icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle


Danny Glover, Haiti and the Politics of Revolutionary Cinema in Venezuela

Since the inception of the oil industry in the early twentieth century, Venezuela has had strong cultural ties to the United States. President Hugo Chávez however has sought to change this by cultivating a sense of cultural nationalism in his country. Perhaps the hallmark of Chávez's new cultural policy is Villa del Cine, a spanking new film studio. Inaugurated in June 2006 amid much fanfare, the $42 million project under the Ministry of Culture aims to produce 19 feature-length films a year, in addition to documentaries and television series.


Through this "Bolivarian Cinecittà," Chávez seeks to spur production of films dealing with social empowerment, South American history, and Venezuelan values.  Chávez himself has long favored such movies: two of Chávez's favorite films include El Caracazo, directed by Roman Chalbaud, which depicts popular protests and riots against the corrupt government of Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1989. The second, Amaneció de Golpe (The Coup Awakened) by Carlos Azpúrua, deals with Chávez's attempted military coup against the Pérez regime in 1992.


By spurring local film production, Chávez and the staff at Villa del Cine hope to counteract the pervasive influence of Hollywood and to promote Venezuelan history and culture. "They [foreign films] inoculate us with messages that have nothing to do with our traditions," the
Venezuelan leader said during Villa del Cine's inauguration ceremony. Though some foreign films were "enjoyable," Chávez remarked, most Indians and Latin Americans in them were portrayed as people that were "savage and dangerous, who have to be eliminated."

"Hollywood sends a message to the world that tries to sustain the so-called American way of life and imperialism," he added. "It is like a dictatorship." Venezuela is hardly the first government to subsidize cinematic production. In many European nations as well as Latin
American countries like Brazil and Mexico, it's common for authorities to provide state funding for movie making. On the other hand, Villa del Cine has not been immune from criticism. Ironically, some charge that the film studio is promoting Hollywood stars like Danny Glover while neglecting the local Venezuelan film industry. The controversy has put Villa del Cine on the defensive and led to accusations that the facility is playing favorites.


Villa del Cine Seeks To Counteract Hollywood


While researching my latest book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left
(Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), I traveled to Villa del Cine, located outside of the Venezuelan town of Guarenas. The government had spent lavishly there, and the facility included two film studios, audio and video equipment, warehouses and an administrative building with areas
for post-production, animation, costumes, casting, and food service.


I sat down to speak with Lorena Almarza, Villa del Cine's idealistic director. A former student of social and political psychology, Almarza became particularly interested in culture as a means of encouraging community organization. Growing up in the western city of Barquisimeto, she familiarized herself with the writings of such theorists as Antonio Gramsci and Paulo Freyre. Meanwhile, she frequented local film clubs and became interested in cinema. "Later I went to Caracas to study psychology in the Central University," she remarked. "I started to work as an usher. After that I began to organize film festivals."


Once Chávez came to power, Almarza worked with the state-run Bolivarian schools, helping to bring movies to children and provide manuals explaining how students might interpret images and psychological profiles of different characters.  When I asked Almarza to talk about her work at Villa del Cine, she explained enthusiastically that she was proud to be part of an
"experimental" state project. Historically, the Venezuelan authorities had provided minimal resources towards cultural promotion. But the Chávez government established a distributor, Amazonia Films, as an alternative to commercial networks.


Since opening in 2006, Amazonia has acquired films from Latin America, Europe and Asia. Amazonia officials have also started to provide support to independent film producers with cost reductions of up to 35 percent. Instead of merely providing minor funding towards
incipient film production, the state has now created incentives so as to increase film production and to enable moviemakers to acquire their own equipment.


The new Minister of Culture, Francisco Sesto, began to encourage the creation of audio-visual cooperatives. The idea was that filmmakers would bring their proposals to the table and Villa del Cine would decide if the government was interested in promoting the project. "It's
all about the transformation of the state," she says, "and how people might become participants in the development of film through their own art." So far, Villa del Cine has shot on location in all twenty-four Venezuelan states and in 2005-2006 the studio filmed 357 productions.


Almarza has overseen the production of TV series documenting educational developments under Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution. But Villa del Cine has also shot films about Indians and music, and in 2007 the studio planned to commence work on some fictional films. The authorities also hope to spur the creation of a network of community movie theaters. In 2006, 80 new theaters were created and authorities seek to build yet more that could show films produced at Villa del Cine.


Ultimately, Almarza and her staff hope that films made at Villa del Cine will be shown at most any Venezuelan shopping mall along with the usual Hollywood fare. Venezuela cannot compete economically with Hollywood, but Villa del Cine seeks to provide alternatives to
globalized homogeneity. As Almarza explained to me, film serves as useful tool in the "battle of ideas."


Enter Danny Glover


As I sit with Almarza at Villa del Cine, I turn the discussion towards African-American actor Danny Glover, co-star of the Lethal Weapon and Dreamgirls movies. A long-time civil rights activist and critic of the Bush administration, the actor is chairman of the TransAfrica Forum, an advocacy group for African Americans and other members of Africa's diaspora.


The Hollywood celebrity, who considers Chávez "remarkable," has been a frequent visitor to Venezuela. In January 2004, TransAfrica Forum sent a delegation of influential artists, actors, activists and scholars to Caracas to meet with government officials. Glover, who accompanied the delegation, expressed his excitement at the social changes taking place in Venezuela. The actor remarked that the U.S. media's portrayal of Venezuela had "nothing to do with reality."

Glover added that he was in Venezuela "to listen and learn, not only from government and opposition politicians, but to share with the people, those who are promoting the changes in this country and we want to be in contact with those who benefit from those changes."

Glover and others later presided over the inauguration of a new "Martin Luther King, Jr." school in the coastal town of Naiguata. The area is home to large numbers of Afro-Venezuelans. The school inauguration was the first official Venezuelan recognition of the
importance of the slain civil rights leader. What's more, the government launched a photo exposition to honor Dr. King.


Speaking at the event, Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States Bernardo Álvarez declared, "The visit by members of the TransAfrica Forum represents a struggle that goes beyond the figure of Martin Luther King; his struggle, his ideas and the African-American social movements inspired by him. This is a struggle aimed at defending people's rights, not only in the United States, but in the hemisphere and the world."


