The Discreet Charm of Venezuelan Racism

No matter what the circumstance, Venezuela is a country which is mainly concerned with making sure that it doesn’t lose its tradition of discrimination, but above all, its worst fear is that we Black, indigenous and poor people also might be “equals”.

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A meme circulated on social media following Luis Salas' nomination as Minister of Productive Economy (Contrapunto)
A meme circulated on social media following Luis Salas' nomination as Minister of Productive Economy (Contrapunto)
By Esther Pineda G - Contrapunto
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No matter what the circumstance, Venezuela is a country which is mainly concerned with making sure that it doesn’t lose its tradition of discrimination, but above all, its worst fear is that we Black, indigenous and poor people also might be “equals”.

For years I have been obliged to listen to, in various academic and every day circles, commentary from people who assure us that Venezuela is a territory free from racism; that fortunately, ethic-racial inequalities have not been an issue on our territory, that we are all equals, we are mixed-race, and that those of us who maintain that racial discrimination does exist in Venezuela simply do so because we are resentful, or in the best of cases, because we have complexes - given that our social relations are characterised by harmony and brotherly love between compatriots. 

But is is noticeable how these affirmations are repeated to death by people who do not believe in the existence of the multiple and diverse forms of discrimination that coexist in our society - because they have not been exposed to any of them. 

Nonetheless, and at the risk of being labelled as “the apple of discord” for visibilising a social problem that goes unrecognised, the reality of racism in our country is a constant. It has always been present, although not always in an obvious way. Moreover, this racism, periodically has had and continues to have drastic outbursts and displays, principally motivated by a situation in which an indigenous or Afro-descendent person accesses a position of power or social recognition, or gains importance on the public scene, because this visibilises social inequalities and vindicates a historically socially excluded group. It is even sufficient for this person to simply demand their rights in order for them to become the target and detonator for explicit and shameful racism. 

The aforementioned has been evidenced in the last two weeks during which I have unfortunately read deeply disagreeable comments on social media, which aside from having generated great discomfort for me personally, also worry me professionally in terms of the magnitude of the prejudices embedded in our society and the consequences that they could have for the future of our country.  

The naming of the sociologist Luis Salas as Vice-president for Economics and Minister of Productive Economy brought out the worst in many Venezuelans, who almost unanimously  directed all their reactions and comments towards his physical appearance, his indigenous ethnic heritage and social class. Submitted to ridicule, public scorn and derision through comments such as: “Luis Salas’ thug face is not normal,” “Might he be a Santero?1” With that face, Luis Salas must have a criminal record,” “He’s a filthy indian,” “He looks like a prison gang leader,” “We are in the hands of the street urchin Luis Salas,” “I put a picture of the new minister in my wallet and 500 Bolivars disappeared,” “The unwashed Luis Salas,” “Monkey,” “Thug,” “Guajiro,2” “Face of a criminal”, amongst other epithets, which were also accompanied by memes and photoshops in which you could see Luis Salas in a prison, amongst a criminal gang, shirtless and displaying a multiplicity of tattoos, or being compared to the economy minister in Argentina, whose factions it would appear do correspond to the aesthetic expectations of Venezuelans. 

These facts taken together demonstrate the colonial way of thinking that still resides within our collective imagination, where everything that does not respond to the phenotypic or sartorial criteria evoked by socially idealised Europeans and businesspeople will be quickly excluded and bombarded with the “idiosyncratic mockery” that is used as a vehicle for the racism and classicism which determines interactive relations and processes in Venezuelan society: a country which is mainly concerned with making sure that it doesn’t lose its tradition of discrimination, but above all, its worst fear is that we Black, indigenous and poor people also might be “equals”.

Translator's notes

1. A "santero" is a person who practices Santerismo - a belief system which blends Afro-Venezuelan traditions with Afro-Cuban spiritual practices, historically rooted in the continent's experience with slavery. Different forms of Santerismo are practised across Latin America. 

2. The Guajiro peoples (known as Wayuu in Venezuela) are an indigenous nation that spans Colombia and Venezuela. 

 Translated by Rachael Boothroyd Rojas for Venezuelanalysis.