LIMA -- When Susana Baca was appointed as Perus culture minister in July, it took the whole country by surprise. Despite her lack of political experience, the Afro-Peruvian singer accepted the offer made by Ollanta Humala, Perus new left-wing president. This appointment comes at a time in my life when I feel it is my duty to accept it, said the artist.
Before getting into politics, Susana Baca de la Colina was mostly known for her suave voice and enchanting melodies played on the guitar and the cajon, the instrument created by black slaves on Perus coast. The Afro-Peruvian music ambassador even had international success. She was awarded a Grammy in 2002. But despite her thriving career performing on stages around the world, the 67-year-old woman didnt hesitate when Humala asked her to take over the Culture Ministry. I will be a minister/singer, she told reporters following her.
Political analysts already have someone to compare her to: Gilberto Gil, the famous singer-songwriter who took on the same job in Brazilian president Lulas government from 2003 to 2008 with success.
The comparison is important. It is yet another way for Humala to follow in the footsteps of the Great Lula, the former Brazilian president who, a year after stepping down, still enjoys great popularity across the continent. Humala once looked to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution for inspiration. But now he prefers Lula as a model.
Like Lula, the new Peruvian president chose a string of centrist ministers, a move that has helped convince Peruvians that his government will follow the example of Brazils modern and moderate left. But also like the former Brazilian president, Humala used the culture ministry appointment to put at least something of a left-wing stamp on the cabinet selection process.
But the symbol of Bacas appointment also goes beyond the Brazilian example. I think Im the first black minister in Perus history, said the proud singer. Afro-Peruvians should play a bigger part in politics, she added.
The United Nations declared 2011 the International year for people of African descent. The Afro-Peruvian community has given Baca its official support - an honor for the singer who has always been proud of her roots and fought for the culture of her people to be preserved and celebrated.
The first African slaves arrived in Peru with Spanish colonizers in the early 1600s. Slavery was officially abolished in 1854 but Afro-Peruvians continued to be marginalized both socially and politically. Most of them still live along the Pacific coast, south of the capital Lima, where big haciendas used to stand. There is no official data on Afro-Peruvians, but they could represent 7% to 10% of the countrys nearly 30 million people. In the Americas as a whole, there are an estimated 200 million people identified as being of African descent.
Today, its still difficult to be black in Peru, says Baca. This racist behavior is a habit we must get rid of because in a democratic country we cannot accept the existence of second class citizens.
I think that members of the government saw me as the symbol of both exclusion and inclusion in my country, she adds. We Afro-Peruvians have always suffered from segregation and been invisible in the eyes of the State. Appointing me is a way of emphasizing the experience of a woman who succeeded at doing things we thought were impossible for an Afro-Peruvian to do.
Critics have also been quick to jump in. On social networking sites, many wonder if her artistic talents will really translate into public management skills. Others believe she is qualified to be in charge of artistic issues but note that Perus Culture Ministry comes with a vice-presidency in charge of intercultural affairs, a major issue at a time when indigenous people are demanding that their rights be respected. Will Baca stand up to political pressure and fight for the 11-month-old ministry to get the budget it really needs?
Baca faces a tough task, but shes adamant that she can succeed and turn her ministry into an institution that counts. We will fight against cultural inequalities, she promises, hoping Peruvians will finally see the wealth the countrys great cultural diversity represents.
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