Talking Censorship with Desorden Público

A true Venezuelan institution, the band just played in Berkeley, California, and gave us a chance to think on the meaning of being an artist in today’s Venezuela, and how does it feel to be censored by your own government.

Photo: Latin Bay Area retrieved

The best part of the Desorden Público show on Friday night, June 14th, 2019, was seeing the Venezuelans skanking in the mosh pit of the little Five and Dime club, downtown Berkeley, California. Thanks to my ex-student Sol, I had the opportunity to talk to a few of them as we waited in line, including her Venezuelan boyfriend, Horacio, who came to the U.S. over 20 years ago. “And one of the few things I brought with me were my cassette tapes of Desorden Público,” he recalls with a laugh.

I remembered Sol from an English class I taught a decade ago: she was the smart young Chilean artist who dared to challenge me in front of the class when I spoke positively of the Bolivarian project; as a teacher, I welcomed and learned from challenges, and ultimately her reservations were part of the grist that culminated a few years later in my transformation from chavista to the opposition.

The Venezuelans I’d seen outside, preoccupied with the disaster underway in their country, were animated by a speechless ecstasy. 

Inside, Sol told me of the cultural differences she’d discovered between Chileans and Venezuelans: “We Chileans are more reserved: we live behind the Cordillera, cut off from the rest of Latin America. But Venezuela is a country of immigrants and they’re outgoing, friendly and very happy.” She did notice a change when visiting around 2013-2014, with Venezuelans turning somber and even hopeless.

But when Desorden started playing, all that missing joy bloomed again. The Venezuelans I’d seen outside, preoccupied with the disaster underway in their country, were animated by a speechless ecstasy, articulated only in the lyrics they sang in harmony with vocalist Horacio Blanco. It was as if 20 years lost in a widening black hole of chavismo suddenly reversed: slamming, skanking, pogoing and even brief train-line dancing, the crowd kept up and sang with hits they grew up on. In the end, the crowd was as entertaining as the show itself.     

If you haven’t heard Desorden, you can find all you want at their website, including a wonderful interview in which bassist Jose Luis “Caplís” Chacín rightly points out that the group is “very self-critical and doesn’t like to repeat itself.” So they’ve gone from a pure ska band to a blend of musical traditions over the years, although they remain a unified artistic voice for social justice. That’s why these past 20 years in Venezuela haven’t been easy for Desorden Público.

Carlos Navas, the band manager, told me earlier in the day that Desorden used to play some 60 or 70 well-paid shows in Venezuela before the “crisis,” with a few international shows thrown in. “We had 90% of our shows inside Venezuela, and 10% internationally; now it’s completely the other way around.”

A major part of that change has to do with the situation itself. “To put on a concert, you have to be sure, for instance, that you’ll have electricity, and that there won’t be a blackout. You need basic economic security to ensure people have enough money for tickets, for instance. But in Venezuela, there’s none of that.”

When I ask Carlos if the Venezuelan government’s perception of the band as part of the opposition has anything to do with the greater reliance on international concerts for income, he replies with “Totally.”

In the early years of Chávez, as under previous administrations, Desorden played in cultural events that were sponsored by the government, “in the same way Maldita Vecindad or Café Tacvba might call the [Mexican] president a murderer for the 43 disappeared [of Ayotzinapa] and then go on to play at a concert funded by the government; Desorden benefited from government support for culture and artists usually take advantage of their government’s investment to get the message out.” But Carlos noted how things began to change. As Desorden continued to criticize Chávez (just as it had done to previous governments), starting in 2009-2010 the group stopped getting invitations to play in festivals and concerts put on by chavismo. Then, the censorship became blatant: when Horacio came in briefly for a few minutes before the sound check, he sat down to tell the story of the 2014 Suena Caracas Festival.

“We’ve been censored many times. Back in the 80s, the record company stamped a warning on our first album, against broadcasting two songs. That was the first barrier we had to overcome. Then [in 2014] there was the Suena Caracas Festival, where we played to a huge crowd. On one side, chavistas were shouting that the government shouldn’t have invited these oppositionists to play, and on the other side the opposition were shouting that we sold out to the chavistas. At one point, we played ‘Todo Está Muy Normal,’ a black humor approach to the reality of the country. The [government] says, ‘we have everything under control,’ but everything is exploding on every corner.”

“We played in front of 25,000 people and it was live on television. Before the song, I said, ‘this next song deals with corruption, and we’re all against corruption.’ At that very moment, the broadcast went down. The next day it came out anyway, and trended at the top of social media for days: the government censored us and the question arose, what was it that the government wanted to censor?”

“We’ve always written about abuses of power,” Horacio says, “and as you know, when you give too much power to one person, or a small group of people, they abuse it.”

Caplís jumped to say that “Maduro did one of the smartest things ever” a few days later, because even chavistas were criticizing him for censoring a band that he had invited. He went on national media in a cadena “congratulating Desorden Público for having denounced corrupt politicians…”

“…of the ‘90s!” Horacio added. “We have that bit of the cadena in the album version of the song.”

There’s another, even more sinister side of the censorship that Desorden Público (and other artists) face; Horacio spoke to me of their album, “Los Contrarios,” with the hit single El Poder Emborracha featuring guest co-singer Rubén Albarrán, from Cafe Tacvba. When the album reached Venezuelan radio stations, the singer was told by DJs that “’I really love the album, it’s beautiful, but I won’t play it because I’m scared of what might happen to the station.”

“We’ve always written about abuses of power,” Horacio says, “and as you know, when you give too much power to one person, or a small group of people, they abuse it. The Left has a better language, better propaganda tactics, a better approach. They always appear to be with the minorities, with the oppressed, and seem to have more humane, economic and cultural policies. When you read what they write, you go ‘these are the right people.’ But when they reach power, they’re worse than what they criticized. That’s what happened in Venezuela. Before Chávez, there were problems, but there was a democracy of sorts. Chávez came to power and centralized all power in himself. And when the money ran out, because he was giving it away and there was all sorts of corruption, that’s when everyone of every class realized, ‘this is the Left’; It’s not the poetry they taught us before they took power, it’s this.”

Nevertheless, the band made it clear that they’re not settling for cynicism: “Every system has its problems,” Horacio says. “I was just outside, here in Berkeley, walking around and there’s a lot of homeless people. The night before, in Los Angeles, it was the same. So there are problems everywhere, and we have to improve our historical and social conditions. That’s our struggle, as artists and as people with heart.”

Now, as a dissident living in a socialist country, Horacio proposed what he believes is the critical element of the struggle for a better world. “I believe, and we believe,” he motioned toward fellow band member Caplís, “that the more freedom you have, the better the society. Freedom for your art preferences, your studies, and freedom in where you want to invest your talent—or your money. It’s hard to have freedom when the state is so big, and power is so centralized. In other words, the way to build a better society begins in fighting for our freedom to choose, starting with even the smallest things.”

Clifton Ross

Clifton Ross recently published his political memoir documenting his conversion from Chavismo to the opposition. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife and co-editor, Marcy Rein, and their two cats.