Glover, clearly touched by the occasion, commented, "This isn't Danny Glover the artist. I'm here as a citizen, not only of the U.S., but a citizen of the world. We understand fully the importance of this historical moment." Chávez later honored the late Dr. King during his radio and TV show Aló, Presidente!. Glover and others were invited on air to participate.


Glover's support for the Bolivarian Revolution continued into 2005. In July of that year, the Hollywood entertainer returned to Venezuela, this time accompanied by singer Harry Belafonte. Once in Caracas, Glover attended the ceremonial launching of a new TV news station called Telesur, a network that has received key financial support from Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay.


Glover was impressed with the new media initiative but criticized the station for not having any people of African or indigenous descent on its advisory board. Chávez himself called in to the inauguration shortly after and said to Glover, in English, "Danny, I am with you."


A few months later, Chávez traveled to New York to address the United Nations. During his visit, the Venezuelan leader made an appearance at the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in Manhattan's Upper West Side where he praised U.S. icons such as Martin Luther King. The forum for Chávez's speech was called, "Social Forum on Poverty andJustice in a Globalized World," and was attended by Rev. Jesse Jackson and Danny Glover.


Glover's Venezuela Ties


Recently, other progressive Hollywood celebrities have paid visits to Venezuela. Just last month, actor and writer Tim Robbins toured Villa del Cine; the actor is reportedly contemplating the idea of initiating some type of film project in Venezuela. Robbins, who is
known for his political activism and opposition to the Bush White House, praised Chávez's film installation for its support of novel film directors. Robbins has been joined by Kevin Spacey and Sean Penn, two other Hollywood stars who have paid recent visits to Villa del Cine.


Glover however has gone farther than the likes of Robbins, Spacey or Penn in declaring his support for the political changes occuring in Venezuela under Hugo Chávez. Indeed, the veteran civil rights activist has even signed on to Telesur as a member of the TV station's advisory board.


In May 2007, Glover attended an International Communication Conference in Caracas with noted journalists, media executives, and intellectuals. The two-day event, which was open to the public, held interesting roundtable debates. Some of the topics included were: "Impunity and power of major media outlets," "The responsibility of national governments," "The use of radio and TV airspace as a public asset," and "Social ownership of the media."


Glover remarked that in the U.S., the issue of media control and citizen participation in the media was off the table. "People (in the United States) don't participate in a dialogue that allows them to see that they have the power of information," he said. "We see the positions that the media take, and people should take that power back and make themselves the architects of the media."


At the end of the conference, participants agreed to promote the creation of independent, community-based alternative media outlets as a counterbalance against the corporate media. In a manifesto approved by Telesur's advisory council, participants declared that radio and
television were an "asset for humanity," and should be administered by national governments, not by corporations. Furthermore, national governments should use their authority to revoke, concede, or renew licenses in accordance with their various constitutions. The participants applauded recent decisions taken by Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay to reclaim public air space.


The Myth of Toussaint


Glover's relationship with the Chávez government goes deeper than Telesur, however. During my interview with Almarza, the Villa del Cine Director, she remarked, "We have a very fraternal relationship with Glover. He came here to Villa del Cine in 2006. He's interested in
developing some film productions."


Since that interview, Glover's ties to Villa del Cine have taken off. Chávez's film studio has funded Glover's new epic film, Toussaint, about Francois Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1746-1803), one of the fathers of Haiti's independence from France. The film represents Glover's directorial debut; the star will also co-produce the movie.


Together with Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Toussaint L'Ouverture was one of the principal leaders of the Haitian rebellion at the end of the eighteenth century that struggled against the revolutionary French as well as Spanish, British, and Napoleonic forces. Toussaint liberated
black slaves not only in Haiti but all across the island of Hispaniola (today, the island is divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic).


When Toussaint concluded a ceasefire with Napoleonic forces, which were determined to reestablish colonial rule and reimpose slavery, the Haitian revolutionary was betrayed, apprehended and deported. He died in France in 1803. Toussaint's lieutenant Dessalines, an ex-slave just like Toussaint, continued the rebellion. Haiti finally declared its independence from France in January 1804. The impoverished Caribbean colony was the first black nation to throw off imperial rule and become a republic.


Political Controversy Swirling Around Toussaint


Unfortunately, for Glover, controversy has recently swirled around Toussaint, which will be filmed entirely in Venezuela (and not in Haiti, for security reasons). Connie Mack, a U.S. Republican congressmember from Florida, blasted Glover for cutting "a sweetheart movie deal" with Chávez. Such complaints are practically pro forma for Mack, who has been a vocal critic of Chávez's Telesur. However, Mack has been joined by various Venezuelan filmmakers, who have raised a number of objections to the Glover film.


In 2007 the National Association of Film Makers and the Venezuelan Chamber of Film Producers criticized Glover for using political contacts to secure the funding package without a bidding process. The filmmakers called such methods "demoralising and detrimental to future
generations of Venezuelan movie-makers." Claudia Nazoa, president of the Venezuelan Chamber of Feature Film Producers (known by its Spanish acronym Caveprol), said, "What worries us is this trend for neo-colonisation by international figures who come to talk of their
support for Chávez's government—and leave with money for their projects."


In 2007, Venezuela provided $18 million to fund Toussaint, and this year the authorities kicked in an extra $9 million. Venezuelan directors complain that the budget for Glover's film matches the entire state budget for domestic films from 2003 to 2008—a sum they say could
"finance 36 Venezuelan films." Culture Minister Sesto called it "naive" to think the movie industry would be out $18 million, since the money did not come from Villa del Cine's operating funds but were part of an "additional credit." He added, "The funds earmarked for this movie will be invested exclusively in Venezuela ... creating jobs and providing
excellent experience for our national film industry."


Thaelman Urgelles, a Venezuelan director, remarked to Inter Press Service that "we don't have anything personal against Glover and it even seems good to expand our relations with the movie industry, but the quantity of money is excessive [and] it fails to consider the efforts of Venezuelan moviemakers who can't even get $450,000 to make a film." Urguelles added that normally filmmakers only obtained funding after competing in competitive bids and sometimes had to dig into their own pockets.


