Today is a momentous occasion as we celebrate the 60thbirthday of Céleo Alvarez Casildo, an iconic Garifuna leader, a cultural warrior, human rights activist and promoter of justice, who took his cause internationally to fight for his people’s lack of opportunities and invisibility. Céleo Alvarez Casildo looms large in the history ofthe People of African Descent Movement in Latin America and globally.
Céleo Alvarez Casildo (March 9,1959– April 11, 2016), was a Honduran human rights activist, dedicated to promote respect for human rights, self-determination of People of African Descent, promote social inclusion and improve their quality of life. His ideals and struggle were in search for what he called the “Voices that would break the silence perpetuated for more than five centuries”.Celeo became the most visible spokesperson and leader of the People of African Descent Movement in Latin America and is recognized as one of The Most Influential Contemporary African Diaspora Leaders.
According to President Barack H Obama, “You can’t just keep on yelling at your adversaries and you can’t refuse to meet because that might compromise the purity of your position, the value of social movements and activism is to get you at the table, get you in the room and then start trying to figure out how is this problem going to be solved. You then have a responsibility to prepare an agenda that is achievable —that can institutionalize the changes you seek and to engage the other side.” Céleo Alvarez Casildo was a master at of this strategy. The following paragraphs describe how application of this strategy catapulted him from shoeshine boy to one of the Most Influential Contemporary African Diaspora Leaders.
Céleo Alvarez Casildo was born in Plaplaya, in the municipality of Juan Francisco Bulnes, in the Mosquitia, on March 9, 1959. He was the youngest son of his parents Martin Alvarez Centeno and Cristina Casildo de Alvarez. He moved to the port city of La Ceiba at an early age, to work, as a in carpentry assistant to his father and at times worked as a shoeshine boy in the Central Park of La Ceiba. He completed his elementary education at the Guadalupe de Quezada School. He was the first member of his family to attend college, graduating with a degree in Agricultural Economics from the Regional University Center of the Atlantic Coast of the Autonomous University of Honduras. In 2011 he was awarded a Doctor Honoris Causa by the University of the Republic of Chile and the Euroamericana Marqués de Santillana University, for his work on behalf of the Garifuna people.
Celeo’s organizing career began at the tender age of 19 when he was elected president of the Medical Workers Union of Honduras (SITRAMEDHYS). He achieved many advances in the struggle for the conquests of this trade union. From 1988 -1992 he was overseer of the Executive Committee of the Trade Unions Federation of National Workers of Honduras, (FESITRANH).
The eighties were an age of limited democracy because the power was in the hands of the military and the civil governments were simply doing their bidding. The repression and political persecution of the eighties limited the mobilization of the grassroots sector.
Celeo was a victim of such repression and was forced to resign his position as president of the Medical Workers Union, without any right to severance or any other labor benefit. He was also the victim of persecution, which forced him to leave the country in exile for a few months.
1992 with the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, called “The Encounter Between Two Worlds” was a watershed year for Indian and Afro-descent people’s organizations around the Americas. Indians protested that it was not a cause of celebration, that it had not been an “encounter” but a massive destruction of the native peoples and their cultures and the taking of their lands. Afro-descent people objected because not only were Europeans and the Indians brought into contact, but also millions of Africans were brought to the New World and made to suffer the loss of their freedom, languages, cultures, religions, and sometimes their lives, because of this event.
Upon Celeo’s return to Honduras and with a renewed spirit and impetus to start a new organizing movement to fight for the integral development of People of African Descent communities and contribute to the achievement of a profile of dignity for women and men of African descent in Honduras. The vindication of the rights of Afro descendants, who in his opinion had been excluded and made invisible by the State. He socialized the idea with the other founding members, and little by little more men and women joined the movement, in search for voices that would break the silence perpetuated for more than five centuries.
