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Opinion and Analysis: Indigenous and Afro-Venezuelans

Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution Embraces its African Roots

The Bolivarian Revolution ushered in a new engagement with the peoples and processes of the African continent and its Diaspora throughout the Americas. The Center of African, American, and Caribbean Wisdoms (CAACW) hosts an environment that invites Venezuelans to engage in the past, present and future of Africa and the Caribbean. CAACW’s space includes a library, several classrooms, coordinators’ offices and a public conference space with artwork and sculptures from diverse African regions in addition to full-length posters of African and Caribbean freedom fighters.

CAACW coordinators Raquel Escobar Gomez (RE) and Roberto Torres (RT) organize in-depth academic research, community based workshops and build relationships with the Afro-Venezuelan movement, Venezuelan-African diplomatic spaces and Black liberation processes beyond Venezuela. Both have extensive knowledge of the African continents, its Diaspora, the people, cultures, economic practices and political processes having served in different capacities as educators and in state positions. In this interview, VA delves into the significance of CAACW for the Bolivarian Revolution and the ways in which engaging with Africa, the Caribbean and its larger Diaspora has enriched Venezuelans’ experiences with former President Hugo Chávez’s vision of a multipolar world.

What are CAACW’s objectives and how do you carry out this work? 

RT: Our main purpose is to recover and highlight African cultures, heritage and values. This is why we speak of African wisdom. This directly relates to Our America and it requires us to look at the Diaspora throughout the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas.[1] We organize talks, [educational] programs and in [October] 2016 we started the fourth year of our African studies program and the second year studying the Caribbean. We dedicate ourselves to reviving and sharing the essence of African values. As Simón Bolívar would say, “we’re not Europeans,” we carry an influential cross between Indigenous, African and European peoples.

Moreover, we focus on the political, cultural, spiritual and religious African legacy in Venezuela and Our America. This is something that President Hugo Chávez made clear since 2005 and that [Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations with Africa] Reinaldo Bolívar has worked on successfully.[2]

RE: This institution views Africa as the Mother and we look at its Diaspora. The first Diaspora was the movement of people born on [what is today the] African continent and they went expanding. The second Diaspora is a consequence of slavery. For example, in my case, I am the descendant of enslaved Africans. The third Diaspora is the most recent we’re witnessing which are the most recent migrations that Europeans for example reject even though they are to blame for all this migration. These are three important phenomena that we must study.

Who are the majority of people who register for the program?

RT: There are students from the Caribbean that already live and study in Venezuela. Venezuelans that are interested in learning more about their history and the histories of the Caribbean and Africa also enroll. We see organizers who are politically interested in Africa. Some students are also university graduates and others are elders who have studied at the University of Life and are seeking more knowledge. We have a very diverse group. Organizers are often interested in Amílcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba and the great leaders of African liberation. People are also interested in [Muammar] Gaddafi, the histories of Egypt and other places. 

In addition, we offer courses on Our America that span Chile, Argentina and every year we have an International Congress that speaks to the African Diaspora. In 2015, we focused on the Caribbean and the year before that, on Africa. In 2016, we invited speakers to present on the Caribbean, Africa and Our America. 

RE: We encourage African descendants to participate in our seminars because it’s important for people to learn their roots. For our programs, there are no academic requirements like a university degree because many people have not had access to formal education or haven’t finished their majors. However, people possess a lot of knowledge that we need here and this combination, along with what we provide, makes our programs very enriching. 

I also want to emphasize that our programs are entirely free. Our African studies program includes six modules and lasts eight months. We cover geography, history, culture, politics, philosophies including pan-Africanism and pan-Arabism, science and technology as well as the economy, cooperation and integration. 

The CAACW is headquartered in Caracas but, do you offer your programs in other parts of the country?

RE: We want to offer courses online because many Afro-Venezuelan communities have requested we do so. Moreover, we work with the Simón Rodríguez University and we offer courses at all their locations, creating a multiplying effect. We also are building our programs to take them directly into the communities. The CAACW is considered the heart of all the Cátedra Libre África [Free Africa Departments].

 

RT: All of our Bolivarian Universities have a Cátedra Libre África. In Caracas, we meet with the coordinators regularly and discuss how we can support and collaborate. In 2016, we held a gathering with six universities to coordinate events and other programming. We are in the process of accrediting our programs with the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology as [to offer] graduate level studies and specializations.

