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URUGUAY
Not so equal society
Pablo Long
11/22/2007
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Afro-descendant population finds itself among the poorest and excluded in the country’s society.

A new study released last July has found that Uruguayan society — considered one of the most tolerant in the region — has pushed its Afro-descendant population into one of the lowest sectors of society by discrimination, creating high rates of unemployment and poverty, as well as premature mortality, low skill jobs, and less schooling for this sector.

According to the study “Demographic and Socioeconomic Profile of the Uruguayan Population According to Racial Heritage,” by Wanda Cabella and Marisa Buchelli, researchers at the Social Sciences Department at the Universidad de la Republica in Montevideo, the white population has experienced an unemployment rate of 10 percent compared to black population at 14.1 percent this year.

The 2006 national census, performed by the National Statistics Institute, found that Uruguay has 3.3 million inhabitants, of which 8.5 percent (279,429 people) are Afro- descendants and 3.5 percent (115,158) have some indigenous heritage. Only 138,015 of the 279,429 African descendants are economically active.

Rampant discrimination
Another study, released past June and performed by the municipal government of Montevideo on the perceptions of social exclusion, measured the degree of racism in the population: 68.3 percent defined themselves as very or quite discriminative toward blacks, homosexuals, elderly, and disabled persons, in that order.

“It has been proved that tolerance is one of the Uruguayan myths that is now being dispelled,” said sociologist Gustavo Leal, who headed the survey.

Cabella and Buchelli reveal that most Afro-descendants work in unskilled jobs — only 9 percent hold positions such as directors, professionals or technicians, whereas 37 percent are in the service sector (housekeepers and garbage collectors), 7 percent are administrative assistants, 16 percent salespeople, 25 percent laborers, 5 percent farm workers, and 1.4 percent in the military.

Besides low skill jobs and thus low salaries, African descendants experience a higher level of informality: 48 percent are unregistered workers who have neither retirement benefits nor social security, meaning that upon retirement — age 65 for men and age 60 for women — many do not have access to a pension plan or even medical care apart from what is offered in public hospitals.

In 1988 the black population formed the organization Mundo Afro or “Afro World” that rescued their ancestors’ culture and has managed to become a respected and even inescapable presence in Uruguayan society.

“We have been seen as folkloric and carnival characters, street sweepers, servants, farmhands, soldiers, the disposable sector,” claims Jorge Romero Rodríguez, political head of Mundo Afro. “The state and society have denied even our numeric importance and cultural heritage, exalting Hispanic culture instead.”

Few professionals
According to Mundo Afro, no more than 20 Afro-Uruguayans are licensed nurses, only one is a doctor, two are accountants, and four are lawyers.

In the Uruguayan government, there is only one black congressman, Edgardo Ortuño, of the ruling Broad Front party. He is the only lawmaker of African descent since the republic was founded 182 years ago.

Nearly 60 percent of Uruguay’s Afro-descended population lives entirely in marginalized urban neighborhoods and is among the poorest fifth of the Uruguayan population.

Only 26.7 percent of Uruguay’s white population is part of this poorest fifth of the country’s population. Five percent of Afro-Uruguayans live in the most extreme poverty compared with 1.8 percent of the country’s white population.

Buchelli and Cabella say that their study did not compare life expectancy, “but some indicators suggest that it is higher among blacks.” In particular, they say, rates of widowhood from age 50 are systematically greater among Afro-descended men and women than among the white population.

The disparity between the black and white populations in secondary and higher education is marked: between ages 15 and 19, black adolescents have an average of 11 months less schooling than their white Uruguayan counterparts. The gap jumps to 1.6 years between the ages of 20 to 29, and reaches its peak — 2 years — above the age of 30.

Researchers claim that, due to widespread discrimination in the job market, having a higher level of education is not as beneficial for a discriminated group as it is for a non-discriminated group, thus decreasing incentive for African descendants to continue education.

“It’s sad, we are arriving at the end of a self-complacent vision, of something that we thought was true when it wasn’t, at the end of an integrated society that supposedly didn’t discriminate, that was egalitarian,” reflects lawmaker Ortuño.

“These are values that a progressive government such as ours should rescue; this is a warning about the attention that must be given to the social priorities in our political agenda.”

The undeclared forms of discrimination have not stopped African descendents from leaving their mark in Uruguayan music. The African inspired candombe rhythm as well as a small drum known as a tamboril pervade all sectors of society, from sport fans to folklore groups.

The tamboril was a symbol of identity for Uruguayan communities in exile, was used in protests during the dictatorship, and is currently the national instrument.


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