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.

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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).

22 COMMENTS

  1. How would you describe the position of cultural leaders in 2017? Do they oppose the Chavistas or are they for the most part silent or, and I cannot imagine this, do they support them?
    In the US calling out the cultural elite, as you have done, is a crime never foregiven and is not a great strategy for someone who writes for a living. Congratulations for your courage.

  2. “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.”

    In the 80s, I remembered how the smart-cool kids venerated the socialist ideas while listening to Trova Cubana. This caused great conflict for me. I was an American teenager living in Venezuela and aspiring to enter Catholic Seminary (instead I studied Computer Science).

    Then, the less sophisticated people were waiting for ‘un militar arrecho que agarre a los corruCtos, y que haga cosas como Perez Jimenez’.

    Chavez in many ways was a prophecy fulfilled. He was a socialist and a military man. He was also a convicted criminal and an ignorant man, but as you well explain, he could paper over his mismanagement and misdeeds with petro dollars.

    It is sad to say, but Venezuela had this shit coming.

  3. Not to make a list of names to hate and names to love, but I would love to have some context of people. I mean, the article is more or less spot-on but the reality of the situation is of course more complex that what can be summarized here. For example, speaking of the “consensus” being pro-Cuba “marxist” (some real and some just the same I wear a Che Guevara T-shirt shit) of the “intelligentsia” is mostly correct but then inmediatly you mention the purge of Sofía Imber as an impact – which of course it was, but that implies that not everybody was on the wagon (starting with Sofía Imber herself). So there was an “opposition” in the cultural sphere – and probably people in the middle as well, wanting to believe but appaled when friends on the “other side” started paying the prize.

    But in general, I’m still amazed at the passivity of society at all levels, but specially those “higher up” as you mention, showed against Chavismo. Is not only the group of fervent Marxists and clueless intellectuals that just wanted to believe in “change”, but how the rest was so monumentally incapable of articulating a defense of the institutions of the Republic while Chávez was dismantling them bit by bit. As you say there was a lot of mockery at the more dramatic pronouncements against the backdrop of the boom and the first years of “Chávez the democratic leader”, but again, maybe I’m projecting my own situation – I just saw Chávez campaign and said “if he wins I leave the country” and thats what I did. Because it was clear for me, clear as day, that while Chávez could be reigned in by the current institutions and by the lack of total support, it would only be temporarily; that his project was to dismantle everything and reshape it into what he wanted, which was He As Savior Of Humanity first and foremost, and some badly thought Cuban Marxist remix second as The Deliverance from The Savior. He would not proceed overnight – in a rare show of giving him credit, he learnt that – but every time he could he would just remove one more seal…

    And somehow, nobody was capable of articulating this clearly and break the spell. Maybe it was impossible. But I remember plenty of passivity, and for what you mention and I remember reading at the time, it continued during the first phase of the “V Republic”

    One of the most stupid comments I’ve ever heard was 2 guys talking and the summary of the conversation being that well, Chávez was a change, and if it was bad enough, no problem, the CIA will remove him. I was so dumbstruck by it I just did my best to walk away and ignore them; probably should have told them what a bunch of pathetic morons and unworthy cowards they were. But while it is a very idiotic argument, it touches on that sense of abnormal normalcy in which the part of the country not under the spell reacted to Chávez. Hey, he was democratically elected (that doesnt mean you cant oppose him) Hey, he may do some good things (did you listen to him???). Hey, he is giving the poor and the disenfranchised a voice (and mainly one that screams HATE THEM LOVE CHÁVEZ). So maybe, just maybe, everything will be fine. Lets just ignore the signs. He is just a loudmouth, thats it.

    • For the people in the elites, specially cultural elites is just easier to move to France than to stay to endorse a lost cause. Thats the only incentive oscurantist times come.

      I am using Cruz Diez as an example, and is not an insult to him. It is just basic logic. Of course is the elites the ones that have less incentive to do anything. They only have stuff to lose.

