by Franca Roibal Fernandez
“Soy América Latina/un pueblo sin piernas pero que camina1.” Calle 13
Calle 13, a Puerto Rican duo made up of brothers René Pérez Joglar and Eduardo José Cabral Martínez, started out as a reggaetón group whose songs have always had an intellectual and literary depth rarely found in contemporary reggaetón2. They began to expand their musical style repertoire in around 2009 to include various genres and styles, and in 2011 they came out with what has become a sort of anthem of Latin American unity, Latinoamérica. In this song, they brilliantly capture the struggle of being Latin American without any of the cheesy, superficial “unity and peace” rhetoric that appears in many songs of its kind. They do this by making references to important moments in history such as various dictatorships and the colonization of Latin America at the hands of various empires. The song doesn’t sugarcoat history or have a “let’s forget what happened and love each other” vibe. However, it does have a message of hope and pride in the resilience of the people. Written in the first person, the poetic yo becomes all of us: Calle 13’s message in this epigraph is that while they – the colonizers – have taken everything from us, even our legs, we will continue to walk. We will stand firm and continue to fight back. In recent years, Joglar has gone solo and become more radical in his views and his criticism of US politics, capitalism, and imperialism. In 1970, Eduardo Galeano wrote a book that is potentially more relevant today than it’s ever been, Open Veins of Latin America, which was a big inspiration for Joglar and Latinoamérica; Galeano was one of Joglar’s idols and mentors. Open Veins is a historical and political analysis of the Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, as its subtitle says. Reading it in 2019 is uncanny, as it is hard to believe how much of Galeano’s Marxist analysis applies today, and in many cases, how much worse things have gotten since the 70s.
After the genocide and ransacking of Latin America during the initial colonization period by European imperialist powers, the US stepped in to make sure they appropriated anything that was left that could be profited off of. The US committed all sorts of crimes against humanity in the name of spreading capitalism, which, at its core, is inhumane. During the wave of US imperialism of Latin America, in 1912, William Taft declares, “The day is not far distant when three Stars and Stripes at three equidistant points will mark our territory: one at the North Pole, another at the Panama Canal, and the third at the South Pole. The whole hemisphere will be ours in fact, as by virtue of our superiority of race, it is already ours morally.” (Galeano, 107) The level of arrogance and selfishness is appalling, and there is no denying the intricate relationship between capitalism and white supremacy.
In Open Veins, Galeano dedicates a significant amount of his analysis to the natural wealth of Venezuela, its petroleum, and goes as far as to say it will eventually be its demise3. One of the best qualities of the book is Galeano’s ability to recount historic events with a literary, almost lyrical tone, so you don’t feel like you’re reading a text book. He continuously refers to the oil business giants such as Standard Oil (which later became Exxon) as “cartels” who bully entire countries and will do anything to avoid the nationalization of oil lest it interfere with its profit- over-everything mentality. The “cartels” believed that no countries that had oil in the 60s should have any right to profit from it. The fear of communism at that time was rampant and in the name of this boogeyman the CIA and the oil cartels committed some of the worst crimes against humanity in the history of the world.
Hugo Chávez, the democratically elected president of Venezuela from 1999 until 2013, decided that enough was enough, that his country would no longer be exploited for oil, and that he was going to revolutionize the country for the majority, which included the poor and people of color. “Before Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998, Venezuela attracted little international attention. […] it was best known for its beauty queens and its oil. Those national icons represent racial and cultural politics that are driving today’s unrest.” (Marsh) The US began a crusade to stop him by any means necessary, including propaganda campaigns, blockades, and attempts at his life. And yet still, Chávez would not back down. He succeeded in nationalizing Venezuela’s oil and maintaining the profits within its borders, and the US succeeded in making Venezuela a public enemy. Chávez kept winning re-elections because his politics focused on the actual majority in Venezuela, which the rich elite could not get over.
After his death, vice president Maduro continued in the footsteps of Chávez, but due to many reasons, not the least of which being that he doesn’t necessarily have the charisma or the presence that Chávez had – and quite frankly, those shoes were going to be hard to fill no matter what – the rightwing opposition found and exploited his weaknesses. Most recently, the leader of the opposition, Juan Guaidó, backed by the US, illegally declared himself president. The US and other nations with monetary interests in Venezuela’s oil were quick to recognize the “new president,” and they started new fake news campaigns regarding the support Guaidó had in Venezuela. Photoshopped images appeared of rallies that were sparsely attended. In looking at the actual, real pictures of these rallies and events, and in seeing the social media attention it was all getting, one thing became evident: the class, and thus racial, divide in the support rallies for Maduro and Guaidó were astounding. Supporters of Guaidó appear dressed to the nines, the women in heels, with perfectly done hair and manicured nails. Maduro’s supporters wear jeans and t shirts. “The light-skinned protesters were overwhelmingly wealthy – and they wanted you to know it. Many of the women marched in high heels, the men peacocking in business suits, proudly displayed in the uniforms of their privileged class. The Chavistas wore patriotic yellow, blue and red t shirts, sneakers, jeans.” (Palast)
Not only are these differences astounding, but the images are being manipulated to make the Guaidó demonstrations look bigger than they are. “The New York Times did not run a photo of this past week’s pro-Maduro demonstrations. But in hard to find photos and reports from my colleagues on the ground, the Chavista demonstrations are bigger, involving mass turnouts in several cities, not just wealthy neighborhoods in Caracas.” (Palast) Guaidó’s supporters want capitalism. They want free trade. They want to be allowed to accumulate wealth at the expense of their poor neighbors. They are selfish and arrogant. Maduro’s supporters are overwhelmingly people of color who support the programs put in place that allow everyone to have access to healthcare, food, and housing. In a tweet from January 25th, Vijay Prashad said, “Guys, let’s speak plainly. The picture above is of Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly – dominated by the Chavistas. The picture below are the coup makers of the legislature. Spot the difference?” This tweet was accompanied by a collage of two photos…the first one, of the Constituent Assembly, was composed of almost entirely people of color – black, mestizo, and indigenous. The second, all white, all dressed in suits and fancy clothes. It is not surprising that the class divide between the two groups of supporters goes right along with the race divide. Capitalism is, at its root, another arm of white supremacy. They go hand in hand.
“This is the story of Venezuela in black and white, the story not told in the New York Times or the rest of our establishment media. This year’s so-called popular uprising is, at its heart, a furious backlash of the whiter (and wealthier) Venezuelans against their replacement by the larger Mestizo (mixed-race) poor.” (Palast) Since capitalism and white supremacy are intrinsically and inseparably connected, it makes sense that the elite became extra angry when their money started to become worthless due to inflation and blockades, and they began their propaganda and smear campaign. “Knowing that the Mestizo majority would not elect their Great White Hope Guaidó, they simply took to the streets – often armed. […] To anti-Chavista protesters, race was an issue as much as class economics. I heard these opposition demonstrators shout ‘Chavez, Monkey!’ and worse.” (Palast) The ironic part is that Guaidó himself has become their white savior, but he is clearly of mestizo heritage himself.
It should come as no surprise that this issue has barely been talked about in the media, and has not been addressed at all by any mainstream media sources. The US has its own racial issues they refuse to acknowledge, they are not about to allow them to be acknowledged in a country they just aided in a soft coup. Nothing good has ever come out of the US intervening in Latin America (or anywhere, for that matter). The fact that the US is so eager and willing to support Guaidó should be a big red flag for anyone.
Franca Roibal Fernández teaches Spanish and Latin American Studies at Moravian College. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org