Nueva Cádiz Today

Review of Flor de la Mar, a gorgeous 2012 documentary short about life in Cubagua that ties together Latin America's earliest resource boom with its latest.


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.

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  1. Megalomaniacs who wield great power almost inevitable become drunk on it which brings them to experience ‘hubris’ , the feeling that they are omnipotent , that they can make magnificent things happen just by expressing their desire to transform a certain fantasy of theirs into a living reality. Just by ordering their minions to work on realizing some grand design of their devising . In a way they are absorved by magical thinking and lose any coherent contact with reality . For them to go through the theatrical ritual of announcing some grand project automatically makes them happen , they are all powerful like the biblical god that by simply saying ‘let there be light’ can bring light into the universe .!! uLtimately, elaborately staged appearances or spectacles or discourses substitute for reality , take the place of reality . This film is proof of how the whole process operates in the Venezuela of our time , the Venezuela that Chavez made his.

    There is a latent megalomania which is part of our mental makeup as Venezuelans , we love grand appearances , histrionic gestures of demiurgical omnicompence , we are constantly dreaming up great projects that never get built or completed, our towns are full of half completed ruins , of abandoned magnificent public works . We are enthralled with this gradiose romantic notion that we are all powerful ,

    Werent we all taught as children Bolivars famed phrase during the earthquake of 1812 , Si la naturaleza se opone a nuestros designios lucharemos contra ella hasta vencerla ?, werent we all roused by these words?

    This tendency has been reinforced by the fact that for some periods of our history we have been blessed not only with greath oil wealth but with oil wealth so abundant that in principle it should have allowed us the resources to do great things , Coronil wrote about the magical state that the presence of oil wealth creted in peoples minds , specially in the mind of our megalomaniacal rulers.!! This love for the capacity of our minds to believe in the magic effectuality of grand dreams has been our undoing as a nation !!

    This short film is one of the few times this folly of ours has been brought to our eyes with stark and vivid clarity. For that it deserves our applause !!

  2. Cubagua has always been on my list. I first read of the island whilst reading the account of Orellana’s journey from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Amazon. From the mouth of the Amazon he built two vessels and sailed north for Cubagua. In all that was a journey, a tremendous journey.

    Last year I got as far as Coche !

  3. Just from watching this short video, not having read the text on this post yet, 2 things come to mind:

    It’s shocking how Venezuela’s pueblo seems to be expecting that the “government” must provide. “They promised this or that, pero no nos dieron nada”.. I mean this is a typical fishing village. It relies on fish and tourism and perhaps a bit of agriculture. GET TO WORK for heavens sakes. Want a better ranchito? Well go fishing and find a way to sell more fish. Want to eat steak? Well, save some money instead of drinking it, and buy a cow. Want to lower your expenses? Well grow lechosa, mango, uva de playa (delicious), fruit trees, whatever the land let’s your grow. It’s not a desert, is it?

    Do some Tourism on your peñero, sell pescado frito by the water, con limon, invite more tourists. But no… they are freaking lazy, in general., used to an easy life, waiting for the rain to fall.. instead of going to the river to stock-up on water.

    ZERO entrepreneur spirit or work ethic. Reminds me of Choroni. I used to go there for years, meeting the locals, fishermen, rumba de tambores en el malecon, etc. Or Margarita, same thing. Had dear local friends there too. Common denominator? They just did not like to work much at all. They expected “el manguito bajo”, “una segunda” “matando tigritos”, a miracle from “el gobielno”.

    And these people do not pay a freaking Penny in Taxes. They probably get free water, free electricity, almost free gas and some transportation. But they expect Uncle Sam/ Pajarito Supremo Chavez to provide and build a Dubai or Club Mediterranee in Cubagua?

    That’s what’s messed up with Venezuela. They do not produce shit.