That was how the Community Ethnic Development Organization (ODECO) was born on January 25th, 1992. on May 27th, 1994, the organization was registered as a legal entity. Among its objectives were: To fight for the integral development of Afro Honduran communities and contribute to the construction of a profile of dignity of women and men of African descent in Honduras. ODECO was formed to respond to the needs of the People of African Descent population of Honduras (Garifuna, Creole or English-speaking and colonials) a marginalized population and excluded from the plans and processes of development of the country. Its mission was to promote respect for human rights, self-determination of peoples, promote social inclusion and improve the quality of life of People of African Descent population.
The vision was to be the Honduran People of African Descent’s institution of highest visibility in the Americas, that strived for sustainable integral development with identity of the communities and populations, advocating for respect, promotion of human rights and inclusion in the processes of the country’s development, strengthening alliances, cultural diversity and solidarity among the People of African Descent.
On August 25 – 27, 1995, blacks from Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras, met in Dangriga, Belize to establish a platform of unity, and organization as the basis for the identification and ultimate solution to the problems of the Central American Black Community. This meeting was the result of discussions held in 1994 between The Belize National Garifuna Council and the Organization for Ethnic Community Development (ODECO, Spanish acronym) from Honduras. The outcome of this meeting, was the Central American Black Organization, with its principal office in La Ceiba, Honduras.
On March 24th, 1996, the various Honduran Garifuna organizations met in La Ceiba, Honduras to discuss the creation of a National Black organization which would coordinate all the issues dealing with the Black community and seek their solutions from the Government. The decision was made to write a proposal for the commemoration of the Bicentennial, which would be presented to the Honduran president, Carlos Roberto Reina. Celeo Alvarez Casildo offered to write the proposal. The outcome of this meeting, was the creation of the National Coordinating Black Organization.
On April 10, 1996 the National Coordinating Black Organization presented its proposal to the Honduran Minister of Cultural Affairs and to the National Congress on April 11, 1996. The proposal highlighted various accomplishments by Garifuna citizens and how Garifunas had contributed to Honduras’ development.
The proposal stated that the Bicentennial should serve as an opportunity to evaluate the Garifuna’s political, social and economic situation as we approach the twenty first century. The organization met with president Reina on April 22, at the Presidential Palace where he expressed his support for the proposal. On May 30, 1996, the Honduras National Congress issued Decree No. 70-96 declaring the following: 1997 as the year of the Garifuna Bicentennial, April 12thas Garifuna Day. The Decree was published in the August 5, 1996 issue of the Official government publication La Gaceta.
On October 11, 1996, National Coordinating Black Organization with Celeo’s leadership, organized the First Great National Peaceful March of the Black People of Honduras in Tegucigalpa. An Agreement was established with the Government whereby it undertook to definitively resolve the Land Titling issue, by 1. helping the Garifuna communities with the process of acquiring title to lands 2. resolute progress towards the development of a land registry that will facilitate land titling, and thus the recovery of land by the Garifunas and Black Communities in general, in a maximum time of 10 months. The result was the titling of more than 32 thousand hectares of community land and the creation of the Titling Commission. In addition, they launched an awareness campaign directed to the population regarding the economic, social and cultural value of the Land, urging them not to sell it.
In addition, they planned to file an international lawsuit against the Government of Honduras for the violation of the rights of Garifuna Communities over Land Tenure, breach of the October 11, 1996 agreement and violation of the International Labor Organization Convention, also known as ILO-convention 169, or C169, on the rights of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, of which the Government of Honduras is signatory and has been in force since May 1994.
Among his many other achievements are: Executive Decree 18-2006, “Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage”, as well as the ratification of the International Convention Against All Forms of Racial Discrimination, Racism, Xenophobia and other Related Intolerance, Legislative Decree 330-2002 declaring April as African Heritage Month in Honduras. Executive Decree 002-2004, which created the National Commission Against Racial Discrimination, Racism and other Related Intolerance. Executive Decree 004-2006, which created the National African Heritage Month Awards in Honduras.
