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Executive Summary, Racial Discrimination: The Record of Argentina , Human Rights Documentation Center (September 2001)

WHILE Argentina has considered itself a crisol de razas or melting pot, it has only recently begun to recognize itself as a multicultural, multiracial society. The government of Argentina has taken significant formal steps toward the elimination of racial discrimination over the last decade. However, the measures provided by legal and institutional changes are still in the initial stages of implementation and have been substantially hindered by a lack of funds, the logistical and political complications associated with the transfer of power from one party to another in 1999, and Argentina's history of racism.

Most sources report Argentina's population as 97 per cent white (mostly of Spanish and Italian descent) and three percent mestizo (Amerindian' and European), Amerindian, or other nonwhite groups. One of the difficulties in assessing and addressing persistent forms of racial discrimination in Argentina is the lack of adequate information about the population, particularly the indigenous and immigrant communities. The national census scheduled for 2000 was postponed due to lack of funds. Historically, national census data has been collected using the category of national origin rather than race in Argentina, leading to undercounting Afro-Argentines and mestizos.


The official figures may overestimate the white population, but they certainly reflect the normative perception that the country is predominantly white. The nineteenth century founders of the nation aimed to make Argentina a white nation through various policies aimed at eliminating ethnic minority populations, while simultaneously encouraging European immigration. The 1853 Constitution is still largely in force today, and the preference for European immigration remains explicit. Racial discrimination persists against indigenous peoples, immigrants, Afro-Argentines, mestizo Argentines, Jews and Arabs.

Argentina's indigenous peoples face struggles concerning fundamental issues of survival, maintenance of cultural and linguistic integrity, land rights and bilingual education. Furthermore, the small, impoverished, socially maligned population must fight for mere recognition. Recent estimates of the indigenous population in Argentina vary widely from 450,000 to 1.5 million, approximately one to four per cent of the total Argentine population of approximately 36 million. These differing figures expose the lack of adequate census data on indigenous peoples, and make it difficult to gauge their civic and political participation. The last census of indigenous peoples was taken between 1965 and 1968.

Despite the constitutional recognition of indigenous people and formal protection of their rights to bilingual education, ownership of their ancestral lands, and guaranteed participation in resource management and development, in practice, indigenous peoples seldom participate in the management of their natural resources. In addition, indigenous peoples face social marginalization; for example, idiomatic slang like "hablo como un indio ' ('I'm speaking like an Indian") used when one does something considered stupid, enforces deprecatory views of indigenous peoples.

Immigration from other South American nations rose in the second half of the 2011 century. Korean immigrants also began to arrive in significant numbers in the 1970s (totaling approximately 30,000 by 1998). The delayed 2000 census and the large number of undocumented immigrants makes an accurate assessment of recent immigration difficult, but the 1991 census counted close to five per cent of the total population as foreign born. Undocumented immigrants are estimated at 50,000 to 2,500,000. While statistics are not available regarding the racial identity of the Latin American immigrants, given the primary source countries, it can be reasonably assumed that the majority of immigrants are mestizo or indigenous.

The widespread perception that Argentina is essentially white has meant that, as immigration from South America increases, Argentines of mestizo, indigenous and African ancestry are perceived as foreign, whether or not they are immigrants. Immigrants are disproportionately detained by the police, as the Minister of Justice admitted, but the government denies xenophobia. The public also perpetrates racial discrimination; for example, in admission to nightclubs in Buenos Aires, discrimination against Latin American immigrants and those who appear to be mestizo has been well documented.

Politicians have used rising crime rates in the metropolitan Buenos Aires area to fuel xenophobia and to argue for further restrictions on immigrants. They blame immigrants for the rise in crime, despite the government's own statistics demonstrating that immigrants were not responsible for the majority of crimes. News reports on the proposed legislation referred to foreign workers as an "invasion' and also blamed them for lower wages and high unemployment.

Discrimination against Korean immigrants significantly worsened after a series of news reports in 1993 on a case of Korean grocers exploiting undocumented Bolivian immigrant workers and stealing electricity from the State appeared in the press. A previous popular image of Koreans as industrious changed to an image of Koreans as poorly integrated, exclusive, and not willing to learn Spanish. Their presence in good schools and neighbourhoods has been described as an invasion.

