By Alexandra Anton Mahfoud, Ashley Brown, Dara Dawson, Dennis Espejo, Sofia Jacalone, Stephanie Jiménez, Isabel Morales, and Abby Neiser
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was founded in 2013 after the absolution of Trayvon Martin’s murderer in the United States. Since then, the organization works to create a world where Black lives are not systematically targeted for demise (About, 2020). The movement gained additional international attention in 2020, after the killing of George Floyd. Floyd was a 46-year-old Black man who was murdered by a police officer kneeling on his neck as his colleagues watched complicitly. The brutal incident was captured in an eight-minute, forty-six-second video that sparked outrage in the U.S. and many other countries in the world, including many in Latin America and the Caribbean. Similar to the U.S., the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean have a long history of racial inequality and discrimination, due to slavery and its dark legacy on societal structure and attitudes. Though these countries have a shared history, each has a unique set of circumstances that have defined their individual movements.
Brazil often elicits comparisons to the U.S. due to its long and continued history of racism. In 1888, Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery (Watson, 2020). Currently, Brazil contains the largest population of Black individuals in Latin America and the second-largest in the world. The 2010 Brazil Census reported that 50.7 percent of its population, or 97 million people, identified as Afro-Brazilian (Phillips, 2011).
Traditionally, members of the Brazilian government, such as President Jair Bolsonaro, have accredited inequalities within the country to be a result of class inequality, not racial inequality (Watson, 2020). However, very little evidence can be found to support this idea of Brazil as a “racial democracy,” as racial inequality is present in almost all facets of society. Afro-Brazilians face higher rates of poverty and unemployment while consistently receiving poorer quality healthcare and education (Toruño 2020). Furthermore, systemic police brutality against Afro-Brazilians is a major issue within the country. Grassroots activists committed to anti-police violence have been present in Brazil for many years, but recent Black Lives Matter protests in the country have brought this topic to the forefront. Statistics regarding brutality from police officers in the state of Rio de Janeiro are staggering. Throughout the past ten years, more than three out of every four Brazilians killed by Rio police were Black men. In the first four months of 2020, Rio police were responsible for killing close to six people per day (Muñoz, 2020). Much of this police violence occurs in favelas, the city’s poorest neighborhoods that are predominantly Afro-Brazilian (Biller, 2020).
The major event to spark the BLM protests throughout the country was the police killing of a 14-year-old boy named João Pedro Matos Pinto inside his family’s home in a Rio favela. On May 18th, Police broke into the home, supposedly pursuing suspects, and opened fire, hitting João Pedro in the back (Muñoz, 2020). BLM protesters took to the streets in response to this event, sparking some of the largest protests in Rio and Brasília. Ignacio Cano, a Brazilian public safety expert, described these protests as an unprecedented response to police violence and suggested that this could be due to influence from the United States’ BLM movement. On June 5th, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin issued an order in response to the protests, prohibiting police raids in favelas until the COVID-19 pandemic declines (Slattery and Moraes, 2020). While protests throughout the country have subsided, grassroots activists within the country are still fighting for racial equality within the country. With municipal elections beginning on November 15th, racial justice has become one of the most pressing issues. Giro 2020 —an initiative led by NGOs—hopes to improve diversity within the Brazilian government by assisting more Afro-Brazilians, women, and LGBTQ+ members in their runs for office (Galicza, 2020).
The Brazilian BLM movement has not grown to the same scale as the movement within the United States, partially due to the government’s historic efforts to promote the idea of Brazil as a “racial democracy.” However, the BLM movement has garnered greater societal awareness of the racial injustices that have persistently existed within the country. Afro-Brazilians are now pushing the government to make policy changes and running for office at higher rates, leaving many Afro-Brazilians hopeful for a more just future.
Just as in Brazil, Colombia has a large Black population, and racial injustices were present there before the BLM movement. The increase in violence against Afro-Colombians comes from a long history of racial inequality and prejudice (Aidi, 2015). The BLM movement in Colombia started to gain attention again in 2020 when Colombian artists and activists started bringing attention to the case of Anderson Arboleda, a 24-year-old Afro-Colombian, who was beaten by the police for breaking a quarantine curfew and died from his injuries (Bhaumik, 2020).
