On the 163rd anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Venezuela, Francisco Tovar, activist for the rights of Afro-descendents and executive director of the Institute of African Diaspora Studies (IEA) talks to Venezuelanalysis about systemic racism, the challenges facing the Afro-Venezuelan population today, and his new book on comparative abolitionist processes in Venezuela, Colombia and the US.
Today, on the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Venezuela, can you tell us about the principle challenges facing the Afro-Venezuelan movement, as well as its greatest achievements over the last 18 years?
Celebrating the 163 years since the Decree for the Abolition of Slavery was passed in Venezuela is a propitious opportunity to evaluate the conditions of the Afro-descendent population in the 21st Century, and its status at the current moment. The actions of the President of the Republic, José Gregorio Monagas, on that 24th of March 1854 were a result of the liberal Western discourse of the French Revolution which, in a lot of ways, moulded the thinking behind the independence movements in the colonies of the New World: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. In real terms, the ideals of liberty and equality, just a much for the French bourgeoisie as for the white creole elites, constituted a political platform designed to galvanize political wills, and to ensure the maintenance of the interests and privileges of the establishment.
In this sense, the abolition of slavery in Venezuela (legally speaking) was no more than another expression of the Republican tradition through which the defense of elite privileges was able to masquerade as recognition for the masses, for instance, through demagogy. Slavery continued in practice, in the sense that the conditions that fostered the oppression of the now “formerly-enslaved population” continued to exist: no rights to education, to property or to political participation. Additionally, the regulations of Monagas’ decree would come to worsen the already precarious status of Afro-descendents, as essentially this legal statute established that it was necessary to compensate slave-owners, and not the slaves, as a requirement for the liberation of the latter.
Today, in the 21st Century, we keep producing the supremacist logic of colonialism which segregates the population on the basis of ethnic criteria. As scandalous as that concept might seem, it is a fact. We have segregation in Venezuela, and it is expressed through racialised poverty that fundamentally falls on Afro-descendent shoulders. We Afro-descendents are a majority when it comes to incarcerated populations and the population living in poverty. That cannot be denied. This reality suggests an interesting paradox, because, from a legal-institutional perspective there have been important advances in recent years – such as the Law Against Racial Discrimination in 2012, the creation of the National Institute Against Racial Discrimination the same year, the creation of the National Advisory Board for the Development of Afro-descendent Communities in Venezuela, also in 2012, the recognition of historic memory and the contributions of the Afro-descendent population to the patriotic cause (the independence movement), what I call the legal reality. However, there is no tangible, pragmatic political will, on the part of the state, nor a generalized racial consciousness amongst the population with respect to their identity and the material recognition which correspondents to them as heirs of the slave-trade, as Afro-descendents.
It is of course important to include our heroes and heroines in the National Pantheon of Heroes (José Leonardo Chirinos, Juana the Advancer and Matea Bolivar), but we continue to remain at the symbolic level, in the romantic. The historic oppression of our population requires tangible reparations that transcend simple discourse: empowerment through entrepreneurship, the implementation of ethno-education, ownership over the land, political representation for Afro-descendents like our indigenous brothers and sisters, who, paradoxically, representing 2% of the population have a ministry and a quota of legislative seats in the National Assembly. Meanwhile, Afro-Venezuelans represent 54% of the population and yet we do not enjoy similar rights.
A large part of this situation can be attributed to the ideological myth of the narrative of miscegenation (mestizaje), which for centuries has permeated the collective imaginary and from which those who take the big political decisions at all levels of the bureaucratic structure of the state are not immune. According to this ideological deception, we are all equal, there is no racism in our country, and for this reason, the promotion of solutions based on racial criteria is unnecessary. The International Decade for People of African Descent offers us as a society a golden opportunity to disarticulate this historic lie of equality and get to work on concrete measures to overcome the historic marginalization of our Afro-descendent population.
You have recently been investigating the comparative processes of the abolition of slavery in Venezuela, Colombia and the US for your up-and-coming book. What did you find as a result of these investigations and what is the argument behind your new book?
