Ramón Grosfoguel is a Puertorican intellectual recognized for his work on the decolonization of knowledge and power. In this exclusive interview, Grosfoguel talks about the living links between the colonial and the neocolonial systems, the problematic legacy of the colonial past in Venezuela’s present, and US imperialism’s neocolonialism in relation to Venezuela.
As a country besieged by imperialism, one of the pending tasks in Venezuela is to understand what you call the “coloniality of power.” What is the coloniality of power and its relationship with Eurocentrism?
The European colonial project is about economic expansion, but it also has a civilizatory dimension. At one point, when the colonial epicenter was Europe, when it was expanding at a world scale, the colonialists not only extracted wealth from the colonies, but they also destroyed the civilizations they encountered and imposed their own. In other words, when we talk about colonial powers, we are talking about the multiple power structures that were put in place during European colonial expansion.
How did they do it? They imposed Christendom as a cosmology and as a religion by force. Racial domination was also applied wherever they went, and they brought structures of political authority through their colonial administration. This included top-down hierarchies, military domination, and Christian patriarchy.
The colonialists enforced the international division of labor that favors the center and divides the periphery. They did all this violently, imposing various forms of forced labor in the periphery, and exercising direct control over the market with economic, political, and military mechanisms.
In my work, I identify sixteen hierarchies of power that were exported by European colonialists. Wherever they arrived, Europeans brought colonial structures of domination that had an important epistemological component. And precisely that’s where Eurocentrism comes into the picture.
The colonial project imposed its own structures of knowledge that were centered in Europe and were undeniably Eurocentric.
What is the difference between being centered in Europe and Eurocentric?
All civilizations have their epistemic center in their local territories. For example, Chinese civilization has China as its center while Aztec civilization was Aztec-centric. The difference is that the European colonialist project considered that the knowledge produced in Europe was superior to the knowledge of the people – and civilizations – that they were colonizing.
In short, Eurocentrism is the belief that European knowledges are superior to other knowledges. That’s why, when I use the term “Eurocentrism,” I’m not talking about the fact that Europeans had (and have) a knowledge that is centered in Europe, but about the epistemic hierarchy that they establish. That’s what we call epistemic racism, it is linked to the coloniality of power, and it was exported around the world.
In short, European colonial expansion was not just about economic expansion and the formation of capitalism, but it was also a civilizational expansion. That’s why I argue that capitalism is the economic system of a civilization that we call modern and colonial.
You come from Puerto Rico, which is still a colony, but colonies are not at the center of neocolonial domination nowadays. Instead, imperialism – which controls vast regions of the world but has few formal colonies – is the current expression of the coloniality of power. Can you talk about this?
In the periphery, we went from colonial administrations to neocolonial ones. The old colonial administrations were defeated through independence wars, but this doesn’t mean that the coloniality of power disappeared. What it really means is that the imperialists developed new forms of colonialism. Kwame Nkrumah coined the term “neocolonial” to refer to the current configuration.
In the current configuration, the empires dominate the periphery. The former colonies seem to be independent but in reality, they are still dominated economically, politically, and epistemologically… and sometimes militarily! The colonial powers also left behind state structures that don’t leave space to maneuver.
When a country has a neocolonial administration with neocolonial elites running its state, and the empire exercises pressure and imposes constraints, real independence is practically impossible. It is a transition where the continuities are more potent than the discontinuities.
The day after the independence of a colony, that territory is still a colony – or not sovereign – because it is dependent: it is still in the periphery of the international division of labor, and it exports the same goods to the same metropolitan centers. The international division of labor in place 300 years ago is still here today.
And that’s what we call neocolonialism or imperialism.
How did colonialism morph into neocolonialism so seamlessly?
After independence, when colonial regimes were defeated, the imperial system continued operating the same way, but it developed new methods of domination. The first approach was to control the elites in the newly independent states. This generally worked, but if the new elites were anti-imperialist, they would be overthrown through coups, wars spurred by the CIA, or outright invasions.
Second, the metropolitan centers implanted Westernized universities in the periphery to colonize minds and promote neocolonial policies. Universities and other mechanisms for cultural domination are key to the neocolonial project.
Then, there is the implementation of economic sanctions. If a country such as Cuba or Venezuela goes off the path, a blockade will descend upon its people. And mind you, the mechanism of sanctions goes way back. With the Haitian Revolution, a brutal blockade was applied to the island after its independence.