On June 3, Colombians decided to take it one step further and organized a BLM protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. They protested police brutality and deaths of Black people globally, advocating for justice for both George Floyd and Anderson Arboleda (Bhaumik, 2020). Considering that Colombia has the second biggest Black population in Latin America, the lack of recognition and support for this community is astonishing. Neglect of Afro-Colombian communities has become even more obvious during the current pandemic, where Black regions in Colombia struggle to fight the number of COVID-19 cases (Noriega, 2020). Other organizations, such as Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN) and Matamba, an Afro-feminist group, joined the protests to increase awareness of the systemic racism towards Afro-Colombian communities (Gonzalez, 2020). While the current protests for the BLM movement in Colombia are focusing on Anderson Arboleda, they are fighting for the justice of many other similar cases.
Most Caribbean countries have a significant Black population, as colonizers used these islands for sugar plantations. In many cases, Black people make up the majority but are nonetheless marginalized to this day. Due to the diversity of government and societal structures and histories in the Caribbean, each country’s movement has faced distinct challenges. One country that exemplifies this is Cuba. In 1891, Cuban poet and eventual national hero José Martí wrote in his seminal work Nuestra América, “There can be no racial animosity because there are no races” (Martí, 1891). Though a progressive thought for his time, Cuba’s nearly dogmatic adherence to this concept in official rhetoric has majorly stalled progress on achieving racial equality on the island. Just like the rest of Latin America, Cuban history is marked by discrimination against its Afro-descendent population. However, the Cuban Revolution of 1959 stands out as a critical point of change in racial relations in Cuba. The revolutionary government, headed by Fidel Castro, recognized the disadvantaged position of Afro-Cubans in society and worked to combat discrimination and inequality (Bodenheimer, 2020). According to communist thinking, racial inequalities are merely a symptom of class inequalities, and as a result, Castro declared racism to no longer exist in Cuba after just three years of improvements to class inequality (Bodenheimer, 2020). The Cuban government has stood so firmly on this position that race has become perhaps the most taboo topic on the island (Bodenheimer, 2020).
Obviously, despite Castro’s declaration, racism is still a major issue in Cuba. The gap has become exceptionally glaring following opening the country to European tourism, as the much more lucrative tourism industry hires predominantly white employees (Bodenheimer, 2020). Afro-Cubans are regularly racially profiled by police, overrepresented in prisons and the informal economy, and underrepresented in the academic and political spheres (Bodenheimer, 2020; Zurbano, 2013).
People are starting to push back against the subpar conditions for Afro-Cubans but have had to contend with a repressive government that maintains that racism ceased to be an issue long ago. In late June, police in Guanabacoa, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, pursued and eventually shot and killed Hansel Hernández, a 27-year-old unarmed Black man, after allegedly seeing him steal car parts at a bus stop (Bodenheimer, 2020). His killing received widespread attention after his aunt posted about it on Facebook, igniting outrage as the police acted as judge, jury, and executioner for Hernández (Bodenheimer, 2020). Local activists planned a protest for June 30, but officials counteracted potential participants at multiple angles to prevent it from happening (Reuters Staff, 2020). 52 people were arrested in connection with planning the protest (Cuba: Protest Over Police Killing Suppressed, 2020). The state-owned communications company ETECSA also blocked phone and internet the night before for participants and journalists planning to cover the protest (Reuters Staff, 2020). Police then displayed a heavy presence in the site at which the protest was supposed to take place (Reuters Staff, 2020). Authorities claimed that the crackdown was because a COVID-19 lockdown was still in effect, but a similar demonstration was shut down in Santiago de Cuba despite not having the same public health restrictions (Cuba: Protest Over Police Killing Suppressed, 2020). For now, the state has been able to muzzle opposition on racial issues, but this will likely grow increasingly difficult as Cubans gain access to the internet, see the protests happening in the United States and around the world, and can post evidence of the mistreatment of Black citizens on social media for the world to see.
Haiti has a distinctly different history from Cuba, as it was the heart of one of the most powerful revolts of enslaved peoples and became the world’s first Black republic after the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 (Gilbert, 2015). While Haiti gained independence from the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue–an oppressive colonial power–institutional oppression is still to blame for racial injustices against Black people. Examples of the violence were demonstrated in 2015 during several weeks of protest that shut down the capital of Port-au-Prince in an effort to return the nation to democracy. The president at the time, Michel Martelly, had been running the country “unconstitutionally” (Gilbert, 2015). The United States supported Martelly’s presidency with over $73 million in security force assistance over a handful of years (Gilbert, 2015). Martelly was also supported by the occupation by the United Nations Stabilizing Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), an entity that contributed to the systematic violence by sparking a cholera outbreak that killed over 10,000 people, open firing on, killing, and even raping Haitian citizens since 2004.
