are starting to assert their rights in society. Bolivia's new constitution, passed last Sunday, gives Afro-Bolivians legal recognition for the first time.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor


Tocaña, Bolivia

While this country's indigenous population has been on the march for new rights, Bolivians of African descent still find themselves living on the sidelines of society.

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There are no black legislators or justices; their history is left out of school text books; they are not even specifically counted in the census.

"When we go into the city, they think we are Venezuelans or Colombians," says Reina Ballivian, a resident of Tocaña, a tiny community made up mostly of Afro-Bolivians in the lush Yungas Valley. "It's hard to convince them that we are black and Bolivian."

But last Sunday, Afro-Bolivians received a major boost with the passage of a new Constitution that gives them their first legal recognition.

Many black activists here hope the charter is the first step in ending years of discrimination and say it is one of many victories for African descendants across Latin America, where blacks are demanding new rights, winning key political posts, and ushering in a new black pride movement.

They also see another development, far from their borders, that is a significant boon to their cause: the election of US President Barack Obama.

"Obama stands as an example that we can follow," says Marfa Inofuentes, a leader of the Afro-Bolivian Center for Comprehensive Community Development in La Paz. "We, like him, want to have our own representative in Congress. And we dream than we can also have an Afro-Bolivian president some day."

While activists don't expect Mr. Obama to specifically reach out to their communities, they do hope that the dialogue between him or his administration with Latin American leaders could have a positive impact.

Between 30 and 40 percent of the population in Latin America is of African descent – compared with just 10 percent for indigenous.

Claire Nelson, a development equity specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank, who has focused on the Afro-Latino population for more than 15 years, says that black activism is seeing a resurgence thanks, in part, to the rise of Obama. "[It] has come a long way in terms of organization and strength."

Gains for Latinos of African descent vary across countries. In the Caribbean, in English-speaking countries such as Jamaica and Barbados, most heads of state are of African descent.

"It's not perfect, the dialogue on race and class, but political power is in black hands [there]," says Ms. Nelson. "In the rest of Latin America power is not in black hands."

The black civil rights movement in Latin America is strongest in Brazil and Colombia, which boast the largest populations of black Latinos. Brazil has made major advances with affirmative action and its first black Supreme Court justice, Joaquim Barbosa, who is considered one of the most influential justices. A major advance for Afro-Colombians came with a 1993 guarantee of rights to formal titles to their ancestral lands. Today they are also guaranteed representation in federal Congress.