Nearly All-White Argentina Confronts Its Troubled Racist and Religious Past

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  • Tuesday's manifestation by the indigenous in Buenos Aires proclaimed that neglect of the country's first people must not be ignored.
  • Land raids in the indigenous area of Chaco leads to protests and later charges that over 20 inhabitants of the impoverished province have died from hunger and malnutrition.
  • Argentina's Jewish Community tries to assimilate in the face of intolerance.
  • Indigenous as well as non-indigenous minority groups—including Afro-Argentines, resident indigenous from neighboring countries, and Islamic migrants from the Middle East—have been met with intolerance and abuse.
  • Cristina should apologize to BAYS.

In a story carried Tuesday over BBC News, Latin America correspondent Daniel Schweimler reported that a number of leaders of the indigenous community have filed a legal complaint in Buenos Aires with the country's Supreme Court, charging that more than 20 members of the Toba, Wichi, and Piraga peoples have died of hunger or malnutrition in recent months. This was due to the failure of the authorities to take the necessary steps to deliver vital supplies, including water, to members of the indigenous communities in Argentina's impoverished northern province of Chaco.

With a 97 percent white, European-descended population, at first glance it might seem hard to make a case condemning Argentina for discrimination and intolerance. Nevertheless, afflicted minority populations, in more ways than one, find themselves hidden among the country's majority white Catholic population, which tends to be ethnically either Italian or Spanish. Along with Chile and Uruguay—whose white populations constitute the vast majority—Argentina can be considered one of the few remaining Latin American countries in which whites unimpededly control their societies politically, economically, and culturally. If anything, Argentina's dominant racial and ethnic groups have been able to do this even more extensively and effectively than their cohorts in the rest of the Southern Cone, and all signs point to the continuation of this trend into the future.

Argentina's Minorities
Meanwhile, because its minority and indigenous groups are relatively tiny, the Argentine government is faced with a number of questions regarding how it should deal with these suffering sectors of the population. Since these harassed groups are so powerless and able to wield only modest influence, the question could be posed, why bother? In its early days as a colony and then after its independence, Argentina's European linked Catholic population suppressed and came close to eliminating the indigenous population. Today, native peoples and other minorities are often either marginalized, or entirely excluded from the more favored environs of Argentine society, and therefore face a predictable dose of discrimination: for example, poverty and illiteracy rates are significantly higher among the indigenous as well as some of the other, less favored segments of the population.

In addition to dealing with its indigenous groups, Argentina is simultaneously combating another equally serious problem of ethnic and religious intolerance. Some Argentines have greeted recent indigenous immigrants coming from other South American nations like Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru, with racist-flecked and inhospitable responses. Moreover, Chinese immigrants have long faced discrimination in Argentina, and peoples from Lebanon and Syria have not always fared well in their new country. Furthermore, with the third-largest Jewish population in the Americas, there have been periodic surges in anti-Semitism in Argentina, a country in which nine out of ten citizens are Roman Catholic.

Seeking Justice for BAYS (Buenos Aires Yoga School)
Illustrative of Argentina's chronic and profound historic difficulties with the concepts of democracy, combating intolerance and insisting upon an open society, has been the status of Argentina's relatively large and influential Jewish Community. At the same time, it has been targeted for many years by followers of a venomous neo-Nazi creed that has a firm foothold in the country's political life. Characteristic of this feverishly applied anti-Semitic factor has been the experience of the Buenos Aires Yoga School (Escuela de Yoga) or BAYS, located in the nation's capital. Even though only approximately half of its 800 members are Jewish, BAYS became an instant and inevitable target for the wrath of some of the most dubious elements of Argentine public life. BAYS, a prominent Buenos Aires social and education circle, is a private club, mainly composed of middle-aged professionals, academics, and artists. Throughout the corrupt Menem presidency, BAYS was harassed by Argentina's venal judicial system, with the gun smoke of anti-Semitic motivation hanging over the assaults against it.

