Interview: Reinaldo Bolivar on the Historical, Cultural, and Political Importance of Africa to Venezuela

Reinaldo Jose Bolivar, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs for Africa, discuses concrete ways in which Venezuela is deepening its links to its African “motherland”, links which have gone from almost nothing to something quite significant over the last five years. 


Reinaldo Jose Bolivar, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs for Africa, was born in Guarico, in the town of San Jose de Tiznados, the same town where Liberator Simon Bolivar’s carer and teacher, Negra Matea, was born. He is a professor at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) where he has, and continues to hold, a range of positions. He is also a prolific writer, with columns in a range of newspapers and a number of published books, including “Simon Bolivar, child of Hipolita, pupil of Matea” and “Revolutionary Africa”. He also runs a range of analytical radio programs.

In 2005 he was designated as the Vice-minister of Foreign Affairs for Africa, where he has played an important role in bringing Venezuela closer to Africa, and also played an important role in organising the II Summit of South America- Africa, which took place in Venezuela in 2009.

*This is an abridged form of a longer biography that appears in the original Spanish interview.

Encontrarte: Vice-minister, we understand that the idea of creating the Institute of Strategic Investigations on Africa and its Diaspora, the “Centre of African Knowledge” has been evolving for a while. Tell us briefly what premises have been taken into account at the time of forming this new integration instrument, and also, what does this initiative mean in the Bolivarian Venezuela of today?

Reinaldo Bolivar: The Institute of Strategic Investigations on Africa and its Diaspora, now popularly known as the “Centre of African Knowledge” brings together ideas that have been expressed in the African Agenda since 2005. We were aware of a lack of systemised study in Venezuela about African-ness, as much regarding the mother continent [of Africa] as its Diaspora in America and the Caribbean.

Let’s remember the numerous times that President Hugo Chavez has brought out the world map to show us where an African country is. He does it because he knows well that these areas have been neglected in our studies.

If, in America, from the United States, African movements took and are taking shape with the important task of making civil and human rights visible and of defending them, it’s important to recognise that a geopolitical investigation hadn’t been taken on. Interest began to grow from 2005 and to advance in 2006 with the I Summit South America-Africa and when the president [of Venezuela] began to seriously incorporate the recognition of Africa as motherland.

The foundation of departments of Africa [Translator: departments denominated ‘libres’ meaning they are especially created to promote cultural areas and knowledge that isn’t found in specific places in the curriculum] in fourteen universities has been an important point in the birth of the institute that, at the same time, reflects various initiatives and aspirations of a number of studies of Afro-descendants and “blackness” in Venezuela, within and outside of university institutions.

The declarations of the two summits of South America-Africa recognised the need to create institutions that are dedicated to these topics with scientific rigorousness and grassroots incorporation. That is, of those people who can teach and promote knowledge of both regions.

The Centre of African Knowledge, in its definition and objective, points towards integration through people-based diplomacy. Only in a revolution like our own is such a thing possible. Simon Bolivar recognised, in his Speech of Angostura, our African-ness. The Bolivarian Revolution recognises that we should re-launch mutual knowledge of our inter-cultural-ness, in its entirety.

Encontrate: What results, in the short, medium, and long term, are expected of the work of the Institute?

R.B: We have presented a five-year program for the project, something that has surprised in a positive way the African and American diplomats who were present on 27 January in the UNEFA.

Activities such as grassroots workshops on food, medicine through the use of tropical plants, constructing houses using the Bahareque technique [Trans: where sugar canes, and other branches are woven together and used with mud for construction, used by some South American indigenous groups] for culture and housing, will be held alongside conferences and permanent forums. Also, longer studies such as the diplomas in Africa, America, and the Caribbean.

Collaboration with ministries such as foreign affairs, culture, education, indigenous people, in order to maintain the substances of the World Week of Africa every May, the Round of Knowledge, Thoughts and Words of the People (every two years in the framework of the Cultural Festival with the Peoples of Africa), and of course the continued investigation into the political coming about of our peoples, a model for understanding and making decisions.

Encontrarte: Will the Institute have branches in some African countries in order to carry out some activities there?

R.B: The Institute of Strategic Investigations into Africa and its Diaspora – especially in America and the Caribbean – is an institution that came out of the II Summit South America – Africa. In that way Venezuela would be honouring its commitments. We know well that countries with a presence Africa are studying it more and more, countries such as China, Iran, India, Cuba, Brazil, and of course, the Western countries themselves. Venezuela is innovating when it goes beyond what is academic and introduces the knowledge of the peoples, of the simple man, of the wise person, of the grandmother, and that’s why we use the name Centre of African Knowledge. But it’s a Venezuelan centre. The ideal would be that in other countries, following the consensus of the summits, they could be encouraged to create such institutions and could link themselves inter- institutionally to be able to do activities together and then have more success in terms of outreach and sponsorship.

