Backstory: Venezuela's Cultural Revolution ; President Chavez Boosts Local Filmmakers, Musicians, and Artists to Forge a National Identity and Counteract 'Imperial' Hollywood

Article excerpt

Omar Pinto, who works for the popular radio station Radiorama, sits under a framed poster of Madonna as young hipsters walk in and out of the station on a recent day in downtown Caracas. The hit song "Flying between your arms," by Latin pop icon Marc Anthony, comes on the air.

"We play the greatest hits - salsa, rancheros, Cuban music," he says. "See, it's just Latin music. Greatest hits."

A moment later, the station puts out a traditional Venezuelan folk song. It's as if someone flipped a switch on the format. Mr. Pinto can't even name the artist. By airing the song, however, the station helps fulfill its obligation under a federal "social responsibility" law, which mandates that 50 percent of what DJs play be Venezuelan - much of it traditional music.

"No, we wouldn't play that song before," says Pinto, almost laughing at the question. "It's not very popular."

Welcome to another dimension of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's socialist "revolution" and war against the West. The man who recently announced plans to nationalize key industries and who has become the world's most outspoken scold of President Bush also wants to take on Walt Disney and Snoop Dogg.

He is trying to promote a national identity and more independence from "imperialist" America by forcing radio stations to play indigenous music, granting prominent space to amateur Venezuelan artists in museums, and setting up a state-run movie studio. It may be one of the world's bolder - and most controversial - experiments in trying to engineer a culture.

To supporters, the move may well give artists who otherwise might be swept aside by the forces of capitalism and commercialism an opportunity to develop their craft - and, by extension, enhance the artistic diversity of a nation.

But critics, including many artists themselves, see the move as a political gambit - one that, in trying to promote a national cultural identity, threatens the very integrity of the culture itself.

"They [Chavez administration officials] have no respect for culture in Venezuela," says Beatriz Sogbe, an art historian here. "You can't hang culture within the law."


Miguel Miguel, an art curator, thought he made a mistake two years ago when he visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas. He attended what was billed as a "megaexhibit." It turned out to be a government-conceived show in which amateur artists were invited to hang their works next to modern masterpieces. On a recent day, half of the museum's 13 rooms, including one with famous Picasso sketches, were dedicated to a contest for Venezuelan artists.

"In Venezuela, we used to be the envy of Latin America in terms of the quality of our museums," he says. "Today it's grand populism, a grand confusion, and mediocrity.... I thought I was at the wrong place."

For Ms. Sogbe, the concern is not that the country will suddenly develop a taste for amateur or mediocre art. It's that people won't get to experience great art or great music or great film - especially the poor who don't have the means to visit world-class exhibitions and concert halls outside their own cities.

"If you don't know Bach, you don't miss Bach," she says. "Culture is not folklore; folklore is just a part of it."

But the Chavez administration and some others believe that government mandates can encourage more creativity and cultural distinctiveness. Sergio Curiel, a movie editor who has worked on such Venezuelan thrillers as "The Black Sheep" (1987) and "Shoot to Kill" (1990), believes it's time for more of the country's own traditions and talents to appear on the Big Screen.

He likes to quote the French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who once said: "I believe that a nation unable to recognize itself in the 21st century fictions that are fed to it will disappear culturally. …


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