Venezuela's Black Vote

Venezuela's Black Vote

by Roy Levy Williams
Amsterdam News - Dec 20, 2006

Venezuelans went to the polls in record numbers this month to overwhelmingly vote for President Hugo Chavez. More than 80 percent of registered voters in Venezuelans voted in what the U.S State Department called a "democratic process" and an international delegation of monitors confirmed as "a free and fair election."

As one of the NAACP's official monitors, what I believe to be a lesser known story is the power of the Black vote in that election. According to Jesus "Chucho" Garcia, a dynamic Afro-Venezuelan leader, approximately 30 percent of Venezuelans are people of markedly African descent. And as is the case in this country, the majority of these Afro Venezuelans are at the bottom of the economic ladder. But over the past few years, they finally see hope.

President Chavez proudly identifies himself as a man of African descent and is often the subject of racial epithets by the wealthy elite who are predominantly of European descent. Not only does he acknowledge his heritage, the president has made changes that have aligned most Afro-Venezuelans with him.

He won by 63 percent of the vote is in no small part due to the passionate support of Afro Venezuelans. The majority of the poor in Venezuela - like in many Latin American countries - are disproportionately Black. Race is "the elephant in the room" in Venezuela, where I heard lighter-skinned Latin Americans tell me everyone in their country were the same nationality and equal.

"Not so" says Chucho Garcia in a most impassioned voice. He implored us to "take a look at the private television stations, owned in Venezuela by the wealthy elite. From the stars of the popular soap operas to the reporters and anchors of the news, you rarely see someone with brown skin. The more European you are, the more you are likely to be privileged, in college or on the cover of beauty magazines."

Garcia and his colleagues suggested, "look at the amount of education people had, or at the jobs they had, and then decide whether color made a difference!"

Using the new Constitution, President Chavez has taken the lead in beginning to tackle the question of race. Chucho for instance has his own show on state- owned television. The president has also promoted a number of Afro-Venezuelans to high positions. Several delegates of the NAACP met with the Venezuelan Deputy Minister for African Affairs and after explaining our role, listened to him talk about the changes in Venezuela.

Some of these changes include forming a commission to search for solutions to racial inequality. The president has also agreed to place "Afro-Venezuelan" as a race on their census questionnaire - the first time in the history of the country. It has been said, some of the credit for these changes go to noted African- Americans such as Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte who have urged an honest grappling with the racial question.

The president is given credit for the majority of the social changes. Cheered on by the majority of Afro Venezuelans, he has instituted widespread constitutionally protected change. The Venezuelan constitution adopted in 1999 following President Chavez's first election as president allows all Venezuelans greater benefits in education, health care and economic opportunity including training and employment. The constitution goes so far as to recognize the value of women who are at home raising children.

Stay-at-home moms are eligible for Social Security.

Many of the accusations against President Chavez's government by the Bush administration do not hold up under scrutiny. The Bush administration claims there is no free press. But virtually all of the major media is owned by the wealthy elite, and on almost a daily basis they pilloried President Chavez.

The claims that Venezuela is a dictatorship is belied by this third election affirming the people's choice of President Chavez - each time winning by a larger percentage than the last.

Most people know President Chavez as the man who called President Bush the devil at the United Nations but people don't know that the Bush administration has continually tried to undermine the Chavez government. It started with U.S. support of the 2002 coup against Chavez and covert funding of opposition groups spending at least $25 million according to press reports and a Freedom of Information Act request. And then there was Vice President Dick Cheney likening Chavez to Adolph Hitler.

Even with our chilly relations, Venezuela has been a willing partner in providing oil resources to the poor in our country. The Venezuelan oil company CITGO, was the only energy firm to answer a call to donate low income heating oil to help low income residents in some areas of the US cope with skyrocketing fuel prices.

Chavez is the leader in a movement to pioneer a new Latin American model of economic development, one that embraces private sector but spreads wealth more equitably. Nations from Ecuador to Nicaragua are following Chavez' lead -- sharing economic resources with more of their citizens. And those leaders holding that philosophy are winning over the votes of Afro- Latinos and others who are poor.

When you talk to the ordinary folks in the towns of Venezuela. They believe Chavez has the right formula and said our country and the Bush Administration can learn several lessons from Chavez.

First, when there are issues on the ballot that people believe make a difference in their lives - they vote.

In Venezuela, people began standing in lines at three in the morning for polls that weren't opening until six.

The Bush administration should also learn that continuing a policy of hostility towards this Afro- Latino nation is a great mistake. The wiser course for our administration would be to respect Venezuela and the government chosen by its voters and find a way to live and trade fairly with our neighbors in peace.