Why is the landscape of citizenship so uneven across Latin America? Latin America exhibits high degrees of racial inequality and discrimination against Afro-Latinos and indigenous populations, despite constitutional and statutory measures prohibiting racial discrimination. The multicultural reforms of the 1980s and 1990s which brought many collective rights to indigenous groups have not, however, had the same impact on Afro-Latinos. This article from the Journal of Latin American Studies examines the region’s multicultural citizenship regimes, and finds an emphasis on cultural difference or ethnic identity over race which disadvantages Afro-Latinos.
Collective rights based on cultural difference have become the primary legal avenue used in Latin America to reverse political exclusion and racial discrimination. However, the majority of Afro-Latinos and some indigenous groups are unable to claim collective rights on the basis of cultural identity, as they are insufficiently distinct from the wider mestizo culture.
Both black and indigenous people in Latin America suffer from social exclusion: disproportionate poverty, unemployment, labour market discrimination and poor access to basic social services. Multicultural citizenship reforms established certain collective rights, including formal recognition of specific ethnic/racial sub-groups, indigenous customary law, collective property rights, official status for minority languages and guarantees of bilingual education.
In almost every case of multicultural reform across the region, however, indigenous groups have been much more successful in gaining their collective rights than Afro-Latinos. Possible suggestions for the disparity between the two groups include theories about the impact of population size, organisational capacity and level of political mobilisation. Whilst significant, these factors cannot sufficiently account for the groups’ difference in success.
The assertion of a claim to collective rights does not ensure such a demand will be met by the state. Why have Latin American national elites and publics been more receptive to indigenous groups’ claims than those of Afro-Latinos?
- The main criterion to determine recipients of collective rights has been the possession of a distinct cultural group identity.
- If reducing social exclusion were the primary goal, other excluded groups (such as women, the poor, or peasants) could have gained special rights. Such marginalised groups have not been targeted.
- National ideologies in Latin America envision the nation as a mixing process between predominantly Spanish men and indigenous women; these indigenous people occupy a unique place as ancestral contributors to the hybrid mestizo nation and culture.
- People of African descent are rendered culturally invisible in many Latin American narratives; their place in the national political community is ambiguous. Afro-Latinos are generally perceived as lacking a ‘black culture’, with no specific ethnic identity, language or traditions.
- Where Afro-Latinos have gained collective rights, it has generally been when an ethnic identity is accepted (such as the Creoles and Garifuna in Honduras), and claims are made on that basis.
Continued racism limits the ability of marginalised groups to translate political rights into social and civil rights, but the privileging of cultural recognition over the struggle against racial discrimination may allow the wider concerns of social and political exclusion and racial injustice to become subordinate to multicultural discourse. Both Indians and blacks could arguably organise to demand rights more effectively around issues of social exclusion and racial discrimination rather than around cultural difference.