(Anti)Blackness, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, and Guaidó’s Attempted Coup

Nicolás Maduro, (Juan Manuel Herrera: Flickr)

On January 23, 2019 with the support of US Vice President Mike Pence, Juan Guaidó, a white supremacist, anti-people, opposition “leader” declared himself interim president of Venezuela under the pretense that Nicolás Maduro, the pro-people candidate, had stolen the 2018 election. Shortly thereafter the white supremacist, anti-people alliance including Canada, Israel, several European countries, and various Latin American nations known as the Lima Group followed suit in recognizing Guaidó. Since then Guaidó, co-conspirator Leopoldo López, and Venezuela’s splintered right-wing opposition have waged attempt after unsuccessful attempt to remove the duly elected Nicolás Maduro from his position as President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Those who have not followed Venezuelan politics or the ebbing and flowing of Latin America’s Pink Tide over the past few decades might wonder what is truly at stake in this latest coup attempt. There are many answers to this question, the most obvious of which is the extraction of oil for exploitative capitalist/imperialist enterprise as opposed to funding the Bolivarian assault on global economic exploitation. Among the least acknowledged answers to this question is racism, specifically anti-Black racism and the progressive measures undertaken to eradicate it since the onset of the Bolivarian Revolution.

Since the early nineties Caracas has been consistently characterized as one of the top ten most dangerous cities in the world. This characterization is largely an outgrowth of the Caracazo, the February 1989 mass uprising which occurred after then president Carlos Andrés Pérez reneged on his campaign promises and attempted to implement what was commonly referred to as “el paquete” or the package. The “package,” a set of neoliberal economic reforms recommended by the International Monetary Fund, resulted in the overnight doubling and in some cases tripling of costs of basic staples like milk and gasoline. In response to these anti-people reforms, the urban masses, “predominantly poor Afro-descended people from the cacao-cultivating regions of eastern Miranda State,” took to the streets in protest. The state attempted to quell these rebellions through deadly violence; death tolls are estimated between 300 and 3,000. This racialized urban rebellion has shaped Venezuelan politics to this day and is perhaps the single most important event that precipitated Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution.

It was the Caracazo, the people’s rebellion, that set the stage for Hugo Chávez’s 1992 failed coup against Pérez. Chavez’s post-coup imprisonment made him a national hero and fueled mass support for his 1998 presidential victory. It was the demands of the masses, and perhaps even more so their willingness to revolt, that required Chávez to envision and commit to a new economic reality for the country, one he would come to refer to as 21st Century Socialism. One of Chávez’s first orders of business as president was the rewrite of the Venezuelan Constitution so that it reflected the Bolivarian Revolution’s commitment to an economically and racially just society. It was not until Chávez’s base helped thwart the 2002 coup attempt however, that the Bolivarian Revolution became decidedly Pan-African and feminist in its political orientation. Only then did the revolution begin to center issues specific to the predominantly poor Afro-Indigenous base. Among the major laws and campaigns supported during the post-2002 coup years were the nationalization of oil to support education, health, and land reform in the country; the Organic Law Against Racial Discrimination; and public education efforts to include lessons about the history of slavery and Afro-Venezuelan contributions to contemporary society. One of the campaigns most successful in increasing the visibility of Afro-Venezuelans was the “Soy Afro” 2011 Census Campaign led by the Network of Afro Venezuelans, which declared “Soy Afrodescendiente . . . y tú ¿cómo te reconoces?” that loosely translated means, “I am an African Descendant . . . and you, how do you identify?”.

Until recently, the official estimates of Venezuelans with African ancestry were about 12 percent of the population (two million people). According to the 2011 national census, Venezuela is home to nearly 29 million inhabitants with just over 750,000 identifying as Negro/Negra and only about 182,000 identifying as Afrodescendiente, the vast majority of which are concentrated in Miranda (home to the capital city Caracas), Carabobo, and Aragua. While less than one percent of the entire Venezuelan population identified as Afro, nearly 50 percent identified as moreno/morena, and about three percent identified as Negro/Negra, revealing that nearly 54 percent of Venezuela’s citizens are of discernible African ancestry. Afro-descended people’s realities have become more visible since 2002, and their realities increasingly inform the political rhetoric/agenda of the Bolivarian Revolution, making Blackness synonymous with the people, socialism, and Chavismo while whiteness is synonymous capitalist exploitation, anti-Blackness, and the anti-people counterrevolution led by the opposition.