Even Diego Rísquez, the director of Villa del Cine's Francisco de Miranda (see below), has remarked that funding Glover's film was "an error, a lack of reflection, it puts all the eggs in one basket." The director added that Spanish, French and Italian directors had come to Venezuela to film, and even Steven Spielberg had made part of Aracnophobia in the Andean nation. Unlike Glover however, those directors had brought international capital into Venezuela.


Iván Zambrano, President of Venezuela's National Association of Cinematic Authors or ANAC, said he had questions about how government money invested in Glover's film would be spent. "They say that the artists will be 30 per cent Venezuelan and 70 per cent foreign," he
said. "We want to know how this co-production will work and whether [the money that the government is investing] will include paying the artists. If you have Hollywood actors charging Hollywood salaries, then the budget will go on just two or three actors."


Chávez has said that he would like to break Hollywood's tight stranglehold over the film industry by creating Villa del Cine. Yet ironically, though the film shall include African and Haitian actors, high profile Hollywood stars have also been billed for Toussaint. The film will star Don Cheadle, Angela Bassett, and Wesley Snipes.


"In a country with rampant poverty, a catastrophic health crisis and 14,000 violent deaths a year, President Hugo Chávez gives away our money for his friends to play with," said L.A.-based Venezuelan director Jonathan Jakubowicz. The Venezuelan filmmaker's 2005 kidnap
drama Secuestro Express was a local hit but also angered Chávez's government for its hard-hitting portrayal of sociopolitical malaise in Venezuela.


Villa del Cine Defends the Project


Representatives of the government wasted no time in hitting back at the Venezuelan filmmakers. Sesto declared that the Ministry of Culture would no longer recognize Caveprol and ANAC. According to Sesto, the filmmakers at these organizations were not "legitimate representatives of universal cinematography. They represent themselves; they are small groups with a monetary vision." Sesto added that by funding Toussaint, Venezuela had the opportunity of joining the "major leagues" of cinema.


Some Venezuelan filmmakers complain that Villa del Cine will only produce films that fall in line with Chávez's socialist ideals, an accusation which Glover denies. The veteran actor has remarked that Toussaint won't be left-wing revisionism but rather a critical movie dealing with
a part of the hemisphere's past that has been "essentially wiped out of our historic memory."


Villa del Cine adminstrators claim that political pressure doesn't figure into their decisions. "We are looking to make good films, no matter what the script. We really want writers and directors to come to us with their ideas. If they're good, we'll support them," Villa del Cine executive director Marco Mondarain told the BBC.


During my interview with Almarza from Villa del Cine, she said that Chávez had never intervened in the studio's affairs. Almarza had never spoken personally to the Venezuelan president, though she and her colleagues at the Ministry of Culture had met with Chávez as a group. In 2007, says Oscar Murat, a project co-ordinator at La Villa del Cine, the studio "received various different proposals and of the ones which won commissions, none was linked with politics."


Chávez, Miranda and Haiti


Despite the denials, it's clear that a movie dealing with Caribbean slave revolt dovetails with Chávez's frankly anti-imperialist political outlook. "This film [Toussaint] will form part of our
ideological canon against Metro Goldwyn Mayer [MGM]," said Venezuelan congressman Simón Escalona. Outside of Venezuela, high-profile figures are pleased with Glover's project. Haitian President René Preval told the New York Daily News that "we had the first successful anti-slave rebellion in this hemisphere. It's our contribution to humanity. If Glover can take this story to the big screen, we will be happy."


For Chávez, the Haitian independence struggle has key symbolic meaning. In March 2007, the Venezuelan leader traveled to the Caribbean island nation. Chávez timed his arrival in Haiti for maximum political and historic effect. "We know that March 12, 1806 [two years after Haiti became a republic] exactly two centuries ago and a year … a very great Venezuelan cried out for independence," he said. "And it is here in a revolutionary boat with a revolutionary crew that the Venezuelan flag was hoisted for the first time. Francisco de Miranda, as you know, was that great Venezuela, and the reason for our visit is linked to what he did way back then."


Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816), considered by some to be a forerunner of later South American independence figures such as Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), was a soldier who fought in the American and French revolutions. In addition, he played a key part in events leading
to Venezuela's declaration of independence from Spain in 1811. The revolutionary was captured by Spanish colonial forces and spent the last days of his life as a prisoner. He died in a military fortress in Cádiz.


Within the National Pantheon of Caracas, where Bolívar lies in state, there's an empty tomb awaiting Miranda's body. A group of Spanish scientists has tried to determine whether certain remains in the fortress indeed belong to Miranda. The scientists have extracted DNA from bones in the fortress and will compare the genetic material to Miranda's descendants in order to reach a final determination.


Not surprisingly, Chávez has expressed personal interest in the investigation. Though obscure, Miranda is one of Chávez's favorite historical personalities. In the run-up to the December 2006 presidential election Chávez hailed his followers, nicknamed Miranda's electoral "battalions."


In 2006, Villa del Cine celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of Miranda's return voyage to Venezuela by producing a film about the exploits of the late eighteenth-century hero. The film, Francisco de Miranda, glorifies the struggle of the intrepid revolutionary and draws
attention to his dream of a united South America. After opening in 35 of Venezuela's 400 movie theaters, the film did quite well at the box office and surpassed Hollywood blockbuster Superman Returns during the summer 2006 season.


Historical Symbolism of Venezuelan-Haitian Solidarity


Chávez has long emphasized historical symbolism in his political rhetoric, and his speech in Haiti proved no exception. Addressing the Haitian public in 2007, the Venezuelan leader remarked, "We are very conscious of what the Haitian people are—a people who were able to
defeat empires and free their country well before the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean—a heroic people and also a ravaged people over the past two centuries. You must also know that Bolívar passed through here … in 1816 when in Venezuela … all appeared lost in the battle against Spain."


The Venezuelan leader went on to discuss the important political connections between the Haitian Revolution and the Venezuelan independence struggle. Bolívar arrived in Haiti on Christmas Eve, 1815 after being expelled from Venezuela. Fortunately Haitian President
Alexandre Pétion (1770-1818) welcomed Bolívar and his freedom fighters and provided them with shelter, guns, ammunition and a printing press.


