Why the Black and Poor Loved Hugo Chávez

The president, who died at age 58 this week, was a leader who helped bring their struggles to light.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

(Special to The Root) — In June of 2007, I was eating breakfast at a restaurant in downtown Caracas when a sea of Venezuelans flooded the streets shouting their support for their president, Hugo Chávez, after he decided against renewing the license of Radio Caracas Televisión.

But in disrupting my breakfast, the crowd also provided me a picture of the Venezuela that I rarely, if ever, saw on television at home. This was a picture that showed the mostly brown and black and poor who viewed Chávez not as a dictator but as a savior.

This was the Venezuela that, not unlike the brown and black and poor people in the United States, the media had reduced to invisibility.

Chávez died yesterday at age 58 after a long bout with cancer. He died a popular leader, and it’s questionable as to whether his reforms will survive amid internal politics and maneuvering by corporations and governments that have coveted that country’s oil wealth and resented his efforts to bring socialist reforms to Latin America.

But judging from the enthusiasm I saw coming from people of color who were energized by him six years ago, fading into the background won’t be an option for them.

I traveled to Venezuela with Global Exchange in 2007 to take a two-week Spanish-immersion class in the mountain city of Merida. I was there during a time that was being highly politicized and propagandized.

The news, at least back in the U.S., was that Chávez had shut down RCTV, and the speculation was that in doing so, he was moving the country toward totalitarianism. But the throngs of black and brown Venezuelans who gathered to support him apparently didn’t believe that. Nor did they care about the fate of a station that rarely saw them in a positive light or, for that matter, at all.

What they cared about was the fate of a leader who not only acknowledged his own black features and heritage but also saw theirs.

In 2005, two years before my visit there, Chávez had led lawmakers to establish May as Afro-Descendent Month, and May 10 as Afro-Venezuelan Day. That day was chosen to honor José Leonardo Chirino, a black revolutionary who led an insurrection against Spanish colonists in 1795.

That was a step toward recognizing and including Afro-Venezuelans in the advancement of the country. It was the start of more steps, such as a 2011 law against racial discrimination and an option on the census for people to identify as Afro-Venezuelan.

Again, Chávez was finding ways to see them — and not force them into the kind of invisibility that buttresses myths about racial democracy in Latin America.