To my surprise I found a series of extremely interesting parallels between the Afro-Venezuelan historic process and the Afro-American in the 19th Century. Furthermore, I would even go as far as to say that there are more commonalities between these two cases than with the Afro-Colombian process during the same period. Frankly, I was not expecting that. On the one hand, in the independence struggles of both nations the participation of the Afro-descendent population in battle tilted the balance of forces in favor of the patriots. On the other hand, the issue of slavery in both contexts was a profound driving force behind the most important internal, post-independence confrontations: the United States Civil War and the Federal War in Venezuela. In the same way as the military conflicts between the European powers, the struggles of the Afro-descendent population would determine the final result. In this way, the forces of the North (the Union) were able to overcome the South (the Confederates) by understanding the tactical need to incorporate Afro-Americans as combatants, given the fact that they represented a majority of the population. The same occurred in Venezuela, when the equally large population of African origin was incorporated into federal ranks, and to a smaller degree into the ranks of the centralists. The victory of Federalists was assured, and also, marked by the support of Afro-descendent and indigenous constituencies
During and after these military confrontations, in both the US and Venezuelan contexts, legal mechanisms were approved for the emancipation of the enslaved population which were not respected in practice. The pauper-like conditions of Afro-descendents both here and there did not come to an end, demonstrating that the prospect of social equality was simply a political slogan to galvanize the will of the people in an extremely convenient way for the American settlers and the white creoles in their respective contexts.
In this sense, my new book, the title of which I shall reveal later on, is focussed on the need for reparations for Afro-descendent populations, given their indispensable contributions to the construction of Republics on the American continent. This is a propitious proposal in the context of the International Decade for People of African Descent, whose most sensitive point at the heart of United Nations debates has precisely been the issue of historic reparations.
Could you say a little more on how racism is expressed today in Venezuela?
The face of racism today in Venezuela, as it was in the past, is covered by a white mask, but sadly has black skin, to invoke the words of the immortal Frantz Fanon. The most characteristic expression of this social problem is internalised racism or the denial of one’s own ethnic identity. It is a fact that we are an essentially Afro-descendent country; the most obvious component of Venezuelan identity is its African inheritance. More than half of Venezuelans originate from the slave-trade, and this fact is scientifically provable and empirically evident throughout the length and breadth of the country. However, this assertion is systematically denied. They have taught us to feel ethnic shame: to invoke our “Spanish or Portuguese grandfather,” and to hide our African ancestry.
Of course, this responds to the logic of domination, it is about ideological conditioning, as I previously mentioned. Here, the mass-media acts accordingly, and continues to present and promote a false image of Venezuela as a caucasian, blonde, and blue-eyed country, invisibilising the true Venezuela of African origin, with no regard for the alienation which that involves.
In the initial years after the revolution took power, the opposition, especially in the media, was often quite openly racist. This appears to have somewhat subsided, at least in the public sphere, in recent years. What explains this partial decrease? Do you think that the Law Against Racial Discrimination, approved in 2012, has played a role?
To tell the truth, the decreased number of racist expressions within the discourse of the political forces of the opposition is fundamentally down to the loss of public spaces due to the weakening of its leadership. It used to be common to observe, a few years back, a news anchor sympathetic to the opposition making all kinds of explicitly racist comments. Who can forget the abhorrent episode of Globovision’s “Hello Citizens” in which Mr. Leopoldo Castillo fell about laughing alongside his co-host Mrs. Maria Isabel Parraga after stating that the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, “looked like something off Planet of the Apes”. Who can forget the words of the (opposition journalist) Mrs. Beatriz de Majo, confronting the actor Wilmer Machado with the argument that “Blacks are lazy, because they spend their time sitting around on the beach and in their doorways”? Didn’t Luis Chatting delight on the radio and television, when he referred to President Hugo Chavez as “Mico-mandante” (instead of “Mi Comandante”), a play on words meaning the “governing-ape”?
