Not Letting Skin Shade Color Life

When a young couple dressed up for a night on the town tried to enter Lima's most popular disco, The Edge, the doorman turned them away. "Members only," he said.

Moments later, another couple was ushered in, though they weren't members either.

Here's the difference: The first couple had coffee-colored skin and indigenous Peruvian features. The second couple was white.

But here's another difference: These two couples were not ordinary discogoers. They were undercover agents for a new government body targeting racism in Peru.

In all, three Lima discos and one pub were fined and ordered on Aug. 13 to close for 20 days, the first sanction against discrimination taken by a government office. The move not only started a huge debate on discrimination in Peru but also fired up a quickly growing antidiscrimination movement.

While racism is a common problem across Latin America, Peru is the most recent of only a handful of countries that have been trying to fight discrimination.

In Brazil there is a burgeoning race-identity movement started by the country's blacks. Chile has a government office to protect the consumer that has shut down businesses based on evidence of racial discrimination. Mexico has perhaps the strongest consumer-based antidiscrimination movement in the region.

While the antidiscrimination movement is new in Peru, racism is not. Though Peru elected an ethnic Asian president, Alberto Fujimori, race has defined society and opportunities in Peru dating back to the Spanish conquest and the era of slavery. Today in Peru the vast majority of the population is of mixed white and indigenous blood, or mestizo, while about 10 percent is black.

"The problem in Peru is that racism is so open that it has generated a kind of omission of the obvious. Nobody sees it. Racist relations are so common in Peru that they seem natural," says Lima sociologist Pepe Luciano, who works on race issues for the private Institute for Legal Defense.

In Peru the time has only recently become ripe for an antidiscrimination movement. In the past few years, since Peru's two leftist guerrilla groups have been subdued, Peru's economy has modernized and many discos, bars, fast-food chains, and restaurants have opened in Lima.

As the economy has grown, so has the income of a portion of the darker-skinned population who want to enjoy some of the services previously out of their financial reach. "The market has opened a demand and a social expectation of access to the goods of this modernity and this market economy. And this has made the discrimination more obvious," says Mr. Luciano.

The recent movement in Peru actually began just before the actions against the discos, when a television show aired a similar undercover operation with the same results. The publicity given to the discriminatory practices in discos unleashed a wave of complaints to the government's Committee for Consumer Protection, a wing of the National Institute for the Defense of Competition and Property Rights, or Indecopi, set up in 1995.

But, according to Bruce Heafitz, the Harvard-educated American owner of The Edge and The Piano discos, it is "inconceivable" that there is race-based discrimination at the doors of his discos.

"We are discriminating, but not discriminatory," claims Mr. Heafitz, who says that the disco has limited space and can accept only some of those who want to enter.

"The fact that some people get into the disco and others don't could be called a lot of things. We call it economic discrimination," says Heafitz, who says his doormen admit people who look as if they will spend a lot of money on drinks and who would "mix comfortably" at the disco.

But Indecopi sees the admission policies at The Edge and The Piano differently. "There is a certain incoherence in between what they say and what they do," says Teresa Ramrez of Indecopi's consumer protection committee. "And what they do is use subjective estimations of what economic level people belong to. And the worst of all is that they do this as a function of the color of their skin."

Heafitz recently took his case to court, claiming that his company's right to contract freely was being infringed by a government agency acting outside its authority. Heafitz won the case in an appeal in superior court.

The recent ruling says that Indecopi cannot proceed with its actions against discos. The ruling appeared to be a blow to the antidiscrimination movement.

But it seems to have fanned the flames of the movement. The ruling was followed by a wave of scathing editorials in the press and of government officials stating their concern about the court's ruling.

Since the ruling, the director of Indecopi was asked to testify in Congress, and there are reports of possible legislative changes to better protect consumers from discrimination. Consumer and race-based groups are planning boycotts and taking legal actions of their own.

"The recent events have had a positive effect that goes far beyond whether we win or lose in court," says Jaime Delgado, the leader of a consumer-rights group planning to file a case seeking to nullify the ruling.

"There has been a consciousness-raising. Before, when these kinds of things happened people bowed their heads and walked away in shame. Now people are realizing that they have rights."

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