Similar to the BLM movement, the anti-Haitian government and anti-MINUSTAH civil rights protesters were faced with brutality and subjugation by the hands of the government, and other security forces (Neel, 2020). Authorities ignored the rights of Black Haitians by ‘rewriting’ the nature of the protests as being related to gang violence, and Black-on-Black crime particularly targeting predominantly Black neighborhoods (Bell, 2014). Civil unrest and a multitude of allegations and criminal investigations drove MINUSTAH to withdraw once a “peaceful transition of power” occurred in 2016. Police brutality, unfortunately, did not end once MINUSTAH left in 2017. U.S.-backed and United Nations trained Haitian police officers took the streets vandalizing and setting fire to public property and firing weapons in the air “decrying the lack of pay, poor treatment, and health insurance” (Charles, 2020). The new government condemned the police officers calling them “barbaric, illegal, unacceptable, and unworthy…remind[ing] us of the indiscriminate violence of extremists and terrorists who are hiding behind the demands to sow disorder and chaos” (Charles, 2020). The marches in Haiti effectively incited change, so when George Floyd was murdered, Haitians were quick to organize in solidarity. Elizabeth Jeanty, one of the organizers of the rally for George Floyd in Miami Florida exclaimed that Haitians were organizing for unity, “…The idea is to say enough is enough, equal justice, we are all [B]lacks. We want to send the message no matter who you are, you have to be treated the same” (Ferdinand, 2020). Black solidarity was performed by Haitians holding #BLM signs alongside Haitian revolution placards reading men anpil chay pa lou “with my hands, the load is light” (Neel, 2020).
Discrimination against Black Haitians is present not only in Haiti itself but also in the Dominican Republic, its neighboring country on the island of Hispaniola. The Dominican Republic has a long history of Anti-Black sentiments mainly towards its Haitian descendent community and exacerbated by the Dominican government not viewing Haitian descendants as equal. This stems from the Anti-Blackness that Dominican citizens display—even when an estimated 25-90% (Lopez, Gustavo-Barrera, 2016) of Dominicans are of Afro descent. Dominican history plays a strong part in the country’s racism. In 1937, then dictator Rafael Trujillo launched a pogrom known as el Corte (the cut), where an estimated 20,000 Haitians were murdered (Davis, 2012). Today, Haitians are being deported back to neighboring Haiti. Haitian descendants in the Dominican Republic live in less than optimal living conditions and are treated as second-class citizens with an estimated 200,000 getting their citizenship revoked and deported (Dimaio, 2016). The oppression that Haitian descendants receive from Dominicans is where the BLM movement comes to life in the Dominican Republic.
Reconocido is a local organization consisting of primarily Haitian descendent Dominicans. As a response to the murder of George Floyd, Reconocido organized a demonstration titled “Una flor para Floyd”(Monitor, 2020). This demonstration was not positively received. Dominican nationalist group Antigua Orden Dominicana (AOD) threatened this demonstration with hateful speech, telling others that they must protect from a Haitian invasion and started attacking demonstrators. Instead of protecting the activists, police split up the conflict and arrested activists: Reconocido leader Ana Maria Belique as well as Maribel Nuñez and Fernando Corona (Monitor, 2020). Reconocido is one of the main voices for Black lives in the Dominican Republic. Their goal is to “completely integrate Dominicans of Haitian Ancestry into Dominican society”, which they will continue to do with demonstrations, mobilization efforts, and helping the respective community with legal work (Front Line Defenders, 2020). The fight for the rights of Black people in the Dominican Republic continues to this day with Reconocido, hopeful that one day in the future Dominicans of Haitian descent will start to be treated equally and fairly.
Even in countries where the Black population is not as large as it is in Brazil, Colombia, or the Caribbean, people are fighting for Black lives. One such example is Mexico. Despite the ethnic diversity that Mexico possesses, Afro-Mexicans are rarely thought about when mentioning the country’s different ethnic groups. This is mainly due to their 1.2% minority status among the Mexican population, and the “myth of mestizaje”—a mistaken idea and traditional concept that all Mexicans are of mixed race, or mestizos (Mitchell, 2019). Although there is documentation of African roots in Mexico, Afro-Mexicans and their contributions have largely remained invisible (Minority Rights Group, 2020). The profound racism happening in Mexico today is tied to the neglect of the country’s Black population that has struggled for recognition in an overwhelming mestizo country (Agren, 2020). Many Black Mexicans claim to be constantly challenged by authorities on their identity, sometimes asking them to sing the national anthem to prove their nationality. They attribute this to racism and the misconception that if you are Black, you are not Mexican (Agren, 2020).
