South and Central America

The minorities question in South and Central America is dominated by the case of the Amerindians, though there are many other important issues. The Spanish, Portuguese, British, French and Dutch colonization of the area destroyed the indigenous empires, and reduced the peoples to powerlessness through conquest, annihilation, enslavement, assimilation, evangelization, and social and political domination. The States of Latin America do not reflect native power, but the power of the colonizers and immigrants from Europe. The indigenous peoples do not have the same residue of treaties and agreements with the invading powers as exists in North America.

The starting point for the current renaissance of Indian organizations and action for justice is not therefore the implementation of historic agreements but basic human rights. Contemporary involvement in ecological issues has also helped to focus interest on the survival of forest-dwelling Indians whose non-destructive relationship to their environment is qualitatively different from that of the new peoples. Most Amerindians, however, are now peasant agriculturalists or survivors at the margins of society at some remove from centres of power. Concern for the maintenance of authentic cultures must, therefore, be matched by concern for the social and economic condition of indigenous groups and their participation in the social order.

Besides the Amerindians, the situation of South Americans of African descent is also negative in terms of discrimination and social deprivation. Descendants of slaves (Brazil was the last major nation to abolish the slave trade) find that colour counts against them: “blackness” can still indicate social inferiority despite the reality of racial mixing and the vivid cultural contributions made by imported peoples. The overall “melting-pot” philosophy favoured in the regions does not necessarily operate to secure justice and equality, even for those whose desire is to be integrated into the mainstream of society.

The reports carry over to other issues related to this “melting-pot” — the Welsh of Patagonia and the Falklands/Malvinas. Current social and political structures in Latin America are on the whole intolerant of expressions of non-Latin cultural specifics. Minorities are expected to become assimilated, to speak Spanish or Portuguese, and assume the identity of their host cultures.

Instruments on Minority Rights

The record of State participation in general human rights instruments is good. Most States are also parties to the American Convention on Human Rights and the ILO’s Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Populations (see Appendix 2.1). A notable omission is the refusal of Brazil to become a party to either International Covenant on Human Rights, though it is a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (see Appendix 2.2). How much this means in practice is not clear, since Chile is a party to these instruments, despite a very poor record on human rights.

Latin American States played a prominent part in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. During the drafting, Government representatives gave expression to a view on minorities which has been maintained with great consistency until the present day: that there is no need for special or targeted rights for minorities; general human rights on a non-discriminatory basis were sufficient. Further, many Latin American States deny that they have minorities. Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights opens with the phrase “in those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist . . .”. This was suggested by Chile to the Human Rights Commission, and, according to its representative, the Article was neither general in scope nor universal in application — it did not pertain to Chile. The representative of Brazil put the matter succinctly: “Brazil and the other American States did not recognize the existence of minorities on the American continent.” For a minority to exist “a group of people must have been transferred ’en bloc’ without a chance to express their will freely, to a State with a population most of whom differed from them in race, language or religion. Thus, groups which had been gradually and deliberately formed by immigrants within a country could not be considered minorities”. So individuals who might well be treated as a collective with its own rights in European constitutions are instead guaranteed a full range of civil, political, economic and social rights. As noted above, assimilation of minorities is the general policy followed in Latin America. Thus, Article 2 of Mexico’s Ley General de Población describes Mexican priorities as “fusion of the nation’s ethnic groups, assimilation of foreigners and the preparation of indigenous groups for incorporation in national life through an improvement in their physical, economic and social conditions”. The States, for example, will usually designate an official language, lack of fluency in which may disbar from voting in national elections.

However, a distinction must be made between “new” immigrants and indigenous groups. A number of States have made important modifications to their legal systems in recent years to recognize, perhaps for the first time, the indigenous peoples’ contribution to culture and society. Peru’s decree law 21156 (1976) provides: “Quechua is recognized as an official language of the Republic on the same footing as Spanish.” Important modifications in the area of indigenous status have also been made recently by States such as Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Panama. The most extensive concession to the indigenous groups has been made by Nicaragua. The Constitution declares that “the people of Nicaragua are multi-ethnic and are an integral part of the Central American nation” (Article 8); and “Spanish is the official language of the State. The languages of the [indigenous] communities of the Atlantic Coast shall also have official use in the cases established by law” (Article 11). Further, “the communities of the Atlantic Coast are an indivisible part of the Nicaraguan people, enjoy the same rights and have the same obligations as all Nicaraguans . . . [they] . . . have the right to preserve and develop their cultural identities within the framework of the national unity, to be granted their own forms of social organization, and to administer their local affairs according to their traditions”.

The State recognizes communal forms of land ownership of the communities of the Atlantic Coast. Equally, it recognizes their “enjoyment, use and benefit of the waters and forests of the communal lands” (Article 89). Article 90 strikes a very positive note on the cultural contribution of the indigenous people: “The communities of the Atlantic Coast have the right to the free expression and preservation of their language, art and culture. The development of their culture and their values enriches the national culture . . . .” Article 181 promises that the State will implement, through law, autonomous government in the regions inhabited by the communities of the Atlantic Coast for the exercise of their rights. The autonomy law has been promulgated (see Appendix 2.3). These developments open a gap between the treatment accorded to the newest (immigrants) and oldest strata (the indigenous) in Latin American society; neither exercise political hegemony but the uniqueness of the latter group is slowly being recognized after centuries of oppression and neglect.

Treatment of minorities

The general standard of human rights in Latin America has been low in recent years, partly because of the retreat of democracy and the rise of military and authoritarian governments. In a general climate of oppression, minorities of various kinds are the first to suffer in terms of their economic and social levels, as well as in civil and political rights. The restoration of democracy which has taken place in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Uruguay and other States may do much to ameliorate these conditions. The existence of democratic governments and written constitutions is an essential preliminary to further action. The implementation of guarantees of non-discrimination and equality can then be translated into reality.

On the other hand, appropriate policies for indigenous groups must be devised. The ILO’s Convention of Indigenous and Tribal Populations has been widely supported by governments because it is a convention on the protection and integration of indigenous populations. The concept of integration can easily become a policy of assimilation, with a concomitant lack of respect for the authenticity of indigenous culture. Anthropology has gradually purged its vocabulary of notions of the “primitive”, the “undeveloped”, the “inferior”, and moved towards the replacement of hierarchical assumptions about cultures by understanding and appreciation of the diverse cultural responses to their environment evolved by human groups. Law and policy require similar adaptations. The recognition of the indigenous contribution in some States is welcome, but not all States participate. International developments may assist policy-makers: the ILO has produced a revised Convention on the Indigenous with the overall aim of reducing the stress on integration and increasing the element of participation by indigenous peoples in decisions about their future. The United Nations is moving towards a Universal Declaration of Indigenous Rights (see Appendix 2.4) which will incorporate concepts of the authentic identity and status of indigenous peoples and “ethnodevelopment”: the right of the peoples to develop along freely chosen lines within the larger family of the State.

For all that, there is always opposition and resistance to challenges to the power and privilege of dominant groups. The indigenous peoples form an authentic Fourth World, an underclass with a fragile power to repel external pressures. Five centuries of oppression and marginalization have destroyed much of their unique civilizations. The task of saving them some place in a developing continent is itself a major one.



Amerindians of South America

Caribs of Dominica

East Indians of the Caribbean

Maroons of Suriname

Maya of Guatemala

Mexico’s Indians

Miskito Indians of Nicaragua