PANAMA CITY - Until recently, Latin American leaders treated racism as if it were somebody else's problem. South American presidents in 2000 even issued a statement condemning its resurgence in "other parts of the world."
If Afro-Latin Americans were poorer and less educated than whites, and underrepresented in government or corporations, the thinking went, it was a problem of class, not skin color.
Then, a quiet but stunning U-turn.
Governments have not only stopped ignoring racism but are drafting anti-discrimination laws, negotiating a tough hemispheric agreement to deter racism and counting the number of blacks in their midst -- all moves that activists say are needed to lift the veil of invisibility that has shrouded Afro-Latin Americans for centuries.
These advances have not come with the searing drama that marked the U.S. civil rights movement. But for a region where many blacks have long led a marginalized existence, it is heady stuff.
"That there is an awareness that you need to create government institutions, implement public policies, name black justices, is a drastic change," said Ariel Dulitzky, an expert on the subject at the Organization of American States.
The turning point came when Latin American governments and more than 1,700 activists descended on Santiago, Chile in 2000 to prepare for a U.N. worldwide conference on racism and discrimination the next year.
Until that moment Afro-descendants were more concerned with validating their African culture than fighting for political rights, says Carlos Quesada, Latin American Director for Global Rights Partners for Justice, a Washington group that trains grassroots organizations.
But after the Santiago conference, Latin American governments issued a statement recognizing that ignoring racism "contributes directly and indirectly to perpetuating the practices of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance."
Governments also for the first time used the unifying term Afro-descendants.
"It's very powerful in terms of unifying people," said Judith Morrison, South America and Caribbean director with the Inter-American Foundation, a U.S. government agency that funds community organizations, "because in the past you'd say I'm ‘African-American,' ‘I'm Afro-Latin,' or ‘I'm Afro-Caribbean' or ‘I'm African'."
The historical reasons for racism and the lack of political participation by blacks are not that different for Latin America than for the United States.
Latin America has a longer and more intensive history of African slavery and racial segregation laws existed for centuries during the colonial period, says George Reid Andrews, with the University of Pittsburgh.
Indigenous groups became more politically active sooner because their Spanish colonial masters let them preserve their way of life in many parts, providing an institutional and social basis for the formation of Indian movements, culture and society. Blacks, Reid Andrews says, lacked these foundations.
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Today, blacks in Latin America face daunting obstacles. Chances are they will get a shoddy education, drop out of school early, earn less money than whites and fade into the masses of urban and rural poor.
But some things are changing.
Governments census takers are counting blacks more carefully to determine the relationship between race and poverty in a region that already suffers from the world's worst income distribution.
Since 2003, the World Bank has done studies of black communities in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Honduras, Uruguay, Nicaragua and Panama, showing blacks were consistenly undercounted.
And more people are telling census takers they are afro-descendents. While Colombia's 1993 census found 500,000 blacks, by the mid-2000s the number had jumped to nearly five million. A government study estimated there were almost 300,000 blacks in Uruguay in 2006 -- 50 percent more than a decade before.
One of the World Bank studies concluded that Argentina has around 2 million Afro-descendants -- far more than the 1.21 million estimated for "non-white groups'' by the CIA's World Factbook.
The World Bank estimates Afro-descendants at 80-150 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. Brazil alone has 90 million, more than any other country except Nigeria.
And they are growing increasingly aware of their rights.
On Christmas day, 2004, Johana Acosta, an Afro-Colombian, wanted to go dancing with her white friends. On two occasions, her friends were allowed into night clubs, but she was not.
She took her case all the way to the constitutional court and won. The club owners were sentenced to pay retributions and study human rights and Afro-Colombian heritage. The court also instructed authorities to make sure such abuses never happen again.
Brazil now has a cabinet-level position to promote racial equality and federal affirmative action programs for public universities and the foreign service. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a branch of the OAS, created a special post to report on racism in 2005.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who needs the votes of black members of the U.S. Congress for a free trade agreement, last month appointed the 28-year Oxford University graduate Paola Moreno as minister of culture -- the first black cabinet appointment in a half-century. Colombia also reserves two congressional seats for blacks.
Argentina is drafting a "national plan'' to fight racial discrimination. Special government ombudsmen dealing with racism now operate in every Latin American country except El Salvador, Chile and Paraguay.
And last year, the 34-member OAS began debating a Brazil-proposed convention ‘‘combatting racism and all forms of discrimination and intolerance." Any violations could taken up by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. The United States, which does not recognize the court, is waiting to see how the convention comes out before pronouncing its position.
Beyond governments and multilateral institutions, Latin American blacks are organizing across borders to win greater visibility and heft.
"Many people don't realize there are blacks in Bolivia and Peru," says Elvia Duque, who runs the Washington office of AfroAmericaXXI, a group that brings together 170 community organizations in 13 Latin American countries.
Though such actions are celebrated, the few black politicians that have attained positions of influence are quick to put things in perspective.
María Isabel Urrutia is a congresswoman and Colombia's only olympic gold medalist. ‘‘We have gained much, we are recognized," she said at a recent event for activists on the side of an OAS meeting in Panama. But she complained appointing a black as culture minister only reinforced stereotypes that blacks were good at sports and entertainment. ‘‘They are continuing to have us dance," she said.
Epsy Campbell, a prominent Costa Rican politician, says blacks make up one-third of the region's population but account for fewer than 80 of its 4,200 legislators.
"We have to blacken the dialogue on democracy in Latin America," she says.
Ultimately, the region's democratic health depends on being inclusive, says Dulitzky, the OAS official.
"Equality, as it relates to race, gender, ethnicity, or anything else," he says, "is still far from being viewed in the region as an essential and basic requirement for democracy."