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Opinion and Analysis: Indigenous and Afro-Venezuelans

Hugo Chávez and the Politics of Race

As the war of words heats up between the Bush White House and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the firebrand South American leader has boldly sought to forge ties with poor communities of color in the United States. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Chávez provided relief assistance to the poverty stricken and largely African American victims of the disaster. The head of Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela's state owned oil company, set up disaster relief centers in Louisiana and Texas in the wake of the hurricane and provided humanitarian to thousands of victims. Volunteers based at Citgo refineries in Lake Charles, Louisiana and Corpus Christi, Texas, provided medical care, food and water to approximately 5,000 people. In Houston, volunteers from Citgo headquarters provided similar assistance to 40,000 victims. What is more, Venezuela has provided hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil in energy assistance to the United States. Chávez followed up his bold initiative by announcing that he would soon begin to ship heating and diesel oil at rock bottom prices to schools, nursing homes, hospitals and poor communities within the U.S. The Venezuelan president has also offered to provide free eye surgery for poor Americans suffering from certain eye conditions. The firebrand South American leader, who proclaimed the plan during a recent visit to New York, will begin his oil program through an October pilot project in Chicago. There, the Venezuelan government will target poor Mexican Americans for assistance.

In November, Chávez intends to expand the program to the South Bronx and Boston. Chávez has even offered to ship low cost gasoline to Native American tribal communities in the United States. "There is a lot of poverty in the U.S. and I don't believe that reflects the American Way of Life. Many people die of cold in the winter. Many die of heat in the summer," Chávez recently remarked during his weekly TV show. "We could have an impact on seven to eight million persons," he added. During his time in New York, Chávez toured the largely African American and Latino populated Bronx and was treated like a veritable rock star. Democratic Congress member Jose Serrano, who invited the Venezuelan president to the Bronx, remarked, "Chávez went to the poorest congressional district in the nation's richest city, and people on the street there just went crazy. A lot of people told me they were really mesmerized by him. He made quite an impression." Chávez's trip is reminiscent of similar moves by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a figure who Chávez frankly admires. In a celebrated trip in 1960, Castro stayed at a cheap hotel in Harlem where he met with important political figures of the day such as Malcolm X.

Chávez's moves are sure to play well in the inner city. In light of the high price of oil this year, which has reached $70 a barrel, it is expected that the price of heating oil will skyrocket and become unaffordable to many poor people of color. By providing cheap oil to marginalized communities fed up with price gouging, Chávez shrewdly overshadows George Bush. The U.S. president, along with the Republican party, have long ignored the social needs of America's inner cities as evidenced by the botched hurricane relief operation in New Orleans. Unlike the U.S. government, which was hobbled by Hurricane Katrina and which had to redirect much of the winter's energy assistance program to hurricane victims, Chávez is ideally positioned to help poor communities of color. Venezuela owns 14,000 gas stations and eight refineries in the United States through Citgo, none of whose oil infrastructure was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Chávez has stated he will reserve 10% of the 800,000 barrels of Citgo oil and ship the petroleum directly to poor communities. Unnamed Venezuelan officials claimed that their country would not lose money through the deal, as the idea was to "cut the middle man" out of the deal. Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela's Minister of Energy and Petroleum, says the move will relieve urban suffering as beneficiaries could see price reductions of up to 30%. Chávez's moves are sure to play well in the Bronx, but unlikely to be received with any sign of gratitude in Washington. "Cutting oil prices must seem like the worst sort of radicalism to the Big Oil companies and their buddies at the Bush-Cheney White House," writes Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News.

Forging Ties With Communities of Color: Chávez's Political Imperative

Chávez's moves seem to form part of a larger, long term strategy of building alliances with racial minorities such as African Americans. By aiding the poor, Chávez will certainly do much to reverse the negative media onslaught that has taken its cue from the White House and which has sought to portray him as "totalitarian" and a threat to this country (see for example my earlier Counterpunch piece, "Fair and Balanced or US Govt. Propaganda? Fox News vs. Hugo Chávez," April 30-May 1, 2005). Julia Buxton, a scholar at Bradford University who has written extensively on Venezuela, remarked that Chávez's gambit reflects ideological as well as pragmatic considerations. "He's been deeply, deeply frustrated by coverage in the U.S. media and the attitude of the U.S. government, and he's trying to counter a very Republican-directed vendetta," she said. That vendetta has included, most recently, calls by U.S. evangelist Pat Robertson for Chávez's assassination (see my earlier Counterpunch article, "Demeaner of the Faith, Rev. Pat Robertson and Gen. Rios Montt," September 17-18, 2005). "He clearly needed to build constructive alliances with more liberal sections of American society," Buxton added, "and open a way to insulate himself against his Washington enemies."

