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The fight against racism in Venezuela

The re-election of Hugo Chavez earlier this month underlined once again how it is Latin America that is the beacon of hope in the world for all those looking for alternatives to austerity.

His landslide re-election was the 15th election since Hugo Chavez came to office in 1999. His coalition of supporters has won all but one of these elections showing how policies that put ordinary people first can win broad support.

Venezuela’s amazing achievements in access to free education and free healthcare are increasingly becoming a reference point worldwide. What is less known about Venezuela is how its struggle for equality has meant that it has had to place anti-racism at the heart of its struggles.

Situated on the Caribbean, Venezuela has a shared history with Jamaica, Barbados and other islands marked by the transatlantic slave trade. Like the rest of Latin America it was also deeply affected by Spanish colonialism and its crime of exterminating much of the original inhabitants of that continent. As a result Venezuela is an incredibly diverse society, three quarters of its population are mixed heritage, of African origin or Indigenous origin.

However as its wealth and power have always been dominated by a small, white elite, the struggle for equality in Venezuela has had to place tackling racism and discrimination at its centre.

The government of Hugo Chávez has done more than any other in Venezuelan history to challenge racism that has affected Venezuela and to celebrate Venezuela’s African heritage.

Hugo Chávez is the first president in Venezuela’s history to honour his Indigenous and African ancestry. He once said “Hate against me has a lot to do with racism. Because of my mouth, because of my curly hair. And I’m so proud to have this mouth and this hair, because it’s African.”

Likewise opposition to the government’s attempts to eradicate privilege has been met with a racist backlash. In the recent election campaign a key newspaper aligned to the right-wing opposition published a cartoon labelling a stream of sewage and flies as being of “African descent” and implying this was an example of how Chavez was wrecking the county.

Following Chavez’s victory, a Chilean MP tweeted “The Monkey has Won” and later “bananas are now free in Venezuela” The MP is from one of the right-wing parties resisting the social change underway across Latin America and which has its origins in backing General Pinochet who carried out the coup in Chile in 1973 when the progressive left government was bombed out of power.

Against such a backdrop, a huge range of measures have been taken to give rights to Afro-Venezuelans and to Indigenous communities and to tackle racism.

For the first time in Venezuela’s history, the 1999 Constitution made clear Venezuela is a multi-ethnic and multicultural society, and provided a system of protection for Indigenous peoples and those of African descent, known as African-Venezuelans.

Concrete action to tackle racism includes the establishment of a special committee of the Parliament to deal with equal rights for Black people which led to the 2011 Law Against Racial Discrimination.

Whilst racist campaigns continue from the opposition owned media, the government has established a special office, within the Ministry for Culture, so that Venezuela’s African heritage is properly recognised: May 10 is now celebrated as African-Descendent Day.

Within the Ministry for Education a Presidential Commission has been set up to tackle racism in education and to ensure that curricula reflect Venezuela’s multicultural character. For the first time ever, Venezuela’s 2011 census allowed individuals to identify themselves as being of African descent. This came at the request of social organizations representing African-Venezuelans and will enable governments to better respond to their specific needs in the future.

Despite these progressive government policies, racism remains a feature of Venezuelan society as it does with all countries. But with its historical legacies of colonialism and slavery that Venezuela, the effect of these changes should not be underestimated.

Likewise the solidarity that Venezuela has shown with its Caribbean neighbours has been greatly appreciated. Organisations such as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas include a number of Caribbean nations in development schemes and Petro-Caribe provides the region with cheap energy. Just last week CARICOM – the organisation of 15 Caribbean nations – thanked Hugo Chavez for the support in providing energy to the islands at more manageable costs which is allowing more money to be spent on social projects.

Likewise in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Venezuela was singled out by the Haitian government for the support it has provided. Its President explained that “The cooperation with Venezuela is the most important in Haiti right now in terms of direct impact…we are grateful to president Chavez for helping us from the bottom of his heart”.

At a time where in much of the world living standards are being driven backwards and racism is being whipped up to scapegoat and distract from the real culprits, the principles of equality, solidarity and anti-racism in Venezuela are more vital than ever. That is why for Black History Month the

Aaron Kiely is NUS black students’ officer.

NUS Black Students Campaign and Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, supported by the Venezuelan Embassy, are hosting a meeting on Monday, October 22nd at Bolivar Hall, W1, at 7.30pm. The meeting will consider how social progress in Venezuela has benefited the Black communities in Venezuela and the wider Caribbean. Speakers include Doreen Lawrence and Diane Abbott MP.

2 Comments

  1. Matty says:

    Thanks for the article. The cartoon linked to is shocking and surprisingly is from the Tal Cual paper edited by former left-winger, and Harry’s Place favourite, Teodoro Petkoff

  2. AAF says:

    Great Article. Thank you!!! Pray for Hugo and a speedy recovery.

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