    • Of course, my interest is not to make a black list or remove past resentments. I simply wanted to recount the origin of this tragedy.

      And, on the other hand, there were obviously exceptions. Not only the very worthy of Sofía Imber, as you mention, but that of other valuable intellectuals and cultural figures such as Carlos Rangel, Anibal Romero, Israel Centeno, and, if you hurry me, to Marcel Granier or Ibsen Martínez (beyond). The exceptions existed, but this article is about the rules.

  4. Aplausos de pié con este artículo. Por favor, tradúzcanlo al español

    Intelectuales de pacotilla son los que abundan en Venezuela, izquierdistas inútiles que no saben lo que es el alma libre y que ahora lloran sobre la leche derramada.

    Yo soy una simple ciudadana de a pie, abogado de profesión, madre de familia, sin ningún cargo político o nada que se le asemeje y, desde Septiembre del 98, es decir, antes de que HCH ganara las elecciones me fui a investigar un plan B para emigrar porque sabía lo que venía si ganaba un tipo como él. Me pregunto, ¿Qué pude ver yo que tantos con opiniones y seguidores no fueron capaces de ver? La respuesta esta muy bien planteada en este artículo. Chapeaux!

  5. I seriously feel ill whenever i hear the stupid god damn Ali Primera song they used for everything. Its the mamertos anthem.

    All cultural institutions under chavismo were turned into collections of guayucos and meth heads that spraypaint portraits of guerrilla leaders and rap about the revolution under state payroll.

    I remember one incident when they vandalized works by Gerd Leufert and replaced them with a bunch of folcloric baskets in usual leftist intelectual fashion.

    I recomend THIS BLOG http://mutachavez.tumblr.com/ for some of the bright examples of the art sponsored by chavismo and which now polutes the visuals of all of our cities.

    The book fairs that chavismo sponsored were an insult to everything decent. My favorite example was “El Patriota”, a very badly drawn comic book who rips off capitan america. And who the Ministry of Culture happilly printed and gave away. That was a little gem http://albaciudad.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Exposici%C3%B3n-NS-3.jpg

    The Ministry of Culture, PDVSA la estancia, and dozens of other such institutions under state control were the go to place for an easy pile of money, is like they trew dollars at every shitty circus act they came across. A lot of musicians benefited specially. Anyone from paint sniffer to halfway decent could make some serious bucks under government sponsotship. The sent shitty artists abroad all the time and sponsored events in other countries for example. And that means —> Shit tons of preferential dollar $$$.

    And who could possibly forget the dear rat boy, Paul fucking Gillman.

  6. So as I understand your argument, chavismo destroyed a moribund socialist cultural establishment that was unduly dependent on the state. And that is….a bad thing?

    If that is the case, now culture – poets, writers, independent cinema, classical music, theatre- can flourish on the basis of its true market value, no?

    I’m sensing there is an internal contradiction to your concern here. I also think there is a case that you have overstated the uniformity and politics of the Venezuelan cultural elite. I think it is no different than other elites: ambivalent, or critical, but lulled by the good times of an oil boom. Certainly not any more predisposed to be on the left than any other Latin American country.

    The fact is, it is difficult, particularly in places where there is not a tradition of large and generous private philanthropy, for cultural institutions to survive without state support. The cost of producing these things is high, and the (paying) market for these things is small. I bet I can count on one hand the number of people who comment here that have seen live theatre in the last year.

    The problem is not state patronage. The problem is not left thinking poets and musicians. The problem is a large segment of a society falling for an anti-democratic, populist demagogue in support of some vague notion of “change”. That can destroy a lot, including valuable cultural institutions.

    • mmm, the point is that you are arguing everything from a binary scheme of good / bad, a bit simplistic.
      First, because no cultural destruction is good. I can detest Víctor Jara ideologically, and not for that reason to agree with his savage murder. I do not know how something so simple is so hard to understand.

      On the other hand, the cultural destruction of Chavismo not only affected the intellectual and cultural elite (which is what my article is about), but also hundreds, thousands of workers who depended on these institutions and who were either persecuted (the purge of Farruco was disgusting), or they were left without work.