 When you mention disseminating information about African processes, what are the main principles, values, and issues that you most speak of?

RE: Africa was divided [without consent] according to European interests with the Berlin Conference. Nations of people were separated.

People had worked to build unity across the African continent. This [process] is called Ujamaa. This is the face of unity. This is the key principle we want to impart here when we speak of African philosophy. If we are not working together, we will not achieve anything. If the slogan of the invaders is to conquer, ours is to challenge this with Ujamaa. 

With the programs, we discuss African intellectuals that people never read before. Typically, when people speak about philosophy or intellectuals they reference North America or Europe. Adorning our hallways, we have thinkers, philosophers and political leaders of the African continent and its Diaspora. The leader that students most gravitate to is [Burkinabé revolutionary] Thomas Sankara. 

Why do you think he is the most intriguing figure for students? 

RT: Sankara promoted socialism and he had a political vision similar to President Chávez so our students see him and say “hey, Africa is not as far away as I’ve been told” and they realize that our cultures are not entirely different. We believe there is a lot of similarly between Sankara and Chávez.

RE: Sankara valued women’s leadership as well. He fought to change African societies, fought for equal rights for women and men. He worked toward a political economy rooted in the countryside, city and other sectors. He was also murdered and often people refer to him in the same vein as Che Guevara.

RT: Our students also study Frantz Fanon and other thinkers across the Caribbean. Fanon, however, we also consider Algerian because of his time in the African continent, that was his second nationality.

It’s important for us not to study Eurocentric thought. We consider our work political formation. Our youth in particular also learn about other visions. We want them to see Africans as poets, people who’ve written about politics and philosophy. We don’t want our youth to only ready about Europe or Europeans, it’s important for them to know European thought but they cannot forget their roots.

RE: We want people to know this Africa that is not the Africa of hunger or poverty that they are always showing us on television and which makes us distance ourselves from Africa and say, “we’re not from here.”

Can you speak more on the technological and scientific module that your program offers?

RE: We cover science, technology, health, and environmental issues from an African perspective. We study Afro-epistemologies and Euro-centrism. The epistemology that we are most familiar with is Euro-centric. Development comes from their [European] perspective. So, we ask, where is everything that comes from Africa? There is something important that you need to recognize, that when you have an “owner”, all that you discover, all that you do, belongs to him. 

So, everything that Europe claims – what their slaves did – is theirs. They weren’t advances achieved by them [the Europeans]. In Africa, they achieved development greater than Europe and it was presented as European. 

In terms of spirituality, what do you cover for African religion and spirituality? 

RT: Many people come here to visit our library to study African cultures and religions. They read more about Yoruba traditions. But, we cover a wide variety of traditions not just those that form the foundation of santería for example. For example, we talk about Islam because Africa has the greatest world population of Muslims. It’s a very diverse continent. 

Religion has been implemented to oppress peoples but also forms part of our liberation processes. We can’t view religion from one perspective. Marx said, “religion is the opium of the people.” Another perspective says that religion is committed to people’s liberation and always present: African religions, the Rastafari movement and other sectors across Africa, the Caribbean and Our America have been committed to the people. So, we can’t view religion from one view. Marx also said that love is an important factor for hope.

Oral history is also part of African idiosyncrasy the same as the Indigenous peoples from Our America. They transfer history and tradition from generation to generation like healing practices and medicinal plants. For example, the shaman in Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador carries a lot of knowledge and transmits this through storytelling. However, Western anthropologists will often come to our communities, live with the Indigenous people and take this knowledge and patent it in Europe. Afterwards, they sell us this expensive product. 

Do you reference African or Caribbean experiences when reflecting on Venezuela’s current context both politically and economically? 

RT:  We organized a seminar last February and we spoke about the Chilean, Nicaraguan and Cuban experiences comparing them with Venezuela’s. The previous November we held a seminar on African socialism and talked about the experiences in Angola, Algeria, Mozambique, Ghana, Burkina Faso and compared them to our realities in Venezuela. How was socialism realized in Africa? What were their limitations? What did they do in the economic realm?

We did all this while also taking into account the distance, time, context, geography and different concrete historical contexts. They are very necessary experiences and when we can compare these histories we can learn more, in a positive aspect on a macro scale and in our own social programs. We see the efforts that Africans organized to move their people out of poverty all while there were economic and political limitations.

