Human Rights Documentation Center
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
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
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
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
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.