Ten years ago, on March 5, 2013, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez Frías died at the age of 58; he had succumbed to cancer after fighting the disease for nearly two years. People of African descent in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela remember Chávez as a cimarron or “maroon” president—someone with whom they shared a vision for African inclusion not only in Venezuela but throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Being called a maroon has traditionally been seen as derogatory: It was a name that colonizers pinned onto formerly enslaved people when they broke––by force––free from the chains of slavery. Yet over time, the so-called maroon community made their mark: They helped diversify judicial, spiritual, cultural, and intellectual aspects of society. It was their way of transforming the oppressive global society they found themselves in.

Chávez was the perfect example of this: Although taught the oppressive military pedagogy of the time, he embraced a liberating military philosophy that helped make him one of the great leaders of the Party of the Venezuelan Revolution and Armed Forces of National Liberation (PRV-FALN).

Chávez allied with progressive segments of the country, and subsequently oriented his identity to what he had not been taught in formal or military schools: the truth about his Indigenous and Afrodescendant heritage. It was the Red de Organizaciones Afrovenezolanas (Network of Afro-Venezuelan Organizations) that explained to him issues of racism, discrimination, and the failure to include the moral, political, economic, spiritual, and cultural contributions of Africans and their descendants in Venezuela. 

It was after this that Chávez and his ministers began accelerating the nation’s awareness about Afro Venezuelans: In 2005, he created the office of the Vice Ministry for Africa and authorized the establishment of May 10 as Afro Venezuelan Day; in 2009, he passed an education law that promoted inclusion of Afro-descendant contributions in the national curriculum; and on March 28, 2012, he created the National Council for the Development of the Afro-descendant Communities of Venezuela (CONADECAFRO) to promote and strengthen public policies for Afro-descendants.

Chávez increased his relationships with Black organizations in the Americas and encouraged stronger Venezuelan ties with African nations. He promoted, with Brazil and Nigeria, the Africa-South America Summit (ASA), the most important one held in Margarita Island in September 2009, in which he summarized the South-South aspiration so longed for by Tanzania’s anti-colonialist president, Julius Nyerere.

This past February, those taking part in the III National Afro Venezuelan Congress in Caracas reaffirmed their defense of the advances Hugo Chávez helped build for the Afro-descendant community.

The congress helped reassert the African viewpoint that “the dead are not dead, they live with us with their ideas, their projects, and their dreams.” 

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