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
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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
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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
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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
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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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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.

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