Jesús “Chucho” García is an intellectual and activist, and the author of several books, including Afrovenezolanidad e inclusión en el Proceso Bolivariano [Afro-Venezuelanness and Inclusion in the Bolivarian Process, 2018]. He is also a founder of the Network of Afro-Venezuelan Organizations and a member of the National Decolonization Commission. In this interview, García talks about Afro-descendants’ history of struggle, the advances in the Bolivarian Process, and the pending task of building a truly inclusive society.
In Venezuela, the emancipation of enslaved persons occurred in 1854. The event ended up favoring the enslavers over the enslaved: multiple forms of domination and oppression of Black people persist to this day. Tell us about the incomplete project of abolition.
March 24, 1854, when [then-President] José Gregorio Monagas signed the abolition of slavery into law, represents the first act of racial institutional hypocrisy in Venezuelan history. Here, the abolition of slavery benefited enslavers. Slavery is a crime against humanity, but the 1854 “abolition” didn’t change the criminal nature of the Venezuelan state for two reasons. First, the enslavers were compensated. In fact, José Antonio Páez, an independence hero, waited two full years to release the enslaved people in his haciendas, because he “wasn’t about to free them until he was fully paid.”
The second issue that points to racial institutional hypocrisy is the fact that formerly enslaved people did not receive reparations. The consequences of this were many, including the development of a not-so-new-whites-on-top social configuration, and they persist up to the present.
But let me take you back to 1816. After the defeat of Venezuela’s First Republic , Simón Bolívar went to visit General Alexandre Pétion [Haitian independence leader] to request support. The Haitian revolutionary gave Bolívar moral, political, and material support. In fact, not only did Bolívar’s anticolonial endeavor receive a ship, weapons, ammunition, and a printing press, but Haitian men joined Bolívar’s independence struggle as well. These were not your run-of-the-mill soldiers; they had defeated Napoleon’s troops, the most powerful military army of the time! In return, what did Pétion request from Bolívar? That slavery be abolished in the mainland. In other words, the retribution was to be moral, not material.
In the following years, Bolívar would bring up the imperative to free enslaved persons time and again. He did it at the Angostura Congress, in Carúpano, and in Ocumare. Unfortunately, after Venezuela’s independence and Bolívar’s death, emancipation was put on the back burner.
But, as I said before, justice was not done in 1854: the economic structure of the society didn’t change, creole whites remained on top, and structural racism and discrimination continued organizing the society as a whole.
Some one hundred and fifty years after the so-called “liberation” of enslaved peoples, with Chávez’s ascent to power, and a new era opened up. The Bolivarian Process came with what I call the “alphabetization of the state” and, with it, people of African descent began to be truly incorporated into the political sphere, while important social justice policies were implemented.
There have been many substantive advances over the years, including the 2009 Education Law, which has three articles that mandate the incorporation of the Afro-descendant perspective into school curricula, from history to culture, from spirituality to politics. At the moment, at the Education University [Universidad del Magisterio], 4500 people are participating in workshops on the Afro perspective.
There have also been advances in areas such as women’s rights, youth, and culture. Institutional offices now address the concerns of Afro-descendants.
One of the issues on the table right now is the reform of the 2011 Law Against Racial Discrimination, which was the last legislation signed by President Chávez. The law itself was a grassroots victory, but there are issues regarding the penalization of racism that must be made more explicit, and that’s why we call for a reform.
Venezuela has promoted reparations, but there is still a long way to go. Can we talk about this?
In 2001, I went to the World Conference against Racism and Racial Discrimination, held in Durban, South Africa. There, we were able to advance the idea of reparations. Later, in 2018, with support from the Bolivarian government, we organized the First International Congress on Reparations, with delegates from Africa, the Caribbean, the US, etc. A roadmap for reparations was drafted there. In the Venezuelan case, one of the demands was that the land taken from the Afro-Venezuelan community of Turiamo [Aragua state] in 1957 be returned. However, the return of the lands to the rightful owners is still pending.
Additionally, the National Commission for Decolonization was launched in 2020. Reparations are a matter that will be addressed in that context.
In Venezuela, there is a common discourse that goes like this: “we are all mestizos and there is no racism here.” You have characterized this as a “trap.” Could you explain the limitations – or pitfalls – in the mestizaje discourse?
After Venezuela’s Independence and after the so-called abolition of slavery in 1854, land tenure remained in the hands of the white, creole, and formerly enslaver class. The ensuing Federal War [1859-1863] led by Ezequiel Zamora had one goal: ¡Tierra y hombres libres! [free land and free men]. The war was about justice for landless folks, including formerly enslaved people and their descendants. However, while the Zamora troops won the war, the ensuing reaction reinstated the old forms of domination and land tenure.
Then came the formation of the modern state in the 20th century, which would retain the racist configuration of the old state. In a 1937 article published in El Boletín de Comercio de Caracas, Arturo Uslar Pietri, a highly influential intellectual, would write about the “dangers of people of color migrating to Venezuela.” Uslar Pietri would also go on to argue that the Venezuelan state should be “mestizo and modern,” but that Indigenous and people of African descent should not be incorporated into the project of making the state, because they were all “lazy.”
In other words, for people like Uslar Pietri, mestizo is a euphemism for white, and white was the desired color for the new state. Uslar Pietri also argued for policies encouraging European immigration, and the Isaías Medina Angarita government [1941-45] did just that. These policies would continue during the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jimenez [1953-58], who explicitly wrote about the need to “whiten” Venezuelan society.
