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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  1. Very interesting article. TY
    I would never have guessed that some Western ideologues are positing the racism angle, in regards to the current situation in Venezuela.
    I can’t say that I am all that surprised, though.

  2. Hugo Chavez did play up his part Amerindian ancestry in order to mobilize the indigenous groups versus the ‘white imperialists’ just as Eco Morales does in Bolivia. Chavez and Morales created indigenous coalitions to compete against the ‘white elite.’ Amy Chua deals with this in her earlier book World on Fire where she describes the pigmentocratic policies in Latin America.

    1. Evo Morales was far more successful in this, perhaps because in Bolivia the racial lines are more clearly drawn. In Venezuela, race is far more fluid. I calculate that Venezuelans who self-identify as indigenous are no more than 2% of the population; the overwhelming majority see themselves more as just mixed. Chavez paid lip service to indigenous identity (protesting against Columbus Day and so on), but he did not really build ethnic indigenous coalitions. In fact, many prominent members of his cabinet were white-looking (his own son-in-law Jorge Arreaza, Luis Miquilena, Diosdado Cabello, Rafael Ramirez, Francisco Arias Cardenas, Maria Cristina Iglesias, Jacqueline Farias, Hector Navarro, Jorge Giordani, and many others); so it was not so easy for him to frame his leadership on the basis of the racial narrative of non-whites vs. whites. This narrative of racial confrontation came more from abroad than from Venezuela itself.

      1. What about the mestizo population, how does that fit in? And, there have been burnings of black and brown people by opposition portesters.Reading around, though, I get the impression that the prejudice and the attacks are directed towards poor people (and the small black/brown population are pretty much guaranteed to be poor).

        “Anyone who looks Chavista— and this generally means anybody who is black or brown or appears poor—has a legitimate fear about staying alive as they go about their ordinary lives in Venezuela at the present moment.”

        1. 1. In Venezuela, very few people think of themselves as “mestizo”. There is hardly any mestizo identity as such, even though the vast majority of Venezuelans are mixed race. Most Venezuelans do not fit in neatly in the classical phenotype of blacks, whites or Indians, but they don’t think of themselves as a separate ethnic unit. Like most other Latin American nations, nationalism has been successful to a large degree in getting Venezuelans to think of themselves first in terms of nationality, and only then, in terms of ethnicity. Only groups that are very visible black, indigenous tribes, and some immigrant communities, are more ethnicity oriented. This mixed race collective does not align neatly to either one of the political parties in dispute. As I mentioned in the article, there is some correlation between lighter skin color and opposition to Maduro, but it is by no means a strong correlation.

          2. There has only been ONE burning of a brown-skinned man, and it was by other brown-skinned men. The details of that case have not been clear, but my take is this: one common tactic the Venezuelan government uses is to infiltrate spies at opposition rallies, to cause havoc or collect information, and provide it to paramilitary groups who harass demonstrators in their homes. That unfortunate victim was likely believed to be a spy, and was brutally killed. He happened to be dark-skinned, but I find it doubtful that this crime was racially motivated.

          3. That particular passage you quote is preposterous, and comes from a media outlet that is absolute propaganda, largely orchestrated by Cuba’s propaganda ministry (which has advised Venezuela’s propaganda machine for years). Clearly, that article wants to racialize the conflict in order to defend Maduro, exactly the same tactic used by various African dictators, as I mention in the article. One may acknowledge that there is a Chavista look, but this is not coded by racial traits, but rather, by choice of clothes (wearing shirts with political slogans and so on), or signs of poverty (poor dentition, etc.). Check the faces of Claudio Fermin, Andres Velasquez, Liborio Guarulla, Pablo Medina, Manuel Rosales, Froilan Barrios, and many others, and you will see noted political figures who look anything but white, and yet oppose Maduro.

          4. You should also now that just a couple of days ago, Maduro’s forces murdered two indigenous (from the Pemon tribe) people, and injured many others in that tribe, in a brutal attack. Needless to say, this fact upsets the narrative that this is a racial conflict facing white supremacists and brown people, but unfortunately, the Cuban propaganda machine that you quote will try to sweep it under the rug:

          1. Well, this photograph from the BBC site shows white-skinned men burning him:
            As I said, I get the impression that the prejudice and the attacks are directed towards poor people (and the small black/brown population are pretty much guaranteed to be poor). Race aside, some 23 people have been burned alive since the opposition began violent demonstrations in 2017. Apart from demonstrators who were burned when bombs exploded in their hands, or the building they were burning collapsed around them, the people targeted have been government officials or ‘chavistas’.

            Dr Gabriel, you have dismissed the one source I quoted as “preposterous” and as propaganda orchestrated by Cuba, but without providing evidence for that or for any of the claims you have made. Although the ostensible thrust of the article is to insist that race is not a major issue in Venezuela, most of the article repeats received narrative found in US media, such as that Maduro is a dictator. Why can we not dismiss this article of yours as propaganda? There is no discussion of the complexities of the story, of sanctions by the US, of US motivations for controlling the Venezuelan government – nor even of the history of race in Venezuela.

