Americas: Neo-liberalism exacerbates racism, says regional conference

by Kintto Lucas

Quito, 16 Mar 2001 (IPS) -- The neo-liberal economic model is intensifying structural racism and discrimination in the Americas, representatives of indigenous, black, gypsy and migrant communities as well as sexual minorities from a number of countries complained Friday in the Ecuadorean capital.

The closing address of the Forum of the Americas for Diversity and Pluralism, which ran Tuesday through Friday in Quito, was delivered by Guatemalan Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchu, an indigenous leader.

The penalisation of racism as a crime against humanity, the right of peoples to self-determination, and reparations for damages caused by slavery, colonialism and racism were several of the demands set forth by the activists meeting in the regional conference preparatory to the coming world summit against racism.

The forum also urged national and international bodies to provide protection for people living with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), migrants, sexual minorities, tribal peoples, the elderly, women and children.

The joint proposal drawn up by this week’s preparatory conference will be presented at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism and Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to open 31 August in South Africa.

Participants also protested the application of the neo-liberal free-market economic model in the region, which they said exacerbated racism and xenophobia.

“This economic doctrine destroys civil society and transforms citizenship into a privilege that is increasingly inaccessible for minorities,” said Dennis de Oliveira, head of the Union of Blacks for Equality, a Brazilian NGO.

De Oliveira argued that the formal mechanisms of democracy have been weakened and end up actually accentuating discrimination.

“There is a systematic campaign against the legislative powers, a penetration of election campaigns by political marketing, and a de-politicisation of the social debate,” said the activist.

In former colonies like the countries of Latin America, aristocratic and slave-holding structures remain nearly intact, and the adoption of the neo-liberal model “has heightened the process of exclusion and marginalisation, and condemns many peoples to disappear,” he said.  According to de Oliveira, as it expands, that process is leading to an increase in the number of people excluded from society, in what he described as “the democratisation of poverty” and the destruction of civil society.

The Brazilian activist said the conference in South Africa would be crucial in the building of a grand international alliance of “the peoples of the African diaspora and indigenous peoples” opposed to neo-liberalism and in favour of “the logic of life rather than the logic of objects.”

Spokespersons for the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, one of the groups that organised this week’s meeting, said NGOs had assumed a collective commitment to holding joint actions in the region.

“The actions will focus on creating a new global society, based on the principles of diversity and pluralism, and on the recognition of the plurinational character of countries and the autonomy of peoples,” said Ecuadorean indigenous leader Blanca Chancoso.

The right to diversity must be respected, and “the other” must be recognised and respected, with tolerance as the bridge for understanding, she said.

Myrna Cunningham from Nicaragua, the dean of the University of the Autonomous Region of the Nicaraguan Atlantic Coast and an expert on ethnic issues, said structural racism could only be eradicated through pressure from the various sectors of society, exercised through “mobilisations, public awareness and participation.”

Cunningham said intolerant behaviour and policies fomented the break-up of the social and cultural fabric of the peoples in the Americas, and limited or blocked the participation of minorities in national and international life.

She also said racism and xenophobia gained strength from ignorance of the ancestral legal systems of minorities, the forced displacement of indigenous and black communities, and the imposition of development projects that had nothing to do with local cultures.

“Recognition of ethnic and cultural diversity requires not only legal changes, but also profound transformations that contribute to generating collective confidence, access to opportunities and the reconstruction of community and territorial networks and multi-ethnic alliances,” she said.

In Chancoso’s view, the Forum strengthened “the bond between a range of sectors that have suffered discrimination, which assumed the objective of joining forces for the future struggle.”

This week’s conference once more drew the spotlight to the problem of the rights of indigenous peoples in Latin America, said Chancoso.

She pointed out that while the growing strength of Ecuador’s well-organised indigenous movement and the phenomenon of Mexico’s Zapatistas, an internationally renowned indigenous rebel group, “have become quite visible, in many countries of the continent, indigenous peoples are struggling for recognition of their rights as outlined in International Labour Organisation convention 169.”

Chancoso added that while some constitutions, like Ecuador’s, specifically underlined the rights of indigenous peoples based on recognition of their identity, they remained merely paper promises that were not applied in practice.

“We must globalize the fight for our rights,” the activist stressed.