Assistant Secretary General Speech


February 25, 2016 - Washington DC

Secretary General Luis Almagro
Distinguished Permanent Representatives and Permanent Observers

Distinguished Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives of sponsoring states: The Bahamas, Colombia, Haiti, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Venezuela and the United States of America

The Honorable Corinne Brown and The Honorable Eddie Bernice Johnson, of the United States House of Representatives

Representatives of National Geographic

Colleagues of the extended OAS family

Invited Guests; my dear friends:

It gives me great pleasure to be a co-host of the very first celebration of Black History Month at the Organization of American States.

As a citizen of Belize, a country where the Afro-Caribbean intersects Meso-America, I see this as an opportunity to highlight and celebrate the richness of the diversity that lies in all of us.
Today’s event is a celebration of the contribution of the sons and daughters of the African continent in the shaping of the Americas into a melting pot of bountiful potential and promise.

The history of the cause and consequence of the arrival of Africans in the Americas is one that has long given rise to debates which run the gamut of human emotion and unrestrained enterprise, often fraught with firmly held convictions on all sides. There is no doubt that the nearly 300 years of slavery and the slave trade, which we remember with retching pain, has forever changed the landscape of the Americas.

That notwithstanding, there can be no denial of the equally strong persuasion across the board of the profound impact that the African presence has bequeathed to the peoples of the Americas in every facet of the past, the present and the future of all of our states. Today, therefore, we gather to celebrate the important contributions of a people who have survived and triumphed after one of the saddest periods in history.

It is estimated that around 200 million people who identify themselves as being of African descent live in the Americas today. This reality brings with it every reason to constantly re-examine our societal imbalances, to actively pursue the goal of a world in which people of all races, including those of African descent, are endowed with their human rights and are empowered, through access and inclusion, to contribute to the advancement of their families, their communities, their world. And it is a basis for celebrating a rich and proud legacy that, despite the hurdles, remains truly awe-inspiring in how significantly it has impacted all of our lives!

The origins of celebrating black history in the United States date back to the early 1900’s when Carter G. Woodson, an African American doctoral student at Harvard University, realized that black history was not being represented in any of the history books. After that, with the creation of Associations dedicated to African American history, more attention was being given to recognizing black history. This culminated in 1976 when President Gerald Ford officially recognized February as Black History Month. The celebration of Black History Month has moved beyond the United States to become an international movement which affords an annual space for recognizing and highlighting the contributions of people of African descent. Today we celebrate how the gifts of spirit and sacrifice of their ancestors have enriched our lives, and recognize the intrinsic worth of the resulting diversity in a hemisphere that has been the beneficiary of the outpouring of their cultural, religious, and other traditional values transported across the Middle Passage in the veins of their ancestors.

Throughout time there have been many iconic and transformational persons of African descent who have risen to the occasion and helped to shape the future and history of the Americas. A most notable example from South America is the famed football player, Pele, who rose from poverty to become the most successful league goal scorer in the world and arguably the greatest football player of all time.

Otras personas icónicas de ascendencia africana se encuentran en todas partes de America Latina. Por ejemplo, músicos y compositores argentinos de tango y milonga como Alejandro Vilela, Tiburcio Silbarrio, Rosendo Mendizábal, Harold Phillips y Juan Santa Cruz; Abdias do Nascimento de Brazil, actor, escritor, poeta y político que defendió los derechos de los trabajadores y afrobrasileros; Nelson Estupiñán Bass, poeta, ensayista, y periodista ecuatoriano; San Martin de Porres, Santo católico de Peru; Pedro Camejo, mejor conocido como Negro Primero, el militar patriota que participó en guerra de independencia de Venezuela alcanzando el grado de Teniente; y Vicente Guerrero , héroe de guerra de independencia mexicana, abolicionista, y ex Presidente de la Republica.

From the United States, the self-taught astronomer and almanac author, Benjamin Banneker, a free black man whose intellect could not be denied even in the racist, slave society he dwelled. Sojourner Truth, the abolitionist and women’s rights activist who, though being born into slavery, became a trailblazer of her time. Jesse Owen, one of the greatest track and field athletes, triumphed in a world marred by wars, racism and xenophobia. Martin Luther King Jr., the intrepid leader of the African American civil rights movement whose philosophy on using nonviolent civic disobedience eventually changed the course of history of this country and influenced similar movements across the world.

In the Caribbean, approximately 28-39 million persons are of African descent. 10 countries (Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago) celebrate Emancipation Day to honor the abolition of slavery in the English-speaking Caribbean. One country in the Caribbean, Haiti, led the fight against racism, oppression, and colonialism to become the first black republic in the world and the second country to gain Independence in this hemisphere. That revolution was led by Toussaint Louverture, the fearless military leader and revolutionary. However, the remnants of slavery and colonialism still linger within the region. For that reason, the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) recently established the CARICOM Reparations Committee whose aim is to seek reparations from the European countries that engaged in the slave trade. Last year in this very same Hall, we received the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Honorable Ralph Gonsalves, who gave a most impassioned speech on the moral and legal case for the payment of reparations.

