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
    x
    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
    x
    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
    x
    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
    x
    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.”

    You May Like

    Saudi Arabia’s New Female Politicians in the Other Room 

    Many in Saudi Arabia say elected representatives should share unsegregated spaces; according to a recent survey, more than half the Saudi population, both men and women, prefer to work in a segregated place

    Russia Not ‘Apologetic’ for Syria Airstrikes

    With Moscow criticized for targeting armed opponents of President Assad, Russia’s UN envoy says his country ‘acting in a very transparent manner’

    Pakistan Warns of Islamic State's Growing Reach

    Aftab Sultan, General Director General of Intelligence Bureau (IB), briefed Senate Committee in closed hearing, saying that IS-linked groups have been expanding in Pakistan

    This forum has been closed.
    Comment Sorting
    Comments page of 2
        Next 
    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?
    Comments page of 2
        Next 

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growthi
    X
    February 10, 2016 5:54 AM
    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Russia's Car Sales Shrink Overall, But Luxury and Economy Models See Growth

    Car sales in Russia dropped by more than a third in 2015 because of the country's economic woes. But, at the extreme ends of the car market, luxury vehicles and some economy brands are actually experiencing growth. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Civil Rights Pioneer Remembers Struggle for Voting Rights

    February is Black History Month in the United States. The annual, month-long national observance pays tribute to important people and events that shaped the history of African Americans. VOA's Chris Simkins reports how one man fought against discrimination to help millions of blacks obtain the right to vote
    Video

    Video Jordanian Theater Group Stages Anti-Terrorism Message

    The lure of the self-styled “Islamic State” has many parents worried about their children who may be susceptible to the organization’s online propaganda. Dozens of Muslim communities in the Middle East are fighting back -- giving young adults alternatives to violence. One group in Jordan is using dramatic expression a send a family message. Mideast Broadcasting Network correspondent Haider Al Abdali shared this report with VOA. It’s narrated by Bronwyn Benito
    Video

    Video Migrant Crisis Fuels Debate Over Britain’s Future in EU

    The migrant crisis in Europe is fueling the debate in Britain ahead of a referendum on staying in the European Union that may be held this year. Prime Minister David Cameron warns that leaving the EU could lead to thousands more migrants arriving in the country. Meanwhile, tension is rising in Calais, France, where thousands of migrants are living in squalid camps. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Valentine's Day Stinks for Lebanese Clowns

    This weekend, on Valentine's Day in Lebanon, love is not the only thing in the air. More than half a year after the country's trash crisis began, the stink of uncollected garbage remains on the streets. Step forward "Clown Me In," a group of clowns who use their skills for activism. Before the most romantic day of the year the clowns have released their unusual take on love in Lebanon -- in a bid to keep the pressure up and get the trash off the streets. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Families Flee Aleppo for Kurdish Regions in Syria

    Not all who flee the fighting in Aleppo are trying to cross the border into Turkey. A VOA reporter caught up with several families heading for Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.
    Video

    Video Rocky Year Ahead for Nigeria Amid Oil Price Crash

    The global fall in the price of oil has rattled the economies of many petroleum exporters, and Africa’s oil king Nigeria is no exception. As Chris Stein reports from Lagos, analysts are predicting a rough year ahead for the continent’s top producer of crude.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.

    More Americas News

    Research Strengthens Link Between Zika, Birth Defects

    Findings may be most compelling evidence yet that birth defects associated Zika may be caused by replication of the virus in the brain

    Video Lessons Learned From Ebola Might Help Fight Zika

    Worldwide cooperation, communication crucial in efforts to contain and control future viral outbreaks, experts say

    Power Rationing Forces Cuts in Hours at Venezuelan Malls

    Shopping centers told to generate own electricity in early afternoon, evening hours; move follows drought that hit hydroelectric generating systems

    In Cuba, Racial Inequality Deepens With Tourism Boom

    As capitalism creeps in more than 60 years after revolution that promised social equality, local residents, analysts concerned about gap between haves and have nots

    Video WFP: 3.6 Million Haitians Face Food Insecurity

    Half of Haiti's population works in agriculture; Around 75 percent live on less than $2 per day

    Video Olympics Technology Center Getting Ready for 2016 Games

    This year, the whole system will be cloud-based, enabling millions of fans around the world instant access to relevant information about the competition