by BAR Executive Editor Glen Ford
“Hate against me has a lot to do with racism. Because of my big mouth, because of my curly hair. And I’m so proud to have this mouth and this hair, because it’s African.” – Hugo Chavez,Democracy Now, September 20, 2005
For tens of thousands of needy Americans this holiday season, “Saint Nick” arrived in the person of a former paratrooper with straight-from-the-barrio Afro-Indian features, commanding fleets of trucks bearing millions of gallons of heating oil heavily discounted for the poor. Through his year-round policy of international solidarity – which is quite different than seasonal generosity – Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the most frequently and fairly elected head of state in the history of the Americas, has revealed the identity of the real Global Grinch: George Bush and the multinational oil companies and fat cats he serves.
It’s a lesson even reality-starved North Americans should comprehend, and one that should find particular resonance among African Americans. Had he been born in Georgia, rather than in the backwater interior of a Spanish-speaking country, Hugo Chavez would certainly have been considered a Black man. The white elites of Venezuela seem to feel the same way – Chavez is routinely referred to as a “monkey” in his homeland’s oligarchic media. Indeed, Chavez’s status as the most popular politician in Latin America has resulted in a kind of perverse North-South hemispheric solidarity among white elites, who collectively tremble at every stirring of Black-brown political power.
“Chavez is routinely referred to as a ‘monkey’ in his homeland’s oligarchic media.”
From the suites of Wall Street to San Francisco’s counter-culture enclaves, both leftist and rightist adherents of various narrow “economics-only” worldviews insist that Washington’s Chavez-phobia is all about oil, and that race is secondary or diversionary. They fail – or refuse – to acknowledge that race and class are intertwined in both halves of the hemisphere, although with different, local particularities. The conquests, exterminations, and re-populations of the Americas were race-based. Democracy and true self-determination of the peoples of the Americas cannot be achieved absent the awakening of those who were – and largely remain – chained by the legacy of history.
Hugo Chavez is waking folks up. His discounting, sharing and bartering of Venezuela’s most valuable natural resource, oil, is but one part of a larger vision of cooperation among peoples, that could serve as a model to resist, combat and replace the Global Rule-Of-Capital Order. Cuba, for example, has little oil, but doctors aplenty. Capitalism is incapable of fairly distributing medical services or of maintaining any other edifice of civilization that is not based on ever-escalating rates of profit for the rulers – a formula for vast suffering and eventual global collapse. In return for discounted oil, Venezuela imports more than 10,000 Cuban doctors to tend to the needs of the poor Venezuelan majority. That’s functional solidarity outside the dollar-dominated Order. The quality of life of both nations is enhanced through rational, voluntary exchange, rather than the coercive, race-to-the bottom international relationships of late-stage, armed-to-the-teeth global capitalism.
Chavez’s vision is not Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. Rather, it is Change the World, So That We All Can Prosper.
Solidarity is a people-to-people enterprise. When governments are not representative of their people, and/or oppress minority populations, solidarity means forging direct ties with the beleaguered people, not their government. Such is the spirit in which poor Americans, and especially African Americans, should receive Venezuela’s discounted oil and Chavez’s many other offers of people-to-people assistance.
Chavez presents African Americans with a fundamental challenge: Are U.S. Blacks really a big enough, wise enough people to assume their unique place in the world as self-determiners, ready and eager to act in their own interests with partners with whom they share common goals – peace, a more equitable distribution of wealth, racial equality – as well as a parallel history of oppression at European hands? Or will African Americans crawl into the oppressor’s tent – a very cold place in which Blacks are usually unwelcome, except when needed in defense of Empire.
“Are U.S. Blacks really a big enough, wise enough people to assume their unique place in the world as self-determiners, ready and eager to act in their own interests with partners with whom they share common goals?”
African Americans are called upon to demonstrate in word and deed that they are receptive to honest overtures from others in the diaspora, without first having to request permission from America’s rulers. Some have failed the test, most sadly, Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel (D).
