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The Crisis in Venezuela Has Little to Do with Race

Venezuela has been going through a severe crisis over the last few years, but the deterioration has sped up over the last couple of weeks. Nicolas Maduro was sworn in as president by his cronies on 10 January; then, on 23 January, Juan Guaidó was in turned proclaimed president. Like the Papacy during the times of the Avignon schism, Venezuela now has two competing leaders. Most countries in the western hemisphere (including the United States and Canada) have recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president, yet Maduro is the one who is really in control. Given what we know from past historical experiences in other places, this situation has enormous potential to turn into an ugly civil war.

Venezuela’s crisis has become a Rorschach inkblot, upon which intellectuals and politicians project their own concerns. To many on the right, Venezuela is a cautionary tale about the dangers of socialism and the path that awaits the US should someone like Bernie Sanders ever come to power (in fairness, unlike other influential figures on the left, Sanders has consistently criticized Venezuela’s regime). This is a myth. Venezuela’s situation is dire, but it is doubtful that socialism per se is the culprit. Wealth redistribution and social reform needn’t result in a catastrophe like Venezuela’s.

To many on the left, Venezuela is a cautionary tale, too—but not about socialism, but about white supremacy. This is the standard narrative of various American intellectuals who, habituated to seeing everything through the prism of race, project their own anxieties onto a country of which they know little. This is itself a form of cultural and academic imperialism—a fact which few seem to notice.

Take, for instance, Glen Ford, writing in the Black Agenda Report, “Venezuela is a predominantly indigenous, Black and mixed race country, while the core opposition to the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro is white and upper class.” The implication is clear: if whites oppose blacks in a given country, then we know who is on the right side of history. In this narrative, Venezuela’s crisis is simply another battleground in which white supremacy is at odds with liberating social policies. It is completely predictable that Donald Trump would support Guaidó—that’s just another white supremacist move.

Even the eminent Yale scholar Amy Chua (no leftist) echoed this racial narrative, shortly before Venezuela’s current crisis. In her critically acclaimed book Political Tribes, she writes: “From a tribal politics point of view, Chávez’s [Maduro’s predecessor and mentor] rise is simple to explain. He was a product of a battle between Venezuela’s dominant ‘white’ minority and its long-degraded, poorer, less-educated, darker-skinned indigenous- and African-blooded masses.” Again, although not as explicitly as Ford, Chua, while critical of Chavez and Maduro’s autocratic moves, still approaches Venezuela’s problems from a racial perspective, thus implying that, somehow, international opposition to Venezuela’s regime is part of the white supremacy agenda.

But the current crisis in Venezuela has little to do with race. Hugo Chávez was an immensely popular president, but his popularity relied on personal charisma, a populist political approach and, above all, oil prices. He redistributed Venezuela’s oil riches for immediate populist effect, without working on real, sustainable policies. His death in 2013 coincided with a sudden global collapse in oil prices. His successor, Nicolas Maduro, had neither the oil revenues nor the personal charisma to sustain his popularity. As oil revenues ran short, popular discontent grew and, in the 2015 National Assembly elections, the opposition forces enjoyed a landslide victory. Worried by his loosening grip on power, in 2017 Maduro launched a National Constituency, which left the National Assembly powerless. The Venezuelan Constitution required Maduro to submit this move to popular approval via a referendum, but, fearing defeat, he decided to forego the referendum, thus breaking with the rule of law. Left powerless by this move, the opposition was fragmented. Maduro seized the opportunity to bring the presidential elections forward by many months, again breaking the law. Despite strong international condemnation, Maduro proceeded with elections in which international observers were not allowed to participate, and was reelected by a vote margin that was—to say the least—very suspicious. In the meantime, in addition to these dictatorial moves, Maduro has actively encouraged the torture, imprisonment and exile of political adversaries, crack-downs on the press and the expansion of the repressive apparatus demanded by his Cuban advisors. Given these illegitimate moves, the opposition judged Venezuela as lacking a legitimate de jure president. The Venezuelan Constitution dictates that, in the absence of a president, the head of the National Assembly must be proclaimed President of the Republic. This is exactly what has happened with Guaidó.

Does race have anything to do with this? In a sense, it does. Although race in Venezuela is far more fluid than in the United States, and there are plenty of people of all colors in all political parties, on average, Guaidó’s sympathizers tend to have lighter skin, whereas Maduro’s sympathizers tend to have darker skin. Yet, it would be grotesque to say that the opposition to Maduro is motivated by the fact that his sympathizers have darker skin, on average. Their obsession with race has made many American scholars forget Maduro’s flagrant violations of the Venezuelan Constitution and his many other dictatorial moves.

Given his weakness in the face of Guaidó’s unexpected rise, Maduro is happy to play along with this racial narrative, and claim that white supremacy is at the root of Venezuela’s current crisis. This same trick has been played on us by many African dictators in the past. Idi Amin was a tyrant—maybe even a cannibal—but he always tried to retain legitimacy by claiming that he represented the struggle of colonized Africa against its former white masters. More recently, Robert Mugabe tried the same tactic: despite a long history of grotesque corruption, Mugabe kept reminding the world of Zimbabwe’s past apartheid regime, and representing his opponents—both white and black—as continuers of apartheid. Ultimately, Ugandans and Zimbabweans grew tired of this race-baiting by their respective dictators. Likewise, it seems that Venezuelans of all colors are not biting the bait, either.

This is not to say that Venezuela is free of racism. Admittedly—as both Glen Ford and Amy Chua remind us—there have been some disturbing manifestations of racism in Venezuela (in cartoons, telenovelas, beauty pageants and so on). But Venezuela’s history of race relations is very different from that of the US. Racist Venezuelan cartoons do not have the same significance as racist American cartoons. Both Ford and Chua fail to take this contextual difference into consideration.

Unlike George Washington, Simón Bolívar, Venezuela’s founding father, proclaimed the emancipation of black slaves. Unlike Lincoln, Monagas (a Venezuelan president of the 1850s) abolished slavery peacefully. Unlike the US with its Jim Crow Laws, once slavery had been abolished, there was never any legal segregation in Venezuela. Perhaps most importantly, unlike in the United States, there was far more miscegenation (mestizaje) in Venezuela. All Venezuelans are taught in school that they are a new mixed race (made up of indigenous, African and Spanish blood). Guaidó would happily say that he himself is a descendant of all three races, thus casting doubt on the allegedly racial aspect of Venezuela’s crisis. Although far from perfect, this nationalist colorblind or integrationist approach has produced better results than the color-conscious identity politics approach of other countries—including the US, where racial confrontations are far more explosive. There are plenty of confrontations in Venezuela, but, in essence, they are not racially motivated.

Thus, the crisis in Venezuela may be a cautionary tale, not so much about the dangers of socialism or white supremacy, but rather, about the way in which race may be invoked as a factor to distract and obscure the facts about a given issue. There is a high probability that O. J. Simpson did murder his ex-wife (the evidence is overwhelming, as the majority of African Americans now acknowledge), but the moment race became a factor in the trial, many Americans—including the jury—forgot the basic facts of the case. It would be naïve to argue that racism has come to an end in the US. Race still matters. But to make it a factor in cases in which it is clearly irrelevant is equally problematic.

For the sake of all Venezuelans, intellectuals on the left must put aside their obsession with race. A dictator is a dictator regardless of his skin color. At least three million Venezuelans have fled their country—in what is the world’s second worst refugee crisis after Syria—because of repression, hunger and crime. This should remind us that not everything is about race.

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The Crisis in Venezuela Has Little to Do with Race