(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.
But during my time in Venezuela, the black people I encountered were also being drawn to Chávez because of the changes he was making to reduce poverty and to tear down barriers to progress.
One of those accomplishments was Barrio Adentro, a health mission outside of Caracas that I visited. It is run by Cuban and Venezuelan doctors, and the poorest Venezuelans are able to get health care there.
"The only thing you need to come here is your own will," one black Venezuelan said, through a translator, as he waited outside. "You don't have to be part of the [Bolivarian] revolution to come."
Black people like him were already warming to Chávez's changes.
Those changes included using the country's resources to initiate reforms that have led to dramatic dips in poverty. According to the CIA World Factbook, Venezuela's poverty rate has fallen from 50 percent in 1999, when Chávez took office, to 27 percent in 2011.
Also, according to the Center for Economic Policy and Research (pdf), families living in extreme poverty have dropped from 16 percent to 7 percent since Chávez took office, an achievement the center calls significant and one that puts Venezuela within reach of eliminating extreme poverty altogether.
Social spending under Chávez has also led to better living standards. Infant mortality has fallen from 21 percent to 14 percent per every 1,000 births. School enrollment has increased, and people have greater access to things that we in the U.S. take for granted, such as clean water and sanitation.
That was the track on which Chávez was taking the country — and it apparently was the one about which pro-Chávez supporters cared. And what it showed me are the things we miss when we view places strictly through the prism of U.S. interests.
And I couldn't help thinking how those red-shirted marchers — the ones shouting "Chávez todo!" and furiously waving the Venezuelan flag — and the man at Barrio Adentro were a big part of the story of Venezuela, a country that is 67 percent mestizo and 10 percent black.
Sadly enough, throughout Chávez's time as president, that part of the story was the part that always tended to be left out.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning journalist based in Jacksonville, Fla. She has traveled and written about Venezuela, Cuba and a number of countries in the African diaspora. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.