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Jesús Alberto ‘Chucho’ García is Venezuelan Consul General in New Orleans and previously represented the Venezuelan government in Angola, Mali and Burkina Faso. He is a founder of the Juan Ramón Lugo Afro-Revolutionary Movement. Despite describing the current opposition to Nicolás Maduro as ‘racist and fascist’, he says that the state’s bureaucratic approach to production is ignoring the creativity of the Afro-descendant communities to which he belongs. These communities, he says, need to teach the government ‘a new form of literacy’ to free it from its obsession with oil revenues.
This interview was published in the French newspaper Libération of 2/3 September (see original here). One reference to French politics has been deleted. Translated by Francis McDonagh.
How many ‘Afro-descendants’, if you accept the term, are there in Venezuela?
The description ‘Afro-descendant’ is the most appropriate; it’s a global political concept adopted by the UN conference on racism in Durban in 2001, in which I took part. For the last population census in Venezuela, in 2010, we proposed a terminology that was accepted: citizens could define themselves as White, Black, Brown (moreno), Afro-descendant or Other. The three ‘Afro’ categories got 54.2% pf the responses, out of a population of 27 million. In other words, the majority of Venezuelans are aware of and accept their African origins.
Is this proportion to be found among the political elites?
In ethnic or racial terms, the proportion of Afro-descendants among full-time politicians is less than 5%.
Why so few?
Structures of racism and discrimination persist in the Bolivarian process, despite our ten years of struggle. Afro-Venezuelan identity was not recognised in the 1999 constitution [when Hugo Chavez came to power]. Many Venezuelans insist that they are mixed-race. People argue that we are all a mixture and all equal, without differences based on skin colour. We all know that it’s untrue. As Frantz Fanon showed in his analyses, the mixed-race ideology conceals racial discrimination. Only two important leaders clearly identified as Afro-descendant, Hugo Chávez and then Aristóbulo Istúriz, who was a minister on several occasions and is currently a member of the National Constituent Assembly.
Can this recently established assembly correct this imbalance?
That’s what we hope. The Afro-Revolutionary Movement, to which I belong, believes that the Bolivarian revolution has a political and moral debt to the Afro-descendants. We want the next constitution, which is currently being drafted, to make clear in its preamble that Afro-descendants are a foundational element of Venezuelan identity. This would put us on a par with the constitutions of Colombia, Ecuador or Brazil.
But have the rights of Afro-Venezuelans nonetheless advanced during the chavista period?
Video by Telesur which somewhat glosses over some of the problems signalled by Jesús García.
Until 2011 our recognition in terms of public policy made huge progress. The African heritage is now part of the school curriculum. But in the last few years our progress has been paralysed. The last law promulgated by Chávez before his death was the law against racial discrimination, but this law does not provide effective penalties for the crime of discrimination. We want the Constituent Assembly to strengthen the law… You know that in the last few months in Venezuela two black people were burned alive in demonstrations by the bourgeoisie.[i] To be black and a supporter of Chávez makes you an enemy in the eyes of the racist, fascist bourgeoisie.
But the demonstrations are prompted by the food shortages suffered by both blacks and whites….
Where do these shortages come from? I’ll take the example of the Barlavento region I come from. The government set up socialist production enterprises for our main agricultural products, bananas and cacao. It’s a positive move, but their operations have been suffering from bureaucratic obstacles. We are short of basic foodstuffs even though our communities can grow vegetables and fruit and feed themselves. We are farmers and fishing communities. In the face of the crisis we need to show imagination and not wait for the state to help. For example, we could set up micro-businesses that avoid the bureaucracy.
Does that work?
A group of women, the Cimarronas de la Esperanza, started producing cleaning products that were in short supply in the shops, bleach, detergent, disinfectant…. They even produced cosmetics including skin creams based on cocoa butter. So relying on our own forces, without waiting for outside help, we revived the spirit of our ancestors, the cimarrones.[ii]
But these cooperatives have a hard job making up for the widespread shortages….
Of course, but to get away from the model based on oil revenues, we have to start from a new economic model, one that is sustainable and doesn’t depend on fossil fuels that pollute the planet. And this new model starts at local level.
Are the Venezuelan authorities aware of these challenges?
Absolutely not. We have to go back to what we did 18 years ago, teach the government a new form of literacy. The obsession with oil revenues created a tumour in the brains of many leaders, who believed that anything was possible because oil prices were high.
How do you see Venezuela’s political future?
A sector of the opposition, allied with Donald Trump and the Western powers, has ignited a calculated cycle of violence. It has obtained diplomatic successes that have isolated Venezuela. But once the Constituent Assembly was elected on 30 July, the violence has almost stopped. There are still the threats from the United States of a military blockade that is simply strengthening the Venezuelan people’s awareness. The solution to the political crisis lies in the electoral process, local and regional elections in October and then the presidential election in 2018. The survival of the chavista cycle will depend on the radical changes that the government simply must introduce.
Are you prepared for a defeat of chavismo?
In politics anything is possible. But if the Bolivarian process were to stop, a light of hope would go out. We have been resisting for 18 years. We have maintained our sovereignty over against the United States while respecting the rules of bourgeois democracy, not by taking up arms. Venezuela is a beacon that sheds light on other peoples, as Haiti was in the 18th century or Cuba in the 1960s. These are three revolutions that have left their mark on history.
LAB adds: there is much interesting material on Afro-Venezuelans. For instance, this article by Evelyne Laurent-Perrault.
[i] The opposition has denied that these attacks were racially motivated.
[ii] The name given in Venezuela to slaves escaped from plantations who formed villages of free men and women (like the Brazilian quilombos).