Other notable Caribbean figures include Sir Arthur Lewis of St. Lucia, the renowned economist and nobel laureate, whose name is forever etched in the walls of this Organization as this past Monday one of our rooms was renamed in his honor; Bob Marley, arguably the greatest reggae artist and story teller whose music shed light on social injustices and influenced new musical genres such as reggaeton in Latin America; Usain Bolt and the countless other athletes of Caribbean descent who have risen to worldwide prominence.

The United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent, 2015-2024, centers our minds on the inherent value of the contribution of Afro-descendants, and is intended to stimulate awareness of the work that still remains to be done in combatting racism, racial discrimination, and intolerance faced by people of African descent, while promoting equality of access to quality education, health services, housing, justice, and social security.

En las Américas, la diáspora Africana ha sido elemental para estimular la riqueza de la vida diaria, nacida del hábito, y afinada a través de siglos de intercambio cultural y enseñanzas continuas. El ingrediente del genoma africano ha contribuido al surgimiento del Hemisferio dando gustos coloridos en cuanto a la música y la moda, a los sabores de nuestra variedad gastronómica y al espíritu indomable y creativo que contribuye a la evolución de la cultura y las Artes. Desde la transferencia del conocimiento de medicinas naturales a través de generaciones por ancianos africanos para uso en farmacéuticos, hasta éxitos en los deportes, y creencias religiosas y prácticas que han sobrevivido durante los siglos, la diáspora africana continúa desempeñando su papel en la evolución política y social de las Américas.

La OEA sigue manteniéndose a la vanguardia en la promoción de la conciencia de las innumerables vías para destacar y promover la contribución de la diáspora africana en las Américas, con estos fundamentos respeto a los derechos humanos como un bloque de construcción para el progreso. En este sentido, este evento, lo cual nos centra en el tema de la "la Diáspora Africana en las Américas" también apoya y da complementariedad a los principios de la Carta Democrática Interamericana y la Convención Interamericana contra el Racismo, la Discriminación Racial y Formas Conexas de Intolerancia. Adicionalmente, la Secretaria de Acceso a Derechos y Equidad y el Departamento de Inclusión Social, trabaja en la promoción de los derechos de las y los afrodescendientes y apoya a los Estados Miembros en la creación y consolidación de las políticas públicas dirigidas a este colectivo. Todo esto por supuesto esta claramente enmarcado en el lema “Mas Derechos para mas gente” promovido desde el inicio por nuestro Secretario General Luis Almagro.

En la misma línea, el pasado noviembre, el CAJP estableció el Grupo de trabajo para la elaboración del Plan de Acción del Decenio de las y los Afrodescendientes de las Américas, una propuesta que se impulsó por la Misión Permanente de Colombia. El plan de acción trata de proporcionar un marco para la ejecución de programas y proyectos para ayudar a promover el reconocimiento y la plena inclusión de las personas de ascendencia africana en la vida social, política y económica de sus países. El Embajador Andres Gonzalez, Representante Permanente de la Misión de Colombia, quien fue electo Presidente del Grupo hará una exposición esta tarde sobre el mandato y labor del Grupo.

The OAS is honoured that National Geographic has joined with us as a partner in this very first Black History Month event at the OAS. I will not pre-empt the presentation of Dr. Vilar, the next speaker. However, I want to salute the work that National Geographic does, in using science to put the pieces of our history together. As you would see from the presentation that follows, the history of our ancestry makes clear how very inter-connected we are.

I invite you to enjoy a program that has been specially designed to be edifying and stimulating in its content, and then delectably gratifying to the palate and the soul as we sample the Afro-inspired fare and music at the end of the lecture. Today, after all, is about celebrating how richly our lives have been impacted by the presence of the Afro-Diaspora in the Americas.

I cannot close, without thanking their Excellences, the Ambassadors and Permanent Representatives of the 7 countries who have joined me in bringing the first celebration of this very important event to the OAS. I also want to thank Secretary General Almagro, for his unwavering support to these issues, and the entire staff in my own office who worked hard to put this event together. To the wider membership of this Organization and beyond,
I applaud the momentum that has propelled us to work for equal and inclusive societies, and I encourage us all by our actions to continue to build on these successes, and to remain ever aware

of the enduring power of the good that blossoms among us all when people of all races are respected, and their dignity and human rights prioritized as fundamental to a world of peaceful coexistence.
Thank you.