On the Other Side of the Barricades: Venezuela’s Spring of the Arts

From the Series: Protests and Polarization in Venezuela After Chávez

Photo by Jorge Silva, Reuters.

Photo from AVN.

Burning tires. Barricades. Nearly forty dead. While global media has been focused intently on the street violence isolated in wealthy neighborhoods on the east side of Caracas, there is an alternative movement of non-violence afoot in the barrios of Caracas that seeks to open new spaces of public participation for the majority of the city. To borrow the title of Ignacio Cabrujas’s famous play, this movement proposes a very different kind of “cultural act”: a vibrant public forum that includes festivals, book fairs, open-air music, and street theater. These initiatives seek to create a climate of inclusion and respect by establishing open spaces for democratic participation.

Beyond the barricades, observers might be surprised to find what amounts to a flowering of cultural arts in Caracas, which forms an essential component of the transformation of political culture in the Chávez-Maduro era. Take, for example, the work of the municipal agency La Fundación para la Cultura y las Artes (FUNDARTE), headed by Freddy “Chucho” Ñañez, a poet, puppeteer, and journalist from the barrio of Petare. In April 2014, FUNDARTE organized the Theater Festival of Caracas. According to the agency’s website, as of July 2014 approximately half-a-million participants have attended public theater events throughout the city. Over 150 groups from around the country performed in twenty-six full-stage venues with productions taking place in streets, parks, universities, cafes, and other non-traditional spaces. The transformation of public spaces through programs like the theater recuperation project, the Caracas Theater Festival, and book fairs have had a profound impact on both the culture and politics of the country’s capital city.

Events and programs like those sponsored by FUNDARTE are not entirely new; some have roots in the popular theater workshops of the 1970s. However, the scale and degree of access for those previously marginalized from urban public life in Caracas have increased dramatically over the past fifteen years. These changes include a shift in who controls art production, with barrio residents producing in what were formally institutional spaces to construct what they see as a new society. The work of FUNDARTE’s festival and other cultural arts projects throughout the city may threaten longstanding control of legitimized Venezuelan “culture,” further shifting the center of gravity away from privileged sectors of society towards barrio residents and a new emerging middle class in support of the government.

Art, in this model, is a forum to engage with critical problems such as inflation and the economy, communications, security, and violence. For example, in a recent play by Gustavo Ott called Lyrica (performed at the Teatro San Martin in March 2014), a school principal negotiates between two mothers over the fate of their children. Their fate is inextricably linked by the tragic fact that one child’s father is the assassin of the other. Both children’s paternal losses (one dead and the other in jail) present even more difficulty for their mothers. We come to understand that healing is possible through the unlikely yet profound friendship of their children, who find in each other a space for forgiveness. Through poetry, the children recognize a mutual longing to fulfill a sense of loss, which inspires them to generate their own language of creative expression with one another. Plays like Lyrica center issues of violence, reconciliation, and healing on the stage in ways that seek solutions to the polarization of the country’s political culture. In this revolution, art—at least for some—can be a fertile ground upon which genuine debate and autonomy may be more fully rehearsed.

A theater recuperation project, also sponsored by FUNDARTE, has restored a dozen local theaters in low-income barrios that are now open for community arts programs and meetings, hosting hundreds of events per year. For example, the Teatro Alameda, located in the working-class neighborhood of San Agustín, had been virtually abandoned for decades by its owner, the international film company, Circuito Rodonski (later CINEX). In 2003, a group of neighborhood artists and activists took over the space and began remove tons of toxic waste that had been dumped in the building. According to Javier Madrid, an artist and activist who was part of the initial clean up, the process was not easy. The group organized for years to petition for the rights to begin the project by initiating a community-wide dialogue with the Mayor’s office and eventually began raising funds to complete the renovation. In early March of 2014, while the cameras were exclusively focused on the wealthy neighborhood of Altamira, the door to the theater was opened to the bustling main street of the barrio of San Agustín, offering a meeting space, workshops, and a forum for community organization. The theater in San Agustín, for participants and organizers such as Javier Madrid, is a proud achievement for the collective and for the community, and is a testament to the ongoing work of FUNDARTE and the municipal arts.

Chávez and Maduro supporters are making themselves more visible within the institutions of the country that have historically been controlled almost exclusively by elite society. Notably, these two groups appear to be trading places, with the poor taking over institutions formally inaccessible to them while the middle- and upper-classes take to the streets in an effort to retake what was once theirs. While the guarimbas have been notorious sites of violence this spring, raising the disapproval of a vast majority of Caracas residents (including large numbers of the opposition), the majority of organizers on both sides appear ardently committed to non-violence and to a peaceful solution. As Javier Madrid said, “this was not a violent sacking. It was with the support of the entire community. We are a cultural collective. Here, our weapons are the cuatro, the drums, the maracas: musical instruments. These are our arms. Song.”