An Afrofeminist Reading from Venezuela: A Conversation with Merlyn Pirela (Part II)

A Black activist reflects on racial issues and the Afrofeminist movement in the Caribbean nation.
Merlyn Pirela (Venezuelanalysis)

Hegemonic feminist currents focus on patriarchal oppression, but racialized forms of oppression seldom enter their discourse. Merlyn Pirela is a Venezuelan Afrofeminist activist and organizer, and a member of the Afro-Venezuelan Women’s Cumbe. In Part I of this two-part interview, Pirela explored the historical forms of oppression and domination, and the Afro-Venezuelan struggle for emancipation. Part II addresses both the advances and the pending tasks of the movement in the context of the Bolivarian Process.

There’s a widespread belief that claims Black communities in Venezuela are matriarchal. Is there some truth to that?

We live in a society that is organized by colonial, capitalist principles, so the matriarchal forms that may have characterized the peoples that were forcefully brought here are practically nonexistent. Instead, what you can often find are matricentric families in a society that is patriarchal.

Afro-Venezuelan communities are not free from gender-based violence. Also, it is socially acceptable for a man to have eight partners (and families), while the opposite is not acceptable. Additionally, it is no secret that poverty increases gender-based violence, and since many Afro-Venezuelan communities are economically depressed, machista violence can become a real problem.

Moreover, the state embodies patriarchal and racist logics; for instance, it is always harder for a Black woman to introduce a claim than it is for a white man. Add to that the fact that the Public Ministry has few offices in Black communities, and you get the picture.

For the state, an Afro-Venezuelan community in Barlovento or the coastal towns in La Guaira are thought of as spaces to promote tourism: locations where city-dwellers can enjoy a vacation, towns where tourists can go to enjoy the San Juan drums, dance, laugh, and drink.

Afro-Venezuelan women in San Agustín, Caracas. (Ciudad CCS)

You have mentioned that the Afrofeminist perspective is different from that of western feminism. Can you expand on this?

While many feminists struggle against class and gender oppression, we have to add another dimension to the struggle: race. Then, if you are a person with a disability, you have to add another dimension, and the same if you are an LGBTQ+ person. Layers of oppression build up on top of each other. As Afrofeminists, we are acutely aware of this situation, which has consequences for the way we organize and struggle.

In our continent, there is a robust Black feminist current. Here, in the early 90s, the Black Women’s Union was a powerful movement that emerged with figures such as Argelia Laya, Josefina Brito y Camacho, and Reyna Ratia. This movement was contestatarian and went beyond the narrow precepts of mainstream feminism. But there were similar movements in Colombia, Panamá, and Costa Rica. Further North, Black Panther women also had a combative perspective, and none other than Angela Davis came out of that movement.

In general, Black feminism is on the Left of the political spectrum, although there are some sub-currents that don’t identify as Left because colonialism is still among us and exercises pressure through academic and financial mechanisms.

As a Black woman, I’m part of the Afrofeminist movement, and I’m a Leftist.

Can you talk to us about the Black Women’s Union in Venezuela?

The Union was founded by Irene Ugueto, a social worker from La Guaira, and other Black women in 1990. Three years before Irene had taken the stand at the women’s congress in Cuba. There, she talked about the condition of Black women, which hadn’t been visible in prior conferences and, in general, in the feminist discourse.

The Union was a combative Black women’s organization that, hand in hand with Irene Ugueto and Argelia Laya, planted the seeds for a new Afrofeminist approach. This approach brings an awareness of the multiple forms of oppression into the discourse and into the struggle.

Argelia Laya (left) and Irene Ugueto (right). (Archives)

In Venezuela, the current iteration of the Black Women’s Union is the Afro-Venezuelan Women’s Cumbe. How was it born and what are its aims?

The Cumbe is the daughter of the Black Women’s Union. The former organization was born in 2005, in the heyday of the Bolivarian Process, hand in hand with Black communities that were making the wounds of colonialism and slavery visible.

The Process was a breath of fresh air for the struggle: it was easier to organize and to be heard, beauty standards began to change, social programs were put in place to address structural poverty in Black communities, and a widespread process of self-recognition and empowerment emerged. We also began to read history against the grain; our key references were Argelia Laya, Guiomar, and the long line of Black women who struggled for their rights and our own.

The Afro-Venezuelan Women’s Cumbe was born to promote an Afrofeminist perspective, and it remains important force to this day, although the crisis and the pandemic were a blow to the organization. We are now focusing on mutual care and the revival of some of our traditions, including culinary ones. That, of course, doesn’t mean that we gave up the big fight, but we realized that mutual care is a must for the continuity of the movement.

You were talking about the fruitful context of the Bolivarian Process. Can you highlight some milestones when it comes to the Afro-Venezuelan and Black feminist struggles?

In legal terms, the most important advance was the 2011 Law Against Racial Discrimination. However, the battlefield is still open: in the most recent reform of the Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence, we had proposed that racial discrimination be defined as a form of violence against Black women, but the text was changed at the very last minute. There, “racial discrimination” became “multiform violence,” which is far more ambiguous.

As for other advances, as we speak, the issue of reparations is on the table, and the Ministry of Science and Technology has a team working on the issue of Black identity reaffirmation, which is accompanied by audiovisual productions. This is important because it makes our culture and our bodies more visible.

What are the pending tasks for the movement?

One of the pending tasks is re-internationalizing the Black women’s struggle, which has retreated to the local arena in the continent. In this regard, Francia Márquez’s presence as Colombia’s VP is very important: she could become a catalyst and magnet to internationalize the Black women’s struggle.

This re-internationalization has to happen from the Left: our struggle is to do away with all forms of oppression and domination. We are not looking for solutions to specific problems, we must do away with the existing system of oppression. We must do away with capitalism and we must end the colonial legacy.

This means that we cannot gear our work to please international agencies and their large wallets. We will not be able to do the revolution that must be done if we are dependent, so a degree of autonomy is a must. We also have to work on anti-racist education across the board. This means going to the territories because Zoom classes are as good as nothing for many in the Black communities, which are territories neglected by telephone and internet companies.

Access to sexual and reproductive education and healthcare is also an urgent matter for most Black women. In addition to the criminalization of abortion – which is classist, racist, and must end – there isn’t a national policy to ensure widespread access to contraceptives. On top of that, many Black communities are far away from a medical center, so women aren’t able to get a cytology, a mammogram, or pre- and postnatal care.

Overall, Black women have a much harder time accessing public healthcare, and their economic situation keeps them away from private clinics. Of course, Afro-Venezuelan communities are carriers of ancestral medicine practices that save many lives, but that is not enough.

Additionally, the setbacks that we have witnessed over the past few years are of great concern to us. We see a reemergence of racist practices in institutions and on the street. This worries us a great deal. It is true that in times of crisis, the poor and oppressed always get the short end of the stick, but that explanation is not good enough for us.

Finally, what proposals and projects does the movement have for the future?

As Afro-Venezuelans, one of our strengths is the community and its ancestral practices. Maroon forms of resistance are still with us: our way of caring for the kids is far more collectivized and our communities are far more socially integrated. This makes us more resilient and it gives us the strength to fight against the current system of oppression and domination.

The fact that we are working on collective self-care at the Afro-Venezuelan Women’s Cumbe is also positive: it makes us stronger for the struggle. These spaces of self-care comprise groups of some twenty women who share ancestral knowledge, Afro-Venezuelan culinary practices, and, most importantly, we protect and support each other.

If we don’t practice mutual care, we won’t be able to overturn the racist, class-base system that is now in place!