Under BAYS' internationally-respected guru, Dr. Juan Percowicz, and its brilliantly gifted legal defense team, the group fought off meretricious and defamatory charges coming from the dark margins of Argentina's deeply flawed society. These alleged that BAYS was a cult, had broken up families and had sanctified moral turpitude. In fact, an independent investigation showed that all of those charges were totally invented and without merit. Disgracefully, rather than coming to the defense of BAYS, the Argentine media all-but ignored the hugely symbolic importance of the case, with the organization being finally vindicated in 2005, when the legal accusations against it were voided just before the court's Chief Justice was impeached by the Argentine Congress on similar charges. Because the Argentine political, human rights, religious and media institutions were largely silent during BAYS travail, one of the first post inaugural acts of the new Fernandez de Kirchner administration should be to bestow some act of recognition of BAYS' stalwart courage in warding off the authoritarian attributes that have so hobbled the nation and at whose hands BAYS had so grievously suffered.

It is important to remember that such towering 19th Century figures as President Sarmiento and General Julio Roca aggressively favored European immigration to Argentina to keep it an all-white population and in the case of General Roca, led the efforts to eliminate as many of the indigenous population in the Northeast part of the country, geographically known as the Pampas region, as possible. Troubled race relations are not simply a matter of ancient history. The manner in which Argentina incorporates its many minority groups into society is critical, and will play a key role in shaping the country's future direction. In certain respects, the government is working very diligently to improve its stained reputation, and there have been some successes. But Argentine society has a long way to go, for the problem is often endemic, if not systemic, and when it's there, discrimination infringes as much on the letter as the sprit of the law. A look at the country's handling of the struggle for indigenous rights, along with management of the intolerance that has been directed at some of Argentina's minority groups, can lead to insights that could help clarify the nation's past legacy and future direction.

The Indigenous Three Percent
Last June 24 and 25, representatives of at least 15 of Argentina's indigenous groups met in the neighborhood of Barrio Toba in Rosario, a few hours north of Buenos Aires in a historic first for Argentina's indigenous groups. The various native communities came together to unite against a common foe and in support of a widely felt cause: the target of their outrage was the Argentine government's neglect, and the mission was the protection of indigenous rights. The plight of their ancestors, who had to chronically face shameful treatment from after the establishment of the Argentine viceroyalty up to the present, has become folkloric. The numerous indigenous groups of Argentina have throughout history been treated as second-class citizens, particularly during the last hundred years. By demonstrating their unity in late June, and now with their action in the Supreme Court, the indigenous groups are awakening to the realization that, as they constitute such a small segment of the overall Argentine population (roughly 400,000 people or 1 to 3 percent of the total population), they will need to come together, as well as sharpen their collaboration, if they are going to have any chance to be heard in their immediate communities as well as throughout the country. As Samiyje community representative Fidelina Diaz said, "…we have joined forces to say 'ENOUGH.'"

Yet meetings and conferences can go only so far, and there are genuine questions regarding the effectiveness of their unification efforts in a country where the indigenous population is so negligible. Only two months after their initial meetings were staged, reports surfaced that the Toba, Wichí, and Mocoví Indians in Chaco, one of Argentina's most impoverished provinces, were being forced from their ancestral lands and into smaller spaces where access to water, food, and healthcare was problematic. Reasons for the movement of the indigenous groups were not entirely clear at the time, but it soon became apparent that they were being forced to move because their land was being illegally sold to commercial farmers for logging. No wonder they felt sufficiently pressed to take their recent stand at the Supreme Court, which a month before had called upon the authorities to protect indigenous rights and access to resources.