The Jewish population in Argentina is estimated at two per cent. The most recent manifestations of Argentina's history of anti-Semitism include the terrorist bombings of the Israeli embassy (1992) and the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association (1994), the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and the prevalence of swastikas among the graffiti on buildings (including government buildings) in Buenos Aires. Anti- Semitic attitudes are widespread among the populace, and many do not consider Jewish people to be truly Argentine. Anti-Semitism within security forces also remains a significant problem. For example, until popular agitation forced a change in 2000, a police manual contained racist and anti-Semitic expressions.

According to the Arab-Argentine chamber of commerce, there are Currently over 3.5 million Arab descendants in Argentina, notably including former President Carlos Menem. While his Syrian ancestry did not prevent him from being elected -- an important indicator of the lack of discrimination -- he was required to convert to Catholicism when he ran in 1989 (this prerequisite has since been abolished), and informal criticisms of him during his tenure were sometimes radicalized.

Violence and discrimination against women are ongoing problems in Argentina despite efforts in recent years to reduce these abuses. Indices of poverty and unemployment, especially in the context of the recent economic crisis, are of significant concern. Underemployment is 23.8 per cent for women while underemployment for men is 11.3 per cent; unemployment is 14.2 per cent for women and 11.4 per cent for men. Indigenous women and women belonging to other minority ethnic groups continue to suffer in particular from discrimination in employment. International trafficking in women involves luring immigrant women with lucrative and deceptive job offers, and forcing them into the Argentine sex trade.

In recent years, the Argentine government has made significant formal advances towards the elimination of discrimination and racism. The majority of these formal steps were undertaken by the administration of President Carlos Menem (1989-1999). However, the Menem administration was sharply criticized by human rights organizations, opposition political parties and the Catholic Church for xenophobia and antipathy to human rights agendas. The democratic transfer of power to the Alianza coalition party under the leadership of President Fernando de la Rua in December 1999 has furthered the anti-discrimination agenda of the government, but it has also delayed the implementation of relevant policies due to the change in leadership.

On 24 August 1994, the Argentine Constitution was amended in several ways that are relevant to the elimination of racial discrimination. In correspondence with international human rights instruments, new amendments prohibit discrimination, provide equal civil rights to nationals and foreigners, and recognize indigenous communities as previously-extant legal entities entitled to participation in relevant development issues. Under the auspices of the Instituto Nacional de Asuntos Indigenas (National Institute of Indigenous Affairs, INAT), various programmes have been established for furthering land re-distribution, bilingual education, health programmes, and rural economic development. Other articles allow for equal access to education, with protections for cultural identities and diversity, and give international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, equal standing with the Constitution.

In addition to these constitutional amendments, various laws have been passed and decrees issued in recent years with the aim of eliminating racial and other forms of discrimination, documenting the occurrence of discrimination, and enabling victims to seek redress. These include laws criminalizing discriminatory acts or omissions based on race, ratifying International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 concerning the rights Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, and establishing the National Institute to Combat Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism (Instituto Nacional contra la Discriminacion, Xenophobia y Racismo, INADI).

INADI was established by law in 1995 with the objective of elaborating national policies and concrete measures to combat discrimination, xenophobia and racism, and with the mandate of initiating and fulfilling actions to this end. INADI has held anti-discrimination training sessions for schoolteachers and law enforcement officials, and has launched public education campaigns. It also has established a mechanism to receive complaints and take action thereon in the courts. However, with difficult economic situations, anti- discrimination, government agencies like INADI and INAI suffer increased budget constraints. INADI faces difficulty in covering the entire national territory, and does not have funding to track statistics on racial discrimination and on its responses to the complaints it receives.

The Argentine government's recent measures against racial discrimination are commendable, but they are only a step on the way. Discrimination persists against immigrants, indigenous populations, and other racial minorities, and the government must increase funding to anti-discrimination agencies, collect census data, and launch public education programs to insure that legal measures translate into genuine relief for Argentina's maligned populations.