For Chávez, the task of recruiting domestic support within the United States has become a political imperative. The Venezuelan president has fallen afoul of the White House for his criticism of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. supported drug war in the Andean region, and the U.S. sponsored Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. What is more, Chávez has increased royalty taxes on U.S. oil companies doing business in Venezuela, and even shipped petroleum to the island nation of Cuba in exchange for Cuban medical assistance. With the added oil money Chávez has funded ambitious social programs in health and education. The Bush White House chose to confront Chávez: in April 2002 the U.S. government provided taxpayer funds to the Venezuelan opposition through the National Endowment For Democracy. Bush and the neo-conservatives nearly succeeded in removing Chávez from power when the opposition staged a short-lived coup d'etat. Since then however, Chávez has consolidated his position and emerged as the most charismatic leader in South America. Chávez's calls for greater regional unity, including the formation of Petrosur, a South American oil company, and Telesur, a South American satellite TV station, have further enraged the Bush White House. Not surprisingly, the U.S. has forged ahead in seeking to isolate Chávez, as evidenced by the recent strong statements coming from the likes of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. In a meeting with the New York Times editorial board, Rice remarked that oil was "warping" international politics and "It [oil] gives certain power and leverage to certain countries and not to others. We're experiencing it with Venezuela, for instance, where the oil profits are being put to use across the region to, you know, push forward Chávez's particular view of the world." Chávez has struck back by threatening to cut off oil shipments to the United States if he is assassinated. Venezuela is the United States' fourth largest oil supplier currently accounting for 12% of imports. As such, a cut off of oil supplies could exert a significant impact on the U.S. energy supply (see my earlier Counterpunch column: "Chávez's Gambit 'Oil is a Geopolitical Weapon;" April 6, 2005). Chávez's recent oil for the poor idea, closely following on the heels of the hostile war of words, will most certainly fan the flames yet further and lead the Bush White House to continue its bellicose strategy in Venezuela.

"I was a farm kid from the plains of South Venezuela"

While Chávez's strategy of appealing to racial minorities is certainly bold, it is hardly surprising given the history. Chávez himself was born in the Venezuelan plain or llano, and has a provincial accent. A forbidding area with a harsh tropical climate, the area has had a long history of racial conflict going back centuries. During the Spanish colonial period, rebellious black slaves managed to escape from plantations and haciendas, fled to the llano and became a problem for the authorities. Slaves started to live in cumbes or escaped communities where collective forms of work were practiced. The blacks mixed with the Indian population and carried out daring raids on cattle ranches. The whites grew alarmed by inter-racial mixing: escaped slaves, they feared, might have a radicalizing effect on the Indian population. Accordingly, in 1785 the authorities drafted laws prohibiting blacks from living with Indians "because they only corrupt them with the bad customs which they generally acquire in their breedingand they sow discord among the same Indians."

Physically, Hugo Chávez is a pardo, a term used in the colonial period to denote someone of mixed racial roots. "Chávez's features," writes a magazine columnist, "are a dark-copper color and as thick as clay; he has protruding, sensuous lips and deep-set eyes under a heavy brow. His hair is black and kinky. He is a burly man of medium height, with a long, hatchet-shaped nose and a massive chin and jaw." In an interview, Chávez remarked that when he first applied to the military academy he had an Afro. From an ethno-racial standpoint, Chávez is similar to many of his fellow Venezuelans. Indeed, today 67 per cent of the population is mestizo, 10 per cent black and 23 per cent white. Chávez himself has not sought to distance himself from his ethnic heritage. "My Indian roots are from my father's side," he remarked. "He [my father] is mixed Indian and black, which makes me very proud." What is more, Chávez has boasted of his grandmother, who he says was a Pumé Indian. Like many other Venezuelans of mixed race, Chávez grew up in poverty. One of six children, Chávez was born in extremely humbling conditions in the llano. "I was a farm kid from the plains of South Venezuela," he remarked to Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline. "I grew up in a palm tree house with an earthen floor," he added. Chávez entered the military, which historically has been one of the few paths towards social advancement for men of mixed race. While on duty with the military he toured the country and became aware of economic exploitation and racial discrimination.