      And the other it is very, very questionable. I accept that private patronage to culture was not as extensive in Venezuela as it could be in cultural industries such as the North American, the Chilean or the Mexican, but that is not a justification for an entire cultural system depends exclusively on the State, even at the cost of its bankruptcy (what has been squandered in the cinema sector during Chavismo, is an incalculable fortune).

      Being libertarian, the ideal for me is that were no state sponsorships for culture, but since we do not live in the ideal world at least I advocate for a sincere democratization of those sponsorships and for an ideological opening of those institution.

      The rest, I suscribe the words of Vero in the previous comment.

  7. “The problem is not left thinking poets and musicians. The problem is a large segment of a society falling for an anti-democratic, populist demagogue”

    It is the culture that makes that large segment of society fall por populists, and artists propagate and represent culture. Populism can´t exist without the comunications arm. That´s why all totalitarian regimes use muralism and state control of media.

    Of course those leftist poets and musicians have been a problem. Every Calle 13, Sean Penn and Oliver Stone is a propagator of the culture that brings about this regimes.

    “If that is the case, now culture – poets, writers, independent cinema, classical music, theatre- can flourish on the basis of its true market value, no?”

    When the state stops monopolizing and destroying the market and artist can cater to consumers with disposable income in an independent manner, then sure. Socialism needs to end before that

    • An Englishman once said that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world. That was back in about 1800. Anyone who thinks that now is just …well…doesn’t follow the poetry scene. Or muralism?

      Did the private sector fund the great Zapata mural outside the UCV? The Cruz-Diez installations? I’m guessing not. Was there something better waiting in the wings that those publicly funded things crowded out? Why didn’t it find an audience on its own then?

      I think historians can assure us that the origins and causes of chavismo, while diverse, do not lie in trova music, murals by socialists, or Oliver Stone movies.

      • So propaganda is not a thing, decades of institutionalized socialism and populism matters not since it influeced nothing in Venezuela, and all that wealth that is spend yearly by the left to propagate their cause via art and pop culture is a waste of money.

        They simple put a mural of Chavez in the Bronx because the guy is handsome, not because there is an agenda and the visual arts are an effective tool to push it in the colective consciensce of low income people

        Maybe its the climate that explains it, or maybe is the exposure to arepa dough that made venezuelan culture so enamored with comunist in the previous decades.

        • I think if you want to understand why Che as had some appeal in Venezuela over the past few decades, you have had only to drive from Maiquetia airport to downtown Caracas and look out the window.

          And I say that being no fan of Che, by the way.

          But yes, I can anticipate your response: that staggering inequality was the product of not enough capitalism and too many murals. I get it.

          • And I can anticipate yours, when someone remember you that after twenty years, those ranchos still there and is going even worst: “Ir was not real socialism”.

            But beyond that, I informe you that Che never as Belén popular in the poor places. Historia popularity un Venezuela always has been in intelectual circles, full oficina progres, like you.

  8. And I can anticipate yours, when someone remember you that after twenty years, those ranchos are still there and is going even worst: “It was not real socialism”.

    But beyond that, I informe you that Che never as been popular in the poor places. His popularity in Venezuela always has been in intelectual circles, full of progres, like you.

  9. 2006 was the year of the start of the mass exodus of my wife’s family from Venezuela. She became a US citizen when we married in 1988, Her uncles came in 2003 when Chavez nationalized (confiscated) their concrete business. The aunties followed in 2005, and the word got out. Spain, Panama, Costa Rica and Columbia in addition to the United States.

    I have to admit I thought it would be hard for them, but I guess there is something about that family that keeps them moving. They fled Spain in the 30’s and 40’s, and 3 generations later are fleeing Venezuela. I thought that they would miss Venezuela terribly, but not so much. They love the opportunities they get in the States, in addition to the economic and political freedom to do whatever they want. They don’t have to worry about some despot coming along and re-writing the Constitution, which they seem to think we got right the first time.

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