South America was the destination of more than half of enslaved Africans taken from their homes between the 17th and the 19th centuries by Spanish and Portuguese ships involved in the Transatlantic slave trade.
Brazil today has the biggest Black population on the continent, and even in the Americas. There are more Black people in Brazil than in the United States. Descendants of the once enslaved also make up formidable quotas of the populations in Columbia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Uruguay, one of the smallest countries on the South American mainland, is also home to some hundreds of thousands of people of African descent. But the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) believes that Uruguay’s decades of perpetuating “a myth of racial homogeneity” has meant that the Black and indigenous populations have been silenced and overlooked.
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Uruguay is nearly 200 years old as a free country, and the woes of abandoning a genuine plan of offering a place for its racial minorities are being felt. Thankfully, in 2013, the leftist Broad Front government committed to providing government quotas as well as an impetus for Afro-Uruguayan advanced school enrolments.
The implementation of these policies was painfully problematic but progress may even become slower for Afro-Uruguayans since the conservative National Party government seeks to undo a number of the previous government’s domestic policies after winning the 2019 elections.
But what is sought by the 300,000 or so Afro-Uruguayans may have long been achieved had the Black Native Party (BNP), or Partido Autóctono Negro, survived its teething problems in the mid 20th century. The party, founded in 1936, was, according to historian George Reid Andrews, primed for the interests of working Uruguayans of African descent.
Establishing the BNP was a conclusion of years of intellectual progress made by Nuestra Raza (Our Race), a newspaper founded in Maldonado in 1917. At first, publications were supervised by María Esperanza Barrios, a Black Uruguayan woman, and her brother, Ventura Barrios.
In 1933, after Maria Esperanza had died, Nuestra Raza was moved to Montevideo, Uruguay’s biggest city and capital. Here, the paper came under the management of Ventura, Pilar Barrios, another brother and Elemo Cabral, an Afro-Uruguayan activist. It was also at this point that the paper found its niche as a critical voice of imperialism and fascism in South America. At home too, the editors brought to the fore, Uruguay’s own failures along the lines of race and class.
A core base, mostly of Black Uruguayans, was created by the editors of Nuestra Raza in very little time. What may have helped this success was not simply the energetic pointedness and variety of publications but also because Montevideo was and is the home of most of the country’s descendants of African slaves.
The managers of the Nuestra Raza may have also represented for Afro-Uruguayans, the glorious culmination of the travails of 20th-century Black South Americans. For starters, Cabral was an autodidactic Black man who worked his way from being a doorman at the National Historical Museum into a consummate social thinker and activist. Pilar, of the family Barrios, became a poet of national repute, somewhat overcoming the economic poverty of his background.
In 1936, the popularity generated by the men and their newspaper led to the founding of the BNP. Uruguay’s Electoral Court recognized the BNP in 1937 and with that came a manifesto and an action plan towards seeking the interests of Black Uruguayans.
The party was not to deviate from the tenets established hitherto by the philosophy of Nuestra Raza. The BNP was pro-Black and anti-fascist; in support of wealth redistribution and against imperialism. It said a lot about the BNP that its propaganda journal was called Pan, or Bread.
In the year 1938, when there was to be a general election, the BNP selected 10 of its members, including Pilar, at a national convention in Montevideo to stand for elections to local government in the city. It was the party’s goal of getting into the spaces where its voice could be heard. The general subject of the BNP campaign was racial justice, intended to arouse the sympathy and support of the working poor Black Uruguayan.
However, when the elections came, a sizeable majority of Black Uruguayans played it safe, opting to go with either of the two traditional heavyweights: the Partido Nacional, the National Party, or the Colorado Party. This was a heavy blow, as the party that was explicitly for the cause of Afro-Uruguayans received just 87 votes in total.
The Afro-Uruguayan vote was pragmatic and perfectly in self-interest. The BNP would still trail behind either of the two major parties even with every Black vote because there were not enough Afro-Uruguayans to secure a seat for a BNP contestant.
The defeat was one from which the BNP never recovered. Indeed, the party was never again to contest elections in Uruguay. What happened in 1941 was a schism that saw two factions claim they embodied the “original” matter and spirit of the BNP. At a point, one faction reported the other to the police, accusing their former allies of stealing party properties from the former’s office.
In 1942, the Electoral Court decided that it could not identify which faction was the original BNP. This was in spite of the fact that either group had gone to various lengths to appeal to the sentiments of the Afro-Uruguayan populace.
In October of the same year, the leader of one of the factions, Mario Mendez, died. His death turned out to augur a peace pipe between the factions who were reunited. But in 1944, the BNP was finally dissolved and the party’s properties were donated to Nuestra Raza, the paper that had birthed it all.
There has never since been in Uruguay, a noted pro-Black political party.
These days, Uruguay’s Black people continue to navigate the turbulence on the journey to fairness and equality, and they could do with a formidable political organization wholly dedicated to their interests. Sadly, no one is in a place to say this will happen.