Venezuela: A "Racial Democracy"?

Unlike the United States, Venezuela has not experienced poisonous anti black racism. But the idea of racial democracy does not stand up under scrutiny: the caste like divisions of the colonial period are still latent in society. "Venezuelan elites," one scholar has remarked, "judged people by their appearances. Accordingly, individuals with 'anxious hair' or 'hair like springs' lived in the shadow of their black slave ancestors. The elites considered respectable the whiter Venezuelans who had 'hair flat as rainwater, of an indefinite light brown color which is neither fair nor dark.'" Though some blacks were able to enter white society through marriage and miscegenation, "in the long run, such individuals provided the exceptions that proved the rule." Blacks who sought social acceptance had to adopt the clothing, education, and language of the white elite. In present day Venezuelan society, notes respected commentator Gregory Wilpert, "The correspondence between skin color and class membership is quite stunning at times. To confirm this observation, all one has to do is compare middle to upper class neighborhoods, where predominantly lighter colored folks live, with the barrios, which are clearly predominantly inhabited by darker skinned Venezuelans." Meanwhile, journalist Greg Palast noted that rich whites had "command of the oil wealth, the best jobs, the English-language lessons, the imported clothes, the vacations in Miami, the plantations."

Chávez and Indigenous Peoples

In 1998 while campaigning for president, Chávez made a commitment to champion the rights of Venezuela's half-million indigenous peoples. After he was elected, Chávez put the issue of indigenous rights front and center by addressing it on his weekly call-in program, Aló Presidente. But actions speak greater than words, and Chávez made good on his promises by working to codify the rights of indigenous people in the new 1999 constitution. Article 9 proclaims that while Spanish is the official language of Venezuela, "Indigenous languages are also for official use for Indigenous peoples and must be respected throughout the Republic's territory for being part of the nation's and humanity's patrimonial culture." In chapter eight of the constitution, the state recognizes the social, political, and economic organization within indigenous communities, in addition to their cultures, languages, rights, and lands. What is more, in a critical provision the government recognizes land rights as collective, inalienable, and non-transferable. Later articles declare the government's pledge not to engage in extraction of natural resources without prior consultation with indigenous groups. Three long time indigenous activists have been elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly, and prominent leaders hold positions in government. In a novel move, Chávez has even had the constitution translated into all of Venezuela's languages.

Chávez has lived up to the constitution by awarding communal land titles to six Kariña indigenous communities. The land titles will be handed out to 4,000 people and encompass 317,000 acres in the Venezuelan states of Monagas and Anzoategui. The land transfers form part of Mission Guaicaipuro, a plan to provide land titles to all of Venezuela's 28 indigenous peoples. Chávez awarded the communal titles to the Kariña in August during the 16th World Festival of Students and Youth. The conference, which was attended by 40,000 people, was held in Caracas. During the opening procession of nations Chávez gave a "thumbs up" to a banner which displayed the words "Leonard Peltier." An indigenous woman speaker at the conference, one of three indigenous representatives in the Venezuela Assembly, praised recent advances for indigenous people. One conference participant reported, "Chávez hugged all the indigenous leaders in front of the world and gave deeds of territory to the tribes." By the end of 2006, Chávez' Mission Guaicaipuro plans to award land titles to 15 more indigenous groups. Participants at the conference were also pleased by Chávez's moves to halt the celebration of Columbus Day, which he has replaced with "Indigenous Resistance Day."

Chávez and Afro-Venezuelans

On the other hand, while the new constitution recognizes indigenous rights, it mentions nothing about blacks in Venezuela, leading Bill Fletcher of the Washington-based TransAfrica Forum to comment, "I feel that black issues need to be injected into politics." On the other hand, there are signs that Chávez government is at least aware of the problem. From March to May 2004, Afro Venezuelan groups celebrated the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery in Caracas. At the end of the conference Chávez made an appearance and the audience heard a lecture from Afro-Venezuelan historian José Marcial Ramos Guedez. Some participants expressed optimism that racial progress would be made under the Chávez government. "Representatives of Venezuela's Afro-descendants are so positive about the current reforms in government [under Chávez]," said Máryori Márquez, assistant to the director of culture in the city of Sucre, "that we are now also trying to have legislation drafted that will mandate the acceptance and the recognition of the traditional and current human rights of Black Venezuelans." Máryori added that Chávez was "completely open to this initiative, we just have to work to make this come true, we have to develop this. Because this won't just benefit a few people, it would be to everyone's benefit."

