Nueva Cádiz de Cubagua was one of the first Spanish settlements in the Americas. It was also the site of the first natural resource boom on the continent. The tiny island of Cubagua, just south of Isla Margarita and was notable for its abundance of pearls. With this immense wealth, extracted by the labour of indigenous slaves, the settlement quickly grew into a town and was incorporated as a city in 1528. Just a couple of decades later the pearl deposits were gone and Nueva Cádiz was abandoned. What remained on the island were the ruins of the city and generations of fishing families, who still cling on in difficult conditions to this day.
I was born and raised in la Nueva Granada, so I’d never heard of Nueva Cádiz until last week when I had the chance to see Flor de la Mar a documentary about Cubagua made by Venezuelan filmmaker Jorge Thielen-Armand, screening at the Montreal Documentary International Festival. As I walked into the room, I was eager to find out more about Nueva Cádiz but as the film went on the excitement turned into anger, frustration and, in the end, resignation. Maybe I’m starting to get the Venezuelan definition of “arrechera”.
Flor de la Mar is a short film made in 2012 – right before Chávez’s last election. It tells the story of Proyecto Cubagua, a government proposal for restoring the ruins and providing basic services to the community, including a desalination plant, improved housing, a small clinic and a primary school. The project had 3 billion bolívares in approved funding and yet (almost) nothing was ever made or built. The documentary exposes the difficult conditions in Cubagua, the abandonment of the heritage site, the breathtaking landscape of the island and the strength and resilience of the people who live there. I was struck by how closely familiar the scenes of beautiful Caribbean beaches and marginalized poverty felt to me, even though I haven’t visited Venezuela. A place that feels like home but where I’ve never been.
Beyond reporting this instance of an abandoned project, the film is a meditation on the ways Venezuela resembles Nueva Cádiz: its total reliance on a single, finite, natural resource and whether the country will have the same fate as this colonial city. In this, it is prescient: the collapse in oil prices in the three years since Flor de la Mar was made breathes new relevance into this discussion.
The film also dwells on the power imbalance between those who administer the wealth, the Spanish colonists in Nueva Cádiz or the government-party in today’s Venezuela, and those who actually put in the work in extracting and processing natural resources. For me it reminded me how Venezuela’s nature as a petro-state gives the government in power more control over the economy and income and less reliance on internal production and taxation compared to other Latin American countries.
Flor de la Mar is at its best as it contrasts the two radically different narratives about Cubagua: what the government says and what actually happened. A local fisherman describes all that was supposed to be built and says: “todo eso había acá”. The houses, the clinic, the school, all of that was there according to the official project.
When he became aware with the grim facts on the ground, Chávez scrapped plans to appear on the island and showcase the revolution’s non-existent triumphs.
I arranged to meet with Thielen-Armand in a café close to the Festival’s main office the day before the screening. I instantly recognized him, and that he was fresh off the plane from Venezuela, when I saw a tall, young guy in full winter kit even though it was just a cool autumn day. In our chat he dwelled on the magical realism of the situation, which seems rather appropriate given that the settlers of Nueva Cádiz eventually moved on to the Colombian Guajira, the very place Gabriel García Márquez’s family (and the founders of Macondo) hail from.
This juxtaposition of the two narratives is especially well done during an interview with Raúl Grioni, the head of the Institute for Cultural Heritage (ICP). Not only did the director get a public official to comment, he also gets him on the record and on camera responding to tough questions. While Grioni begins to answer the film breaks away the video from the IPC office in downtown Caracas and returns to the island of Cubagua, keeping the audio of the interview where Grioni answers with generalities and evasives, contrasting with the reality in Cubagua. The questions continue and Grioni doubles down on his vague answers, offering gems like: “No ha sido un abandono sino un desarrollo que no ha sido posible de sostener” (We did not abandon the project, it was just development that we couldn’t sustain).
What he says and what we see are worlds apart.
Magical realism here is a polite euphemism for cognitive dissonance. Thielen-Armand said it surprised him how much people laughed during the screenings, even though none of the content is meant to be funny.
Indeed, when I was watching the film I found myself laughing and laughing during very serious moments, just like everyone else in the room. Venezuelans, Latinos, Canadians, absolutely everyone joined in. Laughter is how we deal with the absurd, the principle of any joke is having two seemingly incompatible stories and having them clash in an unexpected way. No wonder El Chigüire Bipolar is so popular.
The documentary is engrossing and quite effective in its short length but there are some issues with it that left me uneasy. Despite the fact that the director told me his aim was to give the people of Cubagua a voice because they have been excluded, he does not interview any women from the island. There is also a moment where archeologist Jorge Armand, the director’s grandfather, compares the government abandonment of the heritage site with the willful destruction of monuments by extremist, violent groups. Even from an opposition point of view I do not think these comparisons are appropriate and that they take away nuance and accuracy from the analysis. We also have to remember that even though the Chávez government failed to complete this specific project Cubagua has always lacked basic services and infrastructure.
Flor de la Mar has been shown in different festivals around the world, including one in Caracas. The director wanted to screen it closer to the communities involved, as he believes a main objective of the film is to give local people a voice, but the documentary was not accepted in the Festival de Cine Latinoamericano y Caribeño de Margarita. Nonetheless, the full documentary will soon be available online for everyone to share and watch.