A Bolivarian Bach?
To watch one of the youth orchestras playing is a visual experience in itself. There is none of the evening dress seriousness or awesome reverence. Their faces reveal their rich ethnic and gender mix. They dress in brightly colored shirts in the colors of the Venezuelan flag; and in strongly rhythmic pieces they sway with their bodies like dancers and in the end, jubilantly throw their instruments in the air, reminiscent of Grand Prix winners tossing champagne bottles about. Children as young as two or three are given the chance of playing on an instrument.
The music education programme is one aspect of a sustained attempt by some of the movers and shakers of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution to 'democratise' high culture, by bringing music, literature, and art to a much wider audience. Last year the Venezuelan government launched 'Operation Dulcinea', an attempt to make classic novels available to more people. To mark the 400th anniversary of the of Don Quixote, Hugo Chavez's government distributed a staggering one million free copies of the dauntingly long novel. (WH Auden once quipped that no one had ever read Don Quixote from cover to cover: I wonder if a someone in Caracas has proven him wrong yet?)
The Bolivarian's revolution's interest in culture has not necessarily enamoured it to the country's traditional class of intellectuals. Some of them have become supporters of the revolution, but others are fiercely antagonistic, like Teodoro Petkoff, the writer and publisher who has announced that he will run against Chavez in this year's Presidential election. Petkoff, a former socialist who moved to the right and became Minister of Privatisation in the 90s administration of Rafael Caldera, represents a layer of intellectuals who see the Bolivarian revolution as the recrudescence of an economically illiterate and anti-intellectual Latin American populist tradition.
It is difficult not to detect a whiff of self-interest in the arguments of Petkoff and his co-thinkers. Last year Venezuela's universities saw a number of demonstrations against Chavez's government, and in particular its attempts to increase access to tertiary education. A new Higher Education Law has sought to diminish the autonomy of the country's elite universities, and open them to more working class students. The law was popular with many students - five thousand of them rallied to celebrate its passage - but unpopular with some academics, who saw it as an exercise in 'dumbing down' and an attack on academic freedom. Bolivarian students' organisations have characterised Venezuela's elite universities as a 'bastion of the ultra-right'.
A good example of the almost hysterical opposition that the Bolivarian revolution has bred amongst some intellectuals can be found on the venepoetics blog, which mixes lucid and interesting discussions of literature with denunciations of Chavez's 'tropical fascism', words of praise for George Bush's regime, and calls for the 're-establishment of democracy', presumably via a military coup or American invasion. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised to see literary intelligence and political stupidity existing side by side - we have plenty of historical examples, courtesy of the likes of Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, WB Yeats and, dare I say it, our own CK Stead. I'm on the side of the kids playing Bach in the barrios.