Appointment of people of African descent in political positions such as: Mr. Salvador Suazo, as Assistant Secretary of State in the Offices of Culture, Arts and Sports, Professor José Medina Ruiz, as Minister Advisor of the Ethnic Groups, Election of 5 Afro-Hondurans as Representatives in the Honduras National Congress, the Creation of the Center for Garinagu Culture of Honduras and the issuance of Executive Decree 09-2007.
Celeo is recognized as one of The Most Influential Contemporary African Diaspora Leaders.He is featured in the University of Pitsburg’s Afro-Latin America: Historical and Contemporary Figures, a Guide for Afro-Latin America class. The Guide includes information and resources for the study of the history of people of African descent in Spanish America and Brazil from 1500 to the present
On March 29, 2017 In commemoration of the “International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade”, the Organization of American Statescelebrated a posthumous tribute to honor his legacy. During the meeting, chaired by Ambassador Leonidas Rosa Bautista, Permanent Representative of Honduras to the OAS, relevant moments of the life and work of the Honduran who died in April 2016 were shown.
In 2000, he was the General Coordinator of the Continental Summit for the Development of Afro-American Communities and Populations, which took place in the City of La Ceiba, Honduras from November 27 to 30. Celeo was a lead organizerat the Higher Institute of Afro Studies, in Montevideo, Uruguay. He coordinated the First, Second and Third National Conference of Solidarity Against Racism and Exclusion in Honduras.
Celeo was a member of the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Committee of the Americas at thethird world conference against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, in Durban, South Africa August 1 – September 8, 2001.
He participated in a number of meetings with world leaders, which led to the UN General Assembly in a Resolution (64/169) adopted on December 18, 20009, proclaiming the year beginning on 1 January 2011 the International Year for People of African Descent, with a view to strengthening national actions and regional and international cooperation for the benefit of people of African descent in relation to their full enjoyment of economic, cultural, social, civil and political rights, their participation and integration in all political, economic, social and cultural aspects of society, and the promotion of a greater knowledge of and respect for their diverse heritage and culture. 2011 also marked the 10th anniversary of the World Conference Against Racism (also known as the Durban Conference).
Under the Leadership of Celeo Alvarez, The Organización de Desarrollo Étnico Comunitario (ODECO) and the International Civil Society Committee organized theFirst World Summit of African Descendantsto commemorate the United Nations and Organization of American States’ International Year for People of African Descent.The First World Summit of African Descendants, was held from August 18 through 20 in La Ceiba, Honduras, bringing together representatives from 44 countries of the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia – more than 1,000 people, among them delegates, heads of mission, aid workers, diplomats, representatives of international organizations such as the UN, OAS, European Union, African Union, and the Central American Integration System, government officials, and villagers in Honduran communities of African descendants.
The Summit participants supported initiatives to improve living conditions for all people of African descent worldwide; to end racial discrimination; to ensure there is justice; and to ensure that the youth have access to quality education and health.
The First Summit adopted a Declaration and an Action Plan, key documents that seek to chart a course towards sustainable integral development with the identity of groups of African descendants in the world. These instruments call for the declaration of a decade for people of African descent, the establishment of a development fund for people of African descent, and the establishment of a forum or parliament for African descendant affairs within the UN, among others.
Two years later, The International Decade for People of African Descent, 2015–2024, was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in a Resolution (68/237) adopted on December 23, 2013. The theme of the International Decade is “People of African descent: recognition, justice and development”.
Céleo Alvarez Casildo died on April 11, 2016 at the age of 57, after being diagnosed with throat cancer.
As we celebrate the 60th birthday of Céleo Alvarez Casildo, I will conclude with one of his quotes, “The biggest reward is when we contribute to solve a problem and benefit thousands of people.” There’s no doubt that Céleo Alvarez Cabildo’s promotion of respect for human rights, and self-determination of People of African Descent, have benefited the estimated 200 million People of African Descent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Happy Heavenly 60th Birthday!
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