African Descendents and Racism in Venezuelan Private Media

This interview examines the extent and ways that Venezuela is still affected by racism following the publication of a racist cartoon by a private newspaper.

Afro descendent organisations want their dispute with the private daily newspaper Tal Cual to be taken to a legal level. Over the next few days they will solicit that Teodoro Petkoff [founder of the paper] be taken to court for the publication of a caricature that supposedly went against the law against racial discrimination, legislator Modesto Ruiz informed.

The judicial action will also affect the author of the caricature, Roberto Weil, and the political coordinator of the paper, Xabier Coscojuela. However they attribute a large part of the responsibility to Petkoff, as the director of the newspaper.

The caricature, printed on 16 March, shows a man with a beret, a boy, and a girl, looking at very cloudy water coming out of a tap, and a fly sits on the tap. The character says, “Enough of white supremacy, now we have Afro-descendent water”.

Ciudad Caracas: Are we a country affected by racism?

Modesto Ruiz: Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and endo-racism [internalised or self racism] are components of Venezuelan society that obey historic arguments. What we’re saying today in the media isn’t new, nor an isolated fact; the media has always been racist, xenophobic, and discriminatory towards two sectors of the population: indigenous people, and Afro-descendents.

Some years ago there was also an upsetting attitude towards our Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Peruvian brothers, who were branded as criminals. This attitude of the media, before and now, is a political posture that is tied to power relations, and the historical discourse of domination. This scarcely started to be confronted with the approval of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuelan in 1999, but the right wing media maintains this political message and it’s up to us to respond.

CC: Petkoff has made a joke of the response and says that the idea of Afro-descendance is a U.S invention, how do you respond to that?

MR: The discussion around the terms ‘black’, and ‘Afro-descendant’ dates back a long way. First of all, ‘black’ was imposed by the Portuguese colonisers when they arrived to Africa to impose slavery in the 15th century. Later, all the colonisers used it in America. Its semantic, political, and cultural weight is one of denial, ignorance, invisibility, and defamation of this group of men and women according to their skin colour. Historically, the term has been consolidated in a categorically negative and derogatory way. Some people want to confuse with the euphemism that people say “black” with affection, but the truth is that the sociological weight that this term has in this country, is negative.

Even the Language Academy says that one of the synonyms o f ‘black’ is unhappy. And so that’s why  the term ‘Afro-descendent’ has been restored and we reject that it’s also pejorative, such as when it is used to talk about tap water. We are not water, we are not objects, we’re not merchandise, we’re human beings, and this category [Afro-descendent] dignifies us.

It’s false that this discussion has been imported. In 1943 Juan Pablo Sojo [Venezuelan pioneer of Afro-Venezuelan studies] was already talking about Afro-descendants, as was the [Venezuelan] anthropologist Miguel Acosta Saignes.

CC: Why is Weil’s caricature racist?

MR:  Because it reproduces the old domination discourse of disdain, and it’s also fascist because it aims to create hate and disdain for that population.

CC: Yourself, as a social communicator, how do you think the rights of the Afro-descendant population to be respected and dignified can be reconciled with the right of any citizen to freely express their opinions, in this case in the form of humour?

MR: Humour can be funny, profound, quick witted, satirical, but not racist, xenophobic, fascist, and even worse, defend colonialist and imperialist ideas. It’s not about being in favour or against humour. We endorse caricatures, journalism in general, we endorse literature and we respect freedom of expression and the press. The criticism we have is the use of a racist message for a conspiratorial campaign against the revolution. It aims to create hate and generate fear and we have a right to respond to this political message.

CC: Opposition spokespeople say that this criticism aims to distract the debate from the main issue, which is the supposed contamination of water.

MR: It would be stupid to say that the Guaire is a crystalline river, but to say that the tap water that Venezuelans drink is contaminated is a very serious claim that can cause panic, terror. Whoever puts out information of this kind has to assume their responsibility,  as public prosecutor Luisa Ortega Diaz said. We support her.

CC: In the United States, when caricatures or messages of this nature are published, there are protests, are you suggesting something similar in this case?

MR: We’re not ruling it out, but apart from a street protest, we believe it’s useful to settle this in court because there is a law against racial discrimination, and in article 37 it penalises such acts with one to three years prison and 200 to 600 hours of community service. This law says the aggravating circumstance is conspiracy. That is, when people coordinate together to send these messages. In this case, that is what happened. There was a caricaturist, a head editor, and a director. As a minimum, this discriminatory message passed through three pairs of hands before it came out. We’re going to take legal action so that Venezuelan justice decides if there was a violation of the law or not.

Extra Ciudad Caracas commentary – White people? When Modesto Ruiz speaks in public he often holds up a white piece of paper. “What colour is this?” he asks.  And when people respond that it is white, he asks, “Is anyone in the world this colour?”

It’s one of the ways that this journalist of fifty years, born in San Jose de Barlovento, has found to break down deeply rooted racist discourse.

President of the participation, legislation, rights, and guarantees commission of Afro-descendents of the national assembly, he speaks proudly of his ancestors and highlights the importance that the Afro resistance had in Venezuela’s fight for independence. “There were more than 26 episodes of known rebellion, but the truth is the resistance began with the first slave hunted like an animal in Africa, and brought here against their will,” he says.

Ruiz points out that no Afro-descendent should be with an opposition that denies his or her human condition.  “It’s not all of the opposition, but yes there are open statements, such as what is seen in the right wing media,” he said. However,  he understands that there are opposition Afro-descendents, the endo-racism (self-hate), that “denies your own human condition, tries to make yourself the stereotyped model imposed by those who dominate” he argues. Something like Michael Jackson, who took denying his body to the extreme, “I don’t criticise him, because he was a victim, but it’s an example that people take on”.

Translation by Tamara Pearson for Venezuelanalysis.com