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

Thousands of Ethiopian Israelis Rally Against Racism

PM Netanyahu says he will meet Damas Pakada, the Ethiopia-born Israeli soldier who was filmed being beaten by two policemen More

10 Migrants Drown, While 4,100 Rescued off Libyan Coast

All of those rescued are being ferried to Italian ports, with some arriving on Italy's southernmost island, Lampedusa, and others taken to Sicily and Calabria More

HRW: Saudis Using US Cluster Bombs in Yemen

Human Rights Watch says photographs, video and other evidence have emerged indicating cluster munitions have been used in 'recent weeks' in airstrikes in Houthi stronghold in northern Yemen More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments page of 2
 Previous    
by: Aminta Hill from: Hoquiam, WA
April 06, 2014 11:59 PM
The issue is not about race or social class, the issue is the scarcity of basic items, the insecurity faced by Venezuelans on a daily basis, the lack of freedom of press, these are legitimate issues. Venezuelan's have historically had the right to protest, however, in the poor neighborhoods protesting can get you killed, so people protest in the wealthier neighborhoods, that does not mean that only upper class people are protesting. What is alarming is the use of violence to suppress the protests. Maduro's use of armed groups 'collectivos" against the students is reproachable. It has nothing to do with race or social status, it has to do with a socialist experiment that has gone wrong and it is time to end it.

by: Not Again from: Canada
April 06, 2014 11:59 PM
The conflict in Venezuela, as in many countries around the World, is not about race, religion, or foreigners, be it from Cuba or be it from the West, interferring with the Venezuelan political system. The conflict is about a totally inept government, that has ruined Venezuela, to the point where people can no longer get the basics to sustain a reasonable way of life. Venezuela's terrible inflation rate is the best indicator, as to how bad the country's economy finds itself in. Notwithstanding, the massive revenues, from oil production, no one can explain as to what happens to the resources/money it gets from its oil revenues, the money just evaporates, just like the Maracaibo light crude the country exports. At best, it is shear and total incompetence, at worst people suspect that money is being distributed to the chronies of Mr. Maduro and sent to their foreign accounts. Maduro has no real qualification, other than being a bus driver and a Chavez's side kick, to run anything. At least Chavez had a significant military education, and Chavez had a good sense of managing resources, it all came through his military studies, experience in military leadership, and demonstrated managerial skills, that saw him promoted to the equivalent rank of a Colonel. Maduro on the other hand, the most he managed was the doors of the bus he drove, and the collection of fares for his bus. Maduro was an excellent bus driver, with a good smile for his customers, but no more competent to run a country than any other bus driver. Venezuela, unless a competent military or civilian steps into the presidential position, will continue to decay; the supression of democratic rights will continue to increase; and eventually Venezuela will have a civil war. It is the path, that many other nations have follwed, when they are run by incompetent, ignorant (less educated), and not progressive quasi-leaders. It will be a sad outcome for all the Venezuelan people. Very bad days, can be predicted in Venezuela's future. Too bad, because most Venezuelan people are very good hearted and usually they were very happy people.

by: jeffery sikes from: Europe
April 06, 2014 9:22 PM
The “revolution” in Venezuela is nothing more than a External State supported act of subversion. Venezuela’s current crisis is not about class warfare (that is a rouse) its about OIL and the control of it.

Venezuelan’s need to be careful during these times as there is a better than average chance that their military weapons could get loose during a conflict of this type and wind up in the wrong hands. I’m sure that the current Marxist government is not acceptable to Venezuelan’s and that is acceptable to anyone who wants to be free. However its important that this “revolution” be more planned and include some strong external state players who can help Venezuela maintain order when changing their government. There should be a call for UN troops to provide military control while Venezuelan’s vote the change their government and the future of Venezuela. Another Egypt revolution could cause results that Venezuelan’s many not be able to live which as they have no idea at this point who is concerting the efforts to oust the current government (who wants the oil).

The students need to approach the UN and the Venezuelan Military, in order to make sure this change in guard takes place in a controlled and deliberate manner.

by: SP from: Florida
April 06, 2014 8:04 PM
The trouble in Venezuela and the Chavist "revolution" is definitely a class and race issue. The darker the skin, the less political power and less wealth. This is true in Venezuela (or was true). It is also true in the rest of South America. And even in Asia, Malaysia for example, the fairer the skin, the higher the class. For having travelled a lot, I can say this applies to most countries in the world. Even in Africa, Mauritania for example, power is in the hands of the fairer-skined Berbers and the blacks are seen as second-class citizens. In the case of Venezuela, there were definitely 2 classes, the rich and the poor and the rich were the whiter. The poor were and are still the dark colored, with always a few exceptions here and there to confirm the rule. Same thing in Peru, Dominican Rep. and the rest of Latin America. Just like in the western world, the whiter the skin the more heritage was received to be prepared to be on top of the dog fight. President Obama is black, but he is also white. Had he been completely black without a drop of white blood, I doubt very much he would have gone that far. Is it disappointing? Certainly.

