2006: Chavismo’s Cultural Ruin

Venezuelans often say that we’re all responsible for this disaster, and that's particularly true in our culture and the arts, fields that today mourn their old complicities.

Original art by @modográfico

We were halfway through 2000 and chavismo was thriving. The new Constitution had been approved by the end of the previous year and the government was coming out from a solid win in the “megaelection,” overcoming every obstacle it found. Anyone who spoke of dictatorship and totalitarianism was deemed paranoid, someone who fought with ghosts born in anti-communist nightmares and, in light of events, obviously disconnected from the reality of a government that convened elections fairly regularly and whose leader —although undeniably egotistical— was a rather harmless clown who made a lot of threats but rarely acted upon them, minimized by republican institutions which, for better or worse, had allowed the process of writing a new Constitution, creating two new government branches and renewing all publicly elected offices without major suffering.

I remember an interview in which Elías Santana, who is today running on an “opposition” ticket for Sucre’s mayorship and was leader of NGO watchdog Queremos Elegir back then, mocked those who talked about dictatorship in Venezuela, arguing that, despite some differences, he’d voted for Chávez betting “on change.” This idea, by the way, struck a chord with the people: “change,” the promise of something different.

Then one Sunday, amidst the hurdle of appointing the subordinate powers that, according to the ’99 Constitution, had to be appointed with the involvement of civil society, Hugo Chávez disliked a cartoon by Pedro León Zapata. The drawing showed a sword and the phrase “I like civil society firm and obedient.”

The words about Zapata’s cartoon were so wrong that Chávez is now insulting the person who told him to insult Zapata.

“How much was Zapata paid for this zapatazo?” he asked, with his usual arrogance.

The funny part was witnessing the reactions to that gesture among the Venezuelan cultural world. I recall the following, off the top of my head: a) A cameo by Zapata in Radio Rochela, with Emilio Lovera, ironizing about how much Zapata charged per word; b) César Miguel Rondón, musing on his TV show that surely Chávez regrets insulting a near-sacred figure of national culture; c) Luis Chataing on his late show Ni tan tarde, arguing that “the words about Zapata’s cartoon were so wrong that Chávez is now insulting the person who told him to insult Zapata”; d) Countless opinion articles, all of them outraged and shocked, signed by the foremost Venezuelan intellectuals, condemning the President’s excess, urging him to think it through and apologize.

Today, seventeen years after chavismo’s cultural destruction, we should be asking, why were we so certain that the regime wasn’t going to demolish the iconic pillars of our heritage? Why didn’t the cultural world fear and, worse, why did it underestimate chavismo so?

Let’s stroll a bit farther down memory lane.

II.  The first cultural revolution

Venezuelan culture was profoundly socialist and anti-democratic. After communist guerrillas were beaten in the ‘60s, many of their militants and supporters were absorbed by minor political groups and institutions linked to culture and education. And so, while Venezuelan democracy was consolidating (and breeding the vices that would consume it), the Venezuelan cultural sphere, far from mirroring the change, distanced itself from the values proposed by the political system.

Since the Venezuelan State was founded on a rentier system, the cultural and educational world never enjoyed true autonomy, with all its initiatives depending on state subsidies. Hence, the paradox: the democratic state was financing cultural organizations that, instead of contributing to the construction of a culture for freedom, were writing from a clearly marxist playbook with democracy as the enemy and Cuba as a role model.

The document that most clearly reveals the thought of Venezuelan intellectuals at the time was, undoubtedly, the letter welcoming Fidel Castro, signed by nine hundred Venezuelan intellectuals and artists, cheering on the tyrant, describing him as “an endearing reference in the depths of our hope, our shot at building a fair, independent and altruistic Latin America.”

Cultural organizations, instead of contributing with the construction of a culture for freedom, were writing a clearly marxist playbook with democracy as the enemy and Cuba as a role model.

This is why it was natural for the criollo cultural establishment to embrace chavismo. Iconically, Hugo Chávez’ first speech as president took place in the Ateneo de Caracas. Remember? He took his tie off and threw it to the “people” because, according to him, the time for rotten inner circles ruling with their backs to common citizens (who don’t wear ties) was over.

During the first year of chavismo, relations with the cultural sphere were peaceful: there were two editions of the International Theatre Festival, there were monumental book fairs, subsidies for the film industry increased and Freddy Bernal, then Libertador mayor, created small festivals called “Rock in the Square.” Two things marked the official discourse, however: first, the need to remake everything (“We’ve held many theatre festivals, but none like this year’s” said Chávez about the International Theatre Festival of 2000) and, second, the start of something that would reach its peak later on: the cult of personality, already evident in book fairs and isolated events (such as including the works of then vice president Isaías Rodríguez in the very Biblioteca Ayacucho itself, an exclusive collection compiling only the best writers and where Rodríguez, a poet of insufferable pretentiousness, appeared beside geniuses such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Jorge Amado).

But the insult against Zapata ended the honeymoon. The cultural field was about to suffer its first blow when Chávez announced the start of the “cultural revolution,” whose most relevant milestone was sacking all career professionals in management positions at important cultural institutions. Sofía Imber, head of the Museum of Contemporary Art, was the first victim.