            1. 1. All I see in the BBC photo is a light-skinned arm. Race is a social construction, but if you want to racialize this incident, you have to describe the facial features of the aggressors (not just the extremity) in order to come up with their race, and this is clearly not possible in this picture. I find it bizarre that you describe the aggressors as “white”, when they are clearly brown-skinned. The BBC will gladly point out the racial nature of a particular incident (as they frequently do with hate crimes in the US). Yet, for this particular incident, that BBC does not mention race, simply because the incident was not racially motivated. Only if you are predisposed to believe that this is a racial incident, will you see the aggressors as being part of a different race from the victim. When you only have a hammer in your mind, everything looks like nails.
              2. Again, I must correct your wrong impression about the attacks being directed towards poor people. From the opposition side, they have been directed towards people suspected of being spies who infiltrate opposition demonstrations (given the non-racial nature of Venezuela’s conflict, it is relatively easy for government forces to infiltrate opposition demonstrators, because no one will suspect someone of being a spy solely on the basis of his skin color). You mention the “small black/brown” population, as if Venezuela were a white-majority country, which it clearly is not. Brown-skinned people make up the majority in Venezuela, and again, to racialize this incident is to play along with the incorrect narrative of the regime.
              3. As for the burnings, yes, they took place in a very special context in 2017. After Maduro blatantly violated the rule of law, there were demonstrations that turned violent. Demonstrators were not targeting these victims, but rather, government property (symbols of the corrupt regime), and the burning of people were side effects. Needless to say, I do not intend to excuse this destructive behavior, but I do emphasize that it was not targeting particular groups of people. In the destruction of the Bastille in 1789, some people died (not precisely aristocrats, but simply low-level government workers who guarded the Bastille). Again, this was morally inexcusable, but it is intellectually dishonest to claim that that particular event targeted a particular group of people, when in fact, it was actually about the symbolic value of that particular building.
              4. The source that you previously referenced, NACLA, has long been a supporter of the Cuban revolution, and in fact, it even has a celebratory headline of the Cuban dictatorship in the same article that you reference! My article is clearly NOT a repetition of perceived narrative in the US media, as I have precisely criticized US media for using Venezuela as a projection of their own anxieties, both from the left and the right (I even defend Bernie Sanders in my piece, something standard media in the US will not do). You cannot dismiss my article as propaganda, because unlike the article that you quote (which only relies on racial conjectures with no empirical grounding whatsoever), I present facts. And a clear fact is that Maduro violated the rule of law and the Venezuelan constitution, and thus became a dictator, and this has nothing to do with race.
              5. Until very recently, sanctions by the US have been only directed against corrupt politicians (unlike the Cuban embargo), not against the Venezuelan population. The US surely has imperial motivations in its approach to Venezuela, just like the Russians, the Cubans, or the Chinese. But, how exactly do these motivations refute my claims in the article? You never say. Furthermore, in any history of sudden social change (whether it is the America revolution, the Russian revolution, or even the Civil Rights movement in the US), there are outside agents with less-than-noble motivations. Does this invalidate the legitimacy of those internal agents who do mobilize for change? Hardly
              6. You say I do not discuss the history of race in Venezuela. It seems to me you have not read the article, and are just trolling. I do discuss the history of race in Venezuela, and I argue that in Venezuela, there was far more miscegenation than in the US, and there was never anything like lynching, Jim Crow or the Ku Klux Klan. In the piece, I do not deny that there is racism in Venezuela, but I argue that race relations in Venezuela are different from race relations in the US (there has been far more racial harmony), and you become a cultural imperialist when you interpret Venezuelan events through the lens of racial obsessions in the US.
              7. Since you seem not to have read my article, and you prefer to engage in trolling, I shall reply no further.

              1. Dr Gabriel, you insist that your articl is not propaganda but you do not supply any evidence at all for most of your claims. For instance, the claim that “From the opposition side, [attacks] have been directed towards people suspected of being spies who infiltrate opposition demonstrations”.

                1. Your own link says it. “On Friday prosecutors said suspects had been identified. President Nicolás Maduro has said the victim was set upon because he was a government supporter.”
                  “Julio Borges is responsible for these crimes because he has led the opposition calls for insurrection, violence and aggression against our fatherland,” he said.

    1. And the right fights with reality of oppression, never-ending war for national interests, and unequal protection under the law, just naming it socialism.

    1. Indeed. For example, there is a cartoon character in Mexico, Memin Pinguin. Sure, he looks very stereotypically black, and he may look like a character from a American Minstrel Show. Jesse Jackson went down to Mexico and tried hard to make Memin disappear from Mexican media. He was surprised to find that most Mexican blacks actually like Memin. Jackson completely left out that in Mexico, there were never minstrel shows, so few people down there interpreted Memin as Jackson did. Jackson was clearly being ethnocentric.

      1. While perhaps excessive, we see this with those who are fans get derided for blackface (as if they are doing minstrel shows) when they are in fact honoring and mimicking.

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