But, there are differences in the cultural character and political context for example. African peoples achieved their independence about 50 or 60 years ago, while we already have two centuries and we have lived through a disastrous Republican [state] era. What role can Africa play? What role can the Caribbean play? What role can Venezuela play in these world processes?

Speaking of comparable contexts, how do you speak of the Haitian experience and the role it played in the region? 

RT: We consider the Haitian experience the first successful struggle led by enslaved Africans in Our America. The first great social and cultural rebellion in Our America and the first great defeat of Napoleon’s army. Napoleon sent more than 50,000 men, the most prepared army to put an end to this rebellion and they were defeated. 

Haiti is important because of the influence it had on our liberator Simón Bolívar. The struggle for independence in the case of Venezuela and Colombia [and other nations] reached a turning point when Haiti gave resources like soldiers, money, ships all on the condition that Bolívar liberated the enslaved. Based on his experience in Haiti, Bolívar came back to South America and realized that there cannot be liberation without the incorporation of the enslaved. The independence armies, which were largely composed of the elite and rich, changed and became popular armies. Bolívar joined José Antonio Paez’s forces and this changed the [independence] war and everything due to Haiti’s influence. If Bolívar had not gone to Haiti, we would have lost this valuable experience. 

Now, Haiti is the “poorest” country in our hemisphere, punished by earthquakes, politicians and imperial powers. Haiti is occupied by the United Nations and we must study the Haitian experience within our history, the Caribbean, and Our America. 

What plans does the CAACW have for the future? 

RT. We want to build relations with other study centers. We have strong ties to the House of Africa in Cuba and we have also signed agreements with other countries across Africa and Our America including Ghana, Guinea, and Mexico.

Our greater vision is to build toward our graduate studies program. Outside of academic goals, we want to exchange experiences, research, and knowledge. We want to invite more people to our International Congresses. For example, several people went to Mexico and another country in the Caribbean to present their research from our program.

In our library, we have approximately 40 theses on Africa, Sankara, Mozambique’s liberation movement, and Caribbean histories. For example, we have one thesis that compares Venezuelan and Puerto Rican farming practices. These projects may not be perfect but they are a great achievement because before, we weren’t writing and we rarely researched the Caribbean and Africa. We have very few specialists in Venezuela on the Caribbean and fewer on Africa. We are cultivating a new generation of specialists.

We are the founding center, not in the way that we dictate what other centers are doing [in Venezuela] but rather, [we guide] spiritually. We are making an effort to bring together all the different centers across Our America, Africa, and the Caribbean. While our events don’t always have 80 or 100 in attendance the people there become multipliers of knowledge as Chávez would say, our great communicator whose message reached the whole nation and beyond.

Today in Venezuela, we talk a lot about Afro-Venezuelan heritage and this we owe to Chávez and the work he did for years to recognize our ancestors. During Venezuela’s 4th Republic, anything dealing with Africa was directed to the ambassadors and diplomats. And Asia? They [the 4th Republic] hardly looked at Asia or even the Arab world. All of these changes, we attribute to President Chávez and his dedication to international relations and looking toward the [Global] South. This doesn’t mean that people can’t look toward Europe but Europe cannot be the only knowledge paradigm. It cannot be the only paradigm for education. Europe cannot be the only paradigm for our research. Our outlook much reach beyond, to look at ourselves and toward our own culture. 

In our work in Afro-Venezuelan communities, we organize workshops and talks that speak to our country’s African history. What is Afro-Venezuelan identity? What is internalized racism? We have people in our communities that internalize that they are ugly because they don’t see themselves reflected on television. We do some of this work here.

Interview and translation by Jeanette Charles for Venezuelanalysis. 


[1] Cuban independence intellectual José Martí coined the phrase “Our America” to encourage Latin American and Caribbean regional nationalism and unity as a means to challenge US imperialism and European colonialism.

[2] In 2005, President Hugo Chávez spoke more openly about Afro-Venezuelan identity and historical racism and systems of oppression. “Racism is very characteristic of imperialism and capitalism. Hate against me has a lot to do with racism. Because of my big mouth and curly hair. And I'm so proud to have this mouth and this hair, because it is African," he stated. That same year, Chávez announced the creation of the Presidential Commission for the Prevention and Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination in the Venezuelan Educational System. This dedication to racial justice is rooted in the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, which recognized Venezuela as multi-ethnic. However, Afro-Venezuelan movement organizations have raised critiques that the constitution does not specifically speak about African descendants, while mentioning Indigenous peoples and guaranteeing their rights.