Afro-Ecuadoreans have achieved unprecedented gains under President Correa but political participation and education are crucial to end structural racism.
As Ecuador prepares for its presidential and parliamentary elections, the Afro-Ecuadorean community braces for the challenges ahead while recognizing the gains that have been made by outgoing President Rafael Correa and his Alianza Pais party, Afro-Ecuadorean lawmaker Alexandra Ocles told a recent interview.
Ocles, who was the first Afro-Ecuadorean to enter the national assembly in history, highlighted some of the many gains her community scored under Correa’s government over the past decade.
“There is a tacit acknowledgment of the Afro-Ecuadorean people as a constituent part of the state and the Ecuadorean people,” Ocles said as black and white photos of U.S. civil rights activists Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X hung behind her at her office in the capital of Quito.
“I believe it is one of the fundamental actions because it was one of the historical demands of the Afro-Ecuadorean people,” she said.
She went on to highlight the inclusion of “the principle of equality and non-discrimination” in the country’s constitution in 2009, which, according to the legislator, was the result of the hard work of different social movements that pushed for the Afro-Ecuadorean agenda within the socialist government.
Under Correa’s Citizens’ Revolution, the government brought millions of people out of poverty including many within the Afro-Ecuadorean community where poverty was reduced by 20 percent according to official figures.
Ocles further touched on gains made in the educational sector, which she identified as a principle factor in the struggle for bettering conditions of her community, highlighting that access to schools and universities has significantly increased among Afro-Ecuadoreans.
Access to schools is currently at more than 95 percent for Afro-Ecuadorean children compared to 88 percent before Correa took office 10 years ago, while access to university went from 44 percent to more than 60 percent in the last decade.
Just as in the rest of South America, Afro-Ecuadoreans can trace their ancestry back to African slaves that were brought to the northwestern shores of the continent by the Spanish empire in the 16th century.
Even after the abolishment of slavery, they continued to suffer as slave labor in plantations across the country owned by the Spanish-descendant landowners.
To recognize the centuries-long plight of the community, in 2015 marking the “National Day of the Afro-Ecuadorean People,” Ecuador’s national congress passed a resolution that included the history of the country’s Afro-descendants in school textbooks.
More than 680,000 people of Ecuador’s 16 million population belong to the Afro-Ecuadorean community and more than a century after the end of slavery they continue to suffer structural racism.
Ocles told teleSUR of one of her personal encounters with racism when she was applying for a job before becoming a lawmaker.
“Once I was looking for work, there was a bit on my CV about working in an organization and as long as it did not have my photo, I passed through the diversity filters,” she recalled.
“But when I had to go in for an interview … those who were interviewing me looked at my CV then saw I was Afro-Ecuadorean and because of that I never made it through to the next stage.”
When she did go for the interview, however, she sensed “they were judging me because of my ethnicity because before on the phone they said my CV was appropriate but when I was there face to face with them, they didn’t like it.”
Such incidents are not isolated, Ocles argued, but in fact the product of systemic racism within the state and society which manifests in different ways. “Discrimination in the educational area, discrimination in the workplace or having difficulty finding housing because of being rejected for being Afro-Ecuadorean.”
Despite significant police reforms over the past 10 years, Afro-Ecuadoreans continue to be treated “almost always” with suspicion or considered suspects just for being Black in encounters with the national police, she explained.
Taking on subtle structural racism within the society is not an easy task and will remain one of the main challenges that face the community. For the outgoing lawmaker, political participation tops the list of future challenges for her community.
“Political participation is one of the fundamental aspects. The need for our people to continue to be politically active is very strong, which allows us to insert our agendas in the government, and that is vital,” she stressed pointing to her own involvement in politics and what she was able to accomplish.
Ending racism and fighting discrimination against, not only Afro-Ecuadoreans, but also historically oppressed people in the country would come from politicians working with social grassroots organizations, she added.
As eight presidential candidates prepare to face off on Feb. 19, the opposition candidates have put forward “absolutely nothing” in terms of proposals “that has to do specifically with the development of the Afro people” in the country, according to Ocles.
She reiterated that the only candidate that has expressed interest in her community is Lenin Moreno from Alianza Pais.
A supporter of Moreno for president, she put together a proposal that he presented last month during a meeting with leaders of the Afro-Ecuadorean community in the northwestern city of Esmeraldas, where most of the community is concentrated.
While recognizing the milestones that have been achieved over the past decade, Ecuador’s small Afro-Ecuadorean community braces in the decades to come for the hard task of taking on the remaining and more subtle forms of discrimination and racism their country continues to suffer.