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Venezuela: Debates on Laws and Identities

Image from Nuno Lobito, Copyright Demotix

May, the month of “Afro-Venezuelan” culture, ended this year with a new law against racial discrimination and a proposal to create a ministry for African descent. The news shot up largely in the Venezuelan blogosphere, as some shared opinions regarding one of the most complex and confusing aspects of the country: identity.

In the last few years, Hugo Chávez's government and his standard for inclusion has brought back profound discussions regarding equality and social justice.  Historically, the process of interracial mixing and immigration has made Venezuelan society look at itself as tolerant and egalitarian before different ethnicities, particularly in comparison to other countries, in which coexistence has resulted in significantly more unstable consequences.

Wikipedia article, “Immigration to Venezuela,” [es] presents an introduction to understand this phenomenon [es]:

La Inmigración en Venezuela, ha sido constante desde la independencia del país en 1830. Con anterioridad, al inicio de la época colonial la población predominante era de origen indígena, española y africana. Con el tiempo aumentaron los mestizos de las tres razas, los cuales se convirtieron en la población mayoritaria en el siglo XVIII. La población indígena disminuyó en el siglo XVI, el siglo de la conquista por parte de España, no solamente a consecuencia de la propia conquista sino por la introducción de enfermedades.

Venezuela recibió una gran cantidad de inmigrantes entre 1948 y 1961 cuando aún era un país de apenas 5 millones de habitantes por lo tanto el proceso de mestizaje ha sido muy intenso.

Immigration to Venezuela has been constant since the country's independence in 1830.  Previously, upon the start of the colonial era, the population predominantly was of indigenous, Spanish and African origins. With time, mestizos of three races emerged, and formed a majority in the population in the 18th century. The indigenous population diminished in the 16th century, the century of Spanish conquest, not only as a result of the conquest but also due to the introduction of diseases. 

Venezuela received a large quantity of immigrants between 1948 and 1961 when it was still a country of barely 5 million people and, as such, the process of interracial mixing has been quite intense.

Nevertheless, the social inequalities that separate the different ethnicities have been signaled more diligently in recent years. It remains despite the fact that many think that Venezuelan society does not suffer from these problems, there are discriminatory practices very present in the country's daily life, though they may not necessarily be openly acknowledged.Juandemaro explains it further in his post “A los negros les llegó su día” [es] (The day for blacks has arrived):

… el espíritu igualitario de la guerra de independencia y el movimiento de la Federación, se expresa de muchas maneras y sirve de catalizador a la venganza, permeando las nuevas ideas del liberalismo que sustituyeron a las monárquicas, quedando en la superficie como una actitud negociadora y horizontal (…) sin embargo subsiste una discriminación encubierta que se arrastró todos estos años, siempre con la inquina que da la injusticia que conforma la redistribución de la riqueza material.

Los venezolanos de piel oscura, morena, moteada (…) ocupan los lugares más remotos del entarimado estructural; lo social, lo económico y la educación, les llega a cuentagotas…

… the egalitarian spirit of the War of Independence and the Federation Movement expresses itself in a number of ways and serves as a catalyst for vengeance, permeating new ideas of liberalism that substituted monarchies, remaining on the surface as a negotiating and horizontal attitude (…) nevertheless, a closeted discrimination exists, dragging along through these years, always with a grudge that brings the injustice that makes up the redistribution of material wealth. 

Venezuelans of dark, brown and mottled skin (…) occupy the most remote places of the structural floorboard; social, economic and educational advancements reach them little by little…

And with respect to the law [es]:

El instrumento legal que condena las viejas prácticas excluyentes y discriminatorias de blancos contra indios y negros, viene a llenar un vacío tan necesario en la región latinoamericana (…) los negros podrán educarse mirando a la madre África, sin el peligro del cimarronaje de que hablaba el intelectual haitiano René Depestre…

The legal instrument that condemns outdated excluding and discriminatory practices of whites against Indians and Blacks, begins to fill a void so necessary in the Latinamerican region (…) blacks can educate themselves looking to mother Africa, without the danger of rebelling against their master as Haitian intellectual René Depestre spoke about …

On the other hand, Mercedes, in her blog Código Venezuela [es] analyzes the celebration of Afro-Venezuelanism in depth and maintains that the ethnic differentiation that the law, and possible ministry, supports is absurd:

Nadie aclaró de qué se ocuparía un tinglado ministerial para asuntos de venezolanos cuya piel tenga alguna coloración. (…) ningún venezolano es genéticamente puro, ya que toda la población, con independencia de su aspecto físico, tiene genes mezclados (…) cada individuo posee genes de las tres razas. Ya sea que resulte evidente o no.

