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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Fighting Neo-Slavery in the Americas by Maya Rockeymoore

November 20, 2003 is Brazil’s day of recognition in honor of Zumbi de Palmares—a 17th century African warrior who escaped slavery and led Brazil’s largest and strongest Quilombo, or fortified town for African escapees.

On the day following this historic occasion, history was to be repeated in Brazil’s capitol of Brasilia with the commencement of the first Meeting of Afro-Descendant Legislators in the Americas and the Caribbean. Convened by Congressman Luiz Alberto—President of Brazil’s Congressional Forum for Racial Equality—the charged two-day conference brought together legislators from eight Central and South American countries including: Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Brazil.

The meeting’s primary purpose was to discuss how Afro-descendant political and policy leaders could share insight, strategies, and resources in order to elevate the status of people of African descent in the Americas.

The event marked the very first time that descendants of former slaves who have achieved public positions of prominence in their respective countries, have reconnected to discuss how to use the political process to further a pan-Africanist Civil Rights agenda.

Why Brazil?

It is perhaps of little surprise that Afro-Brazilians would be the primary driver behind this historic event. After many years of frustrated struggle, the countries relatively small and fracture Black Movement has experienced a quantum boost with the 2002 election of the Worker Party candidate President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Under pressure from the Black Movement, President Lula has helped dispel the myth of Brazil’s legendary “racial democracy” by highlighting the continued problem of racism in Brazilian society.

Lula’s support for the creation of a national dialogue on race, his appointment of four Afro-Brazilians to cabinet-level positions and one to the Supreme Court, and his effort to establish a new government agency dedicated to promoting racial equality has created a climate of receptivity perhaps currently unmatched by any other society in the Americas.

The Common Condition of Race

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the two-day discussion was the similar social, economic, and political conditions experienced by Afro-descendant populations in Central and South American countries. Despite recent political gains, Brazilian participants cited statistics showing that Afro-descendants are 50 percent of the population but 80 percent of the poor, less than 2 percent of university students, and less than 5 percent of the nation’s elected officials.

Representative Edgar Torres of Colombia reported that there were more than 10.5 million Afro-descendants in his country, comprising approximately 25 percent of the total population. Among this group, 76.4 percent receive an income that is less than the minimum wage; only 2 percent attend college, and a large majority live in areas where there is an “absence of government services.” Torres shared that Colombia elected its first Afro-descendant member of Congress ten years ago and today there are seven members of Congress currently serving.

The Peruvian representative, Jose Luis Risco, referred to the condition of blacks in his country as a form of “neo-slavery” where the vast majority lack access to homes, health care and many are subject to violence.

Ecuadorian Congressman Rafael Erazo declared racism a structural problem that is endemic throughout the Americas and the Caribbean. In his country, Afro-Ecuadorians are 1.2 million, or 10 percent, of the countries 12 million total population. While blacks have made modest strides, Erazo cited rampant racism that extends to discrimination even within the Congress that he serves--lamenting that he has been unable to get funding dedicated to addressing racial disparities.

Finding Solutions

While the socioeconomic status of Latin Americans of African descent dominated discussions, another prominent concern was the impact of U.S.-led trade agreements--specifically the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas--on Afro-descendant populations in the Americas.

Many participants expressed serious misgivings about whether the initiative would contain any benefits furthering the goal of racial and economic inclusion in Central and South American states. One skeptical participant stated that, “free commerce is not free for people” while another remarked that increased trade does not necessarily result in reduced poverty—particularly for Afro-descendant populations.

Despite marked questions about the significance of U.S. free trade policy, all participants agreed that public policies—if crafted properly—could be used as a vehicle for promoting racial and economic inclusion. Several legislators implored their colleagues to pay particular attention to how the national budget process can be used to direct resources toward persistent racial inequities. All expressed the importance of leveraging their respective political positions to positively impact the distribution of federal, state and local governmental and party resources.

Reminding participants that slavery was the first manifestation of globalization, Magali Naves, a representative of Brazil’s new Special Office for the Promotion of Racial Equality urged attendees to make eradication of racial discrimination the center of new public policies in an effort to reduce the gap between law and reality. She argued that public/private partnerships could be employed in this effort and that social movements should be used to monitor policies.

Toward International Cooperation

The assembled legislators made history yet again with the conference finale and the adoption of the Charter of Brasilia. Cobbled together using recommendations made over the course of the conference, the Charter established a working group of Afro-descendant legislators to work towards creating a permanent secretariat called the Black Parliament of the Americas.

The Parliament would facilitate the active participation of Afro-descendant legislators on important political debates and negotiations taking place in the Americas with the objective of incorporating the vision and perspective of communities of African descent. Among other activities, the Parliament would also work actively towards implementing Civil Rights and other legislation that will advance the status of the target population.

Unlike the United States, which did not officially participate in the World Conference Against Racism and Xenophobia in Durbin, many of the represented countries did have an active role in South Africa. As a result, the World Conference established a framework for discussion and informed the action steps outlined in the Charter of Brasilia.

The opening paragraphs of the Charter of Brasilia pay tribute to Zumbi de Palmares by expressing the sense of the body that the proud hero of the Brazilian liberation struggle will also serve as a model of inspiration for Afro-descendent people throughout the entire region.

It is often remarked that the Quilombo led by Zumbi represented the very first democratic experiment in Brazil. Thus, it is fitting that the spirit of Zumbi would inform the development of a revolutionary body of Afro-descendants possessing the goal of promoting true democracies in their respective countries. For as Costa Rican Congresswoman Epsy Campbell eloquently stated, “Without equal treatment, we have no democracy.”