Four months later, as he was about to depart from Haiti en route to Venezuela, Bolívar asked his benefactor how he might repay Haiti's generosity. Pétion replied that the best thanks Haiti could receive would be the liberation of all slaves residing in the Spanish colonies.


Bolívar later honored his debt to Pétion by freeing the 1,500 slaves his family owned in Caracas. He also printed a proclamation, on Pétion's very own printing press, abolishing slavery in Venezuela. The proclamation, however, only applied to black slaves who enlisted in
Bolívar's army. It wasn't until 1854 that slavery was finally abolished in the country.


"All of this [history] has to do with why I am here today," Chávez said while addressing the Haitian people. "Today I feel I am paying part of our historic debt to Haiti. And I say this, after more than 8 years in government, this is the first time I visit Haiti. I should have come here earlier." Chávez's choice of words couldn't have been more symbolic: to this day, Venezuelan children are taught in school that their country owes a "historic debt" to Haiti for helping Bolívar.


Bolívar's Political Significance


It's no accident that Chávez would go out of his way to bring up Bolívar while visiting Haiti. In Venezuela, it is almost mandatory for political leaders to make historic allusions to Bolívar, the "Great Liberator" against Spanish rule. Bolívar, Chávez has said, was a socialist like himself, was stridently opposed to the United States, and was also determined to build a classless society. What's more, the Venezuelan leader has argued, Bolívar's dream of uniting Latin America represented a threat to oligarchs and imperialists, thus awakening the ire of the United States.


Chávez has no doubt taken some historical liberties and embellished his causal intellectual ties to Bolívar. The Liberator never talked about class struggle per se, though he did pursue progressive social legislation by issuing decrees for the establishment of schools for boys as well as girls. Bolívar also deplored the misery of indigenous peoples and ordered the conservation of forest resources.


But Bolívar was perhaps most forward looking when he spoke of the necessity of integrating Latin America. It was Bolívar, early on, who understood that the region had no future unless it confronted both Europe and the United States as a unified bloc. The United States, Bolívar once famously declared, seemed "destined by providence to plague America with misery on behalf of freedom."


Chávez has said that he will not rest until Venezuela is liberated from the "imperialist and anti-Boliviaran threat." He frequently draws comparisons between Bolívar's struggle against the Spanish Empire and his own political confrontation with the United States, which Chávez
habitually refers to as "The Empire."


In Venezuela, Bolívar is revered as a God-like figure and his popularity continues to soar. Indeed, a popular religion based on the fertility goddess of María Lionza has appropriated Bolívar as one of its central ritual figures. The faith is based on indigenous, black,
African, and Catholic roots, and priests hold ceremonies in which the spirit of the Liberator is channeled through a medium who coughs when Bolívar is present since Venezuela's most distinguished native son had a debilitating case of tuberculosis. Meanwhile, religious altars of the faithful generally feature a portrait of Bolívar.


In addition, Venezuela's currency, main squares, and universities bear the Liberator's name. His sayings are taught in schools, broadcast on the radio and emblazoned on government buildings. Chávez almost reverentially has referred to his political movement as a "Bolivarian
Revolution." Chávez has renamed his country the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and has reportedly left a chair empty at meetings to honor the Liberator. Chávez supporters, or chavistas, have dubbed the areas they politically control as "liberated zones of the Bolivarian Republic" and adorn offices and homes with portraits of the Liberator. Chávez has promoted so-called Bolivarian Circles, local grassroots groups at the local or barrio level, which lobby the government for important grassroots resources.


Furthermore, Chávez champions Bolívar's idea of a unified South America and echoes the Liberator's words during his televised speeches. Chávez also likes to appear on television with a portrait of Bolívar near at hand. Riding along Caracas highways, one may see repeated instances of murals juxtaposing portraits of Chávez and Bolívar. In Caracas, a key historic landmark is Bolívar's native house. Located along downtown streets crowded with informal vendors, the house is often full of visiting school children.


Taking his picturesque concept of history to yet greater political heights, Chávez is now intent on proving that Bolívar was poisoned by corrupt oligarchs and did not succumb to tuberculosis. The Venezuelan leader asserts that in Bolívar's day, tuberculosis was not lethal
enough to cause death in a few scant weeks. As evidence to support his claim, Chávez points to one of Bolívar's letters in which the Liberator discusses his future plans. Bolívar wrote the letter shortly before his own death in the coastal Colombian town of Santa Marta.


"Some say he [Bolívar] was very ill and knew he was going to die, and he wanted to die by the side of the sea and he died happy, and Colombia was happy and Venezuela was happy," Chávez said in a long speech. "How the oligarchs fooled us, the ones here, the ones there.
How the historians who falsified history fooled us."


The Venezuelan leader recently convened a high commission, led by his Vice President and composed of nine cabinet ministers and the Attorney General. Their mission: exhume Bolívar's remains, which lie in a sarcophagus at the National Pantheon in downtown Caracas, and conduct scientific tests to confirm Chávez's contention—that diabolical assassins murdered Bolívar. "This commission has been created because the executive considers it to be of great historical and cultural value to clarify important doubts regarding the death of the Liberator," Venezuela's Official Gazette said.


But even Chávez's most stalwart supporters say their leader may have gone too far this time. "This doesn't make any sense," said Alberto Mueller Rojas, a retired general who works as a presidential adviser on international affairs and military matters. "Why should I care? Bolívar
died. If they killed him, they killed him. If he died of tuberculosis, he died of tuberculosis. In this day and age, this doesn't have any significance."


Perhaps not surprisingly given the political importance that Chávez has attached to Bolívar, Villa del Cine is reportedly planning to produce a film about the Great Liberator. The movie will be adapted from the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez's historical novel
about Bolívar entitled The General in His Labyrinth.


The book, which was originally released in 1989, tells the story of the last days of the Great Liberator as he departs the Colombian city of Bogotá for Santa Marta on the coast. Venezuelan authorities have paid out a handsome $2 million for the rights to the Márquez book, which is reportedly Hugo Chávez's favorite novel. Almarza, as director of Villa del Cine, is clearly enthusiastic about taking on the project.

"Bolívar is a world figure and belongs to all Venezuela," she remarked.  In addition to The General in His Labryinth, Villa del Cine has also produced Libertador Morales. The film centers on a Simón Bolívar-quoting motorcycle-taxi driver seeking social justice.


