(above) 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

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 Sara Miller Llana, Staff writer of 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.

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.

"These have been important conquests, even if Afro-Colombians have not yet had an important political impact," says Carlos Rosero, an activist in Colombia. "We have had more impact on issues such as land rights. We need more strategic coordination to address the day-to-day issues."

But the challenges are daunting. In Brazil, while Afro-Latinos comprise about 45 percent of the population, they make up 69 percent of the extremely poor. Poverty rates for Afro-Ecuadorians, who make up between 5 and 10 percent of the population, are much higher than the rest of the population – 90 percent compared with 62 percent overall. Only 17.2 percent have access to basic services such as running water and phones.

Many Afro-Bolivians say racism remains a part of daily life. Mario Medina, a resident of La Paz, says it takes many forms, but the one he notices most often is on the football field. "They'll say, hey, Juan, pass the ball. But to me they say, hey, 'negrito.' "

"They used to think we were only good for hard work, soccer, and dancing," says Ms. Inofuentes.

But that is starting to change. Groups are starting to work together across the region, especially on issues such as census recognition. And even in countries with small black populations, many feel a new era has arrived.

"Now a political consciousness has been awakened," says Inofuentes. "We are pushing for our rights and political recognition."

The activist movement in Bolivia began about 20 year ago as a cultural movement: preserving their music and dance called saya. On a recent evening in La Paz, a hip clientele crowded around a group of Afro-Bolivians beating drums and swirling in circles – a clear sign that their culture has been embraced by mainstream Bolivia.

Afro-Bolivians descend from slaves brought from Angola and Congo in the 16th century. They were sent to the mines of Bolivia and later the sugar plantations in the Yungas Valley, a semitropical region about three hours from La Paz. Today there are communities across the country, as many have migrated to cities for jobs, but the largest concentration is in these valleys. Leaders estimate their population to be about 30,000.

In Tocaña, perched on a verdant mountain, there are just 30 families. It has long been isolated. Potable water and electricity came just seven years ago. There is one elementary school, and a health clinic staffed on Saturdays only. Most have cellphones, but they prefer to call out to one another up and down the mountain.

Residents, who chop wood to heat their ovens, work fields of coca and citrus during the day. At night the town comes alive, with soccer matches and children playing outside the single Catholic church.

As in other countries, the gains made by the indigenous here – in 2006 Bolivia elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales – have inspired black activism. As the indigenous pushed forward for demands to rewrite the Constitution, Afro-Bolivians saw an opportunity to promote their own causes.

"We realized we had to be represented in the Constitution," says Juan Vasquez, the community leader of Tocaña. Now they have won that, their next battle will be specific inclusion in Bolivia's next census.

"For years they just considered us Aymara because we live in the midst of the indigenous," Mr. Vasques says. "Now that is changing. We have recuperated our self-esteem as black descendants."