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Opinion and Analysis: Indigenous and Afro-Venezuelans

Racism Sin Vergüenza in the Venezuelan Counter-Revolution

It’s late morning in Caracas. February 12. From the restaurant inside the hotel around the corner from Plaza Venezuela we can hear chanting, but it’s too muffled to understand. Are they yelling “Maduro Salida” or “Maduro/burro Salida”[1] or something else? From the window, we can see people, almost all smiling white people, streaming down the street to join the first huge anti-government demonstration that signaled the onset of the current outrages in Venezuela.

Olga, the restaurant’s manager, has tan skin, died blond hair and brown eyes. She is one of the 42% of Venezuelans who self-identified as white in the latest Census.[2]  From behind the counter, she usually greets people without a smile. She barks orders to the Indigenous woman in the kitchen. Today she is laughing as she glances at a cartoon in one of Caracas’ many virulently anti-government newspapers. I ask her if there are any interesting stories in the paper. She shrugs but the question unleashes a tirade about how she hates Chavismo. 

“Why?” I try to sound neutral.

Olga explains that Chavismo has brought the “riff raff, brutes, thugs and criminals into the city.” She is emphatic. “Caracas is now flooded with uncultured animals who make life miserable for civilized people.” She concludes,  “Afterall, look at the crime, the insecurity, the murders!” It’s likely that Olga is one of the many Venezuelans influenced by cartoons like this one by Kiko Rodriguez. It is one of the more repulsive depictions of Chavez that not only expresses time-worn racist contempt for people of African descent, but it also foments fear and hatred.

The title is “Miko Mandante”, meaning “Ape Commander” to mock the affectionate title “Mi Comandante” used by masses of Venezuelan people.[3]

During her rant, Olga never mentioned the race of Venezuela’s poor, or the extreme poor, who in 2003 were 30% of the population and by 2011 were only 6.8%.[4] Chavismo’s accomplishments, especially in reducing poverty, are significant because of the near total correlation between class and race in Venezuela. That is, nearly all the wealthy and bourgeois people are phenotypically European, while nearly all those in poverty who live in the countryside or shacks on the sides of hills in the city are Black and Brown. Demonization, animalization  and criminalization of people of African and Indigenous descent are themes both deeply embedded and flagrantly visible in the culture and institutions of Venezuelan society. White supremacy endures in Venezuela often resembling the United States and other settler colonial countries founded on conquest and slavery. [5]

Revolution against Racism

While the roots of white supremacy run deep,  the Bolivarian Revolution has seriously improved the lives of Venezuela’s majority—who are people of color. [6]  Unlike the days of Venezuela’s dictatorships who served Standard Oil and the U.S. State Department, since 2001, voter registration is 97%. An array of legal tools—including Land Reform, a new Constitution written by a Constituent Assembly, the Organic Law Against Racial Discrimination—chip away at discrimination and promote mass participation in government, and in the various communes, councils, collectives and cooperatives. These are the structures of peoples’ power—including some 30,000 communal councils[7]--designed to ensure that once-marginalized people become the protagonists of their futures and nurture their dignity.

A significant share of the country’s patrimony, income from oil, is no longer siphoned off to the U.S. or to the old white Venezuelan elite. Between 1997 and 2011 the portion of Venezuela’s wealth going to the richest 20% decreased from 53% to 44%[8]-- a statistic that indicates more about the elite’s loss of power than impoverishment. At the end of 2013, the Guardian reported that the poverty rate had dropped by 20% , the largest decline in poverty in the Americas for 2012, and one of the largest in the world.[9] Oil revenues pay for new homes for the poor, schools where every primary student gets a free laptop, new universities with open admission, health clinics, and jobs. It also funds programs against domestic violence and transgenic seeds and a host of other campaigns for social justice.

Venezuela’s oil money also has financed infrastructure designed to end the physical isolation and marginalization of African Descendants and Indigenous people. Set your search engine to “MetroCable San Agustín” to find photos and details of how Chavez’ revolutionary government spent $300 million to build a futuristic funicular. It eliminates hours of climbing on foot up and down treacherous mountain sides to reach jobs, schools, health clinics and other vital destinations. For tens of thousands of shack dwellers of San Agustin—most of whom are African descendants– MetroCable and new housing construction on the hill demonstrate that the Bolivarian revolution will incorporate them.

