When the U.S. Tried to Hit Chávez with Rock and Roll

A recently released document shows that the National Endowment for Democracy tried to promote free speech in Venezuela in 2011 through local rock bands. But there’s a lot more to that story

Photo: Humano Derecho Records/NTN24

Recently, American sociology professor Tim Gill published a quite surprising finding as part of his request for information involving the role of U.S. aid agencies in Venezuela during the Comandante Eterno years: In 2011, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) supported an initiative involving Venezuelan rock bands making songs about free speech.

Gill, who sympathizes with chavismo but also recognized the unpopularity and negative effects of Maduro’s government, has written for years about U.S. assistance for the Venezuelan opposition. Yet, he didn’t expect this nugget in the documentation he was given, as he wrote in an email he sent me:

“I don’t honestly know if this sort of funding is commonplace. My sense is that it’s not what comprises the lion’s share of NED funding in Venezuela or elsewhere. There are stories about the U.S. promoting particular artists through the CIA during the Cold War. This is not something that I’m an expert in, though. When I saw this particular document, it struck me as peculiar, because I had not seen any overt promotion of bands and festivals by U.S. agencies in Venezuela.”

Weeks before this report was released, there was a lot of attention over a podcast’s allegation that the 1990 hit song “Winds of Change,” from the German rock band Scorpions, was actually a product of the CIA. Frontman Klaus Meine (who’s also the composer of the song) strongly denied it in an interview. So, in the wake of that, it’s understandable why Gill’s revelation caused some curiosity.

According to a rough translation of the documents, this seems to be less of an order to “manufacture” songs and more of a plan to establish a contest along with other civic organizations. A panel of judges would decide the winning songs, to be presented in a live concert, and later released in CD.

Since Chávez’s arrival to power, there have been more than 500 protest songs against the government, with 75% of them coming after 2014

The hegemony responded with a statement of the Corazón Rockero movement, led by veteran local rocker/hardcore chavista Paul Gillman, openly denouncing the “attempt to corrupt musicians that should write what their free will dictates, instead of what money tells them to.”

Corazón Rockero is a small part of chavismo’s attempts to monopolize artistic content in Venezuela. It’s a spin-off of Corazón Llanero, a similar project I wrote about in 2017.

But the statement went further, harshly attacking Venezuelan rock bands that don’t identify with its position. Specifically, Corazón Rockero went after Caramelos de Cianuro, one of the most mainstream rock bands in the country. Last month, they did a couple of street concerts in El Hatillo and Chacao neighborhoods of eastern Caracas (following social distancing regulations), giving free entertainment to those locked down in quarantine. While the band wasn’t named explicitly, the disdain was obvious:

“Nobody in his sane mind (or who didn’t have an obscure interest) would break this quarantine… Therefore it is surprising that in the last few days, a Venezuelan pop group, sponsored by a soft drink brand and which calls itself “rock”, offered a concert in Caracas…”

Rafael Uzcátegui, general coordinator of NGO Provea considers that Corazón Rockero’s (or more directly Paul Gillman) uses this statement to criticize “the use of creative forms of protest, like rock music, by Venezuelan society.” He mentions that since Chávez’s arrival to power, there have been more than 500 protest songs against the government, with 75% of them coming after 2014, when the first wave of demonstrations against Maduro took place.

From Humano Derecho, a podcast later turned digital radio station, to the Music for Medicines festival, in which several bands offer their music in exchange for donations of medicines, along with an accompanying tour of several cities, Provea and Uzcátegui have been promoting rock music not only as a way of airing grievances, but to build awareness and solidarity.

But such work isn’t free of risks: Last year, a Provea visual artist was briefly arrested by SEBIN for a “subversive” album cover for a punk compilation. Provea has been attacked recently by Maduro himself and other high-ranking government officials for being “funded by the CIA”.

Beyond the specifics, the role of the National Endowment for Democracy in Venezuela, along with related international cooperation entities, has been up for debate. Since the events of April 2002, chavismo has accused the NED on multiple occasions of being part of the U.S. plans to overthrow it. Tim Gill particularly points out NED’s support of opposition political parties:

“(The NED) provides training for themhelping them with their platforms, providing advice on how to reach out to chavistas and youth voters, providing advice on how to build websites. They bring in experts from the U.S. and elsewhere in the region to meet with opposition parties and strategize with them.”

But Uzcátegui considers that, in this case, Gill’s arguments attempt to criminalize “international cooperation,” which go in line with the government’s hostility against NGOs, even if both Chávez and Maduro have benefitted from such international assistance. “There is a right to receive international cooperation, which helps states in the promotion of human rights.” For the record, he makes it clear that Provea didn’t receive money from NED, or other U.S. agencies.

As for how music has played a role in our crisis, last year’s benefit concert Venezuelan Aid Live was overshadowed by the events that followed it the day after, and although it raised 2.3 million dollars, it also failed to match the expectations it created. Meanwhile, at home, private concerts like last December’s CusicaFest in El Hatillo were successfully held by adapting to the de facto dollarization.

“As the government tries to invisibilize discontent, a movement of cultural resistance has been brewing in Venezuela,” Uzcátegui adds. A movement that already adapted to our emergency situation, and continues to do so during the pandemic. Unlike the hegemony’s cultural apparatus, this one has shown more dynamism.