Is Venezuela a case study for Racial Democracy based on ethnic identities?

Gabriel Andrade

Is Venezuela a Racial Democracy?

Renowned Yale scholar Amy Chua has recently published a very important book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations]. The main thesis of that book is that, as the astonishing rise of Donald Trump seems to confirm, politics in our age is increasingly driven by ethnic identities. Conflicts that on the surface seem ideological, in fact have deeper ethnic roots, and policymakers should be aware of this, so as to not underestimate the dangers of tribal feelings.

Chua reviews some case studies in support of her thesis. One of them is Venezuela. For decades a stable democracy and a friendly nation to the United States, Hugo Chavez’s rise to power in 1998 caught everyone by surprise. Things then took some unexpected turns, and it began to get ugly. Chavez severed ties with the United States, and took the country on a path of civil strife. Yet, despite the great instability that Chavez’s regime aroused, he managed to stay in power for almost thirteen years (he died in office in 20013) and remain immensely popular, due to two important factors: oil prices and his charismatic personality.

Giving stuff and singing on TV

The sudden rise in the global demand of oil, mainly as a result of India and China being new major consumers ensured that, in the 2000s, oil prices would stay as high as US$130 per barrel. Chavez’ sympathizers have traditionally claimed that his leadership awoke a dormant OPEC, and persuaded oil-producing countries to unilaterally increase barrel prices, so as to supposedly make the world a more just place. There does not seem to be much evidence in favor of this hypothesis. Chavez’s leftist supporters have never really understood the basics of supply and demand. But, be as it may, the fact remains that Chavez did use that oil wealth to demagogically distribute part of it amongst the poor (but, unfortunately, with no adequate planning).

He also provided Venezuelan oil for free, to countries whose regimes shared his socialist ideology (mainly, Cuba), and he was thus protected from international sanctions by the vote of various States in the United Nations and the Organization of American States. He was thus able to build a public image, both domestically and abroad, as a sort of messiah who has come to protect the oppressed, and has the economic means to do it.

He cultivated this provider image by making appearances on national TV, giving away houses, cars, laundry machines, refrigerators, and other houseware. Chavez then discovered that his leadership depended immensely on his charisma, and he sought to expand it. He would address the nation in 8-hour TV shows, singing joropo, telling jokes (some of them very vulgar), and wearing traditional Venezuelan garments as if they were costumes. He would constantly assemble crowds in the tens of thousands, in political rallies where he was the rock star.

The racial elephant in the room

Yet, in her analysis, Chua believes that Chavez’s rise was not all that unexpected. For, Venezuela was very much an ethnic volcano waiting to erupt, and Chavez’s rise was the predictable consequence of centuries of unacknowledged ethnic tensions. In Chua’s analysis, Venezuela has historically been a racist society in denial.

In this South American country, nobody dares speak about race, yet it permeates all throughout society. Historically, a white elite has tightly controlled the wealth, and the darker-skinned masses have been mostly dispossessed. Chavez arrived on the scene promising to redistribute wealth, but he also added the previously unacknowledged ethnic aspect to it: he claimed to represent the peoples of African and indigenous descent, who have been oppressed by the peoples of European descent since the days Venezuela was a Spanish colony.

According to Chua, white Venezuelans refuse to come to terms with this. In Venezuela, as in most Latin American countries, there is the idea of “racial democracy”. Venezuelans like to think of themselves as a people of mixed race, and for that reason, there are no color barriers; in this narrative, racism is not a Venezuelan thing. But, Chua argues that this is an illusion. Racism is all over the place.

Take, for instance, beauty pageants. Apart from oil and baseball players, this is probably Venezuela’s most famous export. Six Miss Universes have come from this country, and the beauty industry is big in Venezuela. Yet, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans are dark-skinned, beauty pageants in Venezuela conform to an exclusively European standard of beauty. Chua makes much of this. Even the models who allegedly represent ethnic minorities (such as Hollywood’s Patricia Velasquez, a Venezuelan Wayuu Native) are surgically modified to resemble more the prevalent standard of white beauty.

The same applies to another prominent Venezuelan export, telenovelas. In these cultural depictions, light-skinned characters are always portrayed with glamour. Dark-skinned characters, by contrast, are usually unskilled, vulgar or diminished. This is even enshrined in popular sayings such as “blanco con bata, medico; negro con bata, chichero” (a white man with a white coat is a doctor, a black man with a white coat is a food truck worker).

Is Chua right?

Chua acknowledges that in Venezuela there was historically a great deal of miscegenation. But, in her account, this by no implies that Venezuela is a colorblind society. In fact, Venezuelans, as the rest of every other country in Latin America, are extremely race conscious, as proven by the detailed records of an individual’s racial category, as represented in Mexican and Peruvian paintings of  the 17thand 18thCenturies, defining all the possible permutations of mixed race breeds: castizo, mestizo, mulato, zambo, morisco, lobo, Indian, chamiso, etc. In Chua’s view, Chavez’s political maneuver was simply to awaken Venezuelans to the unspoken truth of ethnic divisions, and take political advantage of it.

 Is Chua right? Is the idea of “racial democracy” in Venezuela only a myth? Yes, but only partially so. Chua brings forth some relevant facts, but she seems to interpret them too much through the prism of American racial relations. In fact, South American and North American ethnic relations are not altogether similar.