Mexico is behind many parts of the world when it comes to discussing racial injustice. For instance, this year’s census marks the first time Mexico is counting its Afro-Mexican population (Agren, 2020). Although this is a sign of progress, for activists in Mexico, it is not enough. Inspired by the large wave of protests across the United States and the world, activists in Mexico began confronting racial injustices in their own communities (Morlan, 2020). “I can’t breathe” are words that have resonated in the Black Lives Matter movement rooted in Tijuana, after a disturbing act of racism and police brutality shockingly resembled the one of George Floyd’s in the U.S. (Cáñez et al., 2020). In January of this year, a Haitian man asking for charity on the street was presumably beaten by Tijuana police officers to the point where he began to cry out, “Asthma, I can’t breathe.” The police officers ignored this until the man collapsed to the ground and lost vital signs (Lugo, 2020). Yet, Mexican authorities have not publicly released any information about the case. There are no details about who the Haitian man was, so there is no name to demand justice for. In June, a group of people gathered in the Plaza Santa Cecilia in Tijuana, making sidewalk chalk art and dancing to Afrobeat music. It was not only a celebration of Black lives but a protest towards the injustice committed against the Haitian man, which is a reality for many in the country (Cáñez et al., 2020).
Besides protests, the BLM movement is also instigating debate about whether racism exists in Mexico. The topic of racism in Mexico has been denied for years because people continue to argue that Mexicans share the same mixed racial heritage so that it is unlikely for racial prejudice to motivate discrimination (Russell, 2020). Several Mexicans, such as the actor Tenoch Huerta, resort to social media to reveal the lack of dialogue about racism in Mexico. Huerta used his Twitter to ask the public when they would take the time to talk about racism in Mexico, expressing that it was still a huge taboo. Given this, the hashtag #MexicoRacista grew on Twitter and other social media networks that seek to create awareness of racist actions within the country (Suárez, 2020).
Black Argentinians also face significant erasure but are fighting back to get the recognition and equality they deserve. Argentina is known as one of the most European countries outside of Europe. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, thousands of European immigrants arrived, mostly from Italy and Spain, but also from France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and other countries. But the very reason that so many European immigrants came to Argentina was the country’s deliberate effort to “whiten” the population. In Argentina’s early days of silver mining in the early 1800s, Europeans were the minority (Argentina, 2020). The majority of the population consisted of Indigenous people, enslaved Africans, and mestizos. The Argentinean government incentivized Europeans to come to Argentina by offering an alluring, underpopulated land of opportunity where people could escape from the economic hardships they faced in their home countries (Jachimowicz, 2006). The current traditions of Argentina- tango, holiday celebrations, music, architecture, food, and business practices- are the result of every culture that existed in the country, but the influence of Afro-Argentines has been purposefully obscured. The main issue surrounding BLM in Argentina is the complete erasure of all Black contributions from the country’s history.
For example, Argentineans are taught in schools that all Afro-Argentines were killed in the war for independence from Spain in 1813 or in the yellow fever epidemic of that period (Rollenhagen, 2020). The Black community’s history and contributions are not celebrated, respected, nor acknowledged. In 1996, the president of Argentina himself, Carlos Menem, declared that “there are no Black people in Argentina” (Rollenhagen, 2020). The census did not even include Black as a demographic category until 2010, and even then, only 10% of forms included this option (Rollenhagen, 2020). This propaganda has worked. Afro-descendant Argentineans are constantly asked where they are from in their own country, since their white and mestizo countrymen have been conditioned to believe the myth that their country is white. Most Afro-Argentines can trace their roots to Senegal or Cabo Verde, and they have combatted all odds to preserve and integrate their culture in Argentinean society. Cultural products such as tango, chacarera, carne asada argentina, and tamborero groups all owe thanks to African heritage for their creation (En Argentina, Las Vidas Negras También Importan, 2018; Rollenhagen, 2020). Many organizations, such as the Comité Internacional para la Eliminación de la Discriminación Racial and the Instituto Nacional de Asuntos Afroargentinos, Afrodescendientes y Africanos exist to start to create change in the Black community (En Argentina, Las Vidas Negras También Importan, 2018).
