Venezuelan Leader Wins Praise For Efforts To Help His Nation’s Minorities

The Bush administration depicts Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a leftist troublemaker who wants to follow in Fidel Castro's footsteps. But some black Americans support the Venezuelan leader, first elected in 1998, for his populist efforts to help his nation's minorities.

The Bush administration depicts Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as a leftist troublemaker who wants to follow in Fidel Castro’s footsteps.

But some black Americans support the Venezuelan leader, first elected in 1998, for his populist efforts to help his nation’s minorities.

Though many Venezuelans accuse Chavez of destroying their nation’s economy and curtailing individual rights, influential black intellectuals in the United States instead see a Latin American leader who speaks up for blacks. They give the socialist leader’s policies credit for encouraging a growing Afro-Venezuelan movement.

“Whenever anyone has an interest in the plight of blacks, I’m all for it. You could say it’s politically motivated, but it seems Chavez wants to find a solution for that plight,” said James “Akbar” Watson, owner of the Afro-centric Boynton Beach bookstore Pyramid Books. At his popular store, he promotes a book by leftist thinker Noam Chomsky on imperialism. Chavez endorsed the book during his infamous speech at the United Nations last year in which he likened President Bush to the devil.

Black policy groups such as the Washington, D.C.-based TransAfrica Forum and individual black Americans are visiting Venezuela to encourage partnerships between Afro-centric groups in both countries.

“I admire Chavez for what he’s doing even if his rhetoric is harsh and confrontational,” said publisher Rovan Locke of Tamarac. He is planning a trip this summer to meet with Jesus “Chucho” Garcia, head of the Afro-Venezuelan Network.

“Blacks here and in the Third World see him as someone who cares about them,” said Locke, a Jamaican who publishes the Caribbean-American Commentary newspaper.

Locke has written critically of Chavez’ sale of cheap oil for influence in the Caribbean but touts his social reforms.

His praise of Chavez is unpopular in much of South Florida, home to thousands of Venezuelans who fled the so-called Bolivarian revolution — Chavez’ bid to redistribute wealth and reorganize Venezuelan society. Many here criticize the president, who won re-election in December, for being an autocrat, building popular militias, nationalizing key sectors of the economy and curtailing freedom of the press.

Some African-Americans argue that those criticisms overlook the advances, under Chavez, of minorities long excluded from public life in Venezuela.

“He’s a true social reformer,” Fort Lauderdale African-American activist Kwame Afoh said of Chavez. “He’s recognized that blacks are the most colonized people in the world.”

Besides praising Chavez’ land reforms and social programs, Afoh compared the Venezuelan president’s outreach to blacks with that of Fidel Castro, who also has courted American blacks’ support and condemned American racism. Following that example, Chavez blasted Bush after Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of New Orleans residents and exposed that city’s poverty. Afoh also praised Venezuelan-owned Citgo’s heating oil program for the poor.

But Margaret Newton, a teacher of African and African-American studies in the Palm Beach County School District, sees no hero in Chavez.

“It’s true, he pointed out our boils after Katrina, and those boils are still festering. But he needs to look at his own country, where there are huge pockets of poor people.”

Still, Chavez is a popular figure in much of Latin America, where Bush’s recent tour of Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico sparked protests. On a parallel tour, Chavez led anti-Bush demonstrations in Argentina and Nicaragua.

Chavez, of black and indigenous heritage, rose to power on a populist platform that emphasized the interests of indigenous Venezuelans. His rhetoric jarred powerbrokers and Venezuela’s elite classes, among whom the notion that all Venezuelans are racially mixed, and therefore all are equal, quietly prevailed. But black Venezuelan civil leaders faulted him for excluding their community from the 1999 constitution, which has a section devoted to indigenous rights.

A 2004 TransAfrica Forum visit to Venezuela helped publicize the work of Garcia’s Afro-Venezuelan Network, a collective of civil groups that promotes the interests of Venezuela’s black minority.

The size of the minority population is hard to determine because the Venezuelan census does not ask about race, but Garcia says 30 percent of the country’s 26 million inhabitants are black. Many live in the cocoa-rich region of Barlovento.

“Before Chavez, many Venezuelans thought they lived in a racial paradise and didn’t bring North American perspectives about race into their reality. Then came Chavez, who can tell you which of his grandparents is black and identifies with his lineage,” said James Early, director of cultural heritage at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Among the reforms Garcia fought for are the creation in 2005 of a presidential commission against racism, and the establishment of several cocoa-processing plants and farming cooperatives run by black Venezuelans in Barlovento. He also pushed for Afro-Venezuelan history in school curricula and the creation of Afro-Venezuelan Day on May 10. Opposition leaders argued Chavez hastily implemented those reforms in 2005 to secure the black vote.

Garcia is still lobbying to have the 1999 constitution amended to recognize blacks.

“We put the word `racism’ in Chavez’ mouth,” said Garcia, in an interview from Caracas. “But we’ve had to fight hard for every change. Afro-Venezuelans need to be a part of the Bolivarian revolution and they weren’t being included. Now they are, but we’re not naïve enough to say everything is fine.”

Garcia and Chavez supporters in the United States have organized focus groups and trips to Venezuela for American students, scholars, teachers, doctors and curious tourists to see Chavez’ self-styled revolution at work. The trips, organized by the US-Venezuela Bolivarian Exchange Network, include visits to cooperatives, free clinics and community councils.

Two upcoming trips in May and July will focus on the Afro-Venezuelan movement and take travelers to black-owned cooperatives, Afro-centric schools and other sites. Locke plans his own trip in several months.

“Chavez wants to be free of taking orders from America,” said Locke. “He’s a breath of fresh air and fits in easily with the black perspective. He’s a brother.”