Venezuela’s Afro Descendent Confront Racism and Fascism


On Saturday, May 10, ignoring the rain, more than 1000 African Descendant Venezuelans flooded the streets in a march from the Venezuelan Central Bank to Miraflores Presidential Palace in downtown Caracas. Members of drumming groups from each of the nation’s states, some in traditional costumes and some wearing t-shirts claiming membership in the Frente Afrodescendientes (Afro descendent Front) had gathered to mark the official Day of Afrovenezolanidad (Afro-Venezuelaness). Although the marchers paralyzed the already-snarled traffic, the drumbeats seemed to pacify the usually-angry blare of car horns.

As they entered the Presidential Palace grounds, the loudspeaker blasted over the drums, “Cimarrones, AfroVenezuelans, welcome to Miraflores, the peoples’ palace,” and “All of Venezuela is Liberated Slave Territory”. A huge billboard with portraits of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro framed the slogan “Día de Afrovenezolanidad/ Todo la Patria un Cumbe.”[1]

The commemoration at Miraflores, part cultural celebration and part political rally, was the culmination of two days of activities that began Friday in the Rómulo Gallegos Center of Latin American Studies (CELARG). The educational/cultural conference called “Merienda de Negras”[2] at CELARG opened with a film paying homage to Argelia Laya, also known as Comandanta Jacinta. Laya, born in 1926, on a cocoa plantation in Rio Chico, became a teacher in the 1940s and militantly defended the rights of women to education and political participation. She was a Black woman who led struggles for reproductive rights long before most feminist activists. Eventually she became a communist and joined the guerrilla struggle against the dictatorship of the time, and was a founder of the National Organization of Women. Today the university in Barlovento, whose student body is mostly African Descendant, is named after her. Her portrait adorns the entrance of the National Institute for Women in downtown Caracas and many of the speakers at the Miraflores rally cited her heroism.

After the film at CELARG, Reinaldo Jose Bolivar, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs for Africa, formally opened the conference by noting the leadership of Black people in struggles for liberation beginning with the 1553 rebellion of “El Negro Miguel”. Hugo Chavez first declared the Día de AfroVenezolanidad be celebrated each year on May 10, the anniversary of the insurrection of enslaved people led by Jose Leonardo Chirino in 1795. Two of Argelia Laya’s sons also addressed the group. Coordinated by the Bolivarian University of Venezuela’s Center of African Studies’ Flor Márquez, panels on Saturday focused on the theme, “Women, Struggle, Study and Creativity.”

Racism of the Anti-Government Right Repeatedly Denounced

While celebration of the culture of African Descendant Venezuelans set the rhythm to and permeated the programs at CELARG and Miraflores,  a particular political urgency marked this year’s Día de la Afrovenezolanidad. Nirva Camacho, a spokesperson for the National Afro-Venezuelan Front, reiterated a theme of many of the speakers who denounced the racism and violence of the Venezuelan right – the Venezuelan allies of the United States who aim to recolonize Venezuela. She read from a manifesto that affirmed the Front’s commitment to the struggle against colonialism, capitalism and imperialism, in full support of President Maduro’s executive actions and the Bolivarian process. She drew attention to the fact that “there had not been, nor are there any, nor will there be any guarimbas (rightist street barricades) in AfroVenezuelan communities.”

In a sort of call and response between speakers and drums representing the African Descendants and President Maduro, the president noted that “today’s fascist ideas that attack society and attempt to impose a racist model of society are the same that have always denied the liberation of the peoples.”  He added that the reasoning of the Venezuelan right today is the same as those who opposed the liberation of enslaved people. He also reminded the audience that in much the same way that communists are denounced today, 19th century Venezuelan radical general Ezequiel Zamorra was accused of being a communist for advocating the abolition of slavery.