by: Jonathan from: Bloomington
April 06, 2014 7:50 PM
Unfortunately, Chavez exacerbated the polarizations of racism for his own benefit. The democratic governments initiated in 1958 had tried to create a sense of common identity that although not correcting all racial biases, did generate a sense that given time, all the population would advance through gradual distribution of the oil revenue. Many families with a past mired in poverty saw their fortunes improve during the years between 1958 and 1981, when the economy began to falter due to high loan payments. At the beginning of his rule Chavez had the support of a broad cross-section of the population, including members of all classes and races and the intelligentsia of the country. But as soon as he got into power, he dissolved the congress that had also been elected, he bought the middle and low ranks of the military and proceeded to rewrite the constitution and unify all powers (judicial, legislative and electoral) under his rule. He also used a terrible discourse of aggression against the upper and middle classes, calling them names as a prelude to a series of expropriations. In short, he wasted a historic moment for a true revolution, and turned into an old-fashioned Cuban style political game, until finally submitting all decision-making to the Castro brothers. This is a tremendous tragedy that not conventional analytical paradigm will evaluate correctly.

by: Chico from: Oregon
April 06, 2014 4:20 PM
cms might as well be CIA since those comments are so misinformed. Some protesters in Venezuela are legitimately angry over inflation, shortages and crime issues that the Chavez and Maduro governments have worked hard to correct. As reported widely many protesters and especially their leaders actually want regime change so that the wealth of the country can start going back to the elites. The Maduro and Chavez governments do a much better job of having the wealth of the country being shared by all citizens equally.

Part of the inflation problem is a result of the middle and upper classes speculating on the black market money exchange anyway so they helped bring on the problems in the first place. Also shortages are partially caused by business people hoarding goods and selling them in Colombia and elsewhere. Shortages are also being caused by folks of all classes buying as much as they can all the time, many folks homes are full of toilet paper, milk etc as a hedge against expected shortages.

by: Petrous from: Caracas
April 06, 2014 3:35 PM
Once again your left leaning political views blind you to facts on the ground. You try and make the generalized discontent in the country about race and social classes. The salary you pay your eyes and ears should be considered wasted money. At least the Brazilian regime has reasons to push for the dictator Maduro. They benefit from the self destruction he is causing in the country and have seen their exports skyrocket as Venezuela destroyed its industrial base by expropriations and lack of foreign exchange for investments. What is your excuse?
The same old tired tune that only whiter, better off (though in Venezuela no one outside of government is) neighborhoods protest?? I guess you do not see the armed , government sanctioned militias holding sway over poorer districts. When it comes to politics one can always guess what side the "current" VOA would come down on. Grow up.

by: CMS from: VZLA
April 06, 2014 10:26 AM
Let me try this one more time, my previous post did not get published.
UNASUR is an organization fully financed by Venezuela's regime, hence the disbelieve.

Here are some facts:
-39 people killed most of then done by Maduros militia. Facts: http://on.wsj.com/1oWa6xm or https://www.facebook.com/cms.vzla/posts/1391910301087915
-In Addition there are hundreds mutilated. Facts: pic.twitter.com/KKV2mgWMN1
-And over 60 documented cases of torture, already presented to Human Rights and Amnesty International. Facts: youtu.be/dgu_mCT-wgY
-A small little group of rich fascist? Really! Facts: http://youtu.be/9bq_rvSYeRY

Judge for yourself. Do not let Maduro's outsourced propaganda to deceive you by using the old rhetoric and blame it to USA, CIA, Uribe, fascist right wing and rich opposition, I can go on and on...But in reality this is 100% Venezuelan crisis done my his Castro-Regime.
Comments page of 2
 Previous    

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil Wari
X
Henry Ridgwell
May 03, 2015 1:12 AM
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil War

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video Rural Nepal Suffers Brunt of Quake’s Devastation

Nepal is still coming to grips with the full extent of the devastation and misery caused by last Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Some of the hardest-hit communities have been cut off by landslides making it difficult to assess the precise toll. A VOA News crew has been among the first to reach a few of the smaller, remote communities. Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Sindhupolchak district, east of Kathmandu, which suffered greatly in Nepal’s worst quake in more than 80 years.
Video

Video Black Families Use Baltimore Case to Revisit 'Police Talk'

Following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody this month, VOA interviewed black families throughout the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore about how they discuss the case. Over and over, parents pointed to a crucial talk they say every black mother or father has with their children. Victoria Macchi has more on how this conversation is passed down through generations.
Video

Video Middle East Atheist Channel Defies Taboo

In Egypt, a deeply religious country in a deeply religious region, atheism is not only taboo, it is dangerous. It is sometimes even criminal to publicly declare nonbelief. Despite the danger, one group of activists is pushing back with a new online channel that defends the right not to believe. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Nepal Quake Survivors Tell Their Stories