Chaco's Profile
Ominous events, such as the ones just discussed, present important questions about Argentina's treatment of its indigenous minority, and whether the authorities are sufficiently sensitive to the community's rights and needs. It appears as if the government is now preparing to take some steps to mitigate the problem. The country's Supreme Court recently reviewed the situation in Chaco and ordered Buenos Aires to investigate what happened and to take remedial actions. However, little has been done so far. The Nelson Mandela Centre for Studies and Research reported that, in the past few months, 23 indigenous have died as a result of malnourishment and illnesses like tuberculosis. Most of those closely monitoring the situation believe that these deaths were preventable. If only the government would acknowledge the need as well as the rights of the indigenous poor, this would at least represent a modest beginning. Orlando Charole, president of the Chaco Institute for Indigenous Affairs (IDACH), told Inter Press Service news agency, "…for centuries we indigenous people have suffered complete subjugation across the entire continent…." To back up that claim, the aforementioned Mandela Centre, in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court, suggested that privatization of the forests has led to increased starvation and heightened illness rates among the people of Chaco. Reversing this privatization would be an important symbolic gesture for Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to make when she assumes office on December 10.

The events taking place in Chaco is but one instance of the bad blood existing between the Argentine government and the indigenous. Of course, because the indigenous population is so small and therefore bereft of much leverage, cases like the one in Chaco certainly do not appear every day (or even every month) on the public docket. At the same time, however, it should be noted that when such matters are given national attention, they serve as a stark reminder of both the inequality and discrimination that persist in Argentina. In a ruling issued on October 4, the Supreme Court ordered the national and provincial governments to provide potable water and food to the indigenous people of Chaco, it also noted that there had been "…the failure of the provincial and national states to provide minimal humanitarian and social assistance to these communities." There is a fear among many supporters of indigenous peoples that groups like the Toba—numbering only about 18,000— may soon die out, and that only time will tell if the government is truly committed to rectifying its past abysmal neglect of them.

The Indigenous Immigrants
Whereas there has been a long history of the central government having strained relations with its own indigenous peoples, Argentina has recently been thrown a new curveball in the form of needy migrants from other countries who slip into Argentina, a manner reminiscent of Mexican illegals slipping into the U.S. A substantial number of these immigrants are indigenous South Americans, and not surprisingly, the average Argentine has not exactly put out the welcome mat to receive them.
However, due largely to well-meaning policies being put on the national agenda by Argentine President Néstor Kirchner, would-be residents have been encouraged by him to apply for legal entrance when immigrating. Kirchner believes that the tax revenue that their labor will generate can more than make up for the added burden they put on the welfare state. Most of these immigrants end up in Buenos Aires and other major Argentine urban centers hoping to get jobs in the informal economy, where they will handle the marginal jobs that most native Argentines do not want to undertake. At the same time, however, the Argentine government can, if it is so-minded, influence how people like those immigrating from the north are being treated, and figure out how they—along with other ill-treated minority groups—can best be integrated into Argentine society.

Another often-discriminated-against cohort in South America—Jews—have lived in Argentina for centuries but have been the target of discrimination mainly since 1890, when increased number of Jews began to seek entrance to the country. Due to the overwhelmingly Catholic nature of Argentine society, Jews have stood out and, in turn, have been discriminated against due largely to the same religious stereotypes and scapegoating that have haunted them worldwide for centuries. After World War II and the Holocaust, however, the number of Jewish refugees coming to Argentina increased exponentially over a relatively short period of time.

A large percentage of these Jewish immigrants settled in Buenos Aires, with the intention of assimilating into Argentine society. Just as quickly as they tried to do this, though, the Jews were met with numerous hostile incidents, routinely motivated by ugly natavist bigotry. This is best exemplified by the Tacuara Nationalist Movement—an ultra-conservative Argentine political group—which served as an important factor in Argentina's de facto neo-fascist movement beginning in the 1950s, which persisted until the mid 1970s. The group functioned both in Argentine society at large and also as a military lodge, serving as a fiercely anti-Semitic factor among the senior command of the country's armed forces. Inspired by Hitler's Germany, the Tacuara wanted to eliminate the Jews from Argentina and create a society similar to the one sought after by the Nazis. From levying special surtaxes on Jewish shops to attacking Jewish schoolchildren, the Tacuara turned to a number of bullying tactics to intimidate the growing Jewish population in Argentina. While relatively few in number, they did their work in an environment that encouraged such practices.