Honoring Venezuela's "Historic Debt' to Haiti


Chávez's recent trip to Haiti and his emphasis on vital historic symbols is taking place against a volatile political backdrop. In 2004, observers say that Haiti's democratically elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide was kidnapped with the connivance of Washington. When
a new government took power in Port-au-Prince under Gérard Latortue, Chávez snubbed the Bush administration by refusing to recognize the regime, which the United States, Canada, France and the European Union all recognized as the new government.


In Venezuela, Chávez decried the participation of Latin American troops in the United Nations' "stabilization mission" sent to Haiti and even offered refuge in Venezuela to exiled President Aristide. The former Haitian President, who blames the U.S. government for his downfall, likens his own story to that of Toussaint who was betrayed and brought to France. Aristide currently resides in South Africa.


In 2006 Haiti elected René Préval, who had served as Prime Minister in Aristide's first administration and as President from 1996 to 2001.  Though Préval hinted that Aristide might return to Haiti, he has not provided a time frame for the exiled leader to come back. Speaking in South Africa Aristide criticized the 2006 election, calling it a "selection" in which "the knife of treason was planted" in the back of the Haitian people.


Some Haitians hope that Chávez might help to ease the way for Aristide to return some day. When the Venezuelan leader visited Haiti in 2007, cries of "Chávez" could be heard throughout the streets of the capital. At the Port-au-Prince airport, Haitians arrived minute after minute and chanted "Chávez, Chávez, it is you whom we seek ... President Préval needs your help to return Aristide." Meanwhile, the demonstrators denounced UN peacekeepers for using overwhelming military force to suppress violent gangs.


In an effort to strengthen the historic bond between Haiti and Venezuela, Chávez has created a $20 million fund for Haiti to provide humanitarian aid and to develop joint cooperation projects. The money will pay for health care, education, housing and other basic necessities sorely lacking in the Caribbean nation of 8 million. Haiti will also benefit from Chávez's Petrocaribe initiative, which provides petroleum products and other aid to needy Caribbean countries to help them counter rising energy prices. Recipients are offered deferred
payment and long-term financing for fuel shipments.


Never one to neglect rich historic symbolism, Chávez remarked during his visit that it was time to encourage the "union of our republics. It is an old project of Miranda's and Bolívar's … of Pétion's and of Louverture's—all those who dreamed of a great nation, of a free nation…The President of the United States is the representative of the cruelest empire," Chávez added, "the most cynical, criminal and murderous which has ever existed. He represents the project of colonial domination. Whereas we, I say this humbly but with dignity, represent
the Bolivarian project to liberate our nations."


Following their historic meeting, Chávez and Préval commemorated the occasion by placing flowers at Port-au-Prince's monuments to Pétion and Bolívar.

Be the first to comment

A Real Racial Democracy? Hugo Chávez and the Politics of Race

While Chávez's strategy of appealing to racial minorities in the U.S. is certainly bold, it is hardly surprising given his and Venezuela's history. Chávez support for Venezuela's indigenous and afro-Venezuelan population has inspired not only oppressed minorities within his own country but also blacks living outside Venezuela.


As the war of words heats up between the Bush White House and Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the firebrand South American leader has boldly sought to forge ties with poor communities of color in the United States. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Chávez provided relief assistance to the poverty stricken and largely African American victims of the disaster. The head of Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela's state owned oil company, set up disaster relief centers in Louisiana and Texas in the wake of the hurricane and provided humanitarian to thousands of victims. Volunteers based at Citgo refineries in Lake Charles, Louisiana and Corpus Christi, Texas, provided medical care, food and water to approximately 5,000 people. In Houston, volunteers from Citgo headquarters provided similar assistance to 40,000 victims. What is more, Venezuela has provided hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil in energy assistance to the United States. Chávez followed up his bold initiative by announcing that he would soon begin to ship heating and diesel oil at rock bottom prices to schools, nursing homes, hospitals and poor communities within the U.S. The Venezuelan president has also offered to provide free eye surgery for poor Americans suffering from certain eye conditions. The firebrand South American leader, who proclaimed the plan during a recent visit to New York, will begin his oil program through an October pilot project in Chicago. There, the Venezuelan government will target poor Mexican Americans for assistance.


In November, Chávez intends to expand the program to the South Bronx and Boston. Chávez has even offered to ship low cost gasoline to Native American tribal communities in the United States. "There is a lot of poverty in the U.S. and I don't believe that reflects the American Way of Life. Many people die of cold in the winter. Many die of heat in the summer," Chávez recently remarked during his weekly TV show. "We could have an impact on seven to eight million persons," he added. During his time in New York, Chávez toured the largely African American and Latino populated Bronx and was treated like a veritable rock star. Democratic Congress member Jose Serrano, who invited the Venezuelan president to the Bronx, remarked, "Chávez went to the poorest congressional district in the nation's richest city, and people on the street there just went crazy. A lot of people told me they were really mesmerized by him. He made quite an impression." Chávez's trip is reminiscent of similar moves by Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a figure who Chávez frankly admires. In a celebrated trip in 1960, Castro stayed at a cheap hotel in Harlem where he met with important political figures of the day such as Malcolm X.


Chávez's moves are sure to play well in the inner city. In light of the high price of oil this year, which has reached $70 a barrel, it is expected that the price of heating oil will skyrocket and become unaffordable to many poor people of color. By providing cheap oil to marginalized communities fed up with price gouging, Chávez shrewdly overshadows George Bush. The U.S. president, along with the Republican party, have long ignored the social needs of America's inner cities as evidenced by the botched hurricane relief operation in New Orleans. Unlike the U.S. government, which was hobbled by Hurricane Katrina and which had to redirect much of the winter's energy assistance program to hurricane victims, Chávez is ideally positioned to help poor communities of color. Venezuela owns 14,000 gas stations and eight refineries in the United States through Citgo, none of whose oil infrastructure was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Chávez has stated he will reserve 10% of the 800,000 barrels of Citgo oil and ship the petroleum directly to poor communities. Unnamed Venezuelan officials claimed that their country would not lose money through the deal, as the idea was to "cut the middle man" out of the deal. Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela's Minister of Energy and Petroleum, says the move will relieve urban suffering as beneficiaries could see price reductions of up to 30%. Chávez's moves are sure to play well in the Bronx, but unlikely to be received with any sign of gratitude in Washington. "Cutting oil prices must seem like the worst sort of radicalism to the Big Oil companies and their buddies at the Bush-Cheney White House," writes Juan Gonzalez of the New York Daily News.