    • The second thought was about the Oil or Resource curse. Alive and well, mind you. If these people were not so Spoiled, “Ojala que Llueva Cafe en el Campo” dominican style, they would have diversified into other sources of work. Learned a new trade, become Artists, or musicians, or better cooks, or built a small local Hotel for tourists.. some agriculture, whatever. But no. “A ver que ej lo que trae la marea mañana”.

      • Asumir que todas nuestras gentes son ambiciosas y emprendedoras, dispuestas a sacrificarse , a trabajar duro por anos para lograr el chance de alcanzar una mejor vida es una piadosa y tierna ficcion de nuestro imaginario colectivo . Hay muchas que son constitutivamente indolentes, comodas , no por que el gobierno les vaya a resolver la vida sino por les es facil contentarse con poco , hay docenas de conocidas anecdotas que nos hablan de esta relajada actitud conformista de mucha de nuestra gente humilde . Esta falta de vocacion por el esfuerzo arduo constante y focalizado en metas superadoras lo encontramos en muchas actitudes comunes , el artesano que no acepta un trabajo por que supone mucho esfuerzo o responsabilidad , que se desaparece los lunes o los viernes en la tarde , que deja un trabajo a medio terminar una vez que cobra la inicial o una parte de lo pactado , que hace las cosas en forma chapucera y desmanada como quien hace un favor a quien lo emplea o contrata .

        Es verdad que no son todos , que hay muchos que si viven aguijoneados con un espiritu de ambicion emprendedora para mejorar su vida mediante el esfuerzo personal , pero suponer que representan una gran mayoria de las gentes es una gran alucinacinacion . El petroleo como fuente de dinero facil habra contribuido a reforzar esta tendencia de nuestra idiosincracia , pero debemos admitir que la misma antecede por largo la venida del petroleo. La flojera no nace con el petroleo sino que precede su aparicion en nuestra vida historica , no olvidemos que el gran aporte del aborigen domestico a la civilizacion fue el chinchorro criollo, la forma mas efieciente para el goce del ocio fisico prolongado….quien de nosotros no lo haya probado que lo niege. !!

  4. Well it seems that this little island is a small desert, with Paradise water views, but with just 50 human permanent inhabitants, some rabbits, plenty of street dogs, a few rabbits, and a few goats. So my previous comments would rather apply to Margarita, or Choroni, or Barlovento, where my family had an 8 Hectare Finca that ultimately went to waste because no one really wanted to work there either.

  5. Lovely review. I remember reading “Gente de Cubagua” in the 7th grade at school. Cubagua a place that has been long forgotten but everyone seems to remember.

  6. It seems that almost nobody has heard of Cubagua in Colombia. I asked my dad, who has dedicated his life to Colonial heritage restoration, and he had no idea. It’s crazy because from Cubagua the Spanish moved on to La Guajira and met with Federmán, who is widely known and studied in Colombia, even at the school level. Learning Colombian history in school made me feel like Venezuela was just a convenient place for Bolívar to be born and that’s it.

  7. Thanks. Great post! The similarities between 16th century Cubagua and the modern petrostate is also the main theme of the novel “Cubagua”, by Enrique Bernardo Núñez, one of the masterworks of Venezuelan literature. During the first two decades of the 16th century Cubagua was the cash cow of the Spanish Empire and one of its most important commercial hubs.
    Another interesting fact is that in the island the Spaniards also found “azeyte petrolio”, which apparently was believed to have medicinal properties. There is a record that a sample of this “azeyte” was sent to Queen Regent Isabella of Portugal (the wife of emperor Charles V). This is considered the first historical record of Venezuela’s oil export.

  8. There could be dozens of films made like this of failed projects where the money disappeared. Someone should compile a list with narrative. The fake or failed projects litter the landscape across Venezuela. The revolution was fake. …lining the pockets of generals.

  9. You can wax poetic all you want to about the island of Cubagua, but that won’t change the fact that is a rather worthless piece of real estate, primarily because it doesn’t have any water catchment. There is no way that this small bit of rock and sand warrants a huge investment in infrastructure. There is a much better return on investment for development money in other locations.


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