Although Tacuara itself does not exist today, its legacy of intolerance toward Argentine Jews lives on. From the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 to the 1994 explosion of a Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, with a combined death toll of more than one hundred Argentine Jews and non-Jews, anti-Semitism persists to this day. Even though Argentina, with more than 250,000 Jews, has such a large Jewish population relative to other countries in the Americas, they still comprise only two-thirds of one percent of the overall Argentine population. This makes it relatively easy for anti-Semitism to persist, and in the past few years discrimination against Jews, one of the most prominent minority groups in Argentina, has shown no sign of abating.

Persecution of BAYS
According to the Anti-Defamation League's (ADL) report on anti-Semitism in Argentina, 2006 "…saw an increase in anti-Semitic incidents from 373 [in 2005] to over 500." Various forms of anti-Semitic vandalism were shown to be on the rise, even as the Argentine government introduced legislation aimed at curbing such acts. Examining the content of newspapers, radio and television stations, and other popular forms of media in order to analyze the current state of anti-Semitism in the country, the ADL uncovered 586 incidents of anti-Semitism over the past year, with more than two-thirds of those incidents (412) occurring in Buenos Aires. The relatively large concentration of Jews there has attracted a relatively small but virulent cadre of hate mongers and others who are rabidly antipathetic to Jewish ideas, groups, and eminent personalities, which could help to comprehend the singular treatment of BAYS.

In the print media as well, the ADL found no shortage of incidents of anti-Semitic feelings and prejudices. In its 2006 report, it found that "the year 2006 shows that spaces for virulent anti-Jewish criticism have been opened and deepened, especially, since the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah." Whereas political debates as well as protests are allowed in a free country like Argentina, the utilization of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict by local anti-Semites who use such events to launch violent attacks against Argentine Jews is an entirely different story. As was tellingly illuminated by the BAYS case, scapegoating Argentine Jews who have had nothing to do with kindling such events thousands of miles away from where they live, reflects very poorly on the part of the Argentine establishment, including a certain fraction of the Catholic Church and its activist lay groups, for the adverse treatment of one of the country's most productive minority groups. In a related matter, the U.S. State Department's annual briefing on Argentina in 2003, it found that the most common act of anti-Semitism in the country were "…the appearance of anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi graffiti and posters in cities."

It should be noted, however, that the recent presidential election victory of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is looked upon by the country's Jewish community as having good instincts and a willingness to express them when it comes to the proper recognition of it's contribution to Argentine national life, has given many Argentine Jews real hope that their voices will be heard and their issues addressed. Unlike some of the country's previous leaders (e.g., notably, President Carlos Menem, who was thoroughly unresponsive to the concerns of the Jewish community), President-elect Kirchner, as was the case with her husband, has strengthened existing connections and forged new ones with Argentina's Jewish leaders, expeditiously addressing many of their concerns. For example, she has come down hard on Iran's policies and has criticized amnesty for the generals and other military leaders from Argentina's "Dirty War" of 1976-1983 (in which Jews were disproportionately singled out for brutal treatment). She also has shown strong support for South America's Jews in general, exemplified by a recent trip to Caracas to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Venezuela's largest Jewish organization. She has expressed her commitment to seeking out every clue in order to resolve the 1992 and 1994 bombings of Jewish facilities so that the community can have a sense of closure and feel appreciatively safer.

Anti-Muslim Sentiments
Like the extremist claims of a suspect relationship between Argentine Jews and the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in the Middle East, Argentine Muslims have suffered a similar fate, especially following 9/11. This is because many bigots blame all Muslims for the terrorist attacks, Argentine Muslims—a growing but still relatively small segment of the Argentine population—have suffered considerably. As reported by the ADL in its aforementioned report on anti-Semitism, "…the formula Muslim = terrorism = assassin…" is dangerous, and Argentine society must fight against it if it wants to "…avoid the expansion and repetition of these opinions in the heart of our society." In particular, many of the anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments spring directly from its often incendiary media. This is in an extremely critical situation, given the power that the mass yellow media can have over a large, relatively homogenous population.