Forging Ties With Communities of Color: Chávez's Political Imperative


Chávez's moves seem to form part of a larger, long term strategy of building alliances with racial minorities such as African Americans. By aiding the poor, Chávez will certainly do much to reverse the negative media onslaught that has taken its cue from the White House and which has sought to portray him as "totalitarian" and a threat to this country (see for example my earlier Counterpunch piece, "Fair and Balanced or US Govt. Propaganda? Fox News vs. Hugo Chávez," April 30-May 1, 2005). Julia Buxton, a scholar at Bradford University who has written extensively on Venezuela, remarked that Chávez's gambit reflects ideological as well as pragmatic considerations. "He's been deeply, deeply frustrated by coverage in the U.S. media and the attitude of the U.S. government, and he's trying to counter a very Republican-directed vendetta," she said. That vendetta has included, most recently, calls by U.S. evangelist Pat Robertson for Chávez's assassination (see my earlier article, "Demeaner of the Faith, Rev. Pat Robertson and Gen. Rios Montt," September 17-18, 2005). "He clearly needed to build constructive alliances with more liberal sections of American society," Buxton added, "and open a way to insulate himself against his Washington enemies."


For Chávez, the task of recruiting domestic support within the United States has become a political imperative. The Venezuelan president has fallen afoul of the White House for his criticism of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. supported drug war in the Andean region, and the U.S. sponsored Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. What is more, Chávez has increased royalty taxes on U.S. oil companies doing business in Venezuela, and even shipped petroleum to the island nation of Cuba in exchange for Cuban medical assistance. With the added oil money Chávez has funded ambitious social programs in health and education. The Bush White House chose to confront Chávez: in April 2002 the U.S. government provided taxpayer funds to the Venezuelan opposition through the National Endowment For Democracy. Bush and the neo-conservatives nearly succeeded in removing Chávez from power when the opposition staged a short-lived coup d'etat. Since then however, Chávez has consolidated his position and emerged as the most charismatic leader in South America. Chávez's calls for greater regional unity, including the formation of Petrosur, a South American oil company, and Telesur, a South American satellite TV station, have further enraged the Bush White House. Not surprisingly, the U.S. has forged ahead in seeking to isolate Chávez, as evidenced by the recent strong statements coming from the likes of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. In a meeting with the New York Times editorial board, Rice remarked that oil was "warping" international politics and "It [oil] gives certain power and leverage to certain countries and not to others. We're experiencing it with Venezuela, for instance, where the oil profits are being put to use across the region to, you know, push forward Chávez's particular view of the world." Chávez has struck back by threatening to cut off oil shipments to the United States if he is assassinated. Venezuela is the United States' fourth largest oil supplier currently accounting for 12% of imports. As such, a cut off of oil supplies could exert a significant impact on the U.S. energy supply (see my earlier Counterpunch column: "Chávez's Gambit 'Oil is a Geopolitical Weapon;" April 6, 2005). Chávez's recent oil for the poor idea, closely following on the heels of the hostile war of words, will most certainly fan the flames yet further and lead the Bush White House to continue its bellicose strategy in Venezuela.


"I was a farm kid from the plains of South Venezuela"


While Chávez's strategy of appealing to racial minorities is certainly bold, it is hardly surprising given the history. Chávez himself was born in the Venezuelan plain or llano, and has a provincial accent. A forbidding area with a harsh tropical climate, the area has had a long history of racial conflict going back centuries. During the Spanish colonial period, rebellious black slaves managed to escape from plantations and haciendas, fled to the llano and became a problem for the authorities. Slaves started to live in cumbes or escaped communities where collective forms of work were practiced. The blacks mixed with the Indian population and carried out daring raids on cattle ranches. The whites grew alarmed by inter-racial mixing: escaped slaves, they feared, might have a radicalizing effect on the Indian population. Accordingly, in 1785 the authorities drafted laws prohibiting blacks from living with Indians "because they only corrupt them with the bad customs which they generally acquire in their breedingand they sow discord among the same Indians."


Physically, Hugo Chávez is a pardo, a term used in the colonial period to denote someone of mixed racial roots. "Chávez's features," writes a magazine columnist, "are a dark-copper color and as thick as clay; he has protruding, sensuous lips and deep-set eyes under a heavy brow. His hair is black and kinky. He is a burly man of medium height, with a long, hatchet-shaped nose and a massive chin and jaw." In an interview, Chávez remarked that when he first applied to the military academy he had an Afro. From an ethno-racial standpoint, Chávez is similar to many of his fellow Venezuelans. Indeed, today 67 per cent of the population is mestizo, 10 per cent black and 23 per cent white. Chávez himself has not sought to distance himself from his ethnic heritage. "My Indian roots are from my father's side," he remarked. "He [my father] is mixed Indian and black, which makes me very proud." What is more, Chávez has boasted of his grandmother, who he says was a Pumé Indian. Like many other Venezuelans of mixed race, Chávez grew up in poverty. One of six children, Chávez was born in extremely humbling conditions in the llano. "I was a farm kid from the plains of South Venezuela," he remarked to Ted Koppel on ABC's Nightline. "I grew up in a palm tree house with an earthen floor," he added. Chávez entered the military, which historically has been one of the few paths towards social advancement for men of mixed race. While on duty with the military he toured the country and became aware of economic exploitation and racial discrimination.


Venezuela: A "Racial Democracy"?