III. The second cultural revolution

Fast forward: in 2006, chavismo looked stronger than ever and had no major enemies. After  the tumultuous years of 2002 and 2003, the opposition focused on a strategy that sought to confront the government through electoral growth.

The country was in a peculiar situation: the regime progressed in establishing a legal superstructure that, years later, would allow it to have absolute control over society (in 2004, the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television is approved, and in 2005, the National Assembly turns completely red). And yet, the country is living in social peace, boosted by an unprecedented consumer boom, due to the rise in oil prices that took place after the government won the battle for the control of PDVSA.

There was a joke I remember bitterly now, when chavistas told you “go to Sambil mall and you’ll see how communism is killing people.” And indeed, malls were full, Venezuelan currency was overpriced, CADIVI approved all foreign currency requests and people had access to an obscene dollar allowance. The cultural area was thriving as well: publishing houses released all kinds of works, even terrible books that would never return the investment, but could still be published thanks to state-subsidized dollars. Perhaps that explains how that year, when all of our cultural memory was altered, there was no major reaction from artists and intellectuals.

In 2005, the Culture Ministry is created, headed by Francisco “Farruco” Sesto, one of the most perverse figures to ever hold a ministry in Venezuela with some still remembering him lovingly for “supporting” Venezuelan culture.

The regime progressed in establishing a legal superstructure that, years later, would allow it to have absolute control of society.

The first thing he did was destroy the identity of cultural institutions, unifying them with the same logo, to “honor our native people.” He appointed himself head of the Cinemateca Nacional, holding two posts at once. He turned book fairs into single-thought events, where it was easier to find two hundred versions of Ché Guevara’s biography than any worthy novel. He created the World Festival of Poetry, an excluding and denigrating event where the best of Venezuelan poetry was always left out, and whose most infamous edition took place in the Cuartel de la Montaña.

Farruco should be remembered for being the architect of single-thought in culture, consolidated in 2006. His was an administration of exclusion, persecution and denial of dissident thought. He was also in charge of taming a generation of new artists and scholars who forsook their subversive streak in exchange for “support.” We witnessed the rise of “opposition” artists under his protection, happy to participate in whatever festival they were offered, of “critical” filmmakers happy with the state’s financing and the restrictions it imposed on their screenplays and the final cuts of their films.

This was a key period for the creation of chavista cultural products: the birth of La Villa del Cine (an institute that siphoned millions from the Venezuelan State) also brought the birth of “historical” cinema, whose goal was to reconfigure our memory, exalting the regime’s favorite historical figures, such as Zamora, Boves and Maisanta, and scrapping republican and liberal features of Francisco de Miranda and Simón Bolívar himself, creating urban epics such as Cyrano Fernández, where Tuparamos are glorified. A caudillo-style cinema with a certain maoist flair, paid with incalculable financial mayhem.

Farruco was also the culture minister who allowed Hugo Chávez to rewrite the country’s historical memory: from replacing Columbus’ statue, vandalized in 2004, with one of Guaicaipuro, to the gradual disappearance of dissident authors from official anthologies.

IV: The final destruction

The true tragedy isn’t what chavismo did, but what the rest didn’t do: the cultural sphere was soft on chavismo, due to the colossal subsidies, festivals and publications in which intellectuals exchanged their silence (and validated the “plurality” of such events by appearing in them) for the possibility of being published or adapted to the big screen.

The cultural sector should’ve resisted but, with honorable exceptions, it never did, offering deplorable arguments like “that money doesn’t belong to the government, but to the state. If I don’t take it, someone else will.”

In a country that doesn’t only lack food, but culture. 2017 will be the year of the lowest book production in our history.

It’s been eleven years since the onset of the most ferocious cultural destruction ever carried out by any government in Venezuela. Unlike the first paragraphs in this article, there are few who keep calling “president” a man who is merely a dictator, yet here we are: in a country that doesn’t only lack food, but culture. 2017 will be the year of the lowest book production in our history. Publishing houses that grew in recent years have been unable to keep operating. There’s not much film production anymore. There are more concerts of Venezuelan musicians in Mexico City than there are in Caracas, where nightlife is nearly gone. Even Dudamel, the star conductor of National Youth Orchestra, had to publicly denounce the massive budget cuts that El Sistema has suffered — a budget that up to now had bought the sepulchral silence (if not the functional complicity) of the great Maestro Abreu.  The eight-star flag has been embraced even by dissidents. Newspeak is part of our daily conversation and we’ve chosen (or rather accepted) to see reality under the revolutionary cultural prism.

I wonder, what do intellectuals and artists, those who were part of the government’s structure instead of confronting it, think they won?

In Venezuela, decadence is measured in malnutrition and poverty rates. What we can’t measure is the cultural devastation that chavismo’s terrible exercise of true socialism has meant for this and, perhaps, coming generations.

John Manuel Silva

Writer, publisher, entrepreneur in exile, John Manuel believes there is intelligent life in other planets, but isn't so sure about this one. He has written the following books: «Afrodita, C.A. y otras empresas fracasadas» (Caracas: 2013, Editorial Ígneo) y «La rocola del oeste» (Caracas: 2016, Breinguash Books).