The White Elite Strikes Back

The white elite has not been amused by Chávez's recent moves. For them, the new president was an outsider. In contrast to previous leaders in Venezuela and throughout the region who identified with the outside European world, Chávez loudly proclaimed his indigenous and African roots. Chávez himself seems well aware of the race issue. According to the Venezuelan president, racial tensions have increased since his election. "There is racism here," Chávez remarked. "It used to be more hidden and now it is more open." Chávez's opponents, who argue that racism does not exist in the country, charged that the president exploits the race card for political gain. According to Fletcher, the Chávez opposition "has attacked him [Chávez] using racist language and imagery which would be totally unacceptable in public discourse in the USA." The Venezuelan elite has used racial slurs to taint Chávez, denouncing him as a black monkey. According to author Tariq Ali, "A puppet show to this effect with a monkey playing Chávez was even organized at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. But Colin Powell was not amused and the Ambassador was compelled to issue an apology." The attacks continued when Venezuelan media commentators referred to the Minister of Education, Aristobulo Isturiz, who is black, as "a monkey" and "an ape." Meanwhile, analysts have remarked upon the racial undertones of political conflict in Chávez's Venezuela. "Class and skin color differences," remarks Wilpert, "clearly correlate very highly at demonstrations, such that the darker skinned (and presumably lower class) support the Chávez government and the lighter skinned (and presumably middle and upper class) oppose the Chávez government."

Race and the Venezuelan Media

This difference in skin color was clearly evident during the demonstrations both for and against Chávez in the days preceding the April 2002 coup, and during an oil lockout in December 2002-January 2003. What is more, the Venezuelan TV media, which is dominated by whites or light skinned individuals, and which relegates blacks or dark skinned people to play roles as criminals or servants in soap operas, played a significant role in the April 2002 coup. In the days leading up to Chávez's ouster, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión and Televen substituted their regular programming with non-stop vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda, which some of their staff later acknowledged as unprofessional behavior. This relentless barrage was interrupted by commercials urging TV viewers to go into the streets. Inflammatory ads blaring, "Not one step backward. Out! Leave now!" were carried by the stations as public service announcements. Later on the day of the coup, Gustavo Cisneros allowed his television station Venevision to serve as the meeting place for anti-Chávez coup plotters. Reportedly, interim coup president Pedro Carmona was present.

Chávez has struck back against the established media through Vive TV, a state sponsored station. In contrast to TV stations like RCTV, which airs shows such as "Quien Quiere Ser Millionario" ("Who Wants To Be A Millionaire"), Vive TV shuns American-style consumerism. According to its website, Vive TV promotes "the common citizen, the millions of Venezuelans and Latin Americans who have been made invisible by imperialism and its cultural domination." Through Vive's programming, claim the station's managers, "it is possible to acquaint oneself with the reality, lives and struggle of people of African descent [and] indigenous peoples." As Blanca Eekhout, the former manager of Vive explains, people of color previously "have appeared in the media but in a stigmatized way; they are shown as marginal people, criminals. They are not shown building, constructing, which is part of the struggle for the development of the country. That's one thing we are trying to change." The result of that changed attitude was plain to see during Vive TV's extended coverage of the Social Forum of the Americas in Ecuador. According to Eekhout, Venezuelan Indians attended the event and "The [Venezuelan] indigenous movement was excited; they could see not only movements there, but also their own Venezuelan delegates." Chávez has also increased the visibility of Latin America's indigenous peoples through the launching of the government-sponsored Televisora del Sur (Telesur). The network, which offers news and opinion programming, has hired Ati Kiwa as a presenter, an indigenous Colombian woman who wears traditional dress. The station provides a stark contrast to Univisión celebrity anchor Jorge Ramos, who wears a jacket and tie.

