In January 2004, as the president of TransAfrica Forum, I had the honor of leading the first African American delegation to meet with the leaders of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. It was important for us to conduct this visit in order to better understand what was transpiring but also to get a better sense of race, the Afro-descendant movement, and the revolutionary process in Venezuela.
Our delegation had the opportunity to meet with President Hugo Chavez on more than one occasion, but the first real dialogue was more than memorable. Chavez gave us an overview of Venezuela’s history and what led to his winning power. I thanked him for the meeting and proceeded to describe my feelings at the time of the 2002 coup. I mentioned to him and his colleagues that I was very sad upon hearing of the coup and, of course, delighted when he was restored to power. What really struck me at the time of the coup, however, was looking at the faces of the crowds on television. I looked at the crowds that supported Chavez and those who opposed him and at that moment so much of what was unfolding in Venezuela clicked for me. For, it was clear that Chavez had phenomenal support among the poorer and the darker parts of the Venezuelan population while the opposition looked like it could have walked in from Madrid.
One of the most important contributions of President Chavez and the Bolivarian process has been to help to put race on the table for discussions and action. Under President Chavez, renewed attention has gone to the indigenous and the Afro-descendant populations. This attention, we should note, was not the result of Chavez alone, but a combination of factors with the most important being the actual social movements of the indigenous and Afro-descendant populations of Venezuela. It is critically important to grasp that in Venezuela, including in many progressive and Left circles, there is adamant denial of race as a factor in Venezuela’s reality. The opposition to President Chavez, we should be clear, denies race altogether. In the Bolivarian movement, the recognition of race and racism within Venezuelan society has been uneven. But with the combination of the social movements plus Chavez’s support, race came to be openly discussed in Venezuela and actual steps were taken to address a very different form of White supremacy than the version with which we are familiar here in North America.
I had hoped to return to Venezuela and once again meet President Chavez. That will, obviously, be impossible. Chavez will be deeply missed by so many fighters for justice. His recognition of the importance of race and the struggle for racial justice placed him in a unique role in Latin America as a conscious ally of the movements of the Indigenous peoples and the Afro-descendant populations. His audacity alone was enough for one to love him, not to mention his humor and brilliance. We cannot afford to lose fighters like Hugo Chavez, which is why it remains so critical that genuine movements for social justice and transformation are producing new leaders of his quality each day.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and the author of “They’re Bankrupting Us” – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.” Follow him at www.billfletcherjr.com.