Así que el día de la afrovenezolanidad es el día de todos los venezolanos.

No one clarified the ministerial platform that would be occupied for matters of Venezuelans with colored skin. (…) No Venezuelan is genetically pure, since the entire population, independent of its physical aspect, has mixed genes (…) each individual possess genes of the three races. Whether it be evident or not. 

Hence this day of Afro-Venezuelism is a day for all Venezuelans.

Likewise, Antonio José Guevara and Brunilde I. Palacios Rivas, through their collective blog, Aporrea [es], do not believe that the law assimilates the values of that which is known as 21st century Socialism in a just manner:

…en la referida ley se niega el pluralismo jurídico (…) y por otro lado (…) viene a contradecir la potestad multiétnico, pluricultural y multilingüe que se encuentra establecido (sic) en el Preámbulo de la Constitución Bolivariana

… in the aforementioned law, legal pluralism is negated (…) and on the other hand (…) comes to contradict multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual authority that is found to be established (sic) in the Preamble to the Bolivarian Constitution

As a temporary conclusion to the discussion, let us look at Kira Kariakin's reflections, made some time ago in her blog Anotaciones al borde [es]. In her post, Kira observes the increase in aggressive discourse on behalf of the groups for and against Chávez and the multiplication of ethnic insults against those who today rise the new law (although specifically defend the Venezuelans of African ascent):

El que desee seguir multiplicando la ignorancia que lo haga, pero que sea consciente de que lo que se repite hasta el cansancio se convierte en verdad. Y en este caso, el odio racial puede llegar a convertirse en una verdad para este país dolorosa y absurda. Sin sentido, porque es justamente el componente racial una de las cosas que más lo define y lo enaltece. La capacidad de mezclarnos sin mayores prejuicios no sólo biológicamente sino culturalmente.

Justificar el uso de términos como zambo, mono, niche en vista de la rabia e indignación que sentimos es como justificar un crimen pasional…

Cansa oír día tras día este tipo de argumentos racistas. Peor es oír que ¿por qué no, si el mismo Chávez apela a la raza para su discurso? Y esto me descorazona más porque es tratar de apagar el fuego con más fuego

Escribo esto como reflexión. En un intento quizás vano de que quien lo lea apele a su razón y no lo básico de sus emociones, que aplique una inteligencia emocional mínima para encontrar el camino de vuelta a aquello que nos distinguía como nación, un verdadero crisol de razas y culturas donde blancos, negros, indios, mulatos, mestizos, zambos, semitas, o lo que sean eran venezolanos sin importar nada más.

He who wishes to continue multiplying the ignorance that he creates, but remains conscious of that which is repeating to the point of exhaustion, becomes a reality.  And in this case, racial hatred can become a reality for this painful and absurd country.  It does not make sense, because the racial component is truly one of the many that defines and glorifies it.  The ability to mix with one another without major prejudice not only biologically but also culturally. 

To justify the use of terms such as zambo, mono [monkey], common in the view of the rage and indignation that we feel is like justifying a crime of passion …

I am tired of hearing day after day these types of racial arguments.  Even worse is to hear, “why not? if Chávez himself appeals to race for his discourse?”  And this disheartens me more because it is fighting fire with fire.

I write this as a reflection.  In an intent that is perhaps vain, that those who read it appeal to their reason and not the basis of their emotions, that they apply minimal, emotional intelligence to find their way back to that which distinguishes us as a nation, a true melting pot of races and cultures where whites, blacks, Indians, mulatos, mestizos, zambos, semitas or whoever else are Venezuelans regardless of anything else.

The text that describes the law can be found here [es].

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