News / Americas

Are Race and Class at the Root of Venezuela’s Political Crisis?

Opposition supporters carry a banana, made to look like President Nicolas Maduro, during a protest against Maduro in Caracas February 22, 2014. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo
Opposition supporters carry a banana, made to look like President Nicolas Maduro, during a protest against Maduro in Caracas February 22, 2014. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo
Cecily Hilleary
For weeks, protesters have taken to the streets in Venezuela, opposing Nicholas Maduro, who succeeded the authoritarian Hugo Chavez as president.

Demonstrations that began in the western state of Tachira soon spread to the capital, Caracas. Protesters cite runaway inflation, shortages of food and basic goods and runaway crime, including the world's highest murder rate, as the reasons for going into the streets.

But some observers say the protests—at least those in the capital—are more about returning the social and political elite to power—and that at its roots the conflict in Venezuela is really about race and class. 

To understand the issue of racial identity in Venezuela, it’s is necessary to go back into history.

Venezuela was colonized by Spain in the early 16th Century. Tens of thousands of Africans were brought there as slaves until abolition in 1854.

Following World War II, former dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez encouraged the immigration of Europeans, Italians, Portuguese and Germans to help develop the country, a move that writer Winthrop R. Wright, author of Café Con Leche, says was a deliberate move to “whiten” the country. 

Venezuelans mixed heritage

Today, most Venezuelans call themselves mestizo, or “mixed,” an amalgam of indigenous, African and European peoples.

Carolina Acosta-AlzuruCarolina Acosta-Alzuru
Carolina Acosta-Alzuru
Carolina Acosta-Alzuru
“There are no people sitting on the back of the bus, there are no rest rooms assigned for people of this color or that color in Venezuela,” Carolina Acosta-Alzuru, an associate professor of public relations at the University of Georgia and a native Venezuelan, told VOA.

“And also there’s acknowledgement that nobody is of pure European descent, or indigenous descent.  That’s why many people think, ‘There’s no racism here.’”

But, she says, they’re wrong, citing Venezuela’s abundant beauty pageants and the telenovelas which embrace the light skin and straight hair – the Western European standards of beauty. 

“And if you look at the upper socio-economic levels of the country,” Acosta-Alzuru said, “they tend to be whiter than on the lower socio-economic levels. That is something that is very apparent to everybody.”

Chavez's legacy

Hugo Chávez was the first Venezuelan leader to embrace his Afro-indigenous heritage, telling an interviewer, “Hate against me has a lot to do with racism. Because of my big mouth, because of my curly hair. And I’m so proud to have this mouth and this hair, because it’s African.”
George Ciccariello-MaherGeorge Ciccariello-Maher
George Ciccariello-Maher
George Ciccariello-Maher

“And this is also where it’s very different from the United States: You had people upset and even saying they were disgusted at having to look at Chavez.

"He was often called ‘the black’ (el Negro) by Venezuelan elites and also understood to be Afro- and indigenous—as opposed to mestizo,” Ciccariello-Maher said.

“Part of what angered elites so much when Chavez came to power was that he was a person who didn’t look like he was ‘fit’ to govern,” said George Ciccariello-Maher, an assistant professor of political science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution.

Opponents frequently referred to Chavez as ese mono, or, “that monkey,” and political cartoons played up his dark features—the most overtly racist portrayed him as an ape. 

But Acosta-Alzuru says it was Chavez who brought racism to the table.

“But he didn’t put it on the table to raise consciousness. No, no.  He wanted to use it to his own advantage,” she said.

The Chavez government took a series of measures to combat racism against people of African descent.

The 1999 constitution criminalized discrimination, and for the first time ever, the 2011 census allowed citizens to classify themselves as Afro-Venezuelans. 

Acosta-Alzuru says Chavez’ message to Afro-Venezuelans was: “’The rich people are racist and they hate you,’ when really racism was prevalent throughout the whole culture." 

Ciccariello-Maher strongly disagrees.

“That’s premised on the idea that there wasn’t a problem," he said. "There was. It just wasn’t being dealt with.  It wasn’t being discussed.  It was being concealed.”

