Like the rest of Latin America, Venezuela's history is scarred by colonialism's racist legacy — Venezuela's people were dispossessed in 1520 following Spanish settlement. In the following centuries, they were systematically killed and their land exploited. Slavery, which allowed the colonisers to plunder Venezuela, existed until 1854, and at the time of the 1830 constitution neither indigenous people nor those descended from Africa were recognised as Venezuelans.
Racism was a necessary part of the justification of colonialist conquests. Only now, with the gains being made by the government of socialist President Hugo Chavez and the growing mass revolutionary movement, is Venezuela beginning to grapple in earnest with how to confront this racist legacy.
Chavez's election in 1998 re-sparked old expectations of land control and the defence of indigenous ways of life, and brought the plight of Venezuela's indigenous peoples into the public eye.
Venezuela's 2001 census found 35 different indigenous tribes, 34 different indigenous languages and 535,000 indigenous people (2.1% of the population). Further, many Venezuelans identify as mestizo — or mixed race — and are of a broad racial background.
The rights of Venezuela's indigenous people were first entrenched in the 1999 Bolivarian constitution, which was ratified by 71% of voters (with 60% voter participation). For the first time, indigenous land rights were identified as being collective, inalienable and non-transferable, with the recognition of the "rights of the indigenous peoples over the land they traditionally and ancestrally occupied. They must demarcate that land and guarantee the right to its collective ownership."
Article 9 stipulates that while Spanish is Venezuela's primary language, "indigenous languages are also for official use for indigenous peoples and must be respected throughout the Republic's territory for being part of the nation's and humanity's patrimonial culture". The 1999 constitution also affirms that "exploitation by the state of natural resources will be subject to prior consultation with the native communities", that "indigenous peoples have the right to an education system of an intercultural and bilingual nature", that indigenous people have the right to control ancestral knowledge over "native genetic resources" and biodiversity, and that three indigenous representatives are ensured seats in the country's National Assembly (these were elected by delegates of the National Council of Venezuelan Indians in July 1999).
In October 2004, Dalia Herminia Yanez, a member of the Environmental Network of Indigenous Warao women of Delta Amacuro state, said: "Under previous governments we had only two lines in the constitution. We have advanced. We also have the law of the demarcation of land that will be approved, the rights of children, and now we are writing laws of the rights of indigenous women."
Since then, the confidence of the indigenous rights movement has exploded. The multitude of social problems that persist as a hangover of previous, capitalist policies has led to a culture of Chavista activists who support the revolution and lobby the Chavez government to demand attention to their particular issue.
In April 2005, indigenous activists from the Wayuu, Bari and Yukpa tribes converged in Caracas to denounce coalmining operations in Zulia state, which had resulted in the deforestation of thousands of acres of land and the onset of respiratory diseases in members of the local and indigenous communities due to coal dust. A leader of the Yukpa tribe, Cesareo Panapaera, declared: "We want the government to hear us: we don't want coal. Here are our bows and arrows, and we will use them against the miners if they come to our lands. And if we have to die fighting for our lands, we will die."
Their campaign was successful. On April 4 this year, Chavez announced a ban on the expansion of coalmining in the Zulia region. The mining, which was carried out by a consortium of the state-owned oil company PDVSA and privately owned transnational corporations, was found to be in violation of the constitution's affirmation of the indigenous right to control over indigenous land. A statement released by the coalition of environment and indigenous activists announced, "we know that the powerful multinational mining interests in Zulia will keep trying to keep their mega-coal project alive, whatever the cost" and pledged to continue struggling until coalmining was banned entirely in the region.
This campaign demonstrates the gap between what the constitution promises and what exists in Venezuela. Mission Guaicaipuro was established in October 2003 to implement the indigenous rights that are contained within the constitution. Organised by the environment and natural resources ministry, its chief concern is to restore communal and indigenous land titles and defend indigenous rights and resources against corporate exploitation.
At the forefront of the anti-racist movement is the Afro-Venezuelan Network, headed by Jesus "Chucho" Garcia, which is lobbying for recognition of Afro-Venezuelans in the next round of amendments to the Bolivarian constitution, and for the census to ask questions about race and ethnic background, to give a more accurate picture of Venezuela's racial demographics. Many Venezuelans believe in the common misconception that Venezuela's broad racial composition and the high number of mestizos means equality prevails and racism is dead, without a deeper understanding of the racial lines that divide the country's classes and the ongoing, institutional impact of Venezuela's colonial history.
The Afro-Venezuelan Network has also successfully campaigned for the creation of a presidential commission against racism in 2005, the inclusion of Afro-Venezuelan history in the school curriculum, the establishment of a number of cocoa-processing plants and farming cooperatives run by black Venezuelans in the Barlovento area (which has one of the largest concentrations of Afro-Venezuelans and most active black rights movements in Venezuela) and for Afro-Venezuelan Day on May 10 each year.
The ambitious land and agrarian reforms embedded in the 1999 constitution have been especially beneficial to indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan communities. The constitution declares that idle, uncultivated private land over a certain size can be transformed into productive units of land for common social benefit. By prioritising socially productive land use over monopolistic private land ownership and redistributing idle land to the landless, Chavez has promoted independence, food sovereignty and local agricultural development.
Amidst these local changes, Chavez has been building alliances with other marginalised communities in the Americas, such as providing food, water and medical care to 45,000 Hurricane Katrina victims in areas surrounding New Orleans and supplying discounted heating and diesel oil to schools, nursing homes and hospitals in poor communities in the US.
Despite the limitations that result from the current co-existence of both old and new forces of political and economic power, the Chavez government has doubtless taken the side of the dispossessed, the landless, the black and the indigenous. While in other, capitalist countries, the quality of life for indigenous people is stagnating, and neoliberal governments are consciously rolling back the gains of prior black rights movements (including Australian Prime Minister John Howard's recent, cynical indigenous action plan), in Venezuela the space for frank discussion about how to move forward in the context of a mass movement has been opened up by the ongoing revolutionary process, and genuine gains have been made by indigenous and Afro-Venezuelan movements to eliminate the systemic nature of racism from Venezuelan life.
Venezuela's explicitly socialist revolution is creating a model of respect for the indigenous rights of land sovereignty, preservation of culture and language, and meaningful representation and participation in political life.