Relevant Considerations for African and African Diaspora Working Classes
By James Counts Early
The ideological and political struggle among Venezuelans, and the country’s economic crisis have become the center of the hemispheric and global contestation over governance power and self-determination. Most critics of the elected Venezuelan President, Nicolás Maduro, denounce him as the main problem facing Venezuela, and his removal from office as the sole objective and solution.
Yet, central to the instability of Venezuela has been the nefarious activity of the administration of Donald Trump. The administration, in strategic coordination with the most violent right-wing Venezuelan opposition – along with regional right-wing governments – has publicly outlined a coordinated strategy to achieve fundamental objectives. These are the alignment of US armed forces, the Central Intelligence Agency, regional and international policy organizations, and financial institutions – backed by compliant regional governments to oust Maduro – take control over the world’s largest oil deposits, and overturn the last twenty years of the Bolivarian Revolution initiated by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
The international call for “non-interference, no economic and financial sanctions, no regime-change, no war, and peaceful, respectful mediation” encapsulates the real-time urgency global progressives assert in general support – although not unqualified – for the anti-neoliberal, pro-socialist Bolivarian Revolution government of Nicolas Maduro and the millions of supportive Venezuelans engaged in a bitter ideological and political struggle with the violent, pro- neoliberal sectors of the Venezuelan opposition. The right-wing opposition, it should be noted, has openly enlisted the support of the Trump administration in efforts to destabilize Venezuela and oust the Maduro administration, essentially calling for a foreign power to interfere in the internal affairs of their country.
Despite the publicized regime-change plans, many around the world, including within Venezuela, are confused and conflicted about what is at the heart of the internal social and political Venezuelan conflict and whether/how to respond; if/how to position themselves in relationship to the Maduro presidency; and what to do about the insistent demands of the opposition and right-wing US and regional powers (like Colombia and Brazil) for Maduro to voluntarily vacate the presidency or face increasing isolation and destabilization efforts. Further complicating this scenario is the fact that the great majority of the world’s nation-states vehemently oppose interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela.
The Racialized Character of the Venezuelan Crisis
All too rarely is the racialized nature of neoliberal economic and political policies appreciated by liberal, progressive or even Left forces when it comes to Venezuela. For example, the bellicose sector of the Venezuelan opposition who label the elected president a brutal oppressive dictator has not condemned violent protests leading to targeted burning deaths of several Afro-Venezuelan fervent supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution. Inconsistency reigns in progressive circles when there is a failure to address the overt racism of broad swaths of the Venezuelan opposition, and the stakes for the majority of Afro-Venezuelan voters who have consistently invested at the ballot box in the Bolivarian Revolution and in Nicolas Maduro.
US Congressional members opposed to war have not proactively engaged the Maduro government or its peaceful opponents. Further, they have ignored neutral countries (e.g., Mexico, Uruguay, the predominately Afro-descendant countries of the Caribbean, – CARICOM – and the Vatican) that endorse respectful, peaceful negotiations to resolve the political and economic crisis faced by all Venezuelans. The argument frequently raised in such circles is that Maduro should voluntarily abdicate the presidency in the alleged interests of the Venezuelan people, despite his having been elected legitimately. This stands in hypocritical opposition to how the US political class would have reacted to a demand by a foreign power that George W. Bush step down in 2000 because of the illegitimate victory that was proclaimed. Or, consider a demand from a foreign power for Donald Trump to step down as a result of the dangerous divisions and social chaos that he has created in the United States.
Adding to this silence has been the very uneven stand of so-called mainstream US African-American political leadership which has tended to either remain mum or join the chorus of those demanding the resignation of Maduro. One need not be a Maduro supporter to appreciate the impact of foreign intervention or a right-wing assumption of power in Venezuela on Venezuelan Afro-descendants and the African Continent.
The response of the US Democratic Party to the Venezuelan crisis has largely been to join forces in opposition to the Maduro government or, remain silent, once again demonstrating a consistency within most of the US political class when it comes to how to approach the relationship of the USA to the rest of the Western Hemisphere.
Asserting defense of principles about national sovereignty, independence, and self- determination, as some progressives do, is insufficient in the current context of the Venezuelan crisis. The fact of the matter is that there is and has been a “low-intensity war” conducted against the Maduro government and supporters of the Bolivarian Revolution. This is a form of war characterized by constant, intense, highly audible and visible right-wing and liberal mainstream media attacks; demoralizing cyber-attacks on the Venezuelan electric infrastructure; and a regional embargo on oil exports, accompanied by brutal life-threatening economic sanctions that affect the whole of the Venezuelan nation across the ideological and political divide. To this must be added efforts by the United States to foment a military coup in support of the opposition.
How should working people, particularly Africans and Afro-descendants in the Diaspora, determine their point of view and pragmatic interests in the internal economic and political crisis in Venezuela? Who should be the primary judge and decide the effectiveness of President Maduro’s leadership as president of the nearly 20-year Bolivarian Revolution launched by the late self-proclaimed Mestizo-Afro-Descendant President Hugo Chávez?