Unlike the United States, Venezuela has not experienced poisonous anti black racism. But the idea of racial democracy does not stand up under scrutiny: the caste like divisions of the colonial period are still latent in society. "Venezuelan elites," one scholar has remarked, "judged people by their appearances. Accordingly, individuals with 'anxious hair' or 'hair like springs' lived in the shadow of their black slave ancestors. The elites considered respectable the whiter Venezuelans who had 'hair flat as rainwater, of an indefinite light brown color which is neither fair nor dark.'" Though some blacks were able to enter white society through marriage and miscegenation, "in the long run, such individuals provided the exceptions that proved the rule." Blacks who sought social acceptance had to adopt the clothing, education, and language of the white elite. In present day Venezuelan society, notes respected commentator Gregory Wilpert, "The correspondence between skin color and class membership is quite stunning at times. To confirm this observation, all one has to do is compare middle to upper class neighborhoods, where predominantly lighter colored folks live, with the barrios, which are clearly predominantly inhabited by darker skinned Venezuelans." Meanwhile, journalist Greg Palast noted that rich whites had "command of the oil wealth, the best jobs, the English-language lessons, the imported clothes, the vacations in Miami, the plantations."


Chávez and Indigenous Peoples


In 1998 while campaigning for president, Chávez made a commitment to champion the rights of Venezuela's half-million indigenous peoples. After he was elected, Chávez put the issue of indigenous rights front and center by addressing it on his weekly call-in program, Aló Presidente. But actions speak greater than words, and Chávez made good on his promises by working to codify the rights of indigenous people in the new 1999 constitution. Article 9 proclaims that while Spanish is the official language of Venezuela, "Indigenous languages are also for official use for Indigenous peoples and must be respected throughout the Republic's territory for being part of the nation's and humanity's patrimonial culture." In chapter eight of the constitution, the state recognizes the social, political, and economic organization within indigenous communities, in addition to their cultures, languages, rights, and lands. What is more, in a critical provision the government recognizes land rights as collective, inalienable, and non-transferable. Later articles declare the government's pledge not to engage in extraction of natural resources without prior consultation with indigenous groups. Three long time indigenous activists have been elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly, and prominent leaders hold positions in government. In a novel move, Chávez has even had the constitution translated into all of Venezuela's languages.


Chávez has lived up to the constitution by awarding communal land titles to six Kariña indigenous communities. The land titles will be handed out to 4,000 people and encompass 317,000 acres in the Venezuelan states of Monagas and Anzoategui. The land transfers form part of Mission Guaicaipuro, a plan to provide land titles to all of Venezuela's 28 indigenous peoples. Chávez awarded the communal titles to the Kariña in August during the 16th World Festival of Students and Youth. The conference, which was attended by 40,000 people, was held in Caracas. During the opening procession of nations Chávez gave a "thumbs up" to a banner which displayed the words "Leonard Peltier." An indigenous woman speaker at the conference, one of three indigenous representatives in the Venezuela Assembly, praised recent advances for indigenous people. One conference participant reported, "Chávez hugged all the indigenous leaders in front of the world and gave deeds of territory to the tribes." By the end of 2006, Chávez' Mission Guaicaipuro plans to award land titles to 15 more indigenous groups. Participants at the conference were also pleased by Chávez's moves to halt the celebration of Columbus Day, which he has replaced with "Indigenous Resistance Day."


Chávez and Afro-Venezuelans


On the other hand, while the new constitution recognizes indigenous rights, it mentions nothing about blacks in Venezuela, leading Bill Fletcher of the Washington-based TransAfrica Forum to comment, "I feel that black issues need to be injected into politics." On the other hand, there are signs that Chávez government is at least aware of the problem. From March to May 2004, Afro Venezuelan groups celebrated the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery in Caracas. At the end of the conference Chávez made an appearance and the audience heard a lecture from Afro-Venezuelan historian José Marcial Ramos Guedez. Some participants expressed optimism that racial progress would be made under the Chávez government.


"Representatives of Venezuela's Afro-descendants are so positive about the current reforms in government [under Chávez]," said Máryori Márquez, assistant to the director of culture in the city of Sucre, "that we are now also trying to have legislation drafted that will mandate the acceptance and the recognition of the traditional and current human rights of Black Venezuelans." Máryori added that Chávez was "completely open to this initiative, we just have to work to make this come true, we have to develop this. Because this won't just benefit a few people, it would be to everyone's benefit."


The White Elite Strikes Back


The white elite has not been amused by Chávez's recent moves. For them, the new president was an outsider. In contrast to previous leaders in Venezuela and throughout the region who identified with the outside European world, Chávez loudly proclaimed his indigenous and African roots. Chávez himself seems well aware of the race issue. According to the Venezuelan president, racial tensions have increased since his election. "There is racism here," Chávez remarked. "It used to be more hidden and now it is more open." Chávez's opponents, who argue that racism does not exist in the country, charged that the president exploits the race card for political gain. According to Fletcher, the Chávez opposition "has attacked him [Chávez] using racist language and imagery which would be totally unacceptable in public discourse in the USA." The Venezuelan elite has used racial slurs to taint Chávez, denouncing him as a black monkey. According to author Tariq Ali, "A puppet show to this effect with a monkey playing Chávez was even organized at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. But Colin Powell was not amused and the Ambassador was compelled to issue an apology." The attacks continued when Venezuelan media commentators referred to the Minister of Education, Aristobulo Isturiz, who is black, as "a monkey" and "an ape." Meanwhile, analysts have remarked upon the racial undertones of political conflict in Chávez's Venezuela. "Class and skin color differences," remarks Wilpert, "clearly correlate very highly at demonstrations, such that the darker skinned (and presumably lower class) support the Chávez government and the lighter skinned (and presumably middle and upper class) oppose the Chávez government."


Race and the Venezuelan Media


This difference in skin color was clearly evident during the demonstrations both for and against Chávez in the days preceding the April 2002 coup, and during an oil lockout in December 2002-January 2003. What is more, the Venezuelan TV media, which is dominated by whites or light skinned individuals, and which relegates blacks or dark skinned people to play roles as criminals or servants in soap operas, played a significant role in the April 2002 coup. In the days leading up to Chávez's ouster, Venevisión, RCTV, Globovisión and Televen substituted their regular programming with non-stop vitriolic anti-Chávez propaganda, which some of their staff later acknowledged as unprofessional behavior. This relentless barrage was interrupted by commercials urging TV viewers to go into the streets. Inflammatory ads blaring, "Not one step backward. Out! Leave now!" were carried by the stations as public service announcements. Later on the day of the coup, Gustavo Cisneros allowed his television station Venevision to serve as the meeting place for anti-Chávez coup plotters. Reportedly, interim coup president Pedro Carmona was present.


