Hugo Chávez is known as a revolutionary in many contexts, especially his defiance of the United States. In recent years, however, he's also broken ground on a far less well-exposed subject: the question of race in Latin America. The saga began two years ago, when, during a tour of Gambia, Chávez surprised observers by declaring that "I've always said that if Spain is our mother, Africa, mother Africa, is much more so." Since then, the Venezuelan leader has often revisited the theme at home, even drawing attention to his own African roots. It may not sound shocking. But such language would have been inconceivable from a major Latin American leader just a short time ago.
That's now changing, due to a black-consciousness movement stirring in Central and South America. Emboldened by the success of their indigenous countrymen in pressing for resolution of long-ignored grievances, Afro-descendientes (people of African descent), as they are known, are now lobbying for recognition of their own communities' land rights and for increased spending to improve living conditions in urban slums and rural villages. Local activists have begun urging Latin blacks to take pride in their culture, and with the help of the Internet, leaders are reaching across borders to share tactics and compare notes with their brethren in the Caribbean, the United States and Africa. This "black-power movement has gone way beyond anything that has happened in the past," says Ann Farnsworth-Alvear, director of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. "People are making critiques of racism in their own societies, and there's been a real shift in black consciousness and involvement."
Black power isn't entirely new to the region; for some time now the descendants of African slaves have wielded political clout in a few corners of the hemisphere. That's especially the case in the English-speaking Caribbean, where black heads of state are the rule. And in Brazil, where nearly half the country's 192 million people have African ancestry, Joaquim Barbosa, arguably the most influential member of the Supreme Court, is black; so is recording artist Gilberto Gil, who served as Culture minister under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for five years. Moreover, Lula's predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, once announced that he himself had "one foot in the kitchen"—a colorful way of admitting intermarriage among his ancestors (albeit one that earned him criticism at the time).
In the rest of Latin America, blacks remain a small (they're thought to number about 20 million, though activists claim the figure is much higher) and marginalized minority. Demographics highlight their second-class status. For example, Ecuador's blacks, who make up 5 percent of the population, suffer a 14.5 percent unemployment rate, higher than that of the country's nonblack majority and twice that of indigenous groups. In neighboring Colombia, which is home to 10.5 million Afro-descendientes—giving it the third largest black population in the hemisphere, after Brazil and the United States—only one in five blacks has access to electricity and running water (compared with 60 percent of the rest of the population), and the black infant mortality rate is more than three times the white level.
Now, however, black communities are organizing and pressing for change. In Honduras, for example, locals of African descent, who are known as Garifunas, have staged protests in Tegucigalpa, the capital, against a proposed constitutional amendment that would permit foreigners to purchase property along the Atlantic coast, a region the Garifunas have called home since 1797. And in Ecuador, more than a hundred black housewives and working women joined forces in 2006 to seek more government assistance for housing to combat racial discrimination in the rental market.
The epicenter of the new black activism, meanwhile, is Colombia. That's due as much to circumstance as design: more than a third of the 3.2 million Colombians uprooted by the country's long-running civil war are of African ancestry, as are many of the ragged street vendors and beggars who approach motorists at busy Bogotá intersections. Foreign and local NGOs are now working hard to publicize their plight. Though a landmark 1993 law enshrined the right of Afro-Colombians to obtain formal title to their ancestral lands, including 5 million hectares along the Pacific coast—a unique experiment in ethnic self-government—implementation has lagged, as unscrupulous agribusinesses and paramilitary warlords have seized communal property with near impunity. But recently, as part of its ongoing effort to win U.S. approval for a free-trade agreement, the government of President Alvaro Uribe has begun to expel these companies and restore 8,000 hectares of stolen land to Afro-Colombian community councils.
Throughout the region, individual blacks have also begun blazing new trails. Graciela Dixon became the first black woman to head Panama's Supreme Court in 2005, and Luis Alberto Moore, a cop in Colombia, has reached the rank of general—a first for an Afro-descendiente. "I hope I will serve as an example for other black people in Colombia who will say, 'If General Moore did [it], then so can I'," says the 48-year-old Bogotá native.
But many other Latin blacks remain reluctant to openly acknowledge their background, which makes it hard for their communities to increase their influence. In 2005, for example, when Colombians were asked for the first time to identify their ethnic background in a census, less than half the country's blacks described themselves as such. Doris de la Hoz, a senior Afro-Colombian official in the Ministry of Culture, says that even this percentage represented progress, since more than 4 million people did acknowledge their heritage. But "there is still a strong separation of people by groups," she says, "and many black families try to convince their lighter-skinned children that they are white."
Yet such attitudes also seem to be shifting, albeit gradually. Evelyne Laurent-Perrault, 48, is the daughter of Haitian immigrants and grew up in middle-class Caracas, where she was usually the only black in her classroom and, later on, her office. Over the years she's endured her fair share of cruel jokes. Starting in her 20s, however, Laurent-Perrault, a biologist by training, began to develop a passionate interest in her culture and its links to Africa. She is now working on a Ph.D. at New York University analyzing the topic in the context of Venezuela. "There is [now] more pride in being black," she says. "People are mobilizing, and organizations have arisen in almost all of Latin America to expose inequality and demand that this must end."
Such organizations are drawing inspiration and financing from foreign, largely U.S., sources. In February, African-American journalist Lori Robinson launched a new Web site called vidaafrolatina.com that spotlights news, cultural events and commentary by and about Afro-Latinos. Leading members of the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus, like Rep. Gregory Meeks, have taken a special interest in Afro-Colombians and dispatched staff to advise black Colombian legislators. USAID has funded a variety of social and economic development projects in predominantly black areas of western Colombia, and has provided money and technical assistance to an association of black mayors and groups working on behalf of internal refugees. The groundbreaking presidential bid of a certain young U.S. senator hasn't gone unnoticed in the region, either. "A triumph of Barack Obama would be extraordinary," gushes Ernesto Estupiñan, mayor of the predominantly black Ecuadoran city of Esmeraldas. "It would be a huge encouragement for all of us in terms of minority participation in politics." Indeed, if Obama does reach the White House, one of his familiar slogans could soon take root in the hearts and minds of his fellow Africano-Americanos south of the border: "¡Si se puede!"("Yes we can!")