- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela From the central Caracas offices of the Afro-Venezuelan cultural organization Grupo Madera, Carlos Cremer has two contrasting views.
To the north rise the shiny glass-and-concrete skyscrapers from where much of Venezuela's government, including its $40 billion state-owned petroleum industry, is managed. To the south slouches a hillside shantytown where many dark-skinned residents lack title to the land their shacks occupy and water taps flow only on weekends.
Somehow, while Venezuelan crude oil fuels economies on distant continents, its benefits don't extend a half-mile south to the hillside slum.
"There's the reality," said Mr. Cremer, pointing to the shacks. "And that's the unreality," he added, gesturing to the towers.
The drawn-out conflict between President Hugo Chavez and a coalition of business, union and middle-class elements determined to force him from power by shutting down the country's oil industry has focused attention on the two Venezuelas one comprising about a third of the population that is middle-class or wealthy and generally light-skinned, and the other made up of the two-thirds, who are poor and darker-skinned.
It was the frustration of the poor Venezuelan majority that swept Mr. Chavez and his "revolution for the poor" to a landslide victory in the 1998 presidential elections.
Though racial labels are nearly meaningless in this nation, in which most people are of mixed African, Native American and European descent, Mr. Chavez's supporters tend to be mostly poorer and darker, while those trying to oust him are mainly descendents of European immigrants, many drawn by Venezuela's post-1930s oil boom.
The country is the world's fifth-largest commercial supplier of oil, and the only Latin American member of the 11-nation Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
Mr. Chavez has made ethnic references in recent speeches, referring to himself as "a black man" and noting that some participants in the opposition movement have European surnames or are foreign-born. In one speech to the nation, he evoked specters from the racist past of the United States.
"This is similar to that terrifying organization which existed in the United States named the Ku Klux Klan," the president said of his foes "those men who put on hoods and killed blacks and burned their houses and churches."
But Venezuela's history does not parallel that of the United States. While slavery existed here until the mid-1800s, Venezuela does not have a legacy of state-mandated segregation. And Mr. Chavez, who is of mixed African, European and Native American descent, is not his country's first dark-skinned president.
Venezuela's single dominant religion helped negate social barriers between the races, creating a different social history than in the United States, as a glance at the many shades of any Venezuelan crowd makes clear. Venezuelans speak with pride of their nation's racial mix, referring to their varied skin tones as "caffe con leche" literally "coffee with milk."
Caracas sociologist Mercedes Pulido points out that many of the nation's Supreme Court justices and other officials have been of mixed race. "It's all caffe con leche," she said "sometimes with a little more coffee, sometimes with a little more milk."
During Venezuela's long oil boom that began in the 1930s, waves of southern Europeans migrated to this country and often flourished as professionals or business owners, leapfrogging other groups that had lived here for centuries.
Caracas political scientist Anibal Romero said Mr. Chavez seeks to foment racial tensions. The president "has said many times that he is the son of Indians and black people, trying to convey the message that those are the only legitimate Venezuelans," Mr. Romero said.
That message has not struck a chord, he added.
Still, Mr. Chavez, re-elected in 2000 on a mandate to help the poor, enjoys his strongest support among poorer and darker Venezuelans, despite economic turmoil that has hit the poor hardest. Part of the reason is Mr. Chavez's social programs for them. Another part is the attitudes of the virulent anti-Chavez opposition.
Carlos Cremer's brother, Nelson, who manages the Grupo Madera center, points out that one of Mr. Chavez's ministers, a black man, has been referred to as "the monkey" by anti-Chavez media.
And about two years ago, Nelson Cremer recalls, police shut down a Caracas nightclub for illegally refusing to admit blacks. Under previous governments, he added, the club's policy would have been "left as it was."
Some of the faces in the news also reinforce the ethnic divide.
In the ongoing face-off over Mr. Chavez's performance in office, several of the president's most ardent defenders are dark-skinned Venezuelans.
One such is Freddy Bernal, mayor of part of Caracas, and another is Lina Ron, an activist for the homeless during previous administrations, who is now leader of the most radical of Mr. Chavez's popular-support organizations.
Meanwhile, Mr. Chavez's most prominent business, union and political foes are all white, as were the military officers who ousted Mr. Chavez in a brief coup last April. It is this anti-Chavez coalition urged on by the media that has nearly shut down Venezuela's petroleum industry in a 7-week-old attempt to force Mr. Chavez to resign or accept yet another early election.
In his weekly radio and television broadcast Jan. 12, Mr. Chavez dismissed his opponents as "fascists" manipulated by the media.
Venezuela's main television stations are not broadcasting any commercials except opposition advertisements promoting the strike. Media owners say they have been pushed into this stance because Mr. Chavez incites his followers to attack reporters.
Mr. Chavez threatened to revoke the broadcasting licenses of television and radio stations if they "continue with their irrational insistence on destabilizing the country by supporting this fascist subversion."
The president's opponents blame him for the nation's depressed economy and accuse him of ruling in an authoritarian style.
The petroleum strike has forced up world crude prices and left the United States, which ordinarily imports about 15 percent of its oil from Venezuela, scrambling to find other sources.
But the activities of Mr. Bernal and Mr. Ron have been controversial. Both are accused by Chavez opponents of supporting and even arming the militant pro-government Bolivarian Circles, which are said to have carried out violent attacks on opposition targets.
Carlos Correa, general coordinator of the human rights organization Provea, said that while some in the opposition have referred to black members of Mr. Chavez's government using racial slurs, Mr. Correa does not consider that a sign of a racist society.
"They are an expression of [political] intolerance," he said, "a result of the political debate."
Rosaura Zan, a black woman from a poor Caracas neighborhood, is a regular at a Caracas plaza where a group of dissident military officers puts on a nonstop protest demanding Mr. Chavez's resignation.
Mrs. Zan said she wants the president out because of what she called his administration's corruption and unfulfilled promises to aid the poor.
"Color has nothing to do with it," she said. "If [Mr. Chavez] had done things well, then I wouldn't have cared what color he was, either. But he's done things badly from the start."


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