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date: 27 July 2017

Cultural Policies of the Chávez Government

Summary and Keywords

The cultural policies of the left-wing government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in the new millennium saw a shift back to funding and patronage of the arts after years of defunding and commodification of cultural production. However, despite leading to a renaissance of cultural activity, Chavista cultural policy also retained a modernist rationality that treated cultural production as objects to be classified and quantified. Official cultural policy in Venezuela has historically developed alongside popular-cultural formations that draw on alternative conceptions of culture that stem from everyday life. The official and the everyday have developed in tandem and, sometimes, at cross-purposes. Many scholars look to policies and states as the producers of change, but it is at the level of the everyday that we can see the emerging possibilities that define cultural movements in search of social change.

Keywords: culture, cultural policy, cultural activism, Chávez, Venezuela, Misión Cultura

Ricardo Guerrero is a barrio-based cultural activist from the parish of La Pastora in Caracas. He is a drummer and community organizer who suffers from the congenital illness of dwarfism. Activists like Guerrero embraced the contemporary cultural initiatives proposed by the left-wing government of former president Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In the state-sponsored storytelling workshops of the Misión Cultura, Guerrero relates his life story with a focus on embodiment, place, and cultural encounter as key to his self-understanding.

Under the Chávez administration, cultural activism flourished due to a return to policies of generous subsidies for culture and the arts. Guerrero himself was able to expand his own cultural projects with support from state institutions in the Chávez era. Through a reading of Guerrero’s life history in the second half of this chapter, we can see the ways in which barrio-based cultural producers interface with and push beyond the limits of a cultural policy that is based on quantitative and classificatory schemes that create hierarchies of knowledge production. Guerrero’s life story emphasizes the importance of the space of the barrio, and culture as a way of being rather than its official designation as traditions that need to be rescued.

Reading the life story of Guerrero alongside histories of cultural policy in Venezuela can help to illuminate the gaps between official notions of culture, which carry the rationalizing imperatives of modern statecraft despite their liberatory impulses, and everyday notions of culture that are the font for social-movement activism. Rather than seeing these both as opposed to each other, I look at how they develop in tandem and, sometimes, at cross-purposes. My analysis points to the opportunities for radical agency coming not just from changes in cultural policy, but also from local and everyday formulations of culture.

Histories of Cultural Policy

Historically, state sponsorship of culture in Latin America meant that the culture industries were controlled and sometimes subsidized by the state. In Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico during the 1920s and 1930s, cultural forms such as samba, carnival, murals, and tango were nationalized in an attempt to unify the population during the stage of import-substitution industrialization.1 In Venezuela, state promotion of popular culture as part of a national culture came later, beginning with a brief period of democratic rule from 1945 to 1948 and followed by the era of national-populist democratic rule from the late 1950s through to the 1980s. Under the auspices of the Folklore Service headed by Rómulo Gallegos, Juan Liscano choreographed a five-day “folklore” performance in Caracas in 1946 with groups from around the country. Through this and subsequent performances, the image of the popular saint San Juan became the center of a new national identity and was publicized to the country as a whole.2 During the 1970s, the oil boom facilitated a distribution of wealth to the cultural sector. As David Guss argues, the government began to play an increasingly important role in cultural renewal, as it formulated the first comprehensive cultural plan and created the Consejo Nacional de la Cultura (National Council of Culture, CONAC), which coordinated cultural activities and the arts across the nation.3 In 1971, the Afro-Venezuelan coastal village of Curiepe was named “National Folklore Village.” State patronage also became tied to a clientilist system, as drummers in Curiepe received nominal payments from the political party in power.4 Amid nationalizations of the iron and oil industries in 1975, state sponsorship of culture helped to bolster a fervent nationalism and contributed to a system of patronage.

During the 1980s, there was a growing commercialization of culture, but corporations still focused their efforts on promoting national identity in order to sell products. As Venezuela was hit by the debt crisis, the significant reduction in state funding for cultural programs was supplemented by corporations such as the Cigarrera Bigott, which was a Venezuelan tobacco company with a national reputation that was purchased by the transnational cartel British American Tobacco in 1922. In his comprehensive analysis of the company, Guss relates that British American Tobacco remains one of the world’s largest cigarette manufacturers and Britain’s third-largest industrial enterprise. In 1963, British American set up the Fundación Bigott (Bigott Foundation), primarily as a philanthropic association designed to aid workers to finance their homes. During the nationalist years of the 1970s, as foreign-owned companies began to undergo nationalization, Bigott had sought to associate itself with the sphere of national culture by sponsoring cultural initiatives and workshops.5

This plan proved fruitful in 1981, when the government of Luis Herrera Campíns outlawed all tobacco and alcohol advertising on television and radio. As Guss recounts, the Fundación Bigott began to invest more heavily in the field of popular culture as a way of promoting itself without advertising cigarettes.6 Two of the main aspects of this campaign were cultural workshops and television programs. The popular culture workshops were part of an ambitious nationwide program for the teaching of local forms of Venezuelan music and dance. Groups that emerged from these cultural workshops were important forces in new projects of cultural renewal in the barrios. But it was a delicate balance for radical cultural groups to accept support from a corporation and for Bigott to work with leftist groups; as Guss says, this balance only worked if each group thought it was using the other.7 Bigott also produced a television series on popular culture in the mid- to late 1980s that included over 140 programs. In place of mentioning its brand, the programs displayed the company’s logo with the name of Fundación Bigott.8 In addition, Bigott developed the magazine Revista Bigott through its publications program, a rural radio series in tobacco-growing states, and grants for culture-related activities. Through these programs, the tobacco corporation redefined popular culture and itself, as symