Racism and Racial Divides in Venezuela

An interview with Jesus "Chucho" Garcia, Venezuela's leading activist against and researcher of racism in Venezuela. As a Venezuelan of African descent, he talks about the denial of racism in Venezuela and what needs to be done to overcome it.

Chucho García


Race and racism is a surprisingly controversial issue for being a non-issue in Venezuela. That is, if you talk to almost any Venezuelan (perhaps 95% in a random sample), they will tell you that there is no racism in Venezuela. Generally it does not matter whether you speak to someone who is white, brown, or black. Actually, most Venezuelans, in my experience, no matter how light or dark-skinned they look to me, will proudly say that they are and consider themselves to be “brown” or “mestizo.” The logical conclusion they draw from this is that since we are all racially the same, there cannot be any racism in Venezuela. Of course, this is just the crude version of the dialogue. Of course, most people do recognize that there are differences in skin color and it is quite common to refer to the lightest colored in a family as “El Catire” (similar to calling someone “Blondie”) and the one with the darkest skin color as “El Negro.” Nonetheless, even though most will see the difference in skin color, they will generally say that skin color or race do not matter, since they are all “mestizos” (mixed).

Perhaps one of the more sophisticated arguments along this line that I have seen so far by a Venezuelan is Francisco Toro’s reaction (in his January 11 web log) to the recent visit of a delegation from the TransAfrica Forum, in which he presents a detailed argument for why “Racism may be the only acute social problem Venezuela doesn’t have.”

However, the TransAfrica Forum delegation, in its final press conference in Venezuela, made this its central topic, saying that, yes, racism in Venezuela is alive and well, despite the fact that practically all Venezuelans that they spoke to denied it. They mentioned several incidents that seemed fairly obvious to them, such as news commentators referring to their trip as being a “burned” tour – in a reference to their skin color. Also, a prominent opposition spokesperson referred to the delegation as “monkeys” – a fairly common deprecatory term Venezuelans use for people of African descent. Also, the cartoonist of one of the major newspapers, El Nacional’s Zapata, caricatured their visit, making obvious negative reference to their racial background.

The truth, as always, is much more complicated than just “racism” vs “no racism.” That is, while there is obvious racism in Venezuela (for example, not even Francisco Toro can deny that skin color and class correlate very highly), racism indeed is not the same in Venezuela as it is in the U.S. or in Europe. Toro is probably correct when he argues that cultural differences and racial or skin color differences overlap much less than they do in the U.S. or in Europe. Venezuelan society does seem to be culturally more homogenous than skin color differences. In contrast, in the U.S. context, skin color differences overlap fairly closely with cultural differences. In the U.S. or in Europe, if you are white, chances are you will have more in common culturally with other whites than you do with browns/Hispanics, blacks, or Asians. In Venezuela, however, this seems to be much less the case. Still, the lack of correspondence between skin color or race and culture in Venezuela does not mean that there is no prejudice or discrimination against people of a darker skin color. Examples of such racism, as the TransAfrica Forum delegation witnessed, is indeed quite common. The Afro-Venezuelan network has compiled a list of over 1,000 racist comments that have appeared in Venezuela’s media in the past year and half.

The most glaring instance of possible racism, which is also why “lefties” like to portray Venezuela’s conflict as a black vs. white conflict, is that race and class correspond quite highly in Venezuela. Those who deny that racism exists in Venezuela (such as Toro) say that the reason for this is historical, not current racism. Such an argument touches on the very essence of how we define racism, which has been a matter of serious debate throughout U.S. society in the past fifty years. Is racism merely current discrimination against people who look different? Or could racism also be the legacy (or history) of racially discriminatory practices? If we use a broader definition of racism, which includes the historical racism of the slave trade and of colonialism, we would have to say that racism, insofar as its legacy is concerned, is also alive and well in Venezuela. The correspondence between skin color and class membership in Venezuela 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.

The next step, which observers such as Greg Palast and Richard Gott tend to make, is not too far-fetched, if you then take a look at the pro-government and the opposition demonstrations. Class and skin color differences clearly correlate very highly at demonstrations, such that the darker skinned (and presumably lower class) support the Chavez government and the lighter skinned (and presumably middle and upper class) oppose the Chavez government. So to conclude that Venezuela’s conflict is a “black versus white” conflict bears some truth, despite its oversimplifications.

Unfortunately, all of this is awfully unscientific and will probably thus not convince the majority of Venezuelans who have been raised by the notion that there is no racism in Venezuela. The need to research and find hard data on racism in Venezuela is, however, precisely one of the demands of Venezuela’s Afro-Venezuelan network. As long as there is no hard data and as long as there is a popular belief among the vast majority of Venezuelans, regardless of skin color, that there is no racism in Venezuela, nothing will be done to correct the clear racial/class discrimination that does exist. Another important step, which Chucho Garcia mentions in the interview below, is for Venezuela to implement the Durban Declaration Against Racism, which Venezuela signed a long time ago, but has not done anything to implement – probably because Venezuelans believe that there is no need to do so. The irony is that it is precisely the belief that there is no racism which ends up reinforcing racism.

