Venezuela's Black Vote
by Roy Levy Williams
Amsterdam News - Dec 20, 2006
Venezuelans went to the polls in record numbers this
month to overwhelmingly vote for President Hugo Chavez.
More than 80 percent of registered voters in
Venezuelans voted in what the U.S State Department
called a "democratic process" and an international
delegation of monitors confirmed as "a free and fair
As one of the NAACP's official monitors, what I believe
to be a lesser known story is the power of the Black
vote in that election. According to Jesus "Chucho"
Garcia, a dynamic Afro-Venezuelan leader, approximately
30 percent of Venezuelans are people of markedly
African descent. And as is the case in this country,
the majority of these Afro Venezuelans are at the
bottom of the economic ladder. But over the past few
years, they finally see hope.
President Chavez proudly identifies himself as a man of
African descent and is often the subject of racial
epithets by the wealthy elite who are predominantly of
European descent. Not only does he acknowledge his
heritage, the president has made changes that have
aligned most Afro-Venezuelans with him.
He won by 63 percent of the vote is in no small part
due to the passionate support of Afro Venezuelans. The
majority of the poor in Venezuela - like in many Latin
American countries - are disproportionately Black. Race
is "the elephant in the room" in Venezuela, where I
heard lighter-skinned Latin Americans tell me everyone
in their country were the same nationality and equal.
"Not so" says Chucho Garcia in a most impassioned
voice. He implored us to "take a look at the private
television stations, owned in Venezuela by the wealthy
elite. From the stars of the popular soap operas to the
reporters and anchors of the news, you rarely see
someone with brown skin. The more European you are, the
more you are likely to be privileged, in college or on
the cover of beauty magazines."
Garcia and his colleagues suggested, "look at the
amount of education people had, or at the jobs they
had, and then decide whether color made a difference!"
Using the new Constitution, President Chavez has taken
the lead in beginning to tackle the question of race.
Chucho for instance has his own show on state- owned
television. The president has also promoted a number of
Afro-Venezuelans to high positions. Several delegates
of the NAACP met with the Venezuelan Deputy Minister
for African Affairs and after explaining our role,
listened to him talk about the changes in Venezuela.
Some of these changes include forming a commission to
search for solutions to racial inequality. The
president has also agreed to place "Afro-Venezuelan" as
a race on their census questionnaire - the first time
in the history of the country. It has been said, some
of the credit for these changes go to noted African-
Americans such as Danny Glover and Harry Belafonte who
have urged an honest grappling with the racial
The president is given credit for the majority of the
social changes. Cheered on by the majority of Afro
Venezuelans, he has instituted widespread
constitutionally protected change. The Venezuelan
constitution adopted in 1999 following President
Chavez's first election as president allows all
Venezuelans greater benefits in education, health care
and economic opportunity including training and
employment. The constitution goes so far as to
recognize the value of women who are at home raising
Stay-at-home moms are eligible for Social Security.
Many of the accusations against President Chavez's
government by the Bush administration do not hold up
under scrutiny. The Bush administration claims there is
no free press. But virtually all of the major media is
owned by the wealthy elite, and on almost a daily basis
they pilloried President Chavez.
The claims that Venezuela is a dictatorship is belied
by this third election affirming the people's choice of
President Chavez - each time winning by a larger
percentage than the last.
Most people know President Chavez as the man who called
President Bush the devil at the United Nations but
people don't know that the Bush administration has
continually tried to undermine the Chavez government.
It started with U.S. support of the 2002 coup against
Chavez and covert funding of opposition groups spending
at least $25 million according to press reports and a
Freedom of Information Act request. And then there was
Vice President Dick Cheney likening Chavez to Adolph
Even with our chilly relations, Venezuela has been a
willing partner in providing oil resources to the poor
in our country. The Venezuelan oil company CITGO, was
the only energy firm to answer a call to donate low
income heating oil to help low income residents in some
areas of the US cope with skyrocketing fuel prices.
Chavez is the leader in a movement to pioneer a new
Latin American model of economic development, one that
embraces private sector but spreads wealth more
equitably. Nations from Ecuador to Nicaragua are
following Chavez' lead -- sharing economic resources
with more of their citizens. And those leaders holding
that philosophy are winning over the votes of Afro-
Latinos and others who are poor.
When you talk to the ordinary folks in the towns of
Venezuela. They believe Chavez has the right formula
and said our country and the Bush Administration can
learn several lessons from Chavez.
First, when there are issues on the ballot that people
believe make a difference in their lives - they vote.
In Venezuela, people began standing in lines at three
in the morning for polls that weren't opening until
The Bush administration should also learn that
continuing a policy of hostility towards this Afro-
Latino nation is a great mistake. The wiser course for
our administration would be to respect Venezuela and
the government chosen by its voters and find a way to
live and trade fairly with our neighbors in peace.