“And so bringing it to light—once again, it was not Chavez opportunistically playing the race card; it was a movement demanding that race be taken seriously, and finally, belatedly, Chavez embracing that,” he said.
A girls taking part in a demonstration supporting Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's holds a picture of late president Hugo Chavez during a rally with Bolivarian militia in Caracas March 15, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge SilvaA girls taking part in a demonstration supporting Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's holds a picture of late president Hugo Chavez during a rally with Bolivarian militia in Caracas March 15, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A girls taking part in a demonstration supporting Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's holds a picture of late president Hugo Chavez during a rally with Bolivarian militia in Caracas March 15, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
A girls taking part in a demonstration supporting Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro's holds a picture of late president Hugo Chavez during a rally with Bolivarian militia in Caracas March 15, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

2014 Protests

The protests began in early February among students in the western states of Tachira and Merida, who complained about gas and food shortages and poor security after the sexual assault of a student.

Protests quickly turned violent after police responded harshly, arresting and allegedly abusing several students, and quickly spread to Caracas, where tensions had been high for weeks since former Miss Venezuela Mónica Spear and her ex-husband were murdered by roadside bandits.

The Caracas protests have centered in Los Palos Grandes, an upscale section of the city.

“Those in the streets are largely middle class students, and this has been clear by the fact of the location of the protests,” Ciccariello-Maher said.  “So it’s very difficult to disentangle race and class in these protests.”

He points to the leaders of the opposition movement, Leopoldo Lopez; a former mayor, and Maria Corina Machado, an MP.
Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, greets a supporter during a rally in support of him in Los Teques outside Caracas March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia RawlinsLilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, greets a supporter during a rally in support of him in Los Teques outside Caracas March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, greets a supporter during a rally in support of him in Los Teques outside Caracas March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Lilian Tintori, wife of jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, greets a supporter during a rally in support of him in Los Teques outside Caracas March 18, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

“The main opposition leaders are as white and as elite as can be, and the challenge for the Venezuelan opposition is that they cannot succeed without reaching out to the masses, without reaching out to the poor and some of the poorer sectors," he said.

"They confront a visual difficulty, mainly the fact that people are not going to look at these leaders and say, ‘Well, that person represents me,’” he said.

Why aren’t more of the poorer segments of society out in the streets of Caracas?

“Because they identify with this government,” says Ciccariello-Maher, “they identify with the social justice orientation of this government over years which has led, for example, to Venezuelans eating and consuming much more than they did ten years ago.”

But Acosta-Alzuru doesn’t see it that way. 

“The kids that are throwing stones are not rich kids," she said "These are kids who come from other socio-economic backgrounds that say they cannot protest in the poor neighborhoods because those are controlled by the pro-government militias.  So they come here to do this.” 

Ergo, the protesters aren’t all white middle class at all, but include members of the darker, lower classes.

“Everyone wants power,” Acosta-Alzuru said,“and nobody wants power more than the government, than Nicholas Maduro.

"They are holding onto power for dear life," she said. "I think their reaction from the beginning of this was completely out of proportion, and this only made people more and more radical, and this is why I think we have a very difficult situation right now.”

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Comments page of 2
by: Gresia
April 10, 2014 1:12 PM
The issue of race is most definitely NOT a factor, this is what people who are not in the middle of the conflict say. THat is ignorant and insulting to the entire country. How can you say that it's about race when both poor and wealthy cannot find tooth paste, toilet paper, and other basic needs. How can you say it's about race when the government has censured the media and other communication in the entire country, and has taken over the oil industry. How can you say it's about race when both white, mestizo, and black are being beaten, killed, and tortured on the streets. This article is a disgrace. And all those people's comments are a shame and filled with condescending foolishness.

by: Chico from: Oregon
April 09, 2014 2:07 PM
The issue of race is definitely a factor. The middle and upper classes in Venezuela are lighter and whole books have been written on how this comes about so I won't attempt to explain that here. And while race is a factor in the makeup of the classes, I believe the people of Venezuela would have worked things out peacefully and equitably if not for the interference of the developed countries in the north especially the USA. The countries in the north have waged a propaganda campaign in Venezuela spending many millions of dollars through organizations like USAID and others to boost opposition to the democratically elected government in Venezuela. So my point of this comment is that while race is a factor for the oppositions tactics, I don't believe it would have divided the people enough to create this hatred without the input of the USA.