Jesus “Chucho” Garcia is one of the founders of the Afro-Venezuelan Network and is currently its international relations director. He is probably one of Venezuela’s foremost experts on the Afro-Venezuelan community and a life-long activist against racism in Venezuela. He will be on a “Stop the FTAA” speaking tour of the U.S. sponsored by Global Exchange, from April 11-26, 2004.


Interview with Jesus “Chucho” Garcia

What is your response to Venezuelans who say that there is no racism in Venezuela?

In Venezuela, via the educational system, people were educated so as not to see this cancer known as racism, which has always existed in Venezuela, ever since the impact of the misnamed “discovery” of America, passing through the period of slavery during the colonial period, until the construction of the republic. In the first constitution of the republic, as well as in the second, the one of 1830, it says that we are all Venezuelans. However, in the constitution of 1830, neither Venezuelans of African descent nor the indigenous people were considered to be citizens. This was the first exclusion of a racial and judicial sort which existed in Venezuela. Another element of exclusion existed in this constitution, which decreed that we are all Roman Catholics, discarding all of the indigenous religions, over thirty seven religions, as well as the religions of African origin. This way only one model was put into place. This is a form of racism in the religious realm, which unfortunately our political leaders, the old ones as well as the new ones, of the fourth as well as of the fifth republic,[1] continue to repeat. Racism also expresses itself in the religious.

When processes of modernization of the state were discussed at first, this modernization wave which went over Latin America in the 1930’s, the great intellectuals of this period, such as Arturo Uslar Pietri[2] unfortunately expressed that Venezuela could not enter modernity with the ethnic composition it had. He said that blacks did not have a visible cultural contribution to make to Venezuelan culture. The only thing blacks had was laziness, vagrancy, just as the indigenous people. He thus said that these ethnic components had to be eliminated. This is where what we could call institutional racism comes from. In school textbooks, for example, the importance of indigenous contributions to Venezuelan identity, just as of those of African descent, do not appear. If you pick up a text of 2004 and compare it with one from 1930, you will see many similarities. For example, the text will say, that indigenous people “married,” “had” – always in the past tense. They never bring it up to date, even though it is well known that we have 36 indigenous peoples and 34 well differentiated languages in Venezuela. So children are learning that indigenous peoples are a thing of the past and not of the present. At the same time, the issue of African-Venezuelans does not appear either. The textbooks refer to the black slaves. But no one is born as a slave – people are enslaved. There is a difference between being a slave and being enslaved.

Then, in the period of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez, in the 1950’s, he launched what was called the “great national ideal,” which was to “whiten” Venezuela. In order to do this, he brought great quantities of immigrants from Europe, particularly from Western Europe. At this time the concept of “mestizo” was deepened. But we are mestizos to the extent that we approximate Western European culture. We are mestizos to the extent that we are whitened. But we are not mestizos to the extent that the cultures maintain an equality of complementarity, so that we might call someone a Venezuelan who has these three components that are equal. But no, Marcos Perez Jimenez launched his project of the great national ideal, in order to impose western European culture on the rest of the Venezuelan people. So there we have another important phase of Venezuelan racism, during the period of the dictatorship.

Then, during the period of representative democracy, from the end of the dictatorship in 1958 until the constitution of 1999, the issue of race does not appear at all. The constitution of 1961 said that we are all equal. But in that constitution there was no article that penalized any form of racial discrimination. This is what differentiates the constitution of 1999. In article 21 of this constitution that we have now, says, yes, we are all equal and that any attacks against another person on the basis of their skin color, etc., can be penalized. So, in the constitution of 1961 the issue of race remains under the table. Nonetheless, the problem of racism in the institutional sphere, in the educational sphere, remained. There was a huge polemic here when an African-Venezuelan, Luis Beltran Prieto Figueroa, who belonged to Acción Democrática, aspired to be a presidential candidate. The recalcitrant sector of the party said, no, a black cannot be president. This was in 1968. So he then split from Acción Democrática and formed his own party, the Electoral Movement of the People. This was an important sign that racism was in effect in Venezuela.

