Stretching from Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina and Chile near the Antarctic, to the northern reaches of Canada and Greenland in the Arctic Circle, the Americas contain the full range of climate, vegetation and landscape. Over millennia, indigenous Americans spread across North, Central and South America, developing diverse cultures adapted to the local geography. Europeans arrived in the fifteenth century and immediately began suppressing and displacing indigenous Americans while forcibly importing Africans as slave labour to work on white plantations. Spain and Portugal were the main colonizers from California south, England and France colonized what would later become the USA and Canada, and the main European powers divvied up the Caribbean Islands. The descendents of these peoples, those of subsequent waves of immigration from around the world, and more recent immigrants to the Americas have created a great patchwork of ethnic and religious minorities.

Across the Americas white majorities have placed great emphasis on cultural and linguistic assimilation of minorities, perhaps most pronounced in the notion of the U.S. as a ‘melting pot’. This expectation has led to particular discrimination against first and second-generation immigrants. African descendents and indigenous peoples have the lowest levels of integration, particularly in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. A recent shift to the political left in much of Latin America including Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia and Chile, has brought promises and some improvement in overcoming minority exclusion, although the ongoing marginalization of Afro-Cubans serves as warning that political ideology is no guarantee of minority rights.

Indigenous peoples

From the first contact with Christopher Columbus Indigenous Americans have faced successive waves of genocide, enslavement, massacres, and violent dispossession. In Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru, indigenous peoples still form the numerical majority but across Latin America only about 11 per cent of the total population; in Canada and the USA only around two million remain. Indigenous communities remain among the most impoverished in every country of the Americas, their working age populations confronted by discrimination in hiring, and their children lacking access to education. Even in countries with large indigenous populations, exclusion from political power in favour of white and mestizo elites is an ongoing problem.

Most indigenous Americans continue to face a stark choice between total assimilation and extreme marginalization. In recent decades, particularly in North America, Native Americans have become increasingly integrated and urbanized away from their ancestral lands. Many who have not assimilated confront pressure from exploitation of natural resources—through commercial interests and land settlement—that has continued to encroach on their land rights. Some communities and their leaders still suffer from violence, including through the targeting by large landowners as in Honduras, Mexico and Bolivia, and through proximity to ongoing war, as is the case for the Wayuú along Venezuela’s border with Colombia. Latin American governments have largely failed to prosecute the perpetrators of violence against indigenous peoples, including such large-scale killings as the Guatemalan genocide of nearly 200,000 indigenous people during the 1980s. Growing indigenous consciousness and organization have offered some recent hope for improvements. And although such countries as Chile have been slow to seek equal representation of indigenous people, Bolivia’s new president is of indigenous origin, and Canada has made impressive strides in granting increased autonomy, self-government, land rights and resource control to indigenous groups.

Afro-descendents

Most Afro descendents in the Americas are descended from survivors of slavery, although some are also descended from more recent arrivals. They represent a numerical majority of the population on most Caribbean islands, and substantial minorities in countries including Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and the USA. Across much of Latin America the lack of population data disaggregated by race has been an effect and cause of official and statistical invisibility for Afro descendents, which community leaders argue must first be overcome in addressing rampant socio-economic disparities. Indeed, Afro-Americans routinely lag in access to health-care, education and justice. Some countries, including Brazil, Ecuador, Suriname and Costa Rica, recently have shown improvement in addressing massive political under-representation of Afro descendents. In the USA, African Americans are also vastly under-represented in political bodies, despite a handful of prominent appointments in the Bush administration and the presence of an African American among the leading candidates for the presidency in 2008. In many countries, including the USA, Canada, Cuba, Brazil, and Puerto Rico (a territory of the USA), Afro descendents suffer particularly from racial profiling. Many of these same countries, notably the USA, have astronomical incarceration rates for Afro descendents relative to their proportions in the general populations.

Migration and internal displacement

The most prominent minority rights issue in the Caribbean is the treatment of Haitian migrants and their descendents who have fled political violence and economic collapse. Haitians in the Dominican Republic confront discrimination, labour exploitation, poor access to education and health-care, racial profiling, and arbitrary deportation. The situation for the Haitian diaspora is hardly better for smaller communities elsewhere throughout the region, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Bahamas, and Jamaica.

Many migrants from Haiti and Latin America flee conflict, political repression, and economic hardship for the promise of a better life in the USA and Canada. US border states have complained about an influx of immigrants placing demands on social services, and the new arrivals are frequently blamed for high crime rates. Right-wing vigilante groups along the border have targeted migrants for violence. Recent compromise legislation at the federal level, backed by the Bush administration, that would have increased border security and provided a path to citizenship for illegal residents already in the USA failed in the Senate. As the Latino population in California has developed into a substantial voting bloc, state-level demagoguery against Latino immigrants—common into the 1990s—has markedly waned.

Human rights structure

The Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have become increasingly important fora for the indigenous and minority groups pressing to have their rights recognized, and seeking restitution for previous abuses. Indigenous peoples have won important rulings on land rights and resource control in cases against Nicaragua and Belize, and Afro-communities have brought successful claims against Suriname and the Dominican Republic. Both groups also hope to gain new mechanisms to protect their rights, namely the proposed Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Populations in the Americas, being development by the Commission, and the Inter-American Convention against Discrimination, being considered by the OAS.

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Jan Banning/Panos Pictures
Indigenous farmers, Bolivia