by: nddv from: California
April 07, 2014 11:21 PM
The race card, waved by card carrying Tenured Radicals, who sell Chavez to the stupid gringos as the first to pay attention to the mestizos, to the poor, to the disenfranchised. And the stupid gringo, utterly ignorant in Latin American affairs will swallow anything they say. The truth is that the Venezuelans are tired of Socialism, of Cuban intervention, and the simple fact is that Chavistas have ruled for 16 long years. And that their president Maduro is even more stupid than George W Bush, an ass if there ever was one. According to the professors a donkey president, a puppet of the Cubans, is ok for Venezuelans but not for gringos. Four year terms for Americans, 16 years terms for chavistas. Honky Dory!

by: Fabiola
April 07, 2014 7:10 PM
Keeping an eye on Venezuela you will have witnessed the undoing of chunks of the constitution, the replacement of liberty with a fear seeded by the governing population’s certain disregard for justice and a gift at drumming up hate within the population to keep the masses either distracted or at perpetual odds with each other. What C.-Maher and his peers do is to systematically tamper with facts and cunningly misguide a naïve public and, worse even, misinform under-informed foreign journalists about what is glaringly clear to anybody who knows what true democracy looks like. Democracy does not exist in Venezuela, where justice is rather left to the whims and favors of the governing body. Democracy, a fervent attempt at following the laws laid out in a constitution is undermined on a daily basis, causing your average citizen to devalue their own worth in succumbing to a rabidly undemocratic institution that does not serve to protect, unify or lift them. There is no hope for fair reporting when reporters fail to recognize their 'expert' has an agenda to chip away at reality with falsifications or merely distract from the crisis with analysis such as his in this article. What is happening in Venezuela leaves little space for entertaining these outlandish notions that race is at the center of a wide-scale civil movement to reinstate democracy. Now, I believe, is a time for journalists to do their part in making a difference, which means going to Venezuela and doing your due diligence. The topic is an interesting one, but in no way is class or skin-tone the cornerstone of the havoc that has been wreaked on the security and dignity of the Venezuelan population. Whether this man can sleep well at night is of little consequence to me. That he is given, day after day, the opportunity to freely divulge falsehoods, to muddy the very real effort Venezuelans make every day to compete with the wealth and power of a government that silences and abuses them, while around the globe, he and his peers living in healthy democratic countries, crank out lies for the Bolivarian government, that is a real shame. Meanwhile in Venezuela… deputies are physically assaulted, mayors are imprisoned, civilian opponents are in exile, citizens are shot at, journalists are abducted and so-called revolutionaries are living high on the hog while the poor and middle-class queue for sanitary napkins, oil, milk, diapers, toilet paper etc.

by: Fabiola
April 07, 2014 7:09 PM
I think this quote is most befitting of the man interviewed in this thought provoking yet distorted report. “Those who are capable of tyranny are capable of perjury to sustain it.”

Mr. Ciccariello-Maher joins a team of American academics, actors and a former lawyer who have seized the opportunity to be the voice for Venezuela(Oliver Stone, Eva Golinger, Mark Weisbrot etc.), perhaps to make a name in the US and abroad, or maybe to a more ruthless end, leading to a small pot of oil gold at the other end of the defamatory rainbow. They may believe in what they mostly fabricate, too.