Much like in the United States, Black Argentineans face police brutality. Members of the Senegalese community have spoken out about how their community members are chased, beaten, shot, and robbed by the police simply for selling their merchandise or sitting outside of their homes (Rollenhagen, 2020). Buenos Aires resident Miriam Gomes says, “It’s almost like there’s an order to go after them, it’s so systematic” (Rollenhagen, 2020). The government of Mauricio Macri, President of Argentina from 2015 to 2019, defunded institutions that work for integration of the Black community (Urondo, 2019). However, before Afro-Argentineans can start battling the extreme discrimination they face, they are demanding that the country first recognize their existence.
The movement in Honduras presents a unique situation in its focus on Afro-Indigeneity. Like elsewhere in the region and around the world, Black Hondurans are disenfranchised and discriminated against as a result of racism that poisons the society and systems we exist in. The current movement being led by Black and Indigenous peoples in Honduras revolves heavily around governmental neglect of Afro-Hondurans and the effects of drug trafficking. Much of the Honduran population identify as mestizo: a synthesis of Spaniard, Indigenous and African heritage. This identity is a result of the years of colonization, migration, and survival. One group that has survived colonial violence is the Afro-Indigenous group known as the Garífuna. The Garífuna is a group of people who were deported from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent to Central America in 1797. They played a crucial role in regional economies, combining subsistence production, such as agriculture and fishing, with wage labor while carving out spheres of limited cultural autonomy-based in beachfront communities (Anderson, 2009). However, with a massive wave of migration to the U.S. currently underway, the Garífuna people are being severely depleted in their ancestral homelands. (Smyth, 2014).
“Over the last six months, the government has shut every single department related to Afro-Descendant and [I]ndigenous rights," Castillo said. "Either they no longer exist or they have been folded into some minor ministry that will not give priority to our concerns. We're forced to take these to the streets, where the police repress us and the media ignore us" (Smyth, 2014). The Garifuna have held ancestral lands in Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize for generations, a legacy of their assistance to the Central American independence struggles of the early 19th century. (Smyth, 2014). Presently, the community is struggling against racial injustice, as the country’s government continues to neglect their basic needs. Crises in Honduras like the dispossession and violence faced by the Garífuna people are not natural disasters but the result of a series of political decisions, including foreign policy decisions made here in the United States. U.S.-based solidarity movements have an important role to play as well. More than 40 Honduran social movements are calling for the passage of the Berta Cáceres Act, a congressional bill in the United States originally introduced in 2016 by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.). This bill calls on the United States to suspend all “security assistance to Honduran military and police until such time as human rights violations by Honduran state security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice” (116th Congress, 2019-2020). Not only is there a lack of international intervention, but advocacy for these groups is also being done at a community level, as the Garifuna take to the streets to protest themselves. The BLM movement has aided in shining a light on these issues and informing Americans. As many U.S. citizens occupy major intersections and repost information via Instagram, the demonstrations taking place are just a fraction of the ways American youth are contributing to improving Black living conditions. A multitude of people are supporting Black organizations monetarily by donating to various collectives and GoFundMe pages. The fight for Black lives continues as awareness spreads globally.
Throughout the Americas, centuries of oppression and mistreatment toward Black people have reached a boiling point recently, especially after the murder of George Floyd. Countries may have their unique histories and challenges, but the global solidarity of the BLM movement is evident in surveying the movement across Latin America and the Caribbean. The movement is not going anywhere, as its worldwide expansion has strengthened it, and there is still plenty of work to be done in every country. While the difficulties Black communities face around the world are significant and deep-rooted, these examples from Latin America and the Caribbean offer hope for the future, be it through increased awareness on social media, increased representation in government, non-BIPOC support, and resistance.
Glossary of Terms
Afro-Indigenous - having both indigenous and African descent (Mays, 2019)
El Corte - program launched by Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo an estimated 20,000 Haitians were murdered (Davis, 2012)
Favela - poorest neighborhoods of Brazilian cities that are predominantly Afro-Brazilian (Biller, 2020)
Indigenous - existing naturally or having always lived in a place; native (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020)
Mestizo - a term usually used throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to describe people of mixed ancestry with a white European and an indigenous background (Gonzalez-Barrera, 2015)
MINUSTAH - the United Nation Stabilizing Mission in Haiti; an entity that contributed to the systematic violence by sparking a cholera outbreak that killed over 10,000 people, open firing on, killing, and even raping Haitian citizens since 2004
The myth of mestizaje - a mistaken idea and traditional concept that all Mexicans are of mixed race, or mestizos (Mitchell, 2019)