MANAGUA – It’s happened countless times before, in establishments all across the country: a black person denied entrance because of racial discrimination.
But when Brigette Budier and a group of five friends and family members – all black – were recently denied entrance to the trendy, pyramid-shaped El Chamán disco in downtown Managua, she raised her voice in protest to challenge the system.
Budier went before the Ombudsman’s Office, the national media and the National Assembly’s Commission on Ethnic Affairs. She also filed a complaint of racial discrimination with the Public Prosecutor’s Office to test a new law that typifies bigoted behavior as a crime.
As the United States celebrates Black History Month in February, the case of the “Nicaraguan Rosa Parks” is making black history in Nicaragua. Budier’s case has forced the country to confront its long-ignored culture of racism, while at the same time putting its shaky judicial institutions to the test.
So far, government institutions are responding remarkably well, Budier says. The Prosecutor’s Office this week opened its first-ever race-discrimination investigation into the alleged bigoted policies at El Chamán and several other upscale Managua discos. The case will then pass to the court system, where judges will have to make a precedent-setting verdict.
“I think that this case, which started with a small action, will prompt profound change in Nicaragua’s judicial system and in the actions of other establishments,” said black rights advocate Michael Campbell, one of the driving forces behind including the antidiscrimination law in the new Penal Code, which took effect last year.
Campbell said Budier’s case will be the “test of fire” to see if the judicial system is willing to give teeth to the new law, but will also serve to educate the public about the consequences of racist practices.
“No one knew about this law until now. But people will soon learn about its consequences,”
According to the law, Campbell said, establishments found guilty of racial discrimination can either resolve the matter through mediation with the affected party, or pay a fine of up to 500 days of business revenue.
The Case of El Chamán
Budier, a Nicaraguan legislative representative to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), said she is not accustomed to visiting discos like El Chamán, but wanted to “test out” the door policy after hearing reports of racial discrimination there from her two university-age daughters and their friends.
Budier, originally from the Caribbean port town of Bluefields, said she was even more upset to hear how her younger daughter had internalized some of the racism by accepting the discriminatory policies as “normal,” and trying to adapt her appearance and behavior accordingly.
So Budier decided to witness the scene for herself. On Feb. 6, the lawmaker convinced her husband and some friends to accompany her and her daughter to El Chamán, a popular and recently remodeled disco frequented mostly by teenagers and university students.
“I don’t normally visit these kinds of places, but I have two daughters who have been victims of discrimination there, so I was motivated to go with my daughter and test out the door policy,” Budier told The Nica Times in an interview this week.
Budier suspected her chances of actually getting into the disco were slim. Her daughter, who frequented El Chamán with her “Pacific coast friends,” knew the unspoken rules to admission and warned her mother that she wasn’t going to pass the door test. Budier said her daughter instructed her before leaving the house not to wear such a long, folksy dress, and not to wear her hair tied up under her customary head wrap.
“She knew the policy and was worried that they weren’t going to let me in,” Budier said, adding that she didn’t really want to be admitted in the first place.
When they got to the front door, Budier said, the bouncers acted “aggressive” and “arrogant,” assuming “an attitude of none shall pass.”
She said the bouncers wouldn’t give a reason for why they couldn’t enter, only saying that they reserve the right to admission.
When Budier and her companions demanded a better explanation, two larger bouncers came over and one put his hand on his holstered gun to intimidate them, she says. Budier said she never identified herself as a lawmaker, or attempted to use her position as leverage. The owners of El Chamán reportedly didn’t find out she was a member of PARLACEN until they read it in the press several days later, she said.
The family Samara Fernández, which owns El Chamán, denies that it has a racist door policy, and insist they promote a “cultural interchange through music, dance and different social activities without distinguishing differences in color, religion, customs or sexual orientation.”
“As descendents of Palestinians, we have been victims of discrimination,” the owners said in a statement sent to The Nica Times, adding that they felt “profound consternation” over the case of Budier
“We want to offer her a sincere apology and we promise to investigate to take the necessary administrative measures to avoid situations like this,” the disco owners said, adding that they have always had an “open door” policy to all.
In addition to the support Budier has received from government institutions, she also received enthusiastic – albeit somewhat confused – backing from the government’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Omar Cabezas, a former Sandinista comandante and loyal defender of President Daniel Ortega. Cabezas held a press conference with Budier Feb. 15 and emphatically called on authorities to close El Chamán for its bigoted behavior.
“That place has to be closed for being racist,” Cabezas said. “How are you going to believe that they are not going to let young people in for being black? That’s a violation of human rights.”
Yet despite his enthusiasm, Cabezas’ own racial sensitivities at times seem confused. He recently referred to U.S. President Barack Obama as “el negrito” (little black boy), and during his press conference to support Budier he was apparently confused about who she even is.
“When we were doing the conference, I was sitting next to him and he was referring to another person – he really doesn’t know who I am,” Budier said with a goodnatured laugh. She added that Cabezas also didn’t seem to recognize National Assembly lawmaker Raquel Dixon, a black activist and friend who accompanied Budier to the Ombudsman’s Office.
In the following days, Cabezas made subsequent statements to the press in which he called the incident of El Chamán the “tip of the iceberg,” and listed several other upscale discos in Managua that are also allegedly employing racist door policies.
Yet in doing so, Cabezas appears to have muddled the issue of racism with the Sandinistas’ discourse on classism.
He lashed out at the “ideological conceptions of the business class” – an argument that has some wondering whether Cabezas’ interest in the case is genuine concern about racism, or just a political and ideological opportunity to rail against the “oligarchy.”
Even opposition lawmaker Wilfredo Navarro, of the Liberal Constitutional Party, sounded a bit like a Sandinista when asked to opine on the case of El Chamán.
Navarro told The Nica Times that the “elitist class” often forgets that minorities spend more money at their establishments than the “plastic children” – a derogatory term often used by Sandinistas to refer to the sons and daughters of wealthy Managua families.
Benefit of the Doubt
Budier, a Sandinista, says she hopes those in government who are supporting her are doing so for the right reasons, and not because of their own political agendas. “I hope that this issue will create awareness on all levels, because in the government there is also racism,” Budier said. “This is the beginning of opening the consciousness to be more careful with subtle forms of discrimination, too.”
Budier does give high marks to President Ortega, whom she credits with giving a space in his government to representatives from indigenous and afro-descendent groups. Ortega identifies himself as being of indigenous lineage.
But most importantly, she said, she hopes that there is due process in Nicaragua, and that the corresponding institutions handle the issue according to the law.
In the end, Budier says, she hopes her case will serve to strengthen and institutionalize Nicaragua’s anti-discrimination legislation and increase awareness about the importance of respect for human rights.
“I hope that Nicaragua as a country can show that you have to respect the rights of ethnic minorities,” Budier said.