The social change that has swept Venezuela in recent years, since the election of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 1998, has also challenged long-held racist structures in the county.
Venezuela is an incredibly diverse society, with figures indicating that over half of its population is mixed race, around one-fifth of European ancestry, one-tenth of African origin and about 2 percent from indigenous groups.
Situated on the Caribbean, Venezuela has a shared history with Jamaica, Barbados and other islands scarred by the transatlantic slave trade. Like the rest of Latin America, it was also deeply affected by Spanish colonialism which exterminated millions of original inhabitants of that continent.
Despite that diversity, Venezuela’s vast oil wealth, as well as its power structures, were for decades dominated by a minority, and mainly white, elite.
The struggle for equality in Venezuela has therefore had to place tackling racism and discrimination at its center.
An inclusive constitution
The 1999 Constitution made clear for the first time in Venezuela’s history that it is a multiethnic and multicultural society, and it provided a system of protection for indigenous peoples and those of African descent, known as Afro-Venezuelans.
In a society with the historical legacies of colonialism and slavery that Venezuela has, the change was hugely symbolic.
Respecting Indigenous Communities
For decades, indigenous communities have been some of the most exploited in Latin America. This is the legacy of one of the greatest crimes in humanity: the tens of millions of the continent’s original inhabitants massacred during Spanish colonialism.
Today, around 500,000 indigenous people live in Venezuela from 30 different ethnic groups. While people who identify as indigenous make up only a small proportion of the population, the recognition of the historic debt owed to their ancestors has been an important priority for the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) government.
Measures to ensure the rights of indigenous people are properly fulfilled reflects the true democratisation of Venezuela’s political system that has occurred over the decade and a half.
A whole chapter of Venezuela’s constitution is dedicated to indigenous peoples. It stipulates that the “state recognizes the existence of native peoples and communities, their social, political and economic organization, their cultures, practices and customs, languages and religions, as well as their habitat and original rights to the lands they ancestrally and traditionally occupy, and which are necessary to develop and guarantee their way of life.”
The 1999 Constitution ensures political participation by guaranteeing indigenous representation in Venezuela’s National Assembly.
To further ensure representation at a national level, a Ministry for Indigenous Peoples was launched in 2007.
Today, to facilitate social inclusion, official texts are translated into indigenous languages, multilingual education is provided, and an Indigenous University has been established. Whilst the country’s hugely successful expansion of medical care is also tailored to meet specific community needs, with community health workers catering especially to the cultural needs of the indigenous communities.
A century-long concern for the indigenous communities in the country has been recovering land rights, and under revolutionary government in Venezuela, over 1 million hectares of land have been returned to indigenous communities through collective land title deeds, a step towards addressing is historic problem.
Recognizing Venezuela’s African Heritage
Tens of thousands of enslaved Africans were taken to Venezuela’s Caribbean coast from the 16th century onwards. As happened in other slave nations, the legacy of the racism used to dehumanize the slaves has persisted throughout modern history and Venezuela’s Afro-Venezuelan communities have long found themselves subject to significant discrimination.
The governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro have done more than any others in Venezuelan history to challenge this and to celebrate Venezuela’s African heritage.
Hugo Chavez was the first president in Venezuela's history to claim and honor his indigenous and African ancestry. In an interview in 2005, Chavez famously said, “Hate against me has a lot to do with racism. Because of my mouth, because of my curly hair. And I’m so proud to have this month and this hair, because it’s African.”
An emphasis on tackling structural racism saw the passing of the 2011 Law Against Racial Discrimination.
A special office within the Ministry for Culture was established so that Venezuela’s African heritage is properly recognised; May 10 is now celebrated as African-Descendent Day.
The date is symbolically important honoring the uprising launched by José Leonardo Chirino, a Venezuelan revolutionary who led a slave rebellion in search of the establishment of a republic in the country and the elimination of slavery and the end of tribute paid by indigenous peoples.
Within the Ministry for Education, a presidential commission was set up to tackle racism in education and to ensure that curricula reflect Venezuela’s multicultural character.
For the first time ever, Venezuela’s 2011 census allowed individuals to identify themselves as being of African descent. This came at the request of social organizations representing Afro-Venezuelans who hoped that through this ability to self-identify, governments at all levels would respond to their specific needs in the future.
Opposition to Venezuela’s Progressive Changes
All this change has not come without a backlash, as racism, as with all countries, persists in Venezuela.
In Hugo Chavez’s last successful presidential election campaign, one key newspaper aligned to the right-wing opposition published a cartoon labeling a stream of sewage and flies as being of "African descent," implying this was an example of how Chavez was wrecking the county.
While Venezuela’s steps toward equality have inspired some neighboring countries, they have exposed underlying racism in others. One Chilean right-wing lawmaker at the same election tweeted, “The Monkey has Won,” and later, “Bananas are now free in Venezuela.”
Those views stemmed from a politician in a party which had backed General Pinochet’s military coup in Chile in 1973, ending that country’s progressive government. This one incident highlights the stark difference between the progressive inclusive societies being constructed today and the racist elite ones that for so long dominated Latin America.
Extending Solidarity to the Caribbean
Another important shift has been Venezuela's relations with the Caribbean nations; a recognition of a shared past and helping to challenge any stereotypes about the region and it people. No longer a closely aligned partner of the United States, Venezuela has sought to construct regional alliances including with the Caribbean nations.
Regional integration organizations, such as the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), include a number of Caribbean nations, while development schemes like PetroCaribe provide the Caribbean with cheap energy. The largest such body created in recent years, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), seeks to end the historic division between Latin America and the Caribbean by uniting them into one political institution.
The Caribbean Community (Caricom), made up of some 15 nations, regularly acknowledges the role Venezuela has played in helping with social and development projects. Recently, Venezuela donated thousands of laptops for Saint Lucian schoolchildren.
All this change in how Venezuela’s social revolution, the process of pushing the majority to the fore of political life, has ensured that black, mixed race and indigenous people, who comprise this majority, are finally represented and participating at the core of society after decades of marginalization and discrimination.