The instruments designed to encourage European migration weren’t just “open door” policies; European migrants also got economic incentives. In the meantime, Afro-Venezuelan communities continued to be culturally, economically, and socially marginalized.
At the end of the day, the mestizaje discourse is discriminatory, but it’s alive and well. Twenty-three years after the beginning of the Bolivarian Process, if you turn on Telesur or Venezolana de Televisión [state-run TV outlets], how many black anchors will you see? How many people are invited to talk about Afro culture on those platforms? How many ministers or deputies are Afro-descendants?
Unfortunately, racism hasn’t vanished, but it comes draped in the discourse of mestizaje. Many deny the racist character of our society: they say that we are all a bit indigenous, a bit Afro, a bit white; that we are not like South Africa or the United States. However, what we find in our society is far more than vestiges of racism. The struggle to overcome structural racism within the state is ongoing, and it is led by social movements and a network of Afro-Venezuelan organizations.
Marooning was very potent in our continent, and its local expression in Venezuela was the cumbe [self-run territories controlled by maroons]. What is the history of the cumbes?
The term “maroon” is conventionally used to refer to communities made up of freedom seekers. However, I argue for a more ample use of the term. For me, marooning is a mode of life that rejects all forms of oppression and domination.
For a maroon, the only option is liberty, even if death might come with it. In the 17th and 18th centuries, cumbes emerged in Barlovento [Miranda state] and in Yaracuy state, where Andresote led a maroon uprising [1730-32], but also in Falcón state, where José Leonardo Chirino led a rebellion . There were also maroon communities in other regions, including Zulia state.
Cumbes were not only free communities; they also had a spiritual dimension. For example, in the Sur del Lago [Zulia] cumbes, the maroons maintained the devotion to Ajé, a water deity.
Also, maroons had a code, which included organizing to purchase the liberty of enslaved people. How would they do this? They would expropriate cocoa crops and sell them to the Dutch, who would smuggle the cargo out of the country.
But I insist, maroon culture is not part of the past: it remains in the struggle against racism, in the struggle for inclusion, and even in the struggle against corruption, which is very much an ailment of the present.
The Venezuelan right, like the right globally, is tremendously racist. The most brutal expression of its racism was the burning of Orlando José Figuera, a young Black man, during the 2017 guarimbas. The Bolivarian Revolution is on the other side of the political spectrum, but even so it is not free from racism. This is something that you often talk about. What would be the most important racial justice issues still to be addressed?
First, I want to say that the political right – both global and local – is undeniably racist, but the emergence of an Afro-right is something that should concern us as well. This is also a global phenomenon and cause for much concern.
Now, when it comes to the Bolivarian Process – and I intentionally call it a “process” because there hasn’t been an actual revolution – we overcame representative democracy and fostered a new kind of democracy called “participative and protagonic.” However, there have been some setbacks to the Process in the past few years: we have moved from a revolutionary democracy where everyone has the right to opine and decide, to a leadership-based system where the party decides and not the bases. Participative and protagonic democracy has become so weakened that at one point Caracas appointed “protectors” – a figure with unquestionable colonial roots – to rule in certain parts of the country. When the Europeans divided Africa among themselves, they also created protectorates!
We are also concerned about how the police forces are operating of late. Initiatives such as the “Operación de Liberación del Pueblo” [Operation for the Liberation of the Pueblo, 2014-2015], which would eventually morph into the CONAS and the FAES [both police forces], are influenced by the school of the reactionary 19th-century criminologist Cesare Lambroso. Thus, racial profiling is not uncommon.
There is something else: in Venezuela, there is no death penalty, but people are dying as a result of police operations. In Barlovento, for example, most of the kids killed in police raids are Afro-descendants. We must face these problems and correct the ideology and policies behind policing. It’s urgent!
Of course, what happens in Venezuela is not unique. Our country is not isolated from a criminal global system that is colonial and racist to the core — so the struggle is global as much as it is local.
The Bolivarian Revolution has recognized José Leonardo Chirinos, Pedro Camejo, and Juana “La Avanzadora” Ramírez among many other Black historical figures that conventional historiography erased from the books. What is the importance of this narrative shift?
In the Carabobo field [most important independence battle, 1821], more than half those who died were of African origin or Afro-descendants, but that isn’t reflected in conventional history books. That is why taking the remains of Matea Bolívar or Pedro Camejo to the National Pantheon is so important: they are symbolic acts of justice in the same way that bringing down the monument to a Confederate general in the US is an act of justice.
However, it’s not enough. We must examine the situation of the Afro-Venezuelan population, which is critical. By our calculations, the Afro population produces 30% of the GDP. Most of it comes from cocoa production and mineral extraction. Nonetheless, very little actually goes back to Black households and communities, which are, on average, the poorest in the country.
Chávez had important proposals to overcome inequality. Perhaps the key one was transferring the means of production to the people. The beauty of this proposal is that it’s not an “assistentialist” [welfare] initiative; instead, it fosters autonomous, grassroots organization.
In Barlovento, a region where Afro-descendants grow cocoa, an industrial plant to process chocolate was built when Chávez was alive. The idea was that the community would administer and benefit from the sales of its value-added products. Plantain and papaya processing plants were also built in Barlovento. Unfortunately, the management of these plants was not in the hands of the people: outside bosses were appointed from Caracas and the projects went belly up.
These means of production must be reactivated, and their reactivation must happen with the community and support from the state. Afro communities are not requesting monetary support; we are demanding that what is ours come back to our hands. It’s about collective reparations.
We have fought against enslavement, against colonialism, and against imperialism, and we will keep at it. We are struggling to make Chávez’s and our own dreams a reality.