Encontrarte: Some time ago President Chavez referred to Latin American integration. He said you can’t go about things in the same way with all the countries of the region and that obvious the ideological affinity with some governments meant stronger and more productive links, quicker. In that sense, with which African countries could we establish more solid and productive relations?

R.B: Productive and strong relations with African countries are going to depend on the bases that have been put in place over the last six years. At that time your question would have been responded to with little optimism. We could scarcely say that we had good links with the countries of OPEC in Africa, that is, Algeria, Libya, Nigeria, and later Angola. Unfortunately, they were just links within OPEC, without greater bilateral achievements.

This relation with the African OPEC countries took on greater meaning after 2006, when visits were encouraged, energy agreements were signed, and combined commissions were formed with Algeria and Libya and agreements with Angola.

Relations broadened beyond those countries as a result of exploration, of presidential meetings, of visits by high authorities, particularly the Vice-president [of Foreign Affairs in Venezuela] for Africa. Likewise in western Africa, new paths opened up in cooperation and complementarity. Without wanting to exclude other countries, we can cite excellent relations with Mali, Mauritius, Gambia, and Ghana. There, future complements in agriculture, mining, and energy, are appearing.

And down further, the growing friendship with South Africa, a world power with which we are arduously working in a range of agreements.

As it always causes resentment in the opposition sectors and sometimes the government names possibilities with certain countries in Africa, because they smell of “poverty” to the opposition, I tell you quickly that Mali is the second world producer of cotton and among the top five producers of gold; Mauritius is one of the top countries in cattle and fish farming and also produces iron and petroleum. And Ghana, together with Republic of Côte d’Ivoire, produce more than 60% of world cocoa. And by the way, there’s a Venezuelan proposal to create the Organisation of Cacao Exporting Countries (OPEC for its Spanish initials), as it’s in the countries of the South that basically all of the world’s cocoa is produced.

On the east side of Africa there are countries with which we have organised meetings and agreements such as in the case of Kenya.

Encontrarte: We know that you have worked a lot in the last few years to create cooperation links and friendship with various countries in Africa, countries with which Venezuela never before had a relationship or in any case, a very distance one. Within the framework of South-South integration, how far along are we?

R.B: In 2005 we suffered the embarrassment of a being a 200 year old country that hadn’t become closer to new nation states in over 50 years, and despite being a member of the Decolonisation Committee of the UN. To top it off, the old Venezuelan foreign ministry, with the exception of the OPEC African countries, had shelved the few signed diplomatic relations. In just three years diplomatic relations with almost 30 African countries were negotiated and signed [by the Chavez government], to arrive at a total of 54. Someone could say that this anyone can do that, but in fifty years no one had because of a Eurocentric and pro-U.S. policy in Venezuela and because no one in the foreign ministry had had a closer look at how we were going in Africa. Simply put, without formal diplomatic relations, they couldn’t advance in cooperation. And we have done it – we’ve gone from some twenty cooperation agreements to over 200 in just six years, establishing the bases of a solid legal framework.

For that, we needed to increase and foster Venezuela’s presence in Africa. So, we equipped the existing eight embassies with trained personnel who were humanitarianly sensitive and had political substance. And owing to the low number of embassies, the President Hugo Chavez authorised the proposal to open ten more. But, not to just open them and that was that, but to give them tasks, missions, so that they completely represent us, so they elevate Venezuela’s name and its Bolivarian Revolution in the African countries and their institutions.

We do peoples’ diplomacy, with relationships with social movements, universities, schools, farmers, and original peoples. The celebration of the II Summit South America- Africa in 2009 was a good demonstration of the elevated level of relations that we have with Africa, to the point where I think we have motivated South America to become closer to Africa.

Encontrarte: To learn to know Africa and Africans, what will it mean for Venezuela’s identity, and what does Africa mean to you?

R.B: African-ness, for whatever reason, is present in our genes, in our natural and urban scenery, in our country’s history, as much in the Africans of Arabic origin who arrived in the country through Spanish blood as those Africans from South of the Sahara, who were forced into slavery. This African-ness is integrated into our identity, our way of being and behaving.