As you point out, the frequency of these shameful racist comments has diminished, but they keep occurring in other areas. Let’s remember the cases of the cartoonists Weil from the (opposition) newspaper Diario Tal Cual, and Abilio from the (opposition) weekly newspaper Quinto Dia, who have promoted specific discrimination directed at one group: Afro-descendents. In view of this, a public sector worker, alongside the Network of Afro-Venezuelan Organisations, presented an official complaint before the Public Prosecution’s Office in January 2015 to sanction these media outlets and cartoonists according to the law. To date, we still have not received an answer from the Attorney General of the Republic, Luisa Ortega Diaz, regarding the case, as is our right.
In terms of the Law Against Racial Discrimination (LOCDRA), those of us who formed part of the collective which promoted the approval of the law at the National Assembly would like to believe that today, this legal instrument is a dissuasive tool against racial discrimination in political discourse and other spheres, that was certainly its aim. However, there continues to be a series of limitations to seeing this law adhered to, amongst them, a lack of regulations which allow the content outlined in the law to be effective; a lack of awareness on the part of public sector workers, in the sense of counterbalancing the ideological conditioning which is a product of the narrative of miscegenation, and to be able to make them understand that the problem of racism actually exists in Venezuelan society. It might seem incredible, but when attempting to make a complaint or proposal based on the LOCDRA in state institutions, the greatest obstacle is a public sector worker who lacks awareness, and who is in a hurry to deny the existence of racism, underestimating the issue. The efficacy of the well-intentioned LOCDRA will depend on the political will of our legislative and executive branches.
A central debate internal to the Afro-Venezuelan movement, and which was even evident in the recent Afro-Venezuelan chapter of the Homeland Congress, has been the debate over the terminology of self-identification. Most specifically, the terms “Black” vs. “Afro-descendent”. Can you elaborate on this debate?
Certainly. I subscribe to the position of “Afro-descendent”, which is also the position of the Venezuelan state. Let’s not forget that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is signed up to the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action, a legal document which legitimises the term “Afro-descendent” as an expression which restores the dignity of the heirs of the transatlantic slave trade. Let’s remember that article 23. of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela grants constitutional status to international human rights treaties and agreements, such as the case in point. The Venezuelan state recognizes Afro-descendents. Using the term Black is pejorative and was designed to bestialize/objectify men and women kidnapped from Africa and subsequently enslaved in the new continent. In this sense, it would be extremely difficult to give new meaning to, or recognize an expression which has such vile origins. It was this logic which led the social movements present in the III World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South-Africa, to recognize the sons and daughters of the African diaspora, not as “Blacks”, the colonial code for domination, but as “Afro-descendents,” a civilizational proposal for humanity.
Since the Bolivarian government came to power, it has gone to great lengths to strengthen its relationship to the African continent, who Chavez called “the brother peoples of Africa”. Most notably in the diplomatic arena, culture, and higher education. How important is this in terms of building a global anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movement?
Without a doubt, the credit for restoring ties with our mother continent goes to President Hugo Chavez, who, orientated more by strategic criteria than ideological, went about turning all the rhetoric surrounding South-South dialogue into concrete action. Africa is a fundamental reference point in the balance of powers in the contemporary world, both because of the concentration of enormous deposits of natural resources there, and its specific weight within international organisations, as well as its catalytic character in the struggle for supremacy amongst the two giants of the world economy (the US and China). It is said that whomever controls Africa will have won the energy war.
In terms of Venezuela-Africa relations, up until the 21st century, the ideology of racism prevented an appreciation of this strategic aspect in its totality. During the period of the Fourth Republic (1958-1998) diplomatic relations between Venezuela and this great continent were practically frozen. Today, we have seen how the African Union is a force for peace and development. It represents 53 states whose voice cannot be ignored in international forums. The Venezuelan government has known how to capitalize on this reality, and not in vain. The decisive votes which led our country to occupy a seat on the UN’s Security Council came unanimously from Africa. That’s no small thing, it is an act which speaks to the strength of these ties and is testament to the great triumphs reached together in the construction of a pluri-polar and multi-centric world. Even the former US President Barack Obama, during the VII Summit of the Americas in Panama, recognized that “the days in which the US could interfere in America’s issues are past”. He almost certainly had the African continent and other emerging powers in mind when he made that statement.
Interview and translation by Rachael Boothroyd Rojas for Venezuelanalysis.