Asian Immigration
Another relatively recent phenomenon involving minority groups are the growing incidents of discrimination directed against East Asian immigrants. In December 2001, as the economy was suffering a meltdown, 289 Chinese-owned Argentine supermarkets were massively looted by desperate Argentines who had run through all their resources. More recently, in the summer of 2006, in response to a complicated incident in which a Chinese supermarket owner shot a beer deliveryman after they had argued over the number of bottles involved in a bottle exchange program, local truckers initiated a boycott of the Chinese-owned supermarkets. The truckers union even went so far as to refuse to deliver all of a specific company's products to the Chinese supermarkets. Understandably, this stirred up much controversy among Chinese-Argentine supermarket owners, as they felt they were being unjustifiably punished because the villain in this confrontation happened to be Chinese. Pedro Chen, a member of the Taiwanese Living in Argentina Association, put it best, saying, "It is very wrong that if a union has a problem with someone, it ends up messing with the whole community."

An Invisible Minority
Afro-Argentine descendents have long experienced discrimination, as their biological characteristics have stood out more precisely than most. However, it seems as if racism against Argentina's small black population is on the decline, as there has been a large and highly active anti-discrimination movement alive in the country for some time, aimed at dealing with that problem. At one time, the Afro-Argentine community was considerably larger. As of 1810, nearly 30% of Buenos Aires was said to be black, but, due largely to the costly war with Paraguay in the 1860s and a yellow fever epidemic in 1871, a large percentage of blacks were either assimilated or wiped out to such a degree that, by 1900, the Argentine government no longer classified "black" as a separate cohort for its census. Due, however, to the fact that pockets of Afro-Argentines did remain as a distinct community (generally having only partial African ancestry), a sizeable portion of "white" Argentines—10% according to a study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology—actually have ascertainable Afro-Argentine ancestors.

Inevitably, this supposed 10% does not, on the whole, see itself as black in any shape or form and, as a result, Argentina has become known to some as the whitest of the South American nations. In a 2005 article in the Washington Post, George Reid Andrews, a specialist in black history in Latin America, in describing the country's formative years and its identity crisis, observed that "Argentina was interested in presenting itself as a white country." As a result, almost all Afro-Argentines who can pass as white do so, both consciously and unconsciously, in order to harmonize with Argentine society. This—along with the fact that Argentina's black history has gone ignored or has been misrepresented—has further reinforced prejudices against the relatively few Afro-Argentines who haven't managed to blend in. In addition, the constant not-too-subtle reinforcement of the white image has made it even harder for the average Argentine to acknowledge the diversity that exists in what is not quite the entirely white country that it appears to be to outsiders, or as it prefers to see itself.

In a country whose population is probably more homogenous than any other in the Western Hemisphere, incorporating minority groups into Argentine society historically has proven to be no easy task. Moreover, it would be accurate to say that many Argentines, up to now, have not demonstrated the sort of commitment or willingness to remedying past prejudice and narrow-mindedness that might be expected from what's ostensibly a sophisticated and so-called Europeanized nation. The result has been occasional acts of discrimination and disfavor, whereas for others—like the Afro-Argentines—racial intolerance and the idea of a white society has isolated and suppressed a long-abused segment of the population.

It should not be ignored that the outgoing government has taken certain positive steps toward improved race relations in the country and is now acknowledging the existence and needs of the country's many minority groups. For example, the past few years have been the first in recent memory in which no major anti-black/racist crimes were committed. In a similar vein, after the aforementioned boycott of Chinese-owned stores had been called, Interior Minister Aníbal Fernández played an essential role in negotiating an end to the boycott, as the government recognized the potential that a prolonged stoppage could have on its economic and social stability. And of course, the recent election of Christina Kirchner has raised hopes in Argentina's Jewish (and other minority) communities that a more tolerant society may not be far off. Facing increased immigration and the general trends of globalization, as well as prospects for a more enlightened era that now seems to be unfolding, Argentina inevitably is scheduled to become a more diverse society where rectitude can be expected to be more increasingly found.