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s first President with African and Indigenous ancestors, spoke proudly about his thick lips and kinky hair. His refusal to follow the traditional path for Venezuela’s “morenos” towards enblanquemiento[10] continues to evoke endless mockery and contempt from the white and white-influenced establishment. Rayma, a well-known cartoonist who is featured daily in El Universal, published on July 18, 2013, another cartoon designed to evoke the same contempt and hatred as the one by Kiko Rodriguez shown above.

She too wins mass circulation and international prizes for her racist caricatures. The Cartoonists for Peace, Sampsonia Way, Humanitarian News and most significantly Freedom House have supported her. A visit to the Freedom House website informs the public that the organization has an annual budget of $46 million, some of which comes from the U.S. State Department. Its Board of Directors includes a number with close ties to the State Department, USAID, AIPAC, Morgan Stanley and other imperialist entities.[11]

In spite of the mockery, Chavez’ embrace of  Venezuelans’ African and Indigenous heritage included more than symbolism. He practiced solidarity with Black and Brown people on a world scale by leading an anti-imperialist struggle for self-determination of Southern nations. He also provided material aid with no strings attached to Black and Indigenous people in the United States, Haiti and Columbia and many other countries. For example, in 2011, a joint Cuban-Venezuelan project saw the opening of the first high school in Western Sahara's refugee camps. More recently, Venezuela and Cuba extended Miracle Mission International to the West Bank, Palestine to provide free eye surgery.[12]

The Counter-Revolution—Four Dimensions of Racism

In Venezuela, the revolutionary struggle to end white supremacy and for self-determination is a slow slog, complicated by two forces: One, the white elites, backed by U.S. imperialism, and many of the middle class who support them, cling tenaciously to their power and privilege. Two, the denial by whites, “morenos”[13], and nearly everyone else that racism persists. As a result, galvanizing a mass movement against white supremacy has been difficult. On the other hand, the current counter-revolutionary movement in the streets has become the darling of the corporate press both inside and outside Venezuela. None of the coverage mentions that the racism pervading this movement could rival that found in the Ku Klux Klan or any other of the white supremacist formations that pepper U.S. history. Yet racism is one of the main engines and expression of the counter-revolution.

1. Destroying progress made by African Descendants and Indigenous People

The counter-revolutionary movement[14] that has been in the streets since early February has demonstrated that one of its main objectives is to restore unbridled white privilege to Venezuela. Cartoons, editorials, posters, graffiti continuously blame Venezuela’s economic problems—both real and distorted—on the government’s “squandering” the nation’s oil resources on the “rabble” both inside and outside Venezuela. Roberto Weil published this cartoon in one of Caracas’ major dailies, Tal Cual on March 8.

It not only falsely implies that masses of Venezuelans are starving. It also implies that the government prioritizes arming “criminals” on motorcycles and corrupt army officers over feeding people. It encapsulates the narrative of the counter-revolutionary forces in the battle for the minds of most Venezuelan people who currently reject their message. More importantly, it manufactures a “justification” for more decisive U.S. intervention.

Here’s a photoshopped depiction retweeted with #SOSVenezuela that recycles the trope of incompetent animals in government positions who are manipulated by crafty (white) Cuban leaders out to steal Venezuela’s wealth. 

 

Repeatedly, the privately-owned anti-government media has reflected and reenforced disregard and contempt for Venezuela’s Black and Brown people. For example, two years ago, the major daily, Tal Qual, ran a cartoon, again by Roberto Weil.

The man with the beret, presumably a Chavista, declares, “Enough of white supremacy, now we have Afrodescendant water.” The cartoon ridicules and trivializes the campaign against white supremacy led by the Network of Afrodescendants in Venezuela and supported by the government. It also mocks and undermines public support for the government’s program of bringing clean water to the barrios that previously had none.

Congressman Modesto Ruiz[15], an African Descendant,  was one of the main authors of the Law against Racial Discrimination. He, as well as members of African Descendant civil society organizations and other officials urged that Weil and Tal Qual’s publisher be charged in court with violating the law.  Yet, to date, the newspaper continues with it’s virulent anti-government drumbeat and Weil proceeds as one of Venezuela’s most widely reproduced cartoonists. His twitter account claims 155,000 followers and floods the twitter sphere with militant support for Maria Corina Machado (a right-wing extremist leader reminiscent of Sarah Palin) and the rest of the extremists promoting anti-government lies, racism and violence.[16]

2. Anti-communism, Xenophobia and Racism in an anti-Cuban Stew

Graffiti, the twitter sphere, television and print media perpetuate a concoction of racist, anti-communist and xenophobic lies that Black Cubans have invaded Venezuela to consolidate Raul Castro’s control over the Venezuelan government and economy. Posters at right-wing demonstrations and photos of Black people in military uniform are retweeted thousands of times to arouse and manipulate fear of Black people, especially foreign (Cuban) Black people. On March 16, 2014, a woman named Alexandra Misel tweeted this photo with the caption, “Are these pure Afrodescendants from Barlovento (region of Venezuela with high concentration of African Descendants) or are they from Havana?” 