Everyone is entitled to his or her personal analyses and opinions, but no one has a right to their own set of facts. If you have been observing Venezuela for the last many years, or even these last three months, you will be aware of the myriad problems the country faces that fall directly in the lap of poor governance. These are the very real problems Venezuelans face that hardly require well-packaged scholarly analysis. To name a few: astronomical crime rate coupled with absolute impunity for offenders, perpetual fear, astronomical inflation, minimal rule of law, little opportunity to thrive. Ambar de la Croux addressed the broken economy and education system in her article today stating, “Even with the obvious deficiencies in education, Venezuela has a large population of well-prepared professionals across a wide spectrum of expertise. But based on political affiliations, these people cannot work for the development of the nation. No wonder Venezuelans have begun to leave the country in search of a better future for themselves and their families. This exodus is manifesting itself worst of all among teachers. The ramshackle education system can ill afford this brain drain. But, again, it’s understandable when even those with advanced degrees from internationally respected institutions earn less than approximately £40 per month. When the government’s own basic food basket is priced at nearly £200 per month, it’s impossible to support a family without second or third jobs. Under strict rules, teachers are not allowed to apply for the loans that could support home or car ownership. In effect, teachers are sentenced to live with relatives for life. Yet they continue to teach out of love for the craft with the hope they can raise a new generation of Venezuelans who can think for themselves and question dogma. Without them, the youth of Venezuela would be lost.”

by: Tony from: usa
April 07, 2014 2:04 PM
Venezuela does not have racial issues. All of the reports done about the situation in venezuela are incorrect. The issue there is not a middle class protest it is a protest for the way of living and the security that currently exist. Middle, lower class and all the classes.

by: Julio
April 07, 2014 8:43 AM
Cecily Hilleary, you cant be further farther from the truth.. As a BLACK, venezuela from the coastal town of Ocumare, I can tell you that they are a LOT of poors (black and whites) who are agaisnt the government. We dont like the high crime rates and the scarcitties of basic products.. However, the government has a toght control on people and many are scared to protest!. Please do your research before publishing nonsense..

by: Nelly from: Ottawa
April 07, 2014 8:01 AM
I completely disagree with your position on the racist root of this conflict. Venezuelans, those that you call the white elite, ( there was a lot more than that) did not like Chavez simply because he was a populist, not well educated, and mostly because he was not someone qualified to govern the country, he knew that only creating a caos he would be able to keep the power. He did not respect people with education, or the middle class. At the beginning people from all social status voted for him, soon they were very disappointed. Su chavacanería era insoportable a escuchar

by: truthand justice
April 07, 2014 6:14 AM
I'm astounded, this biased article is from the VOA?? Before tackling the despotic government in Venezuela, we need to clean out the traitors and moles that are spreading disinformation via our own governments official voice, the once hallowed VOA. I'm disgusted by this article which tries to justify based on race, the horrible imposition by force that the government of Chavez/ Maduro/Cuba is perpetrating on the poor people of Venezuela. Let's get some unbiased and factual reporting by our VOA by rooting out the infiltrators that seem to have taken over this once bastion of truth, information and knowledge. I am a proud american who is ashamed of what our official voice to the world is spewing. Shameful and contrary to the basic tenets of VOA'S establishment and reason for being...

by: Humberto from: New Jersey
April 07, 2014 1:29 AM
Race as the root cause of the Venezuelan crisis? Take another look please.

How about really bad government? And by that I mean one that has transformed a wealthy oil-rich nation into an economic basket-case, a wasteland of scarcity where even toilet paper is a precious imported commodity and where any semblance of free enterprise or market economy has been obliterated. The Venezuelan regime utterly fails to promote any kind of democratic discourse or tolerance of opposing views. Today, more than 1,400 students are held under arrest and there are at least 40 confirmed cases of torture. And while the lifes of innocent Venezuelans is squandered by rocket-high homicide rates, Leopoldo Lopez is jailed and accused of "terrorism" without any evidence of anything remotely resembling the charge. And Maria Corina Machado is summarily and illegally expelled from her position as a deputy in the National Assembly over completely farcical and trumped-up charges. And what about the rampant corruption? Does that not count as a cause for a crisis?

I cannot help but think Ciccariello-Maher lives in a dreamland of his own creation. As a Venezuelan, I would ask that rather than hurling cheap shots of "racism", he look at the bigger picture of a government that has failed at its mission to serve as perhaps having something to do with the crisis. And, message to VoA: "presenting both sides of the story" may not work well for you if there is no story and only a hopelessly misguided opinion. Or are they self-serving opinions?
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