Then, with the constitution of 1999, an important section was created on indigenous peoples. We made a proposal, so that the issue of African-Venezuelans might be included in the new constitution. We, the African-Venezuelan organizations, made a formal proposal for the constitutional assembly. The response was that with of these problems they had with the articles on the indigenous peoples – here one could see all of the racist problems that existed against the indigenous. There was someone from the left – racism does not respect ideologies – who said, the articles for the indigenous already caused so many problems, “are we now going to put something in for the blacks? No, we can’t do that.” Still, in the original constitutional proposal that Chavez had made there was a reference to those of African descent, but it and our proposal were completely taken out by the left. By the left! Because they did not understand the problem. So, since we do not appear in the constitution, neither do we in the organic laws.[3] We insisted that the issue would be included in various laws, such as in the land reform law and in the education law and in the law of culture. And since we don’t appear in the organic laws, we don’t appear in the programs of government institutions. For example, in the ministry of social development, there is a program to support ethnic diversity. If you look at the program, the only type of ethic diversity it refers to are the indigenous peoples, but African ethnicity does not appear. For example, in the National Women’s Institute, there is no recognition of the contribution of women of African descent. In the law of equal opportunity there is a recognition of the indigenous population, but none of the people of African descent. So, as you can see, there is a racial exclusion, discrimination, from a juridical perspective and in the area of public policy. This is one of the great challenges that this revolution has to deal with. There is no real, profound, sincere revolution without the incorporation of the issue of African descent.

If this is what is going on the institutional level, in the period that began with 1999, in the other sectors, such as in the mass media, there is a very open and aggressive racism. Also, in the sphere of what we could call policing. For example, the mayor of Caracas, Alfredo Peña, and of the district of Chacao,[4] they trained their police forces very much in line with the ideals of former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, as advised by former New York City police commissioner William Bratton. This was based on the idea that criminals had certain typical physical characteristics. These characteristics resembled very closely to indigenous peoples and to those of African descent. This is based on the criminological anthropology of Cesar Lombroso. The police forces here and throughout Latin America have been strongly trained in accordance with this model. The criminal has certain physical characteristics. Among the police force of Chacao this has become evident with three recent police actions in against Venezuelans of African descent. This happened to a journalist friend of mine, for example. He looked suspicious because of his physical appearance and they attacked him. Another person, who is a teacher from Barlovento,[5] who works very close to Plaza Altamira,[6] during the time the opposition officers occupied the plaza, he was kidnapped and tortured and insulted with all kinds of racial epithets, from “monkey” to “we’re going to put you into a jungle,” etcetera. And then the murder of a young kid in the only barrio in Chacao. Also, the police of Alfredo Peña bases much of its campaign for stopping delinquency on persecuting people who are mostly phenotypically black. So this type of police repression is very related to the issue of racism.

Prior to the coup attempt, President Chavez changed the board of directors of the state oil company (PDVSA) and among these was a Venezuelan of African descent. However, despite all of the qualification this engineer had, the so-called meritocracy refused to accept him – because in the past there has never been someone of African descent on the board of directors.

What is the role of the African-Venezuelan community itself with respect to racism in Venezuela? That is, to what extent are they conscious of racism?

One of the great problems that we have in the communities of African descent is endo-racism – racism against one’s self. The educational system has such a strong effect on our communities that they too deny the existence of racism. Also, they speak of ethnic shame, of their own cultural background. I have conducted research in African-Venezuelan communities with people who have the same skin color as I do, who say, “No, no, we are descendants of the Spanish.” How can one explain that? They say, “it’s because I have a Spanish last name.” But then I explained to them, that their names were adopted from their Spanish masters when they were enslaved. The master gave them their last names. The African names were not kept here. The only countries where the names were kept are Colombia and Ecuador. This is because in these countries there were more slave uprisings than here. So people then kept their African last names.

What about the area of socio-economic status? Is there a coincidence of class and race division in Venezuela?

This is related to something we have been demanding for a long time, that we be counted, that a census be conducted to find out in what socio-economic situation those who are of African descent are in. Where are we, how many are we, and in what situation are we in? There are no real data on any of this. The result will probably be that the poorest will correspond to a certain racial background. In 1995 we tried to get a commission of the OAS to come see the prisons in Venezuela. Also, Pierre Sané of Amnesty International came, so that they would see the situation of the prisons here in Venezuela. They were surprised to see that the majority of the prisoners were of African descent. They said that the majority of the prisoners were blacks. The government reacted to this, to Pierre Sané, who is from Senegal, and one of the main leaders of the opposition today, Asdrubal Aguiar, who was the President’s Chief of Staff at the time, said “What does this black guy think? He should practice his sorcery (macumba) someplace else.” So class and race are very closely related here. To the extent that you are whiter, your social mobility is much greater than that of someone who is of African descent. When you see the press, when you see the demonstrations, you see people’s faces and which side they support.

Still, there is a very strong myth, which causes people in the opposition to say, “We are ethnically very diverse,” which is true to a certain extent, there is a mixture. However, when you see a pro-government demonstration, the Chavez supporters are much darker.