Chávez, Glover, and Martin Luther King

Even as he forges ahead with his media initiatives, the indefatigable Chávez has also moved to increase his political ties with the African American community. In January, 2004 TransAfrica Forum sent a delegation of influential artists, actors, activists and scholars to Caracas to meet with government officials. The group included the likes of screen actor Danny Glover ("Lethal Weapon," "The Color Purple"), who expressed his excitement at the social changes taking place in Venezuela. Glover remarked that the U.S. media's portrayal of Venezuela "has nothing to do with reality." Glover stated that his presence in Venezuela was "to listen and learn, not only from government and opposition politicians, but to share with the people, those who are promoting the changes in this country and we want to be in contact with those who benefit from those changes." Glover and others later presided over the inauguration of a new "Martin Luther King., Jr." school in the coastal town of Naiguata. The area is home to large numbers of Afro-Venezuelans. The school inauguration was the first official Venezuelan recognition of the importance of the slain civil rights leader. What is more, the government launched a photo exposition to honor Dr. King. Speaking at the event, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Alvarez, declared that "The visit by members of the TransAfrica Forum represents a struggle that goes beyond the figure of Martin Luther King; his struggle, his ideas and the African-American social movements inspired by him. This is a struggle aimed at defending people's rights, not only in the United States, but in the hemisphere and the world." Glover, clearly touched by the occasion, commented, ""This isn't Danny Glover the artist. I'm here as a citizen, not only of the US, but a citizen of the world. We understand fully the importance of this historical moment." Chávez later honored the late Dr. King during his radio and TV show Alo Presidente; Glover and others were invited on air to participate.

Predictably, the TransAfrica Forum delegates came under heavy attack from the Venezuelan opposition. "In the Opposition-oriented media, racist language and imagery wereused to characterize, if not caricaturize, our visit," Fletcher remarked. According to him, the delegation received racist e mail, and newspaper editorials and cartoons depicted the delegation in a racist manner. During a press conference, however, TransAfrica participants held their own against the media. James Early, Director of Cultural Studies and Communication at the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies at the Smithsonian Institution, expressed dismay with Venezuelan journalists. Early said he was surprised that none of the journalist's questions had to do with issues of cultural or racial diversity. "What are you journalists doing to educate the Venezuelan people about racial and cultural diversity? Democracy in the hemisphere relies heavily on the social responsibility of journalists, and asking questions only about the government or the opposition isn't going to help reach that goal. Democracy is not the government or the opposition, it is the people, being the people of Venezuela or the people of the United States," he said. Sitting in the audience was Education and Sports Minister Aristobulo Isturiz, the same black man who had been described by opposition reporters as "a monkey" in the past. Reportedly, Isturiz couldn't hide his satisfaction at the way the delegation handled the combative journalists.

Jackson, Glover, Belafonte: Chávez's New Friends

Chávez has maintained his close relationships with prominent black entertainers in the United States. In July 2005, Danny Glover and singer Harry Belafonte were invited to the ceremonial launching of Chávez's new TV station Telesur. Glover was impressed with the new media initiative, but criticized the station for not having any people of African or indigenous descent on its advisory board. Chávez himself called in to the inauguration shortly after and said to Glover, in English, "Danny, I am with you."

Meanwhile, Chávez has cultivated ties with civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. During a visit to Caracas, the veteran African American activist condemned Pat Robertson's call for Chávez's assassination. Coinciding with Jackson's stay in the country, the Venezuelan National Assembly declared a special session to commemorate Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech. National Assembly member Nohelí Pocaterra, an indigenous woman of Wayuú descent, addressed parliament in her native language and later in Spanish. Pocaterra compared Chávez's struggle for equality in Venezuela with Dr. King's civil rights work. Speaking later at the National Assembly, Jackson discussed the role of Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights struggle. Jackson praised Venezuela for making slavery illegal prior to the United States. "You in Venezuela ended the system of slavery in 1854," he remarked. At the end of his speech Jackson was cheered with thunderous applause from Venezuelan lawmakers.

The Future of Hemispheric Racial Politics

Chávez's international diplomacy and his warm ties with prominent African Americans will surely enrage the Bush White House yet further. Just at the time when Bush's popularity is flagging over the war in Iraq and botched relief efforts at home, Chávez has emerged as the most charismatic South American leader in recent times. For Bush, who tried and failed to dislodge Chávez in 2002, it is hardly a promising picture. Meanwhile, Chávez has inspired not only oppressed minorities within his own country but also blacks living outside Venezuela. "Advanced by individuals such as President Chávez," Fletcher remarks, "the recognition of the on-going reality of racism, and the struggles against it by the African descendant and Indigenous populations, could have a momentous impact on the politics and future of Latin America, let alone the entire Western Hemisphere."

Nikolas Kozloff received his doctorate in Latin American history from Oxford University in 2002. His book, South America In Revolt: Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and The Politics of Hemispheric Unity, is forthcoming from St. Martin's Press.