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Racial problems as an artificial ingredient of Venezuela's tragedy

By Gustavo Coronel

February 2, 2004 - The government of Hugo Chávez cannot govern but it sure can plot. After two years and several millions of dollars, this government has built a formidable international propaganda structure which includes intellectuals such as the Frenchman Ignacio Ramonet, British-based investigative journalist Greg Palast, economists like Canadian Michael Levobitz and American Marc Weisbrot, and some excellent Web sites operating in the U.S., the U.K., Venezuela and the Caribbean which reinforce one another and work in close coordination. This structure is, by far, the most effective tool the government has at this moment and we would only wish that the agencies, which try to govern our country, were half as efficient. The propaganda structure has been successful in recruiting well known and probably well meant U.S. artists like Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte and Ed Asner to promote the propaganda film "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and the U.S. speaking tour of Mrs. Nora Castaneda, the President of the "Bolivarian" Women's Development Bank, among other events. It is surprising that they have not yet contacted Robert Redford but I am sure they soon will.

This formidable structure also seems to incorporate, at little or no cost, dozens of women's liberation, gay, anti-globalization, environmentalists and pacifist groups, all looking for the most diverse allies against the common enemy: the U.S. government. I think these groups have all the right in the world to express their social, political or sexual preferences but I grow very worried when they try, in their well meant ignorance, to export to Venezuela issues which are of very low priority and concern for us, and when they try to make of these issues political banners of the current Venezuelan government. In special, I am worried and surprised to see how the racial issue is being advanced by the Venezuelan government, in collusion with some of these groups, as one of the main reasons why the so called "bolivarian" revolution exists. Chávez initiated this strategy in his Sunday speeches, when he started claiming that his revolution was against the white oligarchs and that the opposition hated him because he had a "bemba" (gross lips). The President started to use this type of racial expressions to try to build a national mood in which white was bad and brown was good. This is an attitude which I would define as racist. Most people have grown used to think that racism is only practiced by whites against non-whites but, of course, it can also be practiced the other way around. In his speeches Chávez was not so much complaining about being excluded, as he was being exclusive. Whites, he kept telling us, do not belong here.

This strategy probably started as a personal act of social resentment on the part of Chávez, who is a mediocre military officer lacking a solid education and was relegated during his career to the lower echelons of the army carrying, therefore, a big chip on his shoulder. As time went by and as governing the country became an impossible task for his limited abilities, Chávez decided to make the racial issue one of the pillars of his revolution. In this sense he traveled to Bolivia, wore a poncho and spoke, as a new Manco Capac, to thousands of Santa Cruz and Cochabamba coca growers, claiming to be the new chosen one. In all the high level international meetings he has attended, he has tried to project himself as the champion of the people of "afro-indigenous" descent, the victims of the white.

One of the most recent moves in this direction was the invitation extended by Venezuelan Ambassador in Washington, Bernardo Alvarez, to a Washington D.C. based organization called TransAfrica Forum to visit Venezuela to "see for themselves the situation of the Afro- Venezuelan people." As a Venezuelan writing this commentary in English about racial issues, I must say that I feel like walking on eggs because we, as a country, have not gone through the same social and cultural traumas that the U.S. has experienced in this regard. In Venezuela we speak freely and without malice about blacks, whites and browns. I have never heard the expression "Afro-Venezuelan" being used in my country, except by pompous, newly graduated sociologists. At any rate, the delegation of TransAfrica visited our country for nine days, a high quality group including actor Danny Glover, Bill Fletcher and others. They attended several government-sponsored events, some very worthwhile, like the rebaptizing of a primary school with the name of Martin Luther King. However, most Venezuelans felt outraged when Bill Fletcher gave a speech in which he put Chávez and King in the same level, as heroes in the fight against racial discrimination. I am sure that decent people all over the world can see the difference between a racial integrator (King) and a racial disintegrator (Chávez). During his nine days visit the group was told, by almost everyone they met with, that there was not a racial problem in Venezuela. Yet, they came back home with the pre-conceived notion (or strategic objective) that the revolution of Chávez is a revolution in favor of the oppressed poor and black, against the whites. This is what they have been saying in the U.S. press, ignoring the fact that Chávez is rejected by 75% of the population and that this percentage includes 85% of brown Venezuelans.

At this moment in time, the group of TransAfrica, together with the Global Women's' Strike is promoting the U.S. speaking tour of Mrs. Nora Castaneda, the President of the Women's Development Bank in Venezuela, already mentioned above. Mrs. Castaneda is described in the invitation as a person of "African and indigenous descent," In the U.S. perhaps this means something, in the context of the existing racial war, but in Venezuela this is a laughable qualification since we are, almost all, of African and indigenous descent. In fact, the term is racist because it excludes an inevitable ingredient of our mix: the Spanish.

TransAfrica Forum is an organization with a noble mission, that of promoting the welfare of the people from African descent all over the world. No one can have objections to that. It is only when they mix this noble purpose with political maneuvering and unfair propaganda practices that they might become open to criticism from people who feel threatened by their actions. TransAfrica has been mostly idle during the last three years. Their only activities of note since 1998 have been their visits to Cuba, Haiti and, now, Venezuela. They do not show much else in their Web site. If this all they are doing, there is a danger that they are becoming a political tool and are abandoning their noble mission. That would be their problem and, frankly, I would not care less. It is only when they touch our lives in Venezuela that they become targets for our criticism. I offered to visit them at their headquarters in Washington D.C., in order to give them the other side of the story. I never received an answer. I would hate to think that men of the stature of Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover are already beyond the stage of being objective and into the stage of not desiring to be confused with facts.

Bringing racial conflict into Venezuela, as an artificial political strategy, is a crime only equivalent to the bringing of smallpox to the Indians of the New World. The difference is that the smallpox came to us unwittingly but the racial issue is coming to us as part of a deadly, conscious, political strategy.

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