 

The next day, March 17,  she tweeted the same photo, but with a new, more alarmist caption, “Invading troops dressed like National Guard.”

Then, on March 23 a tweeter with the name “Alexgonzalezlu” pasted Misel’s photo to another one that manipulates white people’s fear of Black (Cuban) people attacking “our white youth.” This image is reminiscent of the notorious trope of the white damsel in distress, threatened with rape by a Black man. 

 

For centuries, fear of Black men as rapists and Black people as killers has been stoked time and time again to rationalize lynching, racist repression and other genocidal campaigns.

The photos below of mock lynchings by anti-government thugs follow in this horribly familiar white supremacist tradition. They were taken in the heart of the wealthy Chacao municipality of Caracas and posted March 5, 2014 by News24.com

 

 

Maria Corina Machado fans these flames by repeating the lament that Venezuelans have lost their dignity to the “Cuban occupation.” They must be expelled.

It is also important to note that white supremacist attempts to motivate and mobilize the overthrow of a legal government are far from consistent. They manipulate fear by raising the specter of the Black Cuban invaders. But if that trope isn’t enough, they also call on the traditional slave masters’ narrative of the “lazy” Black man, who is “good for nothing and might as well be dead.” On March 16, the caption on this unidentified photo was tweeted by politicon@politicono 

It claimed, “The main activity of Cubans in their towns is hanging out.”

From the comments under these tweets, it is obvious that these Venezuelan white supremacists have no way of distinguishing an African descendant who is Cuban from one who is Venezuelan. Although they sometimes claim their violent, possibly genocidal intentions, are aimed at Cubans, their practice of decapitating motorcyclists and shooting their Bolivarian “enemies” indicates that the same racism that fuels anti-Cuban threats is also harnessed to galvanize their fascist putchist terror campaign against Chavistas.

3. Criminalizing African Descendants,  Indigenous People and their Organizations

White peoples’ criminalization and fear of Black and Brown people date back to the first rebellions by Indigenous and enslaved people in the 1500’s. For the last decades, African Descendants  and Indigenous people have been invisible to the viewers of privately-owned TV stations, except when they appear as servants or criminals.  The Bolivarian government disbanded local police forces that used to racially profile, murder and harass African Descendants. Yet a struggle against some racial profiling continues, including that which is a product of endo-racism among African Descendants. The Bolivarian government has also taken steps to reform prisons and establish alternatives to incarceration and mobilize local communities to prevent crime.[17]  However, from the echo chamber of Venezuela’s privately-owned media and the U.S. corporate press, we hear that fear of crime and the government’s “inaction” in the face of crime motivates thousands of people to demand that Maduro resign. Given the virulence of racism in Venezuela, it is likely that many people, especially middle class whites, will continue to link crime (and laziness) with Blackness. The prolific  alexgonzalezlu, tweeted this photo on March 11 to dramatize the man’s supposed criminality and laziness.  

 

In addition, today’s counter-revolutionary narrative manipulates racist white and middle class fear by directing it against the “colectivos”. They claim that Chavista grassroots collectives—the organizations that provide a space and structure for previously marginalized people to lead and participate in political education, cultural work and sports—are actually paramilitary arms of the “Maduro Dictatorship.” This racist myth accomplishes two counter-revolutionary objectives. First, it undermines a revolutionary institution, the communal council, that, for the first time, gives people of color a voice in politics and how resources will be spent. The second counter-revolutionary objective inverts reality. It blames the “colectivos” for intimidation and violence, rather than the middle class youth who build and maintain barricades, vandalize public property and universities and kill those who try to cross or dismantle barricades.[18]

4. Distortion and Glorification of Gochismo

During the 1930’s, when white Venezuelan intellectuals promoted a white supremacist ideology that led to exclusion of all but European immigrants, they pointed to the Andes and Mérida as “The grand reservoir of the white race for the Republic.” [19] For some, Gocho identity as hard-working mountaineers emerged in direct contrast to the perceived laziness of coastal slaves and their pride was never fully separate from caste superiority. In the 20th century, seven of Venezuela’s presidents (including dictators) came from the Gocho region.[20]  The epitome of these white supremacist presidents was nicknamed “El Gocho”. He was Carlos Andres Pérez who imposed the 1989 neo-liberal program that forced 70% of Venezuelans into poverty and the subsequent insurrection that eventually brought Chavez to power.