As you can see, the empire deploys hybrid warfare against the periphery to keep it in line. It can take the shape of a fake news campaign, an electrical blackout, a coup, or an invasion… All options are on the table all the time.
Let’s look at the Venezuelan case. How did the neocolonial system take shape after independence?
The first independence of Latin America was not carried to completion, and left us with structures of domination such as racism, Christian patriarchy, and the church, but also capitalism, its devastating logic, and its international division of labor.
If we look at Venezuela, the neocolonial system assigned a role to the nation: exporting one commodity, oil. Of course, the Bolivarian Revolution has tried to break away from oil dependency and diversify its economy, and it also tries to break with the neocolonial structures of domination through its communal economy…
However, Venezuela is still highly dependent on oil exports, while racism, Christian patriarchy, and capitalism are still there. Also, the neocolonial structure of power inherited from the Fourth Republic [1958-1998] is still around.
But the Bolivarian Revolution has many things to teach us. Foremost among them is Chávez’s project to decolonize political authority. He realized that to interrupt the existing politics of domination, we need to occupy the existing institutions while promoting a new form of political authority: communal power.
By combining the dismantling of the old institutions with the promotion of new communal power, Chávez was breaking with the old Eurocentric dilemma of the left: anti-state anarchism versus statism.
The fact is that, from the point of view of Latin America, that’s a nonsensical debate. Chávez said: Hey, it’s both at the same time! We need to occupy the state in order to interrupt the politics of domination, but we won’t be able to build a new society from the state, so we need to build a communal state outside of the existing one.
Why is this necessary and decolonial? Because the inherited state is corrupt, operates through domination, pits people against people, and is organized in such a way that the pueblo cannot decide. That’s why Chávez said Commune or Nothing! We need to build a communal state parallel to the existing state in order to replace it.
In his reflections, Chávez was creatively breaking away from the neocolonial episteme. That’s why I always say that Chávez was a decolonial thinker: he proposed a form of political authority that would break away from the Eurocentric dilemma of statism versus anti-state anarchism. That’s a 200-year-old European debate. Chávez said: Enough is enough, we need to do the two things at the same time!
Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution have a lot to offer to critical decolonial thought, but unfortunately, few people know of it outside Venezuela.
Perhaps the fact that Venezuela offers a decolonial alternative is what makes it a target for US imperialism. Would you agree?
Over the years, the Bolivarian Revolution has endured all sorts of attacks: from the 2002 coup to violent guarimbas; from the sabotage of the economy to Guaidó’s 2019 coup attempt; from the sanctions to the attempted paramilitary invasion from Colombia in 2020 financed by the empire. The story goes on and on. Why? Precisely because Venezuela is breaking away from the neocolonial project and because it represents an anti-imperialist alternative to the structures of domination in place around the world.
However, despite all the support that the neocolonial elites get from imperialism, they have been defeated in elections time and again over the last 20 years. Why? Because people understand the decolonial project and are committed to their country’s sovereignty.
It is true that the neocolonial phase hasn’t been fully overcome. Racism is still there. Capitalist exploitation is still there. The subordination to the international division of labor is still there. Christian patriarchy is still there. However, through its control of oil production, the Bolivarian state has been able to distribute the rent in the form of social services for the people.
Over the past few years, the sabotage of the economy with the consent of the local, neocolonial elites has intensified. As a consequence, people have suffered hyperinflation and scarcity of food and medicines. The hope of the imperialists is that the people will channel their discontent against the government. However, that hasn’t happened. Why? Because of the pueblo’s consciousness.
Venezuela had a popular pedagogue in Hugo Chávez Frias. Every Sunday, in his Aló Presidente broadcast, he would take three to four hours to discuss the problems of the revolution and this raised the consciousness of the people. That’s why, when you talk to Venezuelans now, they will tell you that it is US imperialism and not the Venezuelan government that is generating hyperinflation. They know that Venezuela is enduring a large-scale sabotage.
They also know that the US wants Venezuela’s resources. After all, the country has the largest oil reserves in the world, as well as enormous gold and rare mineral reserves, which are important for the US military-industrial complex.
People know all this. Venezuelans are conscious and they won’t submit to the United States!