Is There a "Black Vote" in Venezuela?
Sunday's election is about much more than the white elite versus the dark-skinned masses.
SAN JOSÉ DE BARLOVENTO, Venezuela—Luis Perdomo, a black Barlovento resident, was denied entry to a Nelson Mandela birthday commemoration last year. Seeing his complexion, a "revolutionary" government official assumed he was a bike messenger and turned him away.
Perdomo had been an invited speaker. He eventually gave his speech, during which he also recounted this humiliating incident. But afterward, Venezuela's state TV network refused to interview him, though they spoke to the other presenters, upset that he dared to criticize the governmentat an event it had organized.
Harry Belafonte or Danny Glover would have fared much better. Glover was part of a TransAfrica Forum delegation that visited Venezuela earlier in President Hugo Chávez's second term. So enamored was el comandante that he wanted to form a Venezuelan branch. Perdomo, one of Glover's hosts, responded, "No. We are already here."
Barlovento is home to one of the largest concentrations of black Venezuelans in the country, and it is a center of the growing Afro-Venezuelan movement. But leaders here say that their struggle for increased visibility is too often a lonely one, even though the government claims to represent the world's downtrodden.
The Venezuelan divide is often described as the white elite versus the dark-skinned masses. Like most things Chávez says, there is some truth to this. But the black vote in Venezuela shows the enormous gap between the romanticized version of the "Bolivarian Revolution," Chávez's political program for Venezuela, and the real thing. It also explains why the opposition is having a difficult time winning over frustrated chavistas—even Perdomo is voting for Chávez.
Race is virtually never discussed among Venezuelans. Most subscribe to the myth of the mestizaje—that everyone is a mix and thus treated equally. As evidence that race is not an issue, Venezuelans point to their custom of addressing dark-skinned friends as "negro," seemingly oblivious to the irony. El Imperio, Chávez's nickname for the United States,cannotimpose political correctness here, they boast.
It certainly cannot in the campaign of Manuel Rosales, Chávez's main challenger in the Dec. 3 presidential election. His signature proposal, "Mi Negra," a prepaid debit card for poor Venezuelans, means "My Black Lady." His supporters say that those who are squeamish about this nomenclature don't understand Venezuelan warmth. But Perdomo calls Mi Negra "offensive" and asks, "Why doesn't Rosales have a card called Mi Blanca?"
Perdomo is one of approximately 8 million Afro-Venezuelans, 30 percent of the country's population, says Jesus "Chucho" García, founder of the Afro-Venezuelan Network. There is no way to pin down the number more precisely, since the Venezuelan government does not ask questions about race in its census, despite years of lobbying from García.
How black Venezuelans figure in the Bolivarian Revolution remains unclear. On slavery, Chavez's hero Simón Bolivar took a position that was "ambiguous at best," says Venezuelan historian Elias Pino Iturrieta. Freedom was conditional on slaves serving in his army, and slavery was not abolished in Venezuela until more than 20 years after Bolivar died. Another Chávez idol, Fidel Castro, "took 40 years to acknowledge racism was an issue in Cuba," says García, who has studied the country.
During landmark constitutional reform in Venezuela in 1999, which García hailed for adding indigenous peoples' rights for the first time, blacks were excluded. The Chávez government has been perpetuating the myth of the mestizaje.
Vinod Sreeharsha is a freelance journalist based in South America. He has written about Venezuela for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and Pacific News Service.