There is perhaps no clearer example of the association of revolution with Blackness than the lynching of Orlando Figuera, a 21-year-old grocery store worker who in 2017 mistakenly found himself in the middle of opposition protests that cost him his life. Reports of the incident detail that Figuera was stabbed multiple times, doused with gasoline, and set on fire because of his presumed status as a Chavista. According to Figuera’s father, when Orlando found himself among opposition protesters after leaving work, they yelled to him, “hey Black guy, are you a Chavista? You see what happens to Chavistas.” It was Figuera’s Blackness that made him stand out among the protestors, that made them inquire about his political leanings, and ultimately why they murdered him in cold blood.

Less than one month before he succumbed to cancer in 2013, Chávez penned a profound declaration for the third Africa-South America Summit that took place in Equatorial Guinea. Due to the advanced stages of his cancer, Chávez was unable to attend the Summit. As a show of his unwavering desire to see the political alliance of the two continents, in what is now referred to as his “Letter to Africa,” Chávez declared, “I won’t tire of repeating that we are one people. We are obliged to find one another, going beyond formality and discourse, in the same feeling of our unity. Together we must dedicate ourselves to creating conditions that allow us to rescue our peoples from the maze they were thrown into, first by colonialism and then by the neoliberal capitalism of the twentieth century.” Chavez’s declaration is a testament to his cultural and political commitment to Africa and her children, at home and in the diaspora.

Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’s chosen successor, played a central role in helping to manifest Venezuela’s growing commitment to Africa and its diasporic children. From 2006 to 2013 Maduro served as Venezuela’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. It was during Maduro’s tenure that Venezuela severed ties with Israel, established diplomatic ties with Palestine, bolstered support for Libya under Muammar Gaddafi’s leadership, and helped (re)establish diplomatic relations with more than fifteen continental African nations. In light of this history, Chávez’s decision to make Maduro the next leader of the Bolivarian Revolution demonstrates his desire for the Revolution to continue the work of supporting African, Indigenous, and poor people’s struggles for liberation all over the world. It also provides more context for understanding US interest in funding regime change efforts in Venezuela. Guaidó’s claim to the presidency rests on the assertion that Maduro has failed to fulfill his constitutional responsibilities and has therefore “abandoned his post.” This assertion is an outgrowth of opposition claims that Venezuela’s 2018 presidential elections were fraudulent and “the people” did not vote for him, a claim which Mariela Machado, an Afro-Venezuelan community activist from La Vega Parish in Caracas, vehemently contests. In a March 2019 interview, she proclaimed:

“[W]e are clear that we voted for Nicolás Maduro. We elected him so that he could continue the policies of Hugo Chávez. He must deepen the policies around the communes and communal power because the people will save the people. The rights of women have been recognized, which is key, but it’s not just that . . . I am black and poor, and I will never be a slave again because I have lived a process of profound liberation where I say whatever I feel, like I’m doing right now . . . there’s no way we will return to the past.”

The profound liberation Machado speaks of is the radical potential of the Bolivarian process, particularly for Black/African peoples. Just as Haiti was the strong hold of Black liberation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and Cuba became a beacon of the global struggle for Black/African liberation in the 20th century, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution—despite its inadequacies—is the most earnest attempt to facilitate Black liberation of our time. Guaidó’s attempts to destabilize Bolivarian efforts to reimagine socialism are part and parcel of the US-led effort to maintain racial capitalism across the globe. Anyone concerned with the freedom and self-determination of Black/African people anywhere in the world should be paying attention to and fundamentally opposed to the US-funded, manufactured coup and economic destabilization currently unfolding in Venezuela.

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Layla Brown-Vincent

Layla Brown-Vincent is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She earned a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology in 2016 from Duke University. Layla is also a proud graduate of North Carolina Central University. Her areas of specialization include Afro-Latin American social movements, Pan-Africanism, and Black feminism. Follow her on Twitter @PanAfrikFem_PhD.

Comments on “(Anti)Blackness, Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, and Guaidó’s Attempted Coup

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    Outstanding article; kudos for writing.

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