Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Venezuela, Even Christmas Carols Get Political ; on the Street Corners of Caracas, Seasonal Songs Known as Gaitas Ring out in Praise - and Protest - of the Government

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Venezuela, Even Christmas Carols Get Political ; on the Street Corners of Caracas, Seasonal Songs Known as Gaitas Ring out in Praise - and Protest - of the Government

Article excerpt

"Hallelujah, Mr. President," one blares out. "Stay firm fighting for our fatherland."

"The nation is in debt and there's no money to buy anything," responds the other. "Send [President Hugo] Chavez to Cuba to stay!"

Political opponents shouting from soapboxes? Try boomboxes. And in rhyme.

It is the sort of political debate possible only in Venezuela's capital, Caracas, where politics have intruded into nearly every aspect of life, including music, theater, and art. Even the country's distinct Christmas carols - called gaitas - are not immune from politicization this year.

Gaitas, the lively seasonal music often performed on street corners with a-cappella harmonies, are built around a fast, simple rhythm. They comment on romance, regional pride, and social justice. While politics have long been part of the gaita genre, in this highly politicized season, as Mr. Chavez's opponents push to hold a referendum on his rule early next year, gaitas have taken on a new prominence - and new stridency.

"Many, many gaitas are coming out these days, because so many bad things are happening in the country," says Ruben Yssa, leader of the band Guasinca Zuliana, which criticizes Chavez. "It's a medium of protest."

Originating in music brought here by African slaves, with contributions from Spanish and indigenous cultures, gaitas blasting from sidewalk CD players ridicule, parody, denounce, and satirize.

"They [the government] violate the Constitution, there's no flour, crime is unchecked," complains an anti-Chavez gaita. "When the referendum arrives, don't make a mistake."

But a pro-Chavez gaita recalls that the opposition failed to oust Chavez last year with a coup and a petroleum strike, and predicts more Chavez victories. "With the force of a home run, [the opposition] will lose by a knockout," it says with more enthusiasm than meta- phorical purity. …

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