“This is one country, whether we're Democrat or Republicans,” said Rangel, in a bizarre outburst after Chavez called George Bush “the Devil” the at the United Nations, in September. “And to come here, at the invitation of our people, and insult the president of the United States, you insult the flag; you insult the president; you insult the country; and you insult my constituents.”
In other variations of his weird rant, Rangel spoke of “my president” being so cruelly maligned – a kind of twist on the old “Is we sick, boss?” Black servant line. (“Is we insulted, boss?”)
Later, Rangel “clarified” his remarks, reiterating his “extreme displeasure” with Chavez’s “personal and disparaging” characterization of Bush as Beelzebub. Chavez’s demeaning public attack against [Bush] is viewed by Republicans and Democrats, and all Americans, as an attack on all of us.”
Really? Only if one feels in need of an exorcism every time the president becomes possessed by otherworldly forces, as regularly occurs. (“Is we haunted, boss?”) The congressman acknowledged that his own constituents were slated to become major recipients of Chavez’s discount oil deliveries – but it was a backhanded thank-you:
“Venezuela's generosity to the poor, however, should not be interpreted as license to attack President Bush. Those who take issue with Bush Administration policies have no right to attack him personally. It was not helpful when President Bush referred to certain nations as an ‘axis of evil.’ Neither is it helpful for a head of state to use the sacred halls of the United Nations to insult President Bush.”
Although Rangel’s rant is three-month-old news, it remains one of the baldest, most pitiful recent examples of contradiction in the behavior of a supposedly progressive African American politician. Rangel’s irate expression of solidarity with Bush – the most virulently anti-Black president since Woodrow Wilson segregated the federal bureaucracy in 1913 – clashes violently with the president’s own total lack of solidarity with African Americans. Nevertheless, Rangel maintains that an insult to Bush is “an attack on all of us.” ( Tonto’s rejoinder, “What you mean we, White Man?” comes to mind.)
“Rep. Rangel maintains that an insult to Bush is ‘an attack on all of us.’”
Nonplussed, Chavez traveled to Harlem’s Mount Olivet Baptist Church. "They told me that I should be careful after I called [Bush] the devil — and I think he is the devil — because he might kill me,” Chavez told the overflow crowd in Rangel’s own district. Bush has been trying to dispose of Chavez at least since the U.S.-inspired April, 2002 coup attempt, yet murderous designs on the part of “his” president mean less to Rangel than perceived insults “to us all” from the crinkly-haired brown Latino bearing gifts, Hugo Chavez.
Rangel’s misplaced solidarity can be partially explained by comments from “his” House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, the purported progressive from San Francisco. Chavez, she said, “is an everyday thug” who “demeaned himself and he demeaned Venezuela.”
So maybe, Rangel was really expressing solidarity with Democratic leadership – the people who will elevate him to chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, next month. Will he then find “ways and means” to reciprocate for Venezuela’s good deeds in Harlem? Such as cutting off all funds to Washington’s destabilization campaign against Chavez’s democratically elected government?
Which Side Are You On?
Rangel may have been especially uncomfortable with Chavez’s unabashed expressions of racial solidarity with the African diaspora over the years. Better to denounce the visiting head of state than to be suspected of divided “loyalties.” Or maybe he’s just confused. If so, the congressman has lots of company among those Blacks who suspect that Latinos feign solidarity with African Americans for narrow political advantage. But Chavez’s racial awareness is homegrown, the product of his own society. As author Richard Gott (In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the transformation of Venezuela [Verso]) observed in a visit to Caracas in 2002, Chavez’s third year in office:
“A mass of humanity passes by, in perpetual movement. Some are white or of mixed race, but the great majority are dark skinned. Venezuela is poised geographically between Brazil and the islands of the Caribbean, and the children of slaves and native Americans far outnumber those of the European settlers. In one of the richest countries in Latin America, they live in permanent and absolute poverty. Many scratch a living as hawkers in the valleys below.
“My impression is that a rock-solid majority for Chavez, based on class and race, remains intact. For the first time in Venezuelan history, the country's hidden majority – black, indigenous and mestizo – have a president with whom they can identify. Things may not have gone too well for them in the past three years, and some sections of the poor may have got even poorer. But they also face overt racism from the country's ruling elite. It is clear that Chavez is a president in whom they still have faith, and whom they will defend.”