Maya Rockeymoore, Ph.D., is Vice-President of Research and Programs at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and be contacted via e-mail at:

*A delegation of ten members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus planned to attend the First Meeting of Afro-Descendant Legislators in the Americas and the Caribbean, but was forced to cancel when Congressional leaders extended the session through November 23, 2003.

**A translation of the Charter of Brasilia follows.


1st Conference of Afro-Descendant Legislators of the Americas and the Caribbean

Brasilia Charter

Reuniting in Brazil in this first Conference of Afro-Descendant Legislators of the Americas and the Caribbean, organized by the Parliamentary Front in Defense of Racial Equality, from the 21st to the 23rd of November of 2003, legislators of the region, accompanied by representatives of the Black Movement and social organizations, decided to write the present Brasilia Charter reaffirming our identity as Afro-Descendants, recognizing the path of our ancestors, the commitments assumed by our governments with our people y communities contained in the Declarations and Plans of Action of Santiago and Durban.

We recognize that we are in the land of Zumbi of Palmares, ancestral hero who led struggles of liberation from slavery and who should serve as a model of inspiration as much for the Afro-Brazilian community as well as for all sons of the African Diaspora.

Considering that:

The Afro-Descendant people and communities have contributed enormously to the construction of all the American and Caribbean societies.

In the Americas and in the Caribbean, there cannot be true democracy without the inclusion of Afro-Descendant men and women.

We Afro-Descendants account for more than 150 million in the Americas and in the Caribbean, the majority of which live in poverty, a situation disproportionately affecting Afrodescendant women.

Our governments have signed the Declarations of Durban and Santiago and the majority have not fulfilled the commitments assumed by these declarations.

We Afro-Descendants are scarcely represented in government powers, particularly in Congress and Parliament; hence we must double our efforts and our work. This lack of representation has an even greater effect on Afrodescendant women.

The inclusion efforts aimed at our people and communities should simultaneously adopt a universal vision, which promotes general policies to eradicate poverty in our countries embodying a gender and ethno-racial perspective, at the same time possessing a focused vision that promotes public policy and legislation with Afro-Descendants in mind.

Our countries are immersed in a process of integration through agreements such as MERCOSUR, PACTO ANDINO,CARICOM, SICA. One of the most important expressions of this process is the Area of Free Trade of the Americas (ALCA) where the general situation of exclusion of wide sectors of the population is present, especially in light of the historic neglect of our people and communities. Thus, as Black legislators, we should participate in this important debate in which the regional parliamentarians have been practically absent.

Brazil is on the brink of approving the Racial Equality Statute, which represents a qualitative and historic jump, in terms of addressing the Afro-Brazilians situation.

Colombia as well as other countries has promoted legislative and constitutional reforms, which promote the inclusion of the Afro-Descendants. Regardless, we don’t count on the mechanisms of exchange of these experiences;

Sustained cooperative programs or international relations do not exist between Africa and the countries of our region. Brazil is taking important steps towards this goal.

The preservation of African-derived religions is a fundamental premise in the reaffirmation of the identity and culture of Afro-Descendants.

We commit to:

Drive a new form of policymaking based on respect for and inclusion of Afro-Descendant men and women;
Create a working group of Afro-Descendant legislators of the Americas for the promotion and construction of a Black Parliament of the Americas and Network of Afro-Descendant Legislators.

Insist that the Parliamentarians of the Americas maintain an active political control of the negotiations about the FTAA, participating in the efforts to incorporate the vision and the perspective of Afrodescendant communities.

Insist that the governments fortify the regional blocks and promote popular consultation regarding the FTAA in order to make decisions that truly consider the situation of the majority of the population and not only from one small fraction.

Actively participate in discussions and processes of social, economic and fiscal reform and legislative proposals that promote racial and gender equality.

Promote affirmative action legislation and policy based upon the Statute of Racial Equality of Brazil and Law 70 of Colombia, among others.

Promote among the Congress and Parliament of our respective countries the necessity to deepen the horizontal cooperation efforts between Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, which contribute to social, economic and cultural development for the countries of both continents.

Elaborate a joint publication that refers to legislation and public policy in favor of Afro-Descendants as a tool for regional development.

Open an information portal on the Internet, which provides a vision of the actions and the proposals of the Afro-Descendant legislators, as well as posting information about policy and legislation.

Participate as Black parliamentarians in the Summit of the Americas and in the IberoAmerican Summit, which will occur in 2004.

Insist that the governments designate financial and human resources for the implementation of the Santiago and Durban agreements, especially those related to the Afro-Descendant people and communities and that the governments guarantee a process of evaluation for the Santiago +5 Conference.

Insist that the Brazilian National Congress approve the Statute of Racial Equality, guaranteeing financial resources for its implementation, which should serve as a general marker for the countries of Latin America.

Insist that the Congress of Ecuador discuss and approve the project about collective rights of the Afro-Ecuadorian people. In the same token, insist that all congresses of the region that have pending legislation in favor of their Afro-Descendant populations discuss and approve them.

Realize the 2nd Conference of Afro-Descendant Legislators of the Americas and the Caribbean in Colombia in 2004.

The First Conference of Afro-Descendant Legislators of the Americas and the Caribbean consolidates itself as an important element in the international political articulation in order to give the racial question in the continent the necessary visibility for the rupture of the logic of subjugation which still hold in exclusion more that 150 million people of African descent.

The commitment signed in Brasilia revolves around social inclusion and the defense of the preservation of the culture and tradition of the Afro-Descendants in the Americas and Caribbean. In this perspective, we will dedicate ourselves to making the repressed demands of centuries of material, spiritual and symbolic exploitation and debilitation a part of the political agenda of our countries, assuring the well being of our communities.

Chamber of Congress
Brasilia, November 23rd, 2003

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

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