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Venezuelan official cites country’s African history

Yawu Miller | 5/29/2014, 6 a.m.
From the earliest years of Spanish settlement in South America, Africans played a key role in shaping the history of ...
Boston Pan African Forum President Joyce Hope Scott introduces Venezuelan Deputy Consul General Omar Sierra. (Banner photo)

From the earliest years of Spanish settlement in South America, Africans played a key role in shaping the history of the continent — from slave revolts in the 1500s to African military leaders in the war of independence against Spanish colonial rule in the 1700s.

But despite the fact that the majority of Venezuelans define themselves as morena(o) — or brown, to reflect a mix of black, indigenous and Spanish blood, Venezuelans have historically been reluctant to acknowledge the continued African presence in their country.

“If you talk to many Venezuelans today, they tell you the same speech: ‘We’re all mestizo. We’re all the same people. Why do we have to have special programs for African people?’” says Venezuelan Deputy Consul General Omar Sierra.

“That mentality creates invisibility of Afro-Venezuelans and indigenous people. If we are all equal, how can you explain that in all African communities, all the social indicators are at the bottom of the ladder?”

Speaking during the annual meeting of the Boston Pan African Forum, Sierra gave a history of Afro-Venezuelans and outlined the efforts of the governments of the late President Hugo Chavez and current President Nicolas Maduro to recognize the contributions of Africans to Venezuela’s history and culture and remove barriers of discrimination that have kept blacks living in second-class status.

Africans were first brought to present-day Venezuela as slaves in 1528 to work in copper mines there. In subsequent years, African slaves were forced to work in the agricultural sector, fueling the South American colony’s economy, which depended on the export of cacao and sugar.

From the beginning, Africans who ran away from slavery formed independent Cimarron communities in Venezuela, where African music and customs are still practiced. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, during the Bolivarian revolution against Spanish colonialism, African men and women served as military leaders, winning decisive battles against Spanish forces.

In exchange for military support from the Haitian government, Venezuelan revolutionary leader Simon de Bolivar agreed to end slavery in the colony. Slavery was phased out in the country by 1863.

But in the 1930s, the Venezuelan government began official policies aimed at whitening the country, banning the immigration of Africans to the country and incentivizing European immigration with promises of free land.

Sierra said the anti-African tide turned in 1998, when the newly-elected Chavez became the first Venezuelan president to openly acknowledge his African and indigenous ancestral roots.

Beginning in 1999, with the Chavez government’s controversial re-writing of the Venezuelan constitution, Chavez ushered in a series of reforms aimed at redressing the Afro-Venezuelan community’s history of dispossession, according to Sierra. The reforms included government expropriation of fallow land from wealthy landowners for redistribution to Afro-Venezuelan communities.

The Chavez administration also signed on to the 2001 Durban Declaration and Programme of Action from the World Conference on Racism, a United Nations initiative aimed at ending racist international policies.

The Chavez government also began re-writing history text books used in the Venezuelan schools to include the histories of Africans and of indigenous people.