Where Should We Stand?
Progressive African and African Diaspora countries and communities must stand for peace and negotiations. This is the moral, practical and principled stand to take.
The African Union should exert influence at the United Nations and organize African oil-producing countries in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) of which Venezuela is a founding member. The members of the African Union should join in the condemnation of the Trump Administration for its efforts to remove Venezuela’s legitimate United Nations representative.
The Congressional Black Caucus must speak up and take a strong stand along with other global progressive forces, in endorsing and pushing the peace-through-negotiations approach of the Vatican and Mexican governments.
Venezuelan/African Historical Connections
Given the Bolivarian Revolution global benefits to Africa and Diaspora countries and communities over the last twenty years, it is prudent to take a summary look at Venezuelan connections to the African world. From 1576 to about 1810, approximately 500,000 African slaves were transported to Venezuela by Portuguese, Catalan, French, English, Belgium and Dutch slavers. This enslaved African workforce came from several ethnic groups from present-day Angola, Benin, Gambia, Nigeria and the Congo. They were forced to work in the gold mines and in fishing and pearl diving. Many enslaved Africans arrived in Barlovento to work in the cacao industry where their descendants today take great pride in leadership of the socialist cacao cooperatives formed under the development policies of late President Hugo Chávez and operating today under the Maduro government.
Afro-Venezuelans can be found all over the country, but the largest Afro-Venezuelan population is located in the Barlovento region about 100 kilometers east of the capital city of Caracas. A majority of Venezuelans identify as black, indigenous and/or mestizo (mixed-race).
My own encounters with the Bolivarian experience have helped me better understand the point of view of many Afro-Venezuelans, but also the context of the current struggle.
In 2004 I was invited to accompany the Board of the TransAfrica Forum (TAF) to visit Venezuela in response to an invitation from then-President Hugo Chávez on the occasion of the inauguration of the Bolivarian Martin Luther King Jr. School in the coastal town of Naiguata, where large numbers of Venezuelans of African descent live. The trip was led by Bill Fletcher, Jr, TAF President and trade union organizer, and Danny Glover, TAF Board Chair/actor-social justice activist. Several other prominent TransAfrica Forum board members were also in the delegation.
We were officially received and escorted by the Minister of Education, Aristóbulo Istúriz Almeida, an Afro-Venezuelan trade union organizer who would in the coming years assume major responsibilities as an elected official, Vice President, with regard to key organizational tasks in the founding of the Venezuelan United Socialist Party started by President Chávez. This visit was the beginning of a 15-year series of follow-up political solidarity and collaborative project meetings with President Chavez and his chief lieutenant, now President Nicolas Maduro, in defense of the Bolivarian Revolution’s political policies in Venezuela and across Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. These meetings/engagements sought to highlight the struggles of working and marginalized populations and especially people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere. The engagements additionally sought to enlist the Venezuelan government in highlighting the global struggles of people of African descent against all forms racist and national oppression.
Presidents Chavez and Maduro consistently emphasized the historical debt that Venezuela and Latin America owe to the Black Caribbean Republic of Haiti. Haiti, founded through a revolution of enslaved Africans that proved victorious in 1803, offered material support to the great Simon Bolivar in the struggles to defeat Spanish colonialism in the Western Hemisphere. Those struggles, though victorious in defeating the Spanish, were far from complete, particularly in not fully – and in some cases at all – addressing the particular forms of oppression faced by the indigenous and Afro-descendant populations. The legacy of that inconsistency lives today in most of Latin America, where there are ongoing struggles by these very same populations for full rights and emancipation.
The late President Chavez set up a special material aid support project with Haiti which President Maduro continued. Chávez’s social justice and economic policies led to a 50 percent reduction in poverty, special policy involvement, and benefits for indigenous communities, marginalized informal and working communities (communes), and the elderly.
In the TransAfrica meeting, President Chávez was forthcoming in noting that his 1999 constitutional reforms did not give formal recognition to Afro-Venezuelans. In the course of a meeting between the TransAfrica delegation and representatives of Chavez’s administration, President Chavez literally turned to his accompanying aides and said that this oversight was an error to be corrected. The work of addressing racist oppression within Venezuela continued under President Chavez and into the administration of President Maduro. This engagement, it must be noted, included moments of struggle and contention, with Afro-Venezuelan forces occasionally needing to push the Chavez and Maduro administrations further than the administrations may have wished to travel.
