Needless to say, there are huge differences between the time when tyranny arrests a stranger and when it’s closer to you.
If you’re not on the loop, SEBIN intelligence agents arrested a PROVEA visual artist, José Guillermo Mendoza, yesterday, September 19th, for carrying and reproducing “subversive material”, meaning posters and everything related to the new album from Venezuelan punk band Agente Extraño, Un Extraño Tributo al Punk Venezolano (A Strange Tribute to Venezuelan Punk), a compilation of covers from classic Venezuelan underground bands, in a rather punk style.
Around 11:00 a.m. today, Mendoza was released. No charges pressed, no court appearance.
This is the “subversive” art on the album:
I found out about the arrest thanks to Agente Extraño, on a WhatsApp group chat we share, and I’m gonna give it to you straight: to know that the goons are watching you is scary. These are people who can detain anyone, anywhere for pretty much anything, and knowing that they are acting this close to your sphere sparks all sorts of questions about the future. Much to my surprise, Agente Extraño was stoic, resolute. They knew this was serious, but they knew how to react.
“I obviously got scared,” Ernesto Cuerdas Duras Rojas (bassist and lead singer of Agente Extraño) tells me: “I thought they were coming for all of us, and I mean the band and the guys from PROVEA. The only reason José Guillermo was released today is because the society answered, we made sure to spread the news. You have to be smart in the way you protest, you’re not gonna expose yourself, but you have to raise your voice. This isn’t terrorism. This is a protest against what’s wrong in Venezuela, and we do it with the tools we have: music, lyrics, posters.”
Turns out, the officers themselves weren’t as informed as you’d expect.
“When José Guillermo was released, we were shocked twice; first, because these security agents didn’t take a single thing from us. I expected them to keep all the material for the album, particularly the pictures, but they gave everything back. Second, they didn’t even know this was a PROVEA thing. They thought we were just some dudes on our own, they realized during questioning that this man they detained works for a human rights organization.”
And talking to Ernesto, you start discovering all the layers of irony on the case.
“You know where the problem really comes from?” he asks. “They first saw the image, which isn’t even the cover of the album, it’s an insert on the booklet, and they didn’t know it was done by Nelson Garrido (a major Venezuelan artist, winner of the National Arts Award in 1991). Then they started reading the lyrics that we printed on the booklet, which are lyrics written 20, 30 years ago, and they had no clue, they thought the lyrics were about them. The songs are so current, that a chavista middleman takes these lyrics about human rights abuses and corruption and excess, and he believes it’s about them we’re talking about.”
But… aren’t you?
“Of course we are. These songs are about a nation that fell from grace, where there’s no quality of life. It’s not that we want to be punk and be rebels and we’re gonna sing against the system. No. We’re singing against a reality that we suffer daily. It’s hard to be a working musician and pay for your album on your own, but even basic normal things from day to day life are such a huge sacrifice, like getting food. Being a punk musician in Venezuela ain’t the same at all as being punk in Spain. Raising your voice here is justified, it’s necessary—and it can result in oppression that would be unthinkable anywhere else.”