Modesto Ruiz, United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) deputy to the National Assembly from Barlovento and one of the lead authors of the Organic Law against Discrimination, received a standing ovation when he declared, “We’re not only drummers, we’re revolutionary political actors.” (In an interview he gave during last year’s May 10 Observance he explained that the image of AfroVenezuelans as simply drummers and forced laborers is a Eurocentric, colonizers’ image. The indigenous people of Venezuela and the Africans who resisted slavery, like José Leonardo Chirino, the leader of an insurrection of enslaved people on May 10, 1795, were the first anti-colonial and anti-imperial Venezuelans.)

General Jesus Rafael Suarez Chourio, who identifies himself as a descendant of the famous African warrior Shaka Zulu, also focused on African Descendants’ tradition of resistance. General Chourio, who had been the Chief of Chavez’s Personal Guard and is now the Commander of the Infantry Brigade of Paratroopers based in Maracay, reminded the crowd, “We must know our history and where we come from.” Then he proceeded to list the names and insurrectionary achievements of a host of AfroVenezuelans, including Argelia Laya and several other women. With the mention of each name, and especially the women, the audience applauded their approval.

The Manifesto of the Frente Afrodescendientes

But it was Nirva Camacho, reading the manifesto of the AfroDescendent National Front who reminded Maduro, the other officials present and the audience that the specific struggles of African Descendants in Venezuela call for a program of action. She declared, “Considering that the AfroVenezuelan and AfroDescendant population in general still confronts the lashes of racism and racial discrimination, which are incompatible with socialism and the revolution, we propose that together the state and social organizations undertake to:

  1. Incorporate racism as an element of analysis in the different forums dedicated to the construction of peace, since as an ideology it is present in part of Venezuelan society, especially in the ultra right’s close relation to fascism.
  2. Revise communication policies in public and private media to eliminate racist bias, which would contribute to respect for our ethnic diversity…
  3. Apply the organic Law against Racial Discrimination to persons and/or groups who incite hatred and violence through racist demonstrations, like those expressed in the terrorism that recently has plagued Venezuelan society.
  4. Design and execute a plan to identify and articulate the variable of Afrodescendant, considered in the Organic Law on Education as a necessary step towards the eradication of racial discrimination in the Venezuelan educational system in order to achieve equality for future generations.
  5. Encourage a cross-section of ethnic perspectives as state policy, in all public and private institutions that give attention to the people.
  6. Direct all levels of government and popular power from the Presidency of the Republic to those who administer government in the streets inside AfroVenezuelan communities, at regional, municipal and grassroots levels to evaluate and respond to specific needs (housing, health, education and roads) which historically are a product of structural racism.
  7. Implement an ambitious plan of constructing Camps for Peace and Life in AfroVenezuelan communities, especially in the communities where narcotraffickers have manipulated our youth.

President Maduro, Blanca Eekhout, the Second Vice President of the National Assembly and Coordinator of the Great Patriotic Pole (GPP), and all the other officials on stage joined the audience in applauding the Manifesto of the Afro Descendent Front. In his closing speech, Maduro enthusiastically praised the Haitian Revolution and the various Venezuelan insurrections led by enslaved people as decisive turning points in Venezuela’s anti-colonial, anti-imperial struggles. He declared the whole nation a “cumbe of equality, peace and love” and expressed admiration for culture of resistance and happiness bred in the struggles of Afrodescendants in the Caribbean, Latin America and North America, even citing the Blues. He announced that the government would invest an additional 550 million bolivars to strengthen systems of popular culture, especially in Afro and Indigenous communities. The commemoration ended with Maduro’s speech, which contained approval for the principles embodied in the manifesto but few specifics about how the manifesto’s proposed program might be implemented.

[1] AfroVenezolanidad can only be loosely translated as African-Venezuelaness. Cimarron was the Spanish name for an enslaved person who had escaped. Communities of Cimarrones were called “cumbes” and today many African Descended cultural and political organizations call themselves cumbes.

[2] Historically a derogatory expression of contempt for a gathering of Black people, some activists have appropriated the term to assert pride in their culture and survival.

 

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