Yes, definitely.

You mentioned some of your efforts to make changes to the constitution, which failed. So have there been any changes for African-Venezuelans since Chavez has come to power?

With respect to the constitution there has not been any change. But still, I support the process that President Chavez leads. There are also many things I do not support – I want to be clear about that. I am playing my game in all of this, which is the agenda of Venezuelans of African descent. We do not take the position that all NGOs that support the process must support everything the government does. I don’t believe in that.

Let’s take a look at what happened in South Africa, where there was a great social movement. But after the end of apartheid, the majority of the leaders of the social movements went over to take bureaucratic posts and so the essence of the social movements was lost. Social movements must always maintain their autonomy – because it is the social movements that will alert people to a possible straying of the government. I have openly criticized, via the mass media, the straying of this process, and one must continue to do so. But just because of that I am not an anti-revolutionary or anti-transformation person. You have to have the courage to say things.

Can you tell me why you and your organization support the process?

In the meetings that we had between the TransAfrica Forum delegation and various government representatives, everyone told the delegation, everyone: deputies, ministers, etcetera, that there is no racism in Venezuela. Of course, their agenda, in this sense, is not clear. They are missing this component. This is something we have to recognize. How can they say this, if even the president is constantly attacked, every day, by racist attacks? Maybe they don’t read the press, maybe they don’t notice. So with functionaries like this, the problem does not get in. This is why we mentioned this to Minister of Planning and Development, Jorge Giordani, who is in charge of the general direction of the country for the next fifteen years, but we African-Venezuelans do not appear in those plans. So, for the next census we are going to create some indicators in order to measure the levels of development in the communities of African descent. He accepted, and so there’s an advance we have made.

Now, in terms of the constitution, despite all of its problems – even the president has said that it still has defects and has recognized that this element of African descendancy is missing – it is a constitution that gives us many opportunities. But if the people do not criticize the government for its straying or for the verticalism that sometimes occurs, then there will be no real transformation. Otherwise we are simply going to repeat the old structures of “caudillo” [strong man], military, and people. The social movements have to alert people if this happens. Also, it is a problem if people let themselves be led by “caudillo” tendencies.

I think we are in an interesting process right now. If groups such as the African-Venezuelan Network, do not declare themselves to be totally pro-government, the process can advance significantly. And then we can truly say that this is a participatory democracy. But if we just wait for Chavez to take the initiative, then we will achieve very little. This is also why we differentiate ourselves from other social movements.

Still, within the constitution we have different opportunities. Article 62, for example, says that citizens can control state power from below, from the grassroots. This is a great opportunity. Also, the local public planning councils and the citizen assemblies. Also, the fact that you can revoke the mandate of elected officials. All of these things did not exist in the previous constitution. These are issues that don’t just affect those of African descent or indios, no, these are human issues.

I think we are in a stellar moment here in Venezuela. I think this is the precise moment when we have to push for recognition. This is a historical moment.

What is it exactly that you are demanding?

There are three proposals. First, to change the school curricula, so that the African-Venezuelan elements are incorporated. Second, we want to be included in the next census. Third, we want the Durban plan against racism to be put into action, which was passed in the conference of Durban, South Africa, in 2001. This has to do with eliminating racism in the area of education, of the justice system, in public administration, and so on. Venezuela signed this agreement – but we are three years behind in implementing the recommendations. Reactionary countries such as Colombia are implementing the recommendations. So are Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Costa Rica.

How do you explain this; that all these countries are implementing the recommendations, but Venezuela so far has not?

In Colombia, for example, even though there is a right-wing and racist government, there is an understanding of institutionality. That is, the government officials are clear that they signed the agreement and, even though they tend to be hypocrites, they know they have to implement it. We have accused Chaderton,[7] via the press, of racial demagoguery and for failing to implement the agreement.

Do you think the Venezuelan myth that there is no racism in Venezuela could have something to do with the failure to implement the Durban agreement?

Yes, certainly. Denying the existence of racism merely makes it worse.

I think it’s our task now to be more pedagogical with our government officials. There is a great opening now; it’s the moment for our recognition. That’s what we are going to fight for.

[1] The constitution of 1961 to 1999 represented the fourth republic. The fifth republic came into being with the constitution of 1999, which Chavez and his supporters wrote and passed.

[2] A major intellectual of Venezuelan culture and national identity.

[3] Organic laws are those that are based on or derived from the constitution.

[4] The greater Caracas mayor and the Mayor, Alfredo Peña, of the Caracas district Chacao, Leopoldo Lopez, are supporters of the opposition to the Chavez government.

[5] A predominantly black community near Caracas.

[6] A plaza located in Chacao, in one of Caracas’ wealthiest districts.

[7] Roy Chaderton, the Minister of Foreign Relations.