To clarify: all residents of the Andean states of Mérida and Tachira are sometimes referred to as Gochos. However, the counter-revolutionary Gochos are concentrated in the cities of San Cristobal and Mérida while rural residents form the majority of the states’ voters and have elected Chavista governors.

Yet images of macho white people, outfitted with makeshift rifles, pistols, Molotov cocktails, slingshots and other military equipment fill the screens of thousands of tweeters.  The captions brag. For example, under a photo of a muscular, military-styled white man wearing pants from a uniform and a white t-shirt and holding an automatic rifle, the caption reads, “Get back, I am Gocho” (#S.O.S.Venezuela@Alexgonzalezlu, Feb 23) Others feature flaming bulky barricades with captions like, “Caracas copying the Gocho model.”And “Release the Gocho inside you.”

Ciccariello implies that the superiority complex of the mythic Gochos fuels the putchist actions we see today at the barricades in Mérida and Tachira.  It is also likely that right-wing extremists like Maria Corina Machado have hyped the violent courage of the Gochos for their own political purposes. At rallies and press conferences, she never fails to associate herself with the heroism of the Gochos of San Cristobal and Merida—the first barricaders and most persistently violent of the counter-revolutionary movement. Her poster features her wearing a signature white t-shirt claiming “we are all Tachira”. It labels her, “The Lady of Iron”—the woman who aims to overthrow the government and expel all Cubans from Venezuela so that real (white) Venezuelans may recover their dignity.[21]

Solidarity with African Descendants, Indigenous People and the Bolivarian Revolution

One resident of the working class zone of El Valle in southern Caracas told Ciccariello that those who burn barricades live “in the tall apartment blocks that line the main avenue and think they are better than the barrio.” They act with total disregard for the lives of poor and working class Black and Brown people by charging tolls at barricades, making it impossible for people to travel to work, school, hospital and by destroying public facilities that poor people rely on.

So far, the vast majority of Venezuelan people—especially African Descendants and Indigenous people, have rejected both the politics and strategy of the counter-revolutionary movement. It is not just that the anti-government forces are “out of touch”. They do not hide their racist agenda. A Bloomberg News article reported a bus driver’s observation, “It’s rich people trying to get back lost economic perks. The slums won’t join them.”[22] 

But lack of popular support has never stopped the United States from intervening on the side of cooperative right-wing elites and white supremacists. The prevailing mass deception perpetrated by corporate media both here and in Venezuela has been much too effective. In the U.S., they have largely succeeded in putting a democratic face on the racist, essentially fascist, movement in the streets of Venezuela.  Traditionally anti-racist coalitions have ignored Venezuela. It is time we stand in solidarity with the majority of people in Venezuela and voice strong opposition to U.S. –sponsored coups or any intervention on the side of the counter-revolution. 

                                                              Thanks to Nelmir Guzman.



[1]  This is a call for the current President to leave or resign. The anti-government media and counter-revolutionaries frequently mock President Maduro’s supposed lack of education and refer to him as a donkey.

[2] http://www.ine.gov.ve/CENSO2011/documentos/pdf/ResultadosBasicosCenso2011.pdf The Census found that 3.5% of the country’s 27,227,930 people self-identified as Black or Afrodescendant; 2.7% as Indigenous and 49.9% as “Moreno”. On the other hand, Professor Jesus Chucho Garcia, a founding leader of Venezuela’s movement of Afrodescendants and former Ambassador to Angola insists that at least 30% or 8 million people are Afrodescendants and the number may reach as high as 60%.

[3] The cartoonist, Kiko Rodriguez, left his birthplace in Cuba for Ecuador in 2000. He won the First Annual Latin American Illustration Competition with this cartoon, which was widely circulated in the private press of Venezuela and other countries. This award is a step towards lucrative acceptance into the New York Art World. http://www.ai-ap.com/cfe/faq/

[4] Data on reduction in poverty rates, unemployment, infant mortality and inequality and increase in education, access to clean water is summarized by Derek Ide in  http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/radical-resistance-propagating-...

