“Chávez, an icon in Venezuela,” reads the March 5th edition of the Spanish language international publication La Prensa Libre following the announcement President Hugo Chávez succumbed after a lengthy, public battle with cancer.
The controversial leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, his staunch commitment to socialism and defiant rejection of capitalism earned him friends and foes throughout the Americas. A polarizing and complex figure portrayed as both Savior and Satan, history will regard him as both a democratically elected autocrat and revolutionary who played an instrumental role in the resurgence of the Latin American left.
While conflicting headlines fuel the discourse as to whether the Chávez legacy is that of one who constricted Venezuelan human rights or drastically reduced poverty, gains made in Afro Venezuelan communities through his radical socio-economic programs should not be overlooked.
As Venezuela’s first multiracial president, Hugo Chávez Frías broke the mold of wealthy European descended oligarchical by rising to power from the nation’s mixed race working class majority in 1999. Many regard Chávez as the first Latin American president to proudly embrace indigenous and African ancestry, thereby breaking the racist paradigm of power and imperialism in the region. In an interview with Democracy Now on September 20, 2005, he stated:
“When we were children, we were told that we have a motherland, and that motherland was Spain. However, we have discovered later, in our lives, that as a matter of fact, we have several motherlands. And one of the greatest motherlands of all is no doubt, Africa. We love Africa… And I’m so proud to have this mouth and this hair, because it’s African.”
Perhaps it was this pride that led President Chávez, El Comandante, to promote some of the most racially progressive programs in this hemisphere.
African descendants in Latin America comprise approximately 26 percent (150 million) of the total population, but represent nearly 50 percent of its poor. Whereas the region has made steady gains in the alleviation of poverty in Black communities through national and international programs such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, Venezuela has experienced a remarkable turnaround.
Prior to the Bolivarian movement, the status of Afro Venezuelans largely resembled others in the region that were subjected to historic racial and economic discrimination; the redistribution of oil revenues into social programs cut Venezuela’s poverty from 55% in 1995 to 26.4% in 2009. Halving the poverty rate has left an indelible impact Black communities who for the first time had regular access to free education, healthcare and guaranteed housing thanks to the implementation of Chávez’s Social Missions.
In addition to these reforms, President Chávez mandated a series of measures to counteract structural racism towards Black Venezuelans and decreed the National Council for the Development of Afro-Descendant Communities to advance the cause. On May 10, 2005 the nation commemorated its inaugural Afro Venezuelan Day (El Día de la AfroVenezolanidad), which honors Black revolutionary hero José Leonardo Chirino who led a revolt of Black and mulattos against colonial authorities in 1795. Concordantly, the government recognized May as national Afro descendant month and instituted the teaching of Afro Venezuelan history into its statewide curricula.
Furthering its commitment to ending racial disparities, the Chávez administration passed the Organic Law Against Racial Discrimination in 2011, which holds the power to establish “mechanisms to prevent, respond to, punish and eradicate racial discrimination by any person, group of persons, public authorities, and private institutions, and civil, economic, political, cultural, and social organizations.” And also in 2011, Venezuela changed its national census to reflect a question that would allow its citizens to identify themselves as Black for the first time.
As the result of numerous reforms, President Chávez held widespread and unwavering support amongst Afro Venezuelans whose votes led him to a decisive victory in his third and final electoral term.
Viewed as both victor and villain, Hugo Chávez's legacy in the recognition and preservation of Afro Venezuelan culture remains unparalleled.
Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur. Her entrepreneurship, HUE LLC, provides consulting solutions for development projects throughout the African diaspora. You may follow her on Twitter: @MsJamilaAisha and contact her via www.hueglobal.com