Against all hope, rescuers have found a few more survivors of the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal last Saturday. Mountain climbers and hikers trapped in remote places also have been airlifted to safety, and aid is finally reaching people in the areas closest to the quake's epicenter. Survivors and rescuers are now recounting their experience. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Lessons for Germany, Europe Remain on Anniversary of WWII's End

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked May 8-9 in all European countries except Germany, which lost the war. How is the war viewed there, and what impact is it still having? From Berlin, VOA’s Al Pessin reports.
Video

Video 'Woman in Gold' Uses Artwork as Symbol of Cultural Identity

Simon Curtis’ legal drama, "Woman in Gold," is based on the true story of an American Jewish refugee from Austria who fights to reclaim a famous Gustav Klimt painting stolen from her family by the Nazis during World War II. It's a haunting film that speaks to the hearts of millions who have sought to reclaim their past, stripped from them 70 years ago. VOA's Penelope Poulou reports.
Video

Video Nepal Town Destroyed By Quake Counts Itself Lucky

Foreign search teams on Wednesday began reaching some of the communities outside Kathmandu that suffered worse damage than Nepal’s capital from last Saturday’s massive earthquake. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Sankhu - a town of about 10,000 people - where there is relief the death toll is not higher despite widespread destruction.
Video

Video First Surgical Glue Approved for Use Inside Body

While medical adhesives are becoming more common, none had been approved for use inside the body until now. Earlier this year, the first ever biodegradable surgical glue won that approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on the innovation and its journey from academia to market.
Video

Video Somali Hotel Chain Owner Strives to Make a Difference

Many in the Somali diaspora are returning home to make a new life despite the continuing risks. Since 2011 when a military campaign against Al-Shabab militants began making progress, members of the diaspora community have come back to open hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Abdulaziz Billow in Mogadishu profiles the owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants who is helping to bring change to the once-deadly Somali capital.
Video

Video Study: One in Six Species Threatened with Extinction

Climate change is transforming the planet. Unless steps are taken to reduce global warming, scientists predict rising seas, stronger and more frequent storms, drought, fire and floods. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, a new study on species extinction underscores the need to take action to avoid the most catastrophic effects of rising temperatures.
Video

Video Taviani Brothers' 'Wondrous Boccaccio' Offers Tales of Love, Humor

The Italian duo of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have been making movies for half a century: "The Night of the Shooting Stars," "Padre Padrone," "Good Morning, Babylon." Now in their 80s, the brothers have turned to one of the treasures of Italian culture for their latest film. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver reports.
Video

Video Child Migrants Cross Mediterranean Alone, Face Unknown Future

Among the thousands of migrants making the deadly journey by boat to Europe, there are unaccompanied girls and boys. Some have been sent by relatives to earn money; others are orphaned or fleeing war. From a shelter for young migrants in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Baltimore Riots Shed Light on City’s Troubled Past

National Guard troops took up positions Tuesday in Baltimore, Maryland, as authorities tried to restore order after rioting broke out a day earlier. It followed Monday's funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died while in police custody earlier this month. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Challenges Await Aid Organizations on the Ground in Nepal

A major earthquake rocked Nepal on Saturday and killed thousands, injured thousands more and sent countless Nepalese outside to live in makeshift tent villages. The challenges to Nepal are enormous, with some reconstruction estimates at around $5 billion. Aid workers from around the world face challenges getting into Nepal, which likely makes for a difficult recovery. Arash Arabasadi has the story from Washington.

Poll: Baltimore Police Charged

Poll archive

VOA Blogs

More Americas News

Ministry: Gunmen Open Fire on Mexican Army Helicopter, 3 Killed

Violence also flared up on Friday in Jalisco's capital, Guadalajara, second-largest city in Mexico, with vehicles set ablaze in and around the metropolitan area
More

Suspected Member of Guatemalan Family Drug Cartel Extradited to US

Elio Elixander Lorenzana Cordon, 43, arrived in the United States on Thursday and was arraigned on Friday
More

Photogallery Rallies Mark May Day Around the World

Workers are calling for higher pay, better working conditions during protest marches
More

Colombia's Former Spy Chief Sentenced to 14 Years in Prison

Maria del Pilar Hurtado sentenced for spying on opposition lawmakers, judges, journalists in one of biggest scandals to mar government of ex-President Uribe
More

Argentine Families Expect Pope to Open Dictatorship Files

Files contain complaints to papal nuncio in Argentina and episcopate by families of those disappeared during 1976-83 military crackdown
More

Photogallery Chile's Calbuco Erupts Again With New Cloud of Ash

Volcano erupts for third time in eight days, winds pushing ash clouds southeast towards Argentina
More