Chua is certainly right about beauty pageants, and about the correlation of lighter skin color with wealth. But, in Latin America ethnic segmentation was not as robust as in North America. Even prior to independence, the Spanish Crown put for sale cedulas de gracias al sacar, documents that, if bought, allowed darker-skinned people to be recognized as white. It seemed like the Spanish Crown implicitly accepted that money (and not so much skin color) speaks.

Ever since, this has been the dominant situation in Venezuela. It has indeed been a traditionally unequal society, but it is far more class-oriented than race-oriented. Whereas the United States was the country of many eugenicists and racial scientists, such things were extremely alien to the Venezuelan idiosyncrasy. Yes, those paintings with racial categories that Chua refers to, existed during Colonial times, but by the time of the Spanish American revolutions in 1810, there was little concern with them, as indeed, as the example of the cedulas de gracias al sacar proves, with money, a person of mixed race could become white.

Chua is also right say that Chavez tried to frame an ethnic confrontation. He certainly succeeded in instigating strife amongst Venezuelans, but it is not so clear that he managed to do so on the basis of race and ethnicity. Again, it was far more about socio-economic status, regardless of skin color. After all, Chavez’s self-proclaimed revolution was Bolivarian, and Simon Bolivar (Venezuela’s national hero) was of pure Spanish descent.

In fact, this may be another significant difference with North America, when it comes to ethnic relations. Although he was not entirely successful, Bolivar, as opposed to Washington, from the very start hoped to overcome ethnic differences and establish a colorblind society. Bolivar himself was nurtured by Matea, an African slave, and he always took pride in that fact. Whereas Washington or Jefferson never considered emancipating black slaves, Bolivar did publically so. He received the military support of Haitian President Alexandre Petion in the Venezuelan struggle for independence, under the condition that slavery be abolished, once Spanish rule was overthrown. Although slavery was not abolished in Bolivar’s time, he did his best to keep his promise to Petion.

For the last 150 years Bolivar has been worshipped in a hero-cult, and Chavez’s government expanded on it. Needless to say, this is far from desirable in a mature society. But, the Bolivarian hero-cult has managed to promote racial integration in Venezuela to a large degree of success. Whereas Washington is a revered figure in white America but not so much in black America, Bolivar is massively revered by Venezuelans of all colors. After all, so the national myth goes, the Libertador’sskin may have been white, but he was suckled by a black woman.

Bolivar himself had to face racial confrontations. One of his generals, Manuel Piar was a pardo (people of mixed race). Piar was a very charismatic man, and he capitalized on the ethnic resentment of common soldiers, in order to emerge as a leader within the ranks, and conspire against Bolivar. The Libertador neutralized Piar and ordered his execution. He has been harshly criticized by historians for this action. Yet, although Piar’s execution may have been due to Bolivar’s own ambitions, and the Libertadorcould have been far more lenient, it is nevertheless true that, by executing Piar, Bolivar was keen to demonstrate to the emerging nation that, once the Spanish colonial order came to an end, skin color would not make a difference. In fact, Bolivar forced one of his nieces to marry one of his generals, Laurencio Silva, a dark-skinned man. It was a calculated political move to make it clear that, in the new Venezuela, race would have no place.

After Bolivar’s death, the builders of Venezuelan nationalism went to great lengths to construe a mixed race identity, and this is what schoolchildren of all colors have been taught in Venezuela for the past two centuries, even if it may be more lip service than reality. Yet, the fact remains that, whereas American nationalism did not care for African or aboriginal identities, Venezuelan nationalism did.

Additionally, slavery came to an end peacefully in Venezuela, as most slave owners were compensated by the State. Again, this is in stark contrast to the United States. The American Civil War was brutal, and tough conditions were placed on the defeated South; in part, this prompted the rise of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. As opposed to former American slave owners, Venezuelan former slave owners had little resentment towards blacks, in large measure because they did not suffer big financial losses as a result of abolition.

Probably for these reasons, Chavez’s appeals to racial confrontation did not prosper in Venezuela, despite his enormous popularity. For historical reasons that have mostly to do with miscegenation and nationalist narrative, race and ethnicity are far more fluid in Venezuela than in the United States, and this makes it harder for populist politicians to appeal to skin color in confrontations.

At most, populist rhetoric can appeal to race, but only when it comes to confrontation with foreign countries. Recently, for example, capitalizing on the rise of the Alt Right in the United States and its support of Donald Trump, Delcy Rodriguez (a high ranking official in the Venezuelan government) has frequently claimed that White Supremacy is the culprit of Venezuela’s collapse. She may have in mind American whites, but not really Venezuelan whites. After all, most of the top-ranked officials in Venezuela’s corrupt government are whites, most notably green-eyed Diosdado Cabello. For many government officials, to arouse racial resentment against Venezuela’s whites would ultimately amount to political suicide.

This is not to say that Venezuela is free of racism. Chua is certainly right in warning about the explosive potential of ethnic tensions and tribal politics, and Venezuela is not altogether free from this danger. But, despite a history of conquest, genocide and slavery, Venezuela’s race relations remain much calmer than in other multi-color societies. This is still little consolation for a country that, as Chua rightly notes, is undergoing a major humanitarian crisis.