On June 21, thousands of Afro-Venezuelans from across the country descended on Caracas to manifest their support for the Chavista government of President Nicolas Maduro.
Organized by the Afro-Venezuelan Network together with national, state, and local governments, the demonstration was attended by delegations from distant states who travelled as much as a dozen hours in overnight bus to reach the capital by morning.
“We came here to support our president Nicolas Maduro in order to press forward with the struggle,” affirmed Eli Machado Blanco, 19, who hails from the Barlovento region of Curiepe, which was one of the first Venezuelan cumbes, or maroon communities, founded by African ex-slaves.
Machado and her companions could be seen performing the traditional drum dance known as the mina, which is central to the syncretic Afro-Venezuelan festival of San Juan Bautista celebrated in Curiepe during the month of June.
Other communities present at the rally also exhibited their traditional dances and garments, which convey not just cultural but decidedly political meanings.
“These are not only manifestations of music and folklore, but expressions of resistance from when the empires wanted to stamp us out which kept alive the desire for freedom,” explained Soleire Perez of the Afro-Venezuelan women’s collective Trenzas Insurgentes (Insurgent Braids).
The demonstration comes amid a severe economic crisis triggered by the global collapse of crude prices that has seen support for Maduro drop to record lows.
The leftist president has blamed the crisis on the country’s century-old oil dependency as well as an economic war waged by transnational firms and foreign right-wing governments, calling for the transition to a post-petroleum economy.
For Belén Orsini, Afro-Venezuelan communities hold many of the keys to solving the country’s current crisis, which has seen acute shortages of food and medicine due to falling imports.
“The Afro-Venezuelan people don’t go hungry if we don’t obtain a kilo of precooked corn flour, because we grow corn, yucca, sweet potato, we raise animals, and we even have our own medicinal plants that allow us to confront the pharmaceutical industry that has denied us medicine,” the professor at the Center of African Knowledge told Venezuelanalysis.
These practices, Orsini stressed, not only mark a break with Venezuela’s rentier oil-export logic, but they are guided by a worldview sharply at odds that of modern capitalism.
“It’s a different cosmovision, deeply rooted in Mother Africa, respectful of nature and the other, with an understanding that life is in community, that ‘I am because we are’ as expresses the Ubuntu philosophy, this historical knowledge from the cumbes that can be taught to the rest of Venezuelan society,” she continued.
Following a spirited rally with music and dance in the Plaza Ibarra, the demonstrators were joined by Vice-President Aristúbolo Istúriz for a march to Miraflores palace where they were greeted by the president.
During his speech, Maduro paid tribute to the resistance of fugitive slaves, known as cimarrones.
“We have to feel proud to be cimarrones, it’s the culture of happiness, of love, of rebellion with which we confronted hate, slavery, and racism,” he declared.
The head of state further announced that he had instructed Communications Minister Jose Luis Marcano to promote cimarrón culture in order to combat negative stereotypes that present Africans as slaves, servants, or criminals.
“Children should know that their grandparents were taken, subjugated, were prohibited their languages, their religion, their songs, and at the first opportunity they rebelled and left for the mountains,” he added.
As the disproportionally poorest demographic group in Venezuela, Afro-Venezuelans have won important gains under the Bolivarian Revolution, including the 2011 Anti-Racial Discrimination Law as well as the social missions.