I’m an integral African-ist, one of those who understand that with Ethiopia being in Africa, and being the cradle of humanity, all of us are Afro-descendents. That is, all of us should celebrate the international year of Afro-descendents, without the colour of our skin mattering.

Africa, for me, means the future of humanity. That continent is destined to be the axis of the world by 2020. If the Africans take their future into their hands without any of the external interference that still reins, these countries would develop very quickly. If the already old elites who kidnapped the grassroots role, are replaced by the people, we’ll see a triumphant Africa. That’s where Africa is headed towards. The bells tolled in Tunisia and Egypt, and with what force. The sadness we suffered over the planned division of Sudan, passes a little with the effective hope that they are installing in Tunisia and Egypt.

Encontrarte: Speaking of the Diaspora, and we’re not referring so much to the past as to the present, to the thousands of Africans who are obliged to risk their lives to immigrate, above all to Europe where they are obliged to work in an almost state of slavery, will the Institute take on this situation to try to contribute possible solutions, or will it see the Diaspora only as a historic process?

R.B: We’re committed to it. From the vice-ministers’ office for Africa we’ve taken some steps in the analysis. Actually, we’re backing the excellent documentary “The invisible wall” by Carlos Feo, a documentary maker who worked for a few years for the Venezuelan ambassador in Benin. We always promote the documentary in our events and it has been translated into English and French. Once, TVES [one of the government television channels] showed it, we hope they do it again.

But let’s get back to the question of solidarity with these brothers, some of who even die in the Atlantic or in the Mediterranean. Of course we’ll make concrete proposals in the appropriate situations and ways.

Europe owes the construction of its great cities to America and Africa. Europe currently eats the fish products of Africa and it removes its minerals and precious rocks, but refuses to receive Africans or to mix with Africa. [It’s an] Irreversible issue, as already 8% of Europe’s population is African. Europe must know that if it doesn’t mix with Africa, its population is simply condemned to disappear. It’s not me who says it, Europe’s own studies say so.

Encontrarte: Speaking of the cultural point of view, we’re familiar with the huge contribution that Africa has made for the West and in particular America, but, what can Latin American, in particular Venezuela, contribute to Africa in this time of globalised culture?

R.B: There’s already some returning [to Africa]. The Centre of African Knowledge is a way of returning to Africa. But to be more specific, there’s a large presence of Cubans and Brazilians in Africa. Culturally there’s already fusions that have gone from here to there, which is appreciated in music and clothing. Scientifically, thousands of African professionals have been trained in Cuba and now in Venezuela, where there are around 500 students taking social science and medicine courses. Cuban medicine is present in all of Africa. Brazilian music is appreciated by the Portuguese countries of Africa, but also they mix customs and ways of doing things.

In terms of petroleum, we have received a number of groups of Africans who take specialized workshops in Venezuela, to then take the knowledge back to their countries. The same in agriculture.

And the contact between our peoples continues increasing – in festivals, conferences, visits – and this is leaving its mark.

For those who still doubt the importance of relations with Africa, especially those within our own Bolivarian leadership, they should conduct their own investigation on the impact that Africa is having and will have over the next few years. The Chinese know this, as do the Indians, the Europeans, the Gringos [U.S.], Iranians, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Cuba has always known it. Africa will turn the world around in all its dimensions. Africa is the world; understand it. Only like that can we take more steps towards solid alliances of mutual benefit.

Encontrarte: What will be the first actions that will the Institute will take now in March, when its activities start? How can, if they so wish, the common citizens participate?

R.B: The first action on the way is to have our own head office. We’re waiting for the ministry of communes to hand over to us, as a gratuitous loan, some spaces that will accommodate the Centre of Knowledge and the Afroamiga Foundation – an institution already well known for the economic support it provides us with through its collaborators, and its well visited blog, which is already a reference point for students and researches and which we in the Centre of Knowledge reinforce.

As soon as the Centre of the Institute has its head office, whether its permanent or provisional, we’ll make it available to the community, with all its documentation, ethnographic exhibitions, and the first short workshops. The Centre of African Knowledge, like a spokesperson for the African departments, together with UNEFA [the National Experimental University of the Armed Forces], the UBV [Bolivarian University of Venezuela] will organize activities for the international year of Afro-descendents.

This new Institute is a great opportunity for Venezuela and America as well as for Africa to act in a consequential way for the aims and objectives that have come out of international declarations and action plans. If we let this opportunity pass, we’ll only be about discourse.

In it’s time, the national and international community will have all the information to be able to get in contact with the Institute or the Centre.

Translated by Tamara Pearson for Venezuelanalysis.com