Chávez has struck back against the established media through Vive TV, a state sponsored station. In contrast to TV stations like RCTV, which airs shows such as "Quien Quiere Ser Millionario" ("Who Wants To Be A Millionaire"), Vive TV shuns American-style consumerism. According to its website, Vive TV promotes "the common citizen, the millions of Venezuelans and Latin Americans who have been made invisible by imperialism and its cultural domination." Through Vive's programming, claim the station's managers, "it is possible to acquaint oneself with the reality, lives and struggle of people of African descent [and] indigenous peoples." As Blanca Eekhout, the former manager of Vive explains, people of color previously "have appeared in the media but in a stigmatized way; they are shown as marginal people, criminals. They are not shown building, constructing, which is part of the struggle for the development of the country. That's one thing we are trying to change." The result of that changed attitude was plain to see during Vive TV's extended coverage of the Social Forum of the Americas in Ecuador. According to Eekhout, Venezuelan Indians attended the event and "The [Venezuelan] indigenous movement was excited; they could see not only movements there, but also their own Venezuelan delegates." Chávez has also increased the visibility of Latin America's indigenous peoples through the launching of the government-sponsored Televisora del Sur (Telesur). The network, which offers news and opinion programming, has hired Ati Kiwa as a presenter, an indigenous Colombian woman who wears traditional dress. The station provides a stark contrast to Univisión celebrity anchor Jorge Ramos, who wears a jacket and tie.


Chávez, Glover, and Martin Luther King


Even as he forges ahead with his media initiatives, the indefatigable Chávez has also moved to increase his political ties with the African American community. In January, 2004 TransAfrica Forum sent a delegation of influential artists, actors, activists and scholars to Caracas to meet with government officials. The group included the likes of screen actor Danny Glover ("Lethal Weapon," "The Color Purple"), who expressed his excitement at the social changes taking place in Venezuela. Glover remarked that the U.S. media's portrayal of Venezuela "has nothing to do with reality." Glover stated that his presence in Venezuela was "to listen and learn, not only from government and opposition politicians, but to share with the people, those who are promoting the changes in this country and we want to be in contact with those who benefit from those changes." Glover and others later presided over the inauguration of a new "Martin Luther King., Jr." school in the coastal town of Naiguata. The area is home to large numbers of Afro-Venezuelans. The school inauguration was the first official Venezuelan recognition of the importance of the slain civil rights leader. What is more, the government launched a photo exposition to honor Dr. King. Speaking at the event, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Alvarez, declared that "The visit by members of the TransAfrica Forum represents a struggle that goes beyond the figure of Martin Luther King; his struggle, his ideas and the African-American social movements inspired by him. This is a struggle aimed at defending people's rights, not only in the United States, but in the hemisphere and the world." Glover, clearly touched by the occasion, commented, ""This isn't Danny Glover the artist. I'm here as a citizen, not only of the US, but a citizen of the world. We understand fully the importance of this historical moment." Chávez later honored the late Dr. King during his radio and TV show Alo Presidente; Glover and others were invited on air to participate.


Predictably, the TransAfrica Forum delegates came under heavy attack from the Venezuelan opposition. "In the Opposition-oriented media, racist language and imagery wereused to characterize, if not caricaturize, our visit," Fletcher remarked. According to him, the delegation received racist e mail, and newspaper editorials and cartoons depicted the delegation in a racist manner. During a press conference, however, TransAfrica participants held their own against the media. James Early, Director of Cultural Studies and Communication at the Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies at the Smithsonian Institution, expressed dismay with Venezuelan journalists. Early said he was surprised that none of the journalist's questions had to do with issues of cultural or racial diversity. "What are you journalists doing to educate the Venezuelan people about racial and cultural diversity? Democracy in the hemisphere relies heavily on the social responsibility of journalists, and asking questions only about the government or the opposition isn't going to help reach that goal. Democracy is not the government or the opposition, it is the people, being the people of Venezuela or the people of the United States," he said. Sitting in the audience was Education and Sports Minister Aristobulo Isturiz, the same black man who had been described by opposition reporters as "a monkey" in the past. Reportedly, Isturiz couldn't hide his satisfaction at the way the delegation handled the combative journalists.


Jackson, Glover, Belafonte: Chávez's New Friends


Chávez has maintained his close relationships with prominent black entertainers in the United States. In July 2005, Danny Glover and singer Harry Belafonte were invited to the ceremonial launching of Chávez's new TV station Telesur. Glover was impressed with the new media initiative, but criticized the station for not having any people of African or indigenous descent on its advisory board. Chávez himself called in to the inauguration shortly after and said to Glover, in English, "Danny, I am with you."


Meanwhile, Chávez has cultivated ties with civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. During a visit to Caracas, the veteran African American activist condemned Pat Robertson's call for Chávez's assassination. Coinciding with Jackson's stay in the country, the Venezuelan National Assembly declared a special session to commemorate Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech. National Assembly member Nohelí Pocaterra, an indigenous woman of Wayuú descent, addressed parliament in her native language and later in Spanish. Pocaterra compared Chávez's struggle for equality in Venezuela with Dr. King's civil rights work. Speaking later at the National Assembly, Jackson discussed the role of Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights struggle. Jackson praised Venezuela for making slavery illegal prior to the United States. "You in Venezuela ended the system of slavery in 1854," he remarked. At the end of his speech Jackson was cheered with thunderous applause from Venezuelan lawmakers.


The Future of Hemispheric Racial Politics


Chávez's international diplomacy and his warm ties with prominent African Americans will surely enrage the Bush White House yet further. Just at the time when Bush's popularity is flagging over the war in Iraq and botched relief efforts at home, Chávez has emerged as the most charismatic South American leader in recent times. For Bush, who tried and failed to dislodge Chávez in 2002, it is hardly a promising picture. Meanwhile, Chávez has inspired not only oppressed minorities within his own country but also blacks living outside Venezuela. "Advanced by individuals such as President Chávez," Fletcher remarks, "the recognition of the on-going reality of racism, and the struggles against it by the African descendant and Indigenous populations, could have a momentous impact on the politics and future of Latin America, let alone the entire Western Hemisphere."

Post a comment