Selma in Caracas: Brown-Washing and the Abuse of History

VA.com's Lucas Koerner looks at the Venezuelan opposition's attempt to self-style themselves as an oppressed minority by likening their movement to the struggles faced by black people defying the Jim Crow. Koerner goes on to compare this "brown-washing" to PR tactics employed by the state of Israel.


Last week, I saw Selma at a movie theater in Altamira, located in Caracas’ upper class eastern municipality of Chacao. Enthralled by DuVernay’s stunning and horrifying portrayal of the “Bloody Sunday” civil rights march that saw 525 Black protesters savagely attacked by police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, I was suddenly offput by a comment from another audience member behind me.

“Just like Llaguno Bridge,” whispered the voice. I stopped, struggling to process what I had just heard.

To my shock, my fellow audience member had just compared the “Bloody Sunday” march to the April 11, 2002 Venezuelan opposition march towards the Miraflores presidential palace, which allegedly came under Chavista gunfire from the Llaguno bridge above. The alleged massacre was seized on by the corporate media as justification for the US-sponsored coup that ousted then-president Hugo Chavez for 47 hours, installing the dictatorial Carmona regime, which dissolved parliament, the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Council, and all other appointed authorities, as well as perpetrated widespread human rights violations against Chavista dissidents.

In reality, the day’s events were elaborately staged, with snipers from the opposition-controlled Metropolitan Police opening fire on Chavistas and opposition demonstrators alike and rightwing media reporting the incident as a government-authored massacre, despite knowledge to the contrary.

How could anyone in their right mind compare the overwhelmingly White, upper class demonstrators intent on the violent ouster of the democratically-elected Chavez government to Martin Luther King Jr. and his comrades marching against Jim Crow? I momentarily consoled myself, dismissing this individual as a lunatic anomaly. However, to my dismay, I discovered that this person was hardly alone in monstrously twisting history in order to justify indefensible political positions.

“Selma has things to say to Venezuelans in this moment concerning civil rights, responsible leadership, and peaceful resistance,” begins Alexis Correia, writing for the Venezuelan website El estímulo.

“There are dialogues that seem too familiar to us: ‘I prefer that people be angry with me then dead or hurt’ could have come from the mouth of Capriles,” the writer continued, referring to the perennial rightwing presidential candidate and Miranda governor’s call for an end to violent protests following the allegedly “disputed” 2013 presidential election.

This comparison of Henrique Capriles Radonsky to MLK is particularly perverse given that it was the former’s refusal to recognize the outcome of the close yet internationally recognized election and his initial call for supporters to vent their “rage” [“arrechera”] in the streets that precipitated the nation-wide rightwing violence in the first place, which left seven people dead and saw numerous government health clinics and food markets burned.

If anything, the disproportionately White and wealthy youth incited to violence by Capriles on April 15 bear far greater resemblance to the KKK than the people of Selma, especially since their violence almost exclusively targeted government installations that offer services to the historically excluded, indigenous, and Afro-Venezuelan poor of the barrios.

Among the victims were two children, ages 11 and 12, run over by a truck that swerved deliberately into a celebratory procession for Maduro. Hundreds of chavista homes were attacked and threatening messages were spray-painted across windows and doors.

Ever impervious to historical facts, Correia nonetheless insists that Capriles’ subsequent decision to call off further street protests following the opposition violence he himself incited secures him a distinguished spot next to MLK for his “responsible leadership” and “peaceful resistance”.

A Tale of Two Fortresses

These specious and nakedly opportunistic appropriations of Selma mirror similar efforts on the part of Zionist groups to falsely paint Dr. King as a defender of Israel. To this day, pro-Israel advocacy groups continue to quote “A Letter to an Anti-Zionist Friend” as evidence of MLK’s supposed Zionist sympathies, fifteen years after even the rabidly pro-Israel organization CAMERA admitted it was a hoax.

This of course prompts the question, namely what do Zionists have in common with the Venezuelan Right apart from a superhuman-like invulnerability to historical truth? In both cases, the usurpation of Dr. King’s legacy aims to confer a semblance of legitimacy upon what in reality are settler colonial enclaves walled off materially and ideologically by White supremacy.

Paralleling Israel (and its US colonial role model and benefactor), Chacao is the fortress-like province of Venezuela’s Eurocentric, comprador bourgeoisie, its militarized sanctuary that guards against the every present, racialized threat of “penetration” by the Chavista masses. [1]

Following the 1989 popular rebellion known as the Caracazo that saw anti-neoliberal protests and looting reach even the wealthier neighborhoods of Caracas, the municipality of Chacao was created in 1991 in order to offer elites, in the words of the president of a large industrial firm explaining his company’s move, “safety and separation from the poor.” [2]

In the years since, Chacao has become the wealthiest municipality in Venezuela, if not Latin America, as well as perhaps the most militarized in the country, spending 55% of its massive budget on security in 2015.

The municipality has also emerged as a key bastion of virulent anti-chavista revanchism, where Chavez was openly derided as a “monkey” for being the first proudly self-identified indigenous and Afro-descendent president in Venezuelan history.

Last year, Chacao was the epicenter of violent opposition protests that saw rightwing youth attack and kill Chavistas and security personnel, cause millions in public property damage, and obstruct movement with illegal street barricades.

More recently, on the anniversary of the arrest of far right leader Leopoldo Lopez this past February 18, masked youth brutally assaulted an unarmed air force sergeant with identifiably indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan features near the Chacao metro station. The incident occurred several blocks away from the theater screening Selma.

Setting the Record Straight

In light of the thoroughly White supremacist reality of Chacao, it should be clear that this peculiar reading of Selma is nothing less than a flagrant act of ideological strongarm robbery, a tactic which the Venezuelan opposition has by now thoroughly perfected, carefully constructing a PR image of its “student movement”, its “political prisoners”, etc.

But more than cynical political appropriation, we are witnessing a deliberate whitewashing- or in this case, brown-washing- of the Venezuelan Right, which is presented as the enlightened heir to progressive causes, such as the Civil Rights movement.

In similar fashion, Zionist organizations have actively sought to “rebrand” Israel via brown-washing, organizing delegations of US Black leaders in a bid to legitimate what is undeniably a settler colony founded on apartheid and ethnic cleansing.

In reality, the true MLK was, like Chavez, a revolutionary committed to abolishing capitalism and White supremacy, who stood forever in solidarity with the oppressed and colonized of the Earth.

“…[T]he problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation [capitalism], and the problem of war [imperialism] are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated,” he famously declared in 1967.

Moreover, in his coming to terms with the irreconcilability of capitalism and substantive equality, Dr. King, like Chavez, embraced socialism as the condition of possibility for democracy: “[W]e are saying that something is wrong … with capitalism…. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.”

We can be assured that these words will never emerge from the mouths of Capriles, nor Lopez, or Machado, notwithstanding their impressive talent for falsifying history, particular with regard to their complicity in the 2002 coup and subsequent attempts to overthrow the socialist government.

Rather, the true heirs to MLK are the masses of Venezuela’s poor and oppressed laboring tirelessly in the trenches of countless collectives and communes, struggling to build the “new state” in which socialism is a lived reality.


Thank you to Oriele Benavides for her critical thoughts and reflections.

1 See George Ciccariello-Maher, “Toward a Racial Geography of Caracas: Neoliberal Urbanism and the Fear of Penetration,” Qui Parle 16, n. 2 (Spring/Summer 2007), 39-72.
2 Ibid., 20.