Monday, May 24, 2010

Social Exclusion in South America

Two months of backpacking in South America has made me realize how little has changed since I last visited the region, almost eleven years ago. I am not talking about infrastructure development or the new businesses that have spread throughout the big cities—the fancy restaurants, coffee shops, banks, and huge shopping centers. These economic changes were especially noticeable in Lima, Peru, where there is pretty much anything for anyone, and where strolling along the ocean has become a must-see experience. The change I am talking about concerns social exclusion, that malice that is endemic and deep at the core of South America. The rich are getting richer—big news, right? South America does not suffer from dictators, or caudillos, anymore (well, maybe there is still one officially elected by the people). South American economies have grown steadily, and democracy is taking firm hold everywhere in the region. Nonetheless, the indigenous peoples and afro-descendants remain the most marginalized segments of the population, and they continue to face widespread discrimination.

This observation doesn’t come just from reading the newspapers or recalling my academic years spent studying Latin American affairs. I was able to see firsthand that, in the workforces of all kinds of industry in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay, the Indians and the afro-descendants are not represented. They are not a visible part of a cohesive society. You simply don’t see them anywhere you have to interact with local people or seek customer service—bank employees, flight attendants, waiters, casinos dealers, club employees, front-desk staff. The face of nearly all companies in South America is represented by employees with fair-colored skin. Private industry may claim to have a diverse group of employees, but if that is true, they are in the backrooms where nobody can see them. And this happens even in Brazil, where afro-descendants comprise a large number of the population. While flying around many areas of Brazil, for instance, I didn’t see a single black flight attendant. To satisfy my curiosity, I discretely asked a flight attendant about this, and she, somewhat confused, responded, “I don’t think our airline has any black flight attendants—not that I have seen.”

The economic development of many South American countries has improved drastically, but the reduction of poverty is occurring at a very slow pace, thanks in large part to the persistent social exclusion and the resulting economic inequalities. In Lima, Peru, I asked a worker why he doesn’t want to work in a bank or an office, rather than in an informal sector. His answer came almost immediately: “because I am cholo, and they wouldn’t hire me,” he said. In Manaus, Brazil, I asked a coconut seller the same question, and he told me they wouldn’t hire him “porque eu sou preto.”

Social cohesion and social integration are seldom talked seriously about among politicians or in the business sector. Few people really care. Unfortunately, these terms are most often used by those who “scream in silence to the deaf people.” In the past, indigenous peoples and afro-descendants used to wait for a better life, hoping that the caudillos would eventually leave government. Today they are still waiting, but now for those to whose businesses and enterprises have benefited from globalization. Meanwhile, the indigenous and afro-descendants are still being treated like second-class citizens. The governments in many, if not all, South American countries look with disdain and indifference on those most in need—those who, if socially and economically empowered, could contribute significantly to the prosperity and development of their countries.

In Peru, President Alejandro Toledo (2001–2006) campaigned for the presidency promising to bring social inclusion. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales was elected, in part, because of his indigenous background and the promises he made to improve the situation of the indigenous peoples. In Ecuador, although President Rafael Correa is not himself of indigenous descent, he too ran for the presidency on a political platform designed to appeal to the interests of the indigenous population. The same is true of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president, and Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, who seemed really to care for the guaraní population. It is by now obvious, however, that social integration and other positive change cannot be accomplished simply by electing “one of your own” or by having an indigenous or an afro-descendant as a government minister, bishop, or high-ranking official in the civil or military branches of government. These developments may help create a different perception of the “socially excluded population,” but they have little or no effect on the broad social environment, where discriminatory attitudes remain firmly entrenched.

To promote social integration and social cohesion, and to end discriminatory practices, governments must do more than make promises. Governments, working together with the private sector, must make the achievement of these social—and, ultimately, economic—goals a top priority. The solution is not only to enact and actually enforce laws designed to promote social integration, but also to create incentives that promote employment diversity—and, hence, social inclusion—in the private sector. The people themselves are the key to building, first, an emerging market and, then, a developed country. They are the real raw material that all industries require in order to succeed.

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