Afro-Venezuelan children practice traditional music at a cultural center in Barlovento, Miranda State. (Jeanette Charles)
The history of Afro-Venezuela’s roots expose a deep history of resistance and revolution. Histories of anti-colonial rebellion, the fight for abolition, national sovereignty and independence from European rule, as well as demands for equality and equity inherently inform the Bolivarian Revolution thanks to organized Afro-Venezuelan communities.
In May, Afro-Venezuelan history month, the histories of cimarronaje along with the more contemporary communist and socialist leaders of African descent in Venezuela and the Diaspora take precedent. Cimarronaje is a term formerly used to denigrate primarily Africans, and in some cases Indigenous peoples who organized with Africans, in resistance to slavery and who established maroon societies. The term translates to “runaway slave” and was associated with the racist imagery of escaped cattle. Today, Afro-Venezuelans have reclaimed the term to mean someone who continues the tradition of African resistance.
In Revolution, Venezuela has begun to hablar afro, speak Afro or African. The Venezuelan people have begun to forge a path rediscovering and rewriting their histories of African organizing processes and freedom fighters including the likes of Juana Ramírez, José Leonardo Chirinos and Argelia Laya as well as the movements they valiantly led.
The Afro-Venezuelan movement, particularly young people, has actively fought to defend and expand their people’s rights. As current conditions in Venezuela call for the state and grassroots movements to make significant shifts in their economy, political structure and cultural practices, Afro-Venezuelan resistance serves as a living testament and encouraging roadmap toward radical transformation.
In this interview, Ángel Gónzalez, a youth organizer from Acevedo, Miranda State shares his insight on the struggle to uplift not only Afro-Venezuelan communities but communities of African descent everywhere.
Q: Please tell us about yourself and your organization.
My name is Ángel Gonzalez, I am a representative of the Network of Afro-Venezuelan Organizations (ROA), a social movement that works with Venezuelan communities of African descent. We have worked for many years in the fight to secure the recognition and rights of Afro-Venezuelan communities that have been historically marginalized since enslavement.
As young people, we are constantly learning from others with more experience about how to strengthen, inspire and incorporate organizations into our struggle. Our current President Nicolás Maduro and the Vice-Ministry for the People’s Supreme Happiness accompany us in this struggle. In recent years, Comandante Chávez created the National Council for the Development of Afro-descendent Communities of Venezuela (CONADECAFRO) an institution headed by Norma Romero who works closely with our movement. The president of our movement’s youth branch is Gabriel Lopez who we refer to as El Cimarrón Mayor (or the Great Maroon) and is a great Afro-Venezuelan youth leader. We aspire to carry out the historic struggle spearheaded by our ancestors.
Q: To understand the struggle in your community, can you tell us more about your town? Where is Acevedo located? What does the community produce?
A: Acevedo is located in the region of Barlovento which is along the coast of Miranda State in Zone 2. The Capital District (Caracas), Vargas, Anzoategui, Aragua and Guarico states as well as the Caribbean Sea border us. Acevedo constitutes eight municipalities. Our land is full of mountains, rivers and other geographical riches. Our municipal mayor is Juan Jose Aponte and he supports the Afro-Venezuelan struggle, he is Bolivarian and his office is revolutionary. They support not only with economic resources, but with human resources and energy to realize a variety of projects and events.
Miranda State is a naturally productive state and because our ancestors were producers, we continue that tradition. We inherited those customs from them. We have a wide variety of agricultural goods ranging from fruit to vegetables as well as cacao for chocolate and many farms with livestock. There is a large textile industry in Miranda as well.
We are characterized principally by our tourism. We have incredible beaches, rivers, mountains and caves which attract national as well as international tourism.
In our lands where our ancestors have walked, where some of the nation’s greatest leaders have lived, we have enormous wealth: water, gold, oil and other minerals. Today, the opposition wants to take these away from us. They want to steal our wealth. We stand before the world and affirm before President Maduro, that we will defend the homeland of Simón Bolívar and Chávez, the revolutionary process and achieve supreme happiness as Comandante Chávez always advocated.
Q: What does Afro-Venezuelan mean to you and by extension, the movement?
A: For the movement, it’s clear, being Afro-Venezuelan or of African descent is not a hobby and it is not temporary. To be Afro means that one carries [this identity] in their blood and in the moment you hear it, internalize it and start to believe in it, you feel the spirit of the ancestors. You feel how they touch you and they transport you to another world. This is where you really fall in love with what it means to be Afro. When you begin to read and research everything about African history. When you learn about how your ancestors, great grandparents, grandmothers and grandfathers were poorly treated, humiliated and taken from their lands forced into labor and enslaved. This is when you commit yourself. You believe and you say with conviction, I am Afro-Venezuelan because my ancestors were Africans. We are children of Africa.
Q: Can you tell us about the role of youth in this historic struggle from the perspective of the Afro-Venezuelan movement?
A: Youth play an incredibly important role. Why? Because, we, as youth embody that rebellious spirit, enthusiasm, spiritual strength, and the moral to inspire these struggles and carry them out. Our historic compañero and martir, Guillermo Ribas, was a young freedom fighter, who organized uprisings in enslaved regions and fought against the so-called “masters”. I say so-called because to say they were our masters is to accept them as our owners. To call them masters is a misnomer.
Ribas was from Acevedo, specifically from the town that now carries his name. There, they created one of the first cumbes (maroon societies) of free Blacks in Venezuela, Mango de Ocoita Cumbe [established between 1768 through 1771].
Along with Ribas, Rey Miguel de Buría and Andresote, a young Afro-Indigenous freedom fighter and warrior, both challenged the imperial powers of their times as well.
We, as Afro-Venezuelan youth, continue the struggle to organize everyday. We work to build a liberating consciousness in our youth through social work, education, sports, culture, ecology, labor and other areas. Youth embody Venezuela’s potential.
We want our youth to think freely and not be deceived by what the great imperialist powers want us to believe: that we are all machines and we only serve for to produce under exploited labor. That’s not the case. We are all human beings, we all have hearts, beliefs and think. We cherish our families, our communities and our idiosyncrasies as Venezuelans.
We believe that working with youth will achieve everything that Comandante Chávez hoped for: freedom for the Venezuelan people, the Americas and the world. We are putting in our grain of salt, following the legacy of our Comandante Chávez, working with Afro-Venezuelan communities, working with the most impoverished in history to challenge an empire that wants to take over the whole world. We want to achieve what Comandante Chávez advocated for, support the world from our trenches and achieve socialism so all people are treated equally and that no one group of people or leaders are the only ones who have benefits in any nation.
Q: What are some of the strategies that you employ to organize Afro-Venezuelan youth?
A: As an organization, we tell our youth that this struggle is not about achieving political power. It is to defend our ancestors’ struggle to be free. It is our gesture toward freedom.
Focused on youth, we host Afro-political gatherings every six months. Each December we organize an Afro-Venezuelan assembly of cimarrones and cimarronas where organizations part of ROA congregate. We specifically work in education with children and adolescents so that our young people are involved from a young age and learn the meaning behind being Afro. We want them to understand what it means to self-identify as a Afro-Venezuelan and that they recognize it in their blood and carry it in their spirit.
We are also in the planning stages of the First International Gathering of African-Descendants here in Venezuela. Afro-Venezuelan youth are behind this project because the moment we are living in now is a very challenging one. The [opposition’s] attacks are directly against the youth of our country. They are geared toward the deterioration of our young people, our base. We must empower ourselves and recuperate the spaces most populated by people of African descent.
Q: You’ve referred to the current political context and the strong attacks by the opposition against the Venezuelan people. How do you see the Afro-Venezuelan people’s contribution to defend the Revolutionary process?
A: As an organization, we are committed to fulfilling the Homeland Plan created by Chávez. He left us very specific tasks to carry out a socialist process not an an imperialist one. We are committed to supporting President Maduro and his administration. [The government] has been tainted by attacks ranging from the economic war to the media war. The opposition wants to eliminate the revolutionary process anyway possible not only here in Venezuela but in all of Latin America and the Caribbean. The right has waged attacks against the region and we see this in Argentina, Brazil and Ecuador for example. It is a grave situation. We as an organization raise our voice to denounce the US empire and we demand that they stop the attacks against the revolutionary government of Maduro and Chávez. We are convinced that socialism is the only way to live well and develop our communities.
Q: Speaking to the Bolivarian process, what has the Afro-Venezuelan movement in Acevedo and by extension, Barlovento been able to achieve in Revolution?
A: Over the years, we have done a lot. The principal achievement was that Chávez visibilized us. Before, we were invisibilized. In the process, we created the Law Against Racial Discrimination, the National Institute Against Racial Discrimination (INCODIR) and CONADECAFRO that fight in defense of our rights.
On a local level, we have built cumbes* and organize activities in Afro-Venezuelan communities. We have brought to light the struggles of our martyrs and our ancestors that were invisibilized by the Venezuelan right wing, who wouldn’t say why our leaders like Guillermo Ribas, Miguel Geróimo Guacamaya and Andresote among others were killed.
Chávez advocated for the happiness of our people and Afro-Venezuelans which is something we strive for today. But, the right attacks us and not only Afro-Venezuelans, but also the indigenous as well as the sex and gender diverse community. It isn’t in the right wing’s favor that Venezuelans live freely. They prefer us enslaved and under their thumb.
It is also important to mention that in Revolution President Chávez helped communities in New York by donating oil resources. Maduro’s government continues this tradition so people can survive the cold winters. Many people went without heating and President Chávez through an agreement with Black organizations gave them oil so they could have access to heating. This way people do not have to worry about their immediate needs and can organize.
These are achievements that the empire doesn’t want to name because it exposes the work they must do in Afro-descendant communities. They need to support the most impoverished. President Chávez used to say, it’s not that communities don’t want heating. It is because they do not have access because of the taxes empire imposes and the communities’ limited acquisitive power. As an act of solidarity, Chávez did this kind of work not only for the communities in New York but around the world.
Q: Any final comments you would like to share?
A: I call on international communities to support African-descended peoples’ struggles and not just Afro-Venezuelan communities but around the world. History has an outstanding debt with our peoples who were exploited, ripped from their lands and our idiosyncrasies were fractured. For many years our communities have been impoverished and stripped of their resources. We must support our communities, strengthen our organizations and defend our peoples. We must uplift the struggles of African descended nations. From Venezuela, we extend our hand to all these organizations that want to join our struggle. Whether you are collectives, foundations or however you call yourselves: focus on and defend the development of Afro-descendant communities!
* Cumbes in Venezuela are synonymous with maroon societies and were autonomous sites of African and Indigenous resistance to colonialism. Today, Afro-Venezuelans reference cumbes and highlight their African political processes to inform the Bolivarian Revolution’s call for a communal state.