[5]  Here’s a sample of research on white supremacy and racism in Venezuela.  Jesús María Herrera Salas. “The Political Economy of Racism in Venezuela” Latin American Perspectives. Vol 32. No. 2(March 2005) pp. 72-91 For a detailed discussion of how the foreign oil corporations, especially Standard Oil, manipulated and exacerbated racism in Venezuela beginning in 1918, see Miguel Tinker Salas. The Enduring Legacy: Oil Culture and Society in Venezuela. 2009. Durham: Duke University Press. 2009. Beatriz Aiffil, anthropology professor and spokesperson for African Descendants discussed the racism of the fascist right in Venezuela before the current upheavals. See http://www.noticierodigital.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=965608  Also, feminist scholars have written about endo-racism among Venezuelan women. See Elizabeth Gackstetter Nichols. “Descent Girls with Good Hair: Beauty, Morality and Race in Venezuela.” Feminist Theory. Vol.14 #2  (Aug. 2013) pp. 171-185.  And Lauren Gulbas. “Embodying Racism: Race, Rhinoplasty and Self Esteem in Venezuela.” Journal of Qualitative Health Research. Vol. 23 #3 (March 2013) pp. 326-335 

[6] . See, for example, http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/7513 for a statistical overview of the economy and http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/10092 on accomplishments of the health care system;

[9] . Mark Weisbrot. “Sorry Venezuela Haters: This Economy is not the Greece of Latin America” http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/10155  See also, http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/10221  for details on reduction of extreme poverty.

[10] The process of whitening the Venezuelan race.

[11] For years, Rayma has received support from pro-US organizations who are convinced that the “Chavez Dictatorship threatens her life.” Yet, she endures, thrives and continues to publish viciously racist cartoons.  http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2012/venezuela#.UzOxiK1dX9I. For Amnesty International’s support of Rayma, go to http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AMR53/003/2013/en/5b4f4b82-4835-41b4-a48a-c30e5ec5d9e8/amr530032013en.html

[13] . Literally, brown or dark-skinned people—a category that makes African descendants, Indigenous people and their descendants invisible. Everyone is a “mestizo”, according to Venezuela’s hegemonic narrative and assumed equal as long as they accept European standards of beauty, behavior and value.

[14] . Author’s note: After reading VA’s article by James Petras and the interview with Raul Capote, I have decided not to use the term “opposition” to identify the forces attempting an illegal coup to oust the Maduro government and overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution. It grants them too much legitimacy.

[15] For an interview with Modesto Ruiz about the racism of this cartoon, see “African Descendants and Racism in Venezuelan Private Media” initially published in Ciudad Caracas,  March 28, 2012 and translated by Tamara Pearson in http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/6897

[16] https://twitter.com/WEIL_caricatura Weil’s racist attacks have made him famous. He worked with US Embassy in Caracas to memorialize Daniel Pearl http://usembassyve.org/?d=6205.

[17] From author’s interview with Amilcar Carvagal, Director of the Office for Culture and Solidarity, BRV Ministry of People’s Power for Foreign Affairs. Feb 5, 2014.

[18] Clodovaldo Hernandez. “Colectivos are Synonymous with Organization, Not Violence”. March 18,2014, translated and reprinted by Venezuela Analysis at http://venezuelanalysis.com/print/10499

[19] Miguel Tinker Salas p. 2725 of 6242 in Kindle Edition.

[20] George Ciccariello-Maher. “Venezuelan Jacobins”  3/14/2014. http://venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/10482

[21] . Maria Corina Machado is a daughter of one of the wealthiest families in Venezuela. She was involved in the 2002 coup attempt against Chavez and received money from the National Endowment for Democracy to run an anti-Chavez petition campaign. She was elected to the National Assembly in 2010 and on March 25, 2014, the Assembly voted to strip her of her immunity. Her arrest appears imminent. There are many recordings of her speeches that encourage violence to force the resignation of Maduro and she violated official government policy in her speech at the recent OAS meeting.

[22] Anatoly Kurmanaev and Corina Pons. “Middle Class Protesting Venezuela Shortages Drive Poor to Maduro.”  http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-03-13/middle-class-protesting-venezuela-shortages-drive-poor-to-maduro.html