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Obama buoys black LatAm politics

Barack Obama's candidacy in the US presidential elections is being seen as historic not only in the US but by some black leaders in Latin America, who hope his run for the White House can encourage change in their own countries.

It is not the first time Afro-Latin Americans have looked northwards for inspiration.

"Obama is a great point of reference for us," says Afro-Brazilian Senator Paulo Paim.

"In Latin America, racism has always been half-disguised. It has always been said that it doesn't exist, while at the same time blacks have been kept out of the spheres of power."

At least 110 million Latin Americans are believed to be of African descent, compared with an estimated 40 million African-Americans in the US.

Brazil has never had a black president, despite the fact that people of African and mixed-race ancestry make up nearly half the population.

Realistic inspiration

So, are Latin American voters ready to elect black presidents consistently?

"Of course, when they have black candidates with qualities and charisma," says Epsy Campbell, the leader of Costa Rica's Citizens Action Party.

"The obstacles aren't in the voters, but in the media and party structures that you have to face to become a candidate."

Mr Paim offers a similar view: "The money spent on a black candidate's election campaign is much less that the money spent on a white candidate's. My own case was an exception - that's how I got into the Senate."

One current Latin American president who has broken with such traditional political practices is Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"By the criteria of many people, Chavez qualifies not as black but as someone of mixed racial ancestry," says George Reid Andrews, professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh.


Chavez

"Obama's candidacy marks a new stage in recognition and political participation. It generates the hope that as Afro-descendents we can aspire to the presidency," says Ms Campbell, who is herself seen as a potential presidential contender in Costa Rica in 2010.

It is in Brazil where black politicians have made greatest inroads in recent years, elected as state governors and mayor of the nation's biggest city, Sao Paulo.

"As the the level of consciousness of race relations increase, why can't we elect a black president in the not-too-distant future?" asks Mr Paim. However, Ms Moreno expects a significant wait for an Afro-Colombian president. "I think it'll be several years and even decades before that happens," she says. Even without black presidents, Afro-Latin Americans will continue to wield a significant electoral influence. "In countries like Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia they've been a very important part of the left-wing of populist movements," says Professor Andrews, who compares their role to that of African-Americans in the US Democratic Party.

For Ms Campbell, political representation offers the chance for "social and economic measures to lift Afro-Latin Americans out of poverty".

'All Obama'

Mr Paim has spent 10 years trying to push anti-discrimination legislation through the Brazilian Congress, and has also pioneered affirmative-action initiatives.

"Class-based policies [under Fidel Castro] have benefitted the black population enormously, because to the degree that the policies benefitted poor Cubans they benefitted Afro-Cubans," Professor Reid argues.

"For example, good access to medical care for all immediately starts to reduce racial differences in life expectancy."

There will be celebrations among Afro-Latin Americans if Mr Obama wins in November.

But there is no guarantee that an Obama presidency's policy towards South America would be influenced by any such feelings of solidarity.

-BBC


Congress cool after bail-out plea

US lawmakers have expressed strong scepticism about a bail-out of the banking system, following a five-hour Senate hearing on the rescue plan.

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told the panel that delaying the $700bn (£382bn) bail-out would put the entire US economy at risk.

Lawmakers say they want assurances that the plan will benefit ordinary American home-owners as well as Wall Street. Some have gone further, calling the plan a potential waste of public money.

"Without question, our markets and financial institutions need serious attention," said the leading Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, Richard Shelby.

"I do not believe, however, that we can solve this crisis by spending a massive amount of money on bad securities."

Committee chairman Chris Dodd, a Democrat, called the package "unacceptable" in its present form.

'Best protection'

The White House has called on Republicans and Democrats to work together to approve the plan, under which a federal fund could buy bad debt from financial institutions with "significant operations in the US".

The fund would aim to sell off these mortgage-related debts in the future when, the Treasury says, their value may have risen.

Addressing the committee, both Mr Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the bail-out was vital.

"Action by the Congress is urgently required to stabilise the situation and avert what otherwise could be very serious consequences for our financial markets and for our economy," Mr Bernanke said.

Mr Paulson, meanwhile, called the proposal "the single most effective thing we can do to help homeowners, the American people and to stimulate our economy".

"The best protection for the taxpayer... is to have this work," he said.

But senators from both parties have voiced concerns taxpayers would be paying a huge price for mistakes made by banks.

They also said it was crucial not to rush through the bail-out - which is unprecedented in US history - without carefully considering how it would work.

News of the plan late last week led to a rally, but this week has seen further falls amid concern that it could be delayed or watered down.

-BBC

 

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