Renowned Yale scholar Amy Chua has recently published a very important book, PoliticalTribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. The main thesis of that book is that, as the astonishing rise of Donald Trump seems to confirm, politics in our age are increasingly driven by ethnic identities. Conflicts that on the surface seem ideological, in fact have deeper ethnic roots, and policymakers should be aware of this, so as to not underestimate the dangers of tribal feelings.
Chua reviews some case studies in support of her thesis. One of them is Venezuela. For decades a stable democracy and a friendly nation to the United States, Hugo Chavez’s rise to power in 1998 caught everyone by surprise. Things then took some unexpected turns, and it began to get ugly. Chavez severed ties with the United States, and took the country on a path of civil strife. Yet, despite the great instability that Chavez’s regime aroused, he managed to stay in power for almost thirteen years (he died in office in 20013) and remain immensely popular, due to two important factors: oil prices and his charismatic personality.
Yet, Chua believes that Chavez’s rise was not all that unexpected. For, Venezuela was very much an ethnic volcano waiting to erupt, and Chavez’s rise was the predictable consequence of centuries of unacknowledged ethnic tensions. In Chua’s analysis, Venezuela has historically been a racist society in denial. In this South American country, nobody dares speak about race, yet it permeates all throughout society. Historically, a white elite has tightly controlled the wealth, and the darker-skinned masses have been mostly dispossessed. Chavez arrived on the scene promising to redistribute wealth, but he also added the previously unacknowledged ethnic aspect to it: he claimed to represent the peoples of African and indigenous descent, who have been oppressed by the peoples of European descent since the days Venezuela was a Spanish colony.
According to Chua, white Venezuelans refuse to come to terms with this. In Venezuela, as in most Latin American countries, there is the idea of “racial democracy”. Venezuelans like to think of themselves as a people of mixed race, and for that reason, there are no color barriers; racism is not a Venezuelan thing. But, Chua argues that this is a false narrative. Racism is all over. She makes much of beauty pageants (they are immensely popular in Venezuela), and how they conform to an exclusively European standard of beauty.
Chua acknowledges that in Venezuela there was historically a great deal of miscegenation. But, in her account, this by no implies that Venezuela is a colorblind society. In fact, Venezuelans, as the rest of every other country in Latin America, is extremely race conscious, as proven by the detailed records of an individual’s racial category, as represented in Mexican and Peruvian paintings of the 17th and 18th Centuries, defining all the possible permutations of mixed race breeds: castizo, mestizo, mulato, zambo, morisco, lobo, Indian, chamiso, etc. Chavez’s political maneuver was simply to awaken Venezuelans to the unspoken truth of ethnic divisions, and take political advantage of it.
Is Chua right? Is the idea of “racial democracy” in Venezuela only a myth? Yes, but only partially so. Chua is certainly right about beauty pageants, and about the correlation of lighter skin color with wealth. But, in Latin America ethnic segmentation was not as robust as in North America. Even prior to independence, the Spanish Crown put for sale cedulas de gracias al sacar, documents that, if bought, allowed darker-skinned people to be recognized as white. It seemed like the Spanish Crown implicitly accepted that money (and not so much skin color) speaks.
Ever since, this has been the dominant situation in Venezuela. It has indeed been a traditionally unequal society, but it is far more class-oriented than race-oriented. Whereas the United States was the country of many eugenicists and racial scientists, such things were extremely alien to the Venezuelan idiosyncrasy. Yes, those paintings with racial categories that Chua refers to, existed during Colonial times, but by the time of the revolutions in 1810, there was little concern with them, as indeed, as the example of the cedulas de gracias al sacar proves, with money, a person of mixed race could become white.
It is also true that Chavez tried to frame an ethnic confrontation. He certainly succeeded in instigating strife amongst Venezuelans, but it is not so clear that he managed to do so on the basis of race and ethnicity. Again, it was far more about socio-economic status, regardless of skin color. After all, Chavez’s self-proclaimed revolution was Bolivarian, and Simon Bolivar was of pure Spanish descent.
In fact, this may be another significant difference with North America, when it comes to ethnic relations. Although he was not entirely successful, Bolivar, as opposed to Washington, from the very start hoped to overcome ethnic differences and establish a color blind society. The builders of Venezuelan nationalism went to great lengths to construe a mixed race identity, and this is what schoolchildren of all colors have been taught in Venezuela for the past two centuries, even if it may be just be lip service. Whereas American nationalism did not care for African or aboriginal identities, Venezuelan nationalism did. Probably for this reason, Chavez’s appeals to racial confrontation did not prosper in Venezuela, despite his enormous popularity. Race and ethnicity are far more fluid in Venezuela than in the United States.
This is not to say that Venezuela is free of racism. Chua is certainly right in warning about the explosive potential of ethnic tensions and tribal politics, and Venezuela is not altogether free from this danger. But, for complex historical reasons, and despite a history of conquest, genocide and slavery, Venezuela’s race relations have not been as troublesome as in the United States. This is still little consolation for a country that, as Chua rightly notes, is undergoing a major humanitarian crisis.