Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Bolivarian Bach?

The latest issue of Britain's Morning Star newspaper carries a report on attempts by the government of Hugo Chavez to bring the music of Bach and other classical composers to the barrios of Caracas and Venezuela's other cities. The country's Minister of Culture, Manuel de Abreu, has pushed a law through the National Assembly 'guaranteeing every child the right to a musical education'. The music education programme de Abreu has organised focuses on organising youth orchestras in the slums. The Star's John Green saw one of the performances for himself:

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.


Blogger GJPW said...


First, I should thank you for your kind words about my "lucid and interesting discussions of literature" at my blog, venepoetics.

I do suggest you visit Venezuela and see for yourself the type of military regime Chavismo has installed before you label us in the opposition as "hysterical." Don't just depend on the Chavista tour guides. Go out and see how poverty and crime have multiplied throughout Venezuela in the last 7 years. You might not want to believe it, but Venezuela was never as fucked up as it is today.

In the last 7 years, close to 70,000 people have died from violent crimes. Meanwhile, the "revolutionary" government has yet to implement a serious plan for fighting & reducing violent crime.

The so-called "revolution" in Venezuela probably seems romantic and exotic to you from afar. But try living in a country where the murder rate has increased to such an alarming degree that more people die each year from violent crimes than they do in places like Colombia or Israel.

I already know I won't convince you. But I thought you should at least be told by someone that you're supporting a farce. Years from now, non-Venezuelan leftists will bemoan their complicity in helping a reactionary, gangster-like military officer drive a nation into perdition.

And no, I'm not an "oligarch," nor am I a prominent intellectual. I'm a teacher and unknown poet whose family in Venezuela is firmly rooted in the political left.

One more suggestion. Find out who Oswaldo Barreto is and read the translations I've done of his columns at TalCual (Petkoff's newspaper). Barreto was an advisor to Castro and Salvador Allende. He was an associate of Che Guevara in North Africa. He was close friends with the Salvadoran revolutionary poet Roque Dalton. Barreto is an eloquent and serious opponent of Chavismo who cannot be dismissed as a "former socialist." He risked his life for decades in the cause of revolutionary emancipation and he continues to do so (with words) in the struggle against the reactionary policies of Chavismo.

But wait, don't tell me your an apologist for Fidel Castro, are you? The Cuba-Venezuela military-political alliance is the first sign any insightful leftist would have that something is rotten in Venezuela.


Guillermo Parra

2:46 pm  

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