“A rock-solid majority for Chavez, based on class and race, remains intact.”
As of this month, Chavez and his allies have won ten free and fair elections and referendums since coming to power in 1998 – far more than can be said of Bush or any other American president with the possible exception of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whose four terms and multiple Democratic congresses were all achieved when more than half of Blacks could not vote). Chavez’s base is the 70 percent non-white Venezuelan majority, a proportion that overlaps with the lower classes of society. When Chavez speaks of white racism, he knows what he’s talking about.
“We are all equal, Black, white, Indian, Brown or mixed,” Chavez told a visiting African American delegation in January, 2006. “We need to put the fight against racism at the forefront of our struggle.”
The delegation, organized by TransAfrica, responded to Chavez’s solidarity, in kind. But how do Afro-Venezuelan activists rate their president?
In July, 2005, SeeingBlack.com published an interview with Jesus "Chucho" Garcia, a leader of the 30-group Network of Afro-Venezuelan Organizations. Diaspora correspondent Karen Juanita Carrillo wrote:
“The network wants a reform of the constitution, so that it recognizes the nation's multi-ethnicity and respects Afro-Venezuelan rights; the creation of a new census that categorizes and counts Venezuela's Black population; the acknowledgement of Afro-Venezuelan history in school curriculum; the creation of a federal-level ministry to implement the World Conference Against Racism's ‘Durban Plan of Action’; the creation of a ministry to implement UNESCO's Convention on Diversity; and the creation of an Afro-Venezuelan Ministry, to address the everyday lives of Blacks in the country.”
Network spokesman Garcia said his groups were engaged in “constructive criticism” of Chavez’s government: “We're not part of the government and we're not at all part of the opposition to the Chávez administration. We just think that with the implementation of these six principles, we will make the Bolívarian revolution complete.”
We see that the Venezuelan racial conversation is not solely for export, but an extension of a peaceful internal project in progress, only made possible by Chavez’s 1998 election and subsequent victories. This conversation has spread throughout Latin America, shaking the foundations of de facto white elite rule. It is a dialogue – plus deeds – that African Americans must join, if they are to fulfill their domestic and international obligation as a civilizing force in the belly of the superpower beast.
“What is the nature of Solidarity?”
We must be serious about the nature of solidarity – who is deserving of ours, and what that means in terms of African American domestic political behavior. Rep. Charles Rangel presented a terrible example of egregious contempt for Chavez’s outstretched hand of political and material solidarity. Others, including folks on the Left, offer a bleached-out geopolitical-economic paradigm that rejects the international realities of race and history, thus consigning African Americans to the status of spectators or “yes” men for the foreign policies of Republican or Democratic U.S. administrations.
What is the nature of Solidarity? Obviously, it is a quality of which US-based multinational corporations are totally lacking, as they export millions of jobs while importing lower wage and living standards. In late 2005, thirteen U.S. Senators appealed to every major U.S. oil company to offer heating fuel discounts to the poor. Only Citgo – the Houston-based, Venezuelan government owned firm – responded positively.
The U.S. corporate media, a group of interlocking cogs in a global corporate machine, claims Chavez and Citgo are out to “embarrass” President Bush – as if the White House can’t make itself look uncaring and inhumane on its own. Despite effective censorship, millions of African Americans know that Hugo Chavez was among the first foreign leaders to offer assistance to the Katrina-ravaged Gulf states – much of which was snarlingly refused by the Bush men. The Venezuelan pledge of people-to-people friendship and true solidarity is still extended. Mature African Americans and progressives should accept these overtures at face value, “From The Venezuelan Heart to U.S. Hearths,” as Citgo says.
The world requires internal U.S. opposition to both War Parties if it is to survive. However, Hugo Chavez needs none of our assistance to keep getting elected at home. With more than 60 percent of the vote, Chavez addressed a huge crowd of supporters early this month:
"It's another defeat for the devil, who tries to dominate the world. Down with imperialism! We need a new world!"
BAR Executive Editor Glen Ford can be reached at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com