Some media have observed that in the early years of Hugo Chávez’s rise to power, right-wing criticism of the government was frequently couched in racial and cultural terms. One could see in the private media racist caricaturizations of President Chavez, displaying him and his allies as hordes of monkeys. The deep-seated normalization of racism – unconscious in daily interactions on the part of many, including progressives and Leftists – dating back centuries to the hyper-racialization and exploitation of enslaved Africans was well understood by Chávez as a specific form of ideological and political assault against him in connection to the Bolivarian Revolution platform. Chavez responded: "Racism is very characteristic of imperialism and capitalism. Hate against me has a lot to do with racism. Because of my big mouth and curly hair. And I'm so proud to have this mouth and this hair, because it is African." (Hugo Chavez, September 21, 2005)
The establishment of Venezuelan embassies in Africa, with Afro-Venezuelan ambassadors, was a stated priority of President Chavez and his successor, President Maduro. These African World policies were advanced in the strategic context of a far-reaching radical democratic and economic Latin American and Caribbean project of governance and statecraft that outlined the search for alternatives to neoliberalism and the creation of 21st Century socialism.
In the context of the regional ideological and political projects of the Bolivarian process, the 2004 TransAfrica Forum meeting with President Hugo Chávez contributed significantly to advancing the anti-racism project already launched. Chávez’s highly skilled and productive US Ambassador in Washington, D.C., the late Bernardo Alvarez, paid tribute to the role of the TransAfrica Forum delegation in helping to catalyze Venezuelan discussions about race. But it would be an error to overlook internal players and factors, such as the role of the Afro- Venezuelan Network founded and led by globally recognized Jesus Chucho García, Afro-Left activist, Afrocentric scholar – “Afro-Epistemogly”– and musicologist, who was a key interlocutor for the TransAfrica Forum visit and a staunch anti-racist activist in Venezuela.
Following up on the anti-racism policies implemented by President Chavez, President Nicolas Maduro in the midst of intensifying economic and financial sanctions and threats of war to oust him (May 2018), convened the first hemispheric conference to support and legally act on the call for Reparatory Justice for the injustice, inequality and racism that dates from the enslavement of Africans whose accumulated knowledge of agriculture and mining, as well as the reality of their physical endurance which fueled the capitalist development of the Western Hemisphere. This act was not only a recognition of the barbaric oppression suffered by enslaved Africans and their descendants but was also a tribute to their resistance which both separately and in conjunction with other movements, influenced the shape of Latin America.
Afro-Venezuelans have taken the lead in Latin America to organize a self-identified Afro-Left (Regional Articulation of Afro-Descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean – and recently in the US) to incorporate policies to confront the now well-documented case of the legacies of European colonialism and global capitalism, including ongoing structural racism, material dispossession and poverty, poor health, and mass incarceration and official violence in Venezuela and throughout the Americas.
In sum, our objective here has been to emphasize that the current internal, regional and international struggle over the economic and political direction of Venezuela is of major consequence to working people in general, especially Afro- and indigenous Venezuelans; to continental African and African Diaspora citizens; and to countries which Chávez prioritized in his policy of mutual benefit solidarity internationalism.
Those policies were not rhetorical devices. One must remember that the Bolivarian government policies under President Chavez supplied low-cost heating oil in the winter to needed US communities. There was also the establishment of an oil subsidy program, Petro-Caribe, as one foundational project of regional integration for mutual benefit between Latin America and the predominately Afro-Caribbean nations. It was these programs that the Obama administration, at the direction of then-Vice President Joe Biden, tried to persuade Caribbean nations to abandon.
The Bolivarian Revolution’s national, regional and international policies with regard to working people and discriminated and excluded sectors were and continue to be consciously positioned and implemented in direct contrast, opposition to, and contestation against global, imperial dominance and imposition of Western neoliberal policies that exploit, intervene and seek to dominate the affairs of underdeveloped and developing countries.
The fierceness of the Trump administration’s anti-Maduro policies, along with the complicity of much of the so-called mainstream media in propagating misinformation and openly biased material, has been immensely influential. All too many otherwise decent observers are reticent to challenge the high-sounding humanitarian crusade to allegedly save the Venezuelan people from desperation and starvation.
The Trump administration rhetoric is parroted without investigation or reservation by leading Democratic Party status quo and progressive politicians, and liberal civic organizations, all of whom otherwise presume Donald Trump to be a habitual fabricator, or outright liar. Although the Trump administration is blunt about seizing US dominance in determining control over production and distribution of Venezuelan oil reserves, the largest known untapped source, many are hesitant about getting involved with a defense of Venezuela led by President Nicolas Maduro. Perhaps this arises from an assumption that defending Venezuela means an uncritical defense of President Maduro?
Despite the many complex, puzzling questions that have emerged about the democratic nature, legitimacy and effectiveness of the stewardship of President Maduro – about which progressives should remain closely attentive and informed – urgent attention must be given to upholding Venezuelan sovereignty, independence and self-determination in real-time.
James Counts Early is the former Director of Cultural Heritage Policy, Smithsonian Institution Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage; Board Member Institute for Policy Studies; Political Committee Regional Articulation Afro-Descendants in the Americas
Caption: Throngs of Venezuelans protest deteriorating economic and social conditions in the country.
credit: David Marks