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Chavez' constitutional reform would recognize Afro Venezuela

By Karen Juanita Carrillo

Afro Venezuelans will gain a partial victory if their nation's constitutional reforms pass on December 2, 2007.

Venezuelan voters will decide whether to approve some 69 changes to the national constitution on December 2, in part of a reform process set forth by President Hugo Chávez Frías.

"Much has been made of the reforms," noted Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Álvarez Herrera in a November 19th speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "most of it ignoring or distorting key details. One reform would extend the presidential term limit to seven years and do away with term limits. Of course, the president would still have to face regular elections and the recall referendum, an innovative democratic mechanism that allows the Venezuelan people to cut short the term of any elected official. Another set of reforms would codify new forms of public property, though while restating the rights to private ownership. And another reform would limit certain political liberties during national emergencies, though while maintaining key due process rights and the right to life and personal integrity - thus keeping with international standards.

Ambassador Álvarez also pointed out that some of the reforms are progressive in nature: "One would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or health. Another would lower the voting age to 16 - following a similar move made in Austria this year. Two others would formalize the right to adequate housing and the right to free public education, while others still would create a social security fund for the self-employed, protect Afro-Venezuelan heritage and guarantee the full rights of prisoners."

The language of the proposed reform to Article 100 in the constitution would, in some ways, formally recognize and protect Afro-Venezuelan heritage and culture.ReinaldoBolivarctr.jpg  The original 1999 constitution had merely noted that, "The ethnic cultures of Venezuela deserve special attention, recognition and respect as equals" and that the Venezuelan government would support cultural institutions and guarantee social security for cultural workers.

Reinaldo Bolívar, Venezuela's Viceminister for relations with Africa (at the mic) speaks during the "II Festival Cultural con los Pueblos de África." (Photo credit:  www.mre.gov.ve)

The proposed reformed Article 100 (loosely translated) also guarantees social security for cultural workers, but it also states that, "The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is the historical result of the confluence of many cultures, thus the State recognizes and values the indigenous, European and African roots that created our great South American nation. The ethnic cultures of the indigenous, of the Euro-Venezuelans and of Afro-Venezuelans enjoy special attention, recognition and respect as equals. This law will establish incentives and stimuli for organizations, institutions and communities to promote, support, develop and/or finance cultural plans, projects, programs and activities in the country, as well as internationally."

Most Afro Venezuelans are happy to finally get some recognition of their community by the government.  This past October, Modesto Ruiz, a National Assembly representative for the majority Black population of Venezuela's Barlovento region, issued a statement in support of the Constitutional Reform Bill. And Enrique Arrieta Chourio of the Red de Organizaciones Afrovenezolanas/Afro Venezuelan Network has said that he openly supported the reform of Article 100 because it serves as a launching pad for further inclusion of Afro Venezuelans in the nation's everyday life.

But other members of the Network say that the reformed constitutions' inclusion of only one reference to Black life in Venezuela trivializes their communities' contributions to the nation.

"Who do you think actually built this nation's colonial economy?" wrote Jesus "Chucho" García, a leader in the Afro-Venezuelan Network, in an open letter to the National Assembly representatives as they voted on which reforms would be included in the constitution.

"Who was it that paid with their blood and their minds and who fought in the Wars of Independence, the Federal wars, and fought in the 1960s and '70s for a Revolutionary Democracy?" Garcia recalled that Black Venezuelans were pivotal in helping to end the 2002 attempted coup that would have put Chávez out of office. Yet the National Assembly did not accept the 11 proposed changes that the Afro-Venezuelan Network had suggested for the constitution, some of which included a reference in the constitutions' preamble to the fact that Afro-Venezuelans helped create the country; that they have long-established communities in certain areas of the nation; that, though enslaved, they were able to retain many aspects of their African spirituality; and the Network wanted the government to institute a curriculum based on Afro Venezuelans throughout the country's educational system.
 
"So how, dear National Assembly representatives, and Sir President of the Republic Hugo Chávez Frías, can you reduce us to but one article of the constitutional reformation - and to a an article that is, by the way, badly written and historically decontextualized?" García wrote in his open letter: "If this is how it's going to be, dear National Assembly representatives, I guess we are finding ourselves confronted with yet another form of subtle racism and discrimination.  In the history of Venezuelan hypocrisy your names will now also be written - just as there are now the names of those fraudulent representatives of 1830 and 1854 who laughed at the aspirations of our ancestors when they demanded citizenship, land and respect for their culture."

Festivalpq.gifThe controversy regarding the inclusion of Blacks in the reformed constitution comes just as Venezuela finished hosting its II Festival Cultural con los Pueblos de África/2nd Cultural Festival with the People of Africa at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela and throughout Caracas. The event, which was presided over by Reinaldo Bolívar, Venezuela's Viceminister for relations with Africa, took place from November 17 through 25th and brought artists, politicians and scholars from across Africa to Venezuela to demonstrate the links and commonalities the people of Africa still have with Venezuela.

As the Festival ended, some participants signed their names to a petition that recognized Venezuela's efforts to strengthen cultural ties between the continent and Venezuela.  But the petition also "condemns old and new forms of racism, discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance against the people of Africa and African descendents throughout the world."  The language in the petition is reminiscent of the statements issued following the United Nation's World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), which was held in Durban, South Africa in 2001.  Since the WCAR, the UN has been urging governments to do everything they can to end racial inequality in their countries.