Long before the statues were taken down in the U.S., social movements in Venezuela removed all monuments from Caracas.
Five centuries ago, Christopher Columbus embarked on his third voyage of conquest and on August 1, 1498 planted the flag of Spain in the Paria Peninsula — now present-day Venezuela.
506 years later, on October 12, 2004 — the Day of Indigenous Resistance, previously marked in Columbus’ honor — the Italian colonizer was “brought to trial” in the streets of the country where he first landed.
On that day, a 9-meter high statue of Columbus, in downtown Caracas, was toppled from where it had stood for decades.
Several social movements held a mock trial and “prosecuted” Columbus, declared him “guilty”, demolished his stone incarnate, bathed it in red paint and dragged it to the nearby Teresa Carreno Theater, where it was hung.
Long before activists would take to doing the same to Columbus statues in the United States, their counterparts in Caracas had set the stage: by 2009, every monument dedicated to the conqueror in the Venezuelan capital had been removed.
Concrete action, symbolic value
It was in 2004 that the late socialist President and leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, changed October 12 from the day that celebrated Columbus and the history of colonialism, to the Day of Indigenous Resistance.
It was in reaction to this move that social movements in the city took to topple the statue.
“There was a very strong revolutionary spirit in Venezuela at that time,” Katrina Kozarek, a reporter at Venezuela Analysis, who along with Cooperativa Calle Y Media, created a documentary about the event, told teleSUR.
“People wanted concrete action, not just symbolic,” she added.
Still, the action held tremendous significance for many.
“It was an act of symbolic justice,” Angel Montiel, a member of the Organization of Indigenous Youth of Venezuela said at the time. “It represented invasion and genocide in our land.”
Soon after the statue’s destruction, hundreds of Indigenous people and their allies took to the streets to sing and dance to commemorate the act of resistance, chanting “Justice for the people, justice for the people!”
Protesters had drawn parallels between Columbus and then-U.S. president George W. Bush, calling on both to “get out” of Venezuela.
On that day, Indigenous groups also presented a formal request to the city’s mayor to have the decimated statue replaced with that of the Indigenous chief Guaicaipuro — who five centuries ago had led the resistance against Spanish colonialism — a promise that was fulfilled in 2015 under President Nicolas Maduro.
Police, however, who at that time were “very much a reactionary force, still in the hands of the opposition”, explained Kozarek, responded by spraying tear gas at the crowd. Five people were also arrested for taking part.
In response to the arrests, a statement released by the 90 people who claimed responsibility for the act, declared, “We respond by saying that accusations of vandalism, wherever they come from, we reject them absolutely.”
“We are absolutely proud of what we have done, since it is finally destroyed … one of the strongest symbols of what has been the genocidal, exploitative, dehumanizing, deconstructive and truly vandalic exercise of all the imperialisms that have plagued this planet of misery,” it continued. “And in particular the processes of conquest and extermination of more than 70 million human beings … and the death of more than 30 million original inhabitants of Africa, brought as slaves, from the day that this Spanish ‘national hero’ put his boots on these lands.”
Still, it was also Chavez who initially rejected the act as one of “anarchy”.
The Venezuelan leader’s main concern at the time, however, explained Kozarek, was “reaction from the opposition”, who supported keeping statues of Columbus.
“The country was just coming out of the coup d’etat,” she explained, adding that the Bolivarian government had viewed the toppling as a surprising, risky act given the response it could have incited from the opposition, following their attempts to oust the government in 2002.
Later, Chavez would come out to approve the action, praising it and calling Columbus “genocidal.”
The leader of the country’s Bolivarian revolution had always repudiated Columbus, having also called the figure “genocidal” in the past.
“They taught us to admire Christopher Columbus,” Chavez later said in a 2007 televised address. “In Europe, they still speak of the ‘discovery’ of America and want us to celebrate the day.”
That year, the Venezuelan leader revised the nation’s education curriculum to emphasize that the Spanish conquest of the country was destructive, rather than heroic.
Indigenous rights and the Constituent Assembly
The Bolivarian Constitution of 1999 recognized, for the first time ever in the country’s history, the Indigenous population’s right to exist, its languages, cultures, and territories.
With Venezuela’s current National Constituent Assembly, ANC, process underway — which Maduro called to bring the country towards dialogue, in the face of U.S.-backed violence and threats of foreign intervention — Indigenous people are again putting their demands forward.
In July, 1250 community assemblies elected eight Indigenous representatives to the Assembly, who are tasked with gathering input from their communities in the redrafting of the Constitution.
The main objectives of the Indigenous candidates will be to create an Indigenous Electoral Registration Law and improve access to education. They will also be tasked with preserving and disseminating their respective languages, histories and cultural heritage.
“The spirit of what happened (to the Columbus statue) and the spirit of what is happening now with the Constituent Assembly is similar,” said Kozarek.
“Popular movements emphasize that the revolution cannot be just rhetoric,” she added. “People have placed faith in the Constituent Assembly process, (optimistic) that this will not happen.”