In Black in Latin America, a four-part series that recently aired on PBS, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. uncovered a side of the region that has long been known but for just as long hidden – the African heritage of many of its people. Gates traveled to the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Brazil for the important series, exploring how Africa has helped shape Latin America from its time of independence to the current day.

Though he didn’t focus on it, Venezuela is another country with deep African roots and a significant Afro-descendent population that has long struggled with a legacy of racism that left many Afro-Venezuelans behind their Whiter countrymen.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, an estimated 100,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Venezuela, where they worked as slaves on coffee and cacao plantations. Slavery was abolished in 1854, but freedom did not bring equality.

Racism continued to flourish in Venezuela throughout most of the 20th century, and African heritage was denied through an emphasis on racial mixing. In this scheme, African heritage was devalued to such an extent that state policies sought to “whiten” the population through European immigration.

Venezuela, like many other Latin American countries, used the idea of the mestizo to uphold a myth of racial democracy that denied the fact that rampant discrimination on the basis of skin color and African identity took place.

As a consequence of Venezuela’s historic legacy of racism, Afro-Venezuelans have long suffered the brunt of the country’s poverty, while their cultural and historic contributions have been ignored or set aside. Since President Hugo Chavez’s first election to the presidency in 1998, this has gradually started to change.

Not only has Chavez acknowledged and celebrated his own African roots – “I’m so proud to have this mouth and this hair, because it’s African,” he told Amy Goodman of “Democracy Now” in 2005 – but he has worked with Afro-Venezuelan organizations to implement policies that address and confront the country’s legacy of racism.

Over the last 12 years, Afro-Venezuelans have gained a number of significant achievements, ranging from the recognition of intercultural education in the 1999 Constitution to a law against racial discrimination that the Venezuelan National Assembly will approve this month.

In 2005, Chavez, the first president to appoint an Afro-Venezuelan to his executive cabinet, approved a decree establishing a commission to abolish all forms of racial discrimination from Venezuela’s educational system. That same year, the National Assembly officially designated May 10 as Afro-Venezuelan Day and the entire month as a celebration of African heritage.

Furthermore, massive social programs focused on education and health have given Afro-Venezuelans more opportunities than ever before, and a 2009 law on education requires that schools teach the history of the country’s Afro-Venezuelans.

This year, Venezuela’s census will for the first time include questions where respondents can specifically identify themselves as Afro-descendent, allowing for the country’s Afro-Venezuelan population to be formally quantified and recognized and its problems addressed. Current estimates of Afro-Venezuelans put the number at more than 7 million, or roughly a quarter of Venezuela’s population.

Additionally, Venezuela has also dramatically expanded ties to Caribbean and started to consolidate the relationship with African nations.  In the Caribbean, Venezuela is helping ease the energy burden faced by many countries through a plan called PetroCaribe, which provides countries with oil at preferential financing rates. Venezuela also remains actively involved in the reconstruction of Haiti by providing aid and forgiving hundreds of million of dollars in debts.

In Africa, Venezuela has opened 18 new embassies in countries including Mali, Morocco, Congo, Angola, and many more.

President Chavez is often criticized for supposedly limiting Venezuela’s democracy, but his actions with regards to the country’s Afro-Venezuelan population shows just the opposite. Unlike Venezuelan politicians before him, Chavez is expanding the definition of what democracy means and what it is to be Venezuelan, and the rights associated with it.

Of course, a historic legacy of racism as long as Venezuela’s won’t be corrected in only a few years, much less will it come without a fight. But Venezuela has taken the first steps towards recognizing and celebrating its African heritage – and treating Afro-Venezuelans as they central part of the country’s identity that they are.

Modesto Ruiz is an Afro-Venezuelan and a member of Venezuela’s National Assembly, where he chairs the subcommittee that deals with issues related to Afro-Venezuelans.