Black history…?

London’s Bolívar Hall yesterday held a seminar to celebrate ‘the advances of blackcommunities in new Venezuela’ as part of Black History Month, in conjunction with the NUS Black Students’ Campaign. The usual suspects were present, including ambassador Samuel Moncada and the folk from the Venezuelan Solidarity Campaign,

plus Diane Abbot, Doreen Lawrence, and Luke Daniel of Caribbean Labour Solidarity as guest speakers.

The talk began with insightful an eyewitness report from Lawrence, who along with Abbot was in Caracas for the elections a fortnight ago. Lawrence repeatedly emphasised the unintimidating, jovial atmosphere at the polling stations, while Abbot went on to underline the fairness of the Venezuelan voting system. Both delivered positive, carefully considered thoughts on Chávez’s victory. But the evening didn’t get much beyond that.

Moncada gave a whistle stop tour of racial mixing in the Americas, Daniel talked for eight minutes on the fight against imperialism, and the chair of the panel waffled slightly about the Bolivarian Revolution. Though hands on the floor raised questions about the current-day statistical reality of black communities in Venezuela, few answers were offered. My triple-awesome friend Esther asked an excellent question about a widespread reluctance to self-identify as ‘afro-descendiente’ —  the 2011 census registered just 0.7% of the population self-defining as afro-descendent, while 2.8% defined themselves as black and 49.9% as moreno(a).

In a country that is known to have participated in the American slave trade, this is clearly an issue that needs to be discussed. Yet Bolívar Hall did not seem to offer itself as a forum of discussion, despite its explicit advertisement as such.  It seemed – dare I say it – as though some high thinker in the embassy had thought a brief encounter with the theme of black history would provide an excuse good enough to prolong the insistence of Chávez’s victory, fair and square. While this, too, is something to be addressed (especially given the dominant anti-Chávez slant of the media), it has its place and its time. Yesterday wasn’t it.

Perhaps most disappointing, though, was the guest speakers’ willingness to go along with this not-very-subtle line. Particularly after Abbot and Lawrence’s intense campaigning on racial issues in this country, it was a shame to see this all but ignored last night. Indeed, their roles wavered dangerously towards ‘token black women’ on the panel. I’m sure that the current government has made more attempts to create equal rights than their predecessors, but for these to be taken seriously it might be an idea not to use ‘multiculturalism’ as a mask for self-promotion.

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