On Saturday, the Belizean Organization in Solidarity with the Bolivarian Revolution (Bel-Ven) held an event in commemoration of Afro-Venezuelan History Month, which is celebrated throughout the month of May in Venezuela. The 10th of May is recognized there as the Day of Afro-Venezuelans and was chosen in honor of José Leonardo Chirino, a Black revolutionary who led an insurrection against Spanish imperialists in 1795.
The Belize event was held at the Venezuelan Institute of Cooperation and Culture (IVCC) in Belmopan and included brief statements from Bel-Ven members, as well as an address from the new Chargé d’Affairs of the Embassy, and a series of video clips and short films focusing on the experience, history and culture of African-Venezuelans, and the role of solidarity that Venezuela has played in South-South relations between South America and Africa and the Caribbean.
Staff member of the IVCC, Mr. Alfredo Gongora, explained from a historical perspective that African-Venezuelans are recognized for their role in the 15-year struggle for the independence of Venezuela, and he referred to an Independence hero affectionately called “el Negro Primero”. Gongora remarked that Pedro Camejo is now at the Pantheon in Venezuela, an act carried out by President Nicolas Maduro, and a small act of the state’s recognition of the role of Afro-Venezuelans, not previously recognized before the Bolivarian Revolution.
The Bel-Ven chair, Cesar Ross, spoke of the importance of African history in Venezuela, and of the push by the majority of the population, of African and Indigenous descent, to nationalize public goods for public consumption and social welfare. Focusing more on the grassroots perspective, Ross also described the importance of having Belizeans know that the Venezuelan people behind the solidarity efforts such as Mission Milagro, PetroCaribe and others, are largely African-descendants. “The corporate media does not show the faces of African-Venezuelans or of indigenous Venezuelans, so for us in Belize it is so important that we share the images of Venezuela as a country of people who look like us, and who are on a different path of social justice,” said Ross.
One major film shown during the event, Hugo Was Here (Por Aqui Paso Chavez) was created in Mali by the former Venezuelan Ambassador to Angola and founder of the Network of Afro-Venezuelan Organizations, Jesus Chucho Garcia, and it documents the recent history of Venezuela’s role in addressing systemic anti-Black racism and denouncing exploitation of the African continent — central to US and European economic models for Africa— in favour of cooperation and solidarity.
Since the death of Commandante Hugo Chavez, Venezuela has continued these efforts and strengthened its support for sovereignty through PetroCaribe; educational, health and housing initiatives; literacy campaigns and disaster relief missions in the Caribbean and on the continent of Africa. The state of Venezuela has also, like Cuba, formally declared support for the efforts of the CARICOM nations, including Belize, in their 2013 and ongoing joint demands for “justice and reparations for slavery and native genocide”.
The organizers explained that even the understanding of Venezuela as a “very Black country” is greatly lacking in Belize, attributing this to corporate efforts that globally “exclude the stories of African and African-descendant peoples”. One member said, “Afro Venezuelans look no different than Afro-Belizeans. We are all one family…. We have been so cut off from our culture and from ourselves and our knowledge of who we are, that we don’t immediately recognize each other”.
According to their 2011 Census, Venezuelans with African heritage make up over 50% of the country’s total population. The 2011 census was the first in which Venezuelans were allowed to self-identify themselves, with most using the categories such as Moreno, Black or African-descendant.
The state’s inclusion of African-descendants in the 2011 census was a victory, considering that in many countries throughout the Americas, Black populations are not figured into the national statistics. Most states since the abolition of slavery have attempted to “whiten” the populations with a myth of “mestizaje” and racialized enforcement of borders, invisibilizing and further exploiting the African populations of the Americas. In Belize, it is occasionally said that unwritten barriers have been put in place to limit immigration, often to the exclusion of Black populations. It is also often remembered that the immigration policies following Hurricane Hattie caused a drastic decrease in the Black-identified population of Belize.
Venezuela’s history, not unlike those of its neighbours, includes a legacy of genocide and enslavement. It is estimated that during the 16th to 19th centuries, at least 100,000 Africans — more than ¼ of Belize’s population — were taken to Venezuela, enslaved and forced to work along the Caribbean coast and in the central states, mostly in coffee and cacao plantations. Anti-Black legislation, like legalized slavery and indentured servitude in Belize, had been explicit. Abolition occurred less than 200 years ago, in 1854; and, abolition did not result in equality or in reparatory justice. Emphasis on “racial mixing” and “mestizaje” was intended to de-emphasize African heritage and many policies were explicitly white supremacist. For example, in 1912 the Immigration Law denied entrance into Venezuela by any immigrants other than Europeans; in 1966, the law was “slightly modified”.
The grassroots of Afro-Venezuela have organized for centuries against and despite the barriers faced before them. Throughout the centuries of legal enslavement, the African population resisted slavery and genocide and created cumbes, often referred to in Belize as maroon societies, and elsewhere as palenques or quilombos. These were African and indigenous communities, built on principles of liberation, cooperation and ancestral cultural and spiritual practices. They continue to be a model of communal living and a direct challenge to white supremacy, capitalism and patriarchy and are constantly referred to by the Afro-Venezuelan base who actively push the Bolivarian Revolution towards those same principles.
During the Saturday event, the Bel-Ven members expressed the importance of Afro-Venezuela History Month for the integral role that African-Venezuelans have played in the history of the country. They reflected on the current crossroads of the Bolivarian Revolution as it faces major US-sponsored opposition. Within the movement, supporters of Chavez and his legacy, push the process toward a fuller model of the cumbes of the past.
A member remarked at the Saturday event, “As you look around this room, it is clear that most of us are African… it is no accident that most of us involved in the solidarity work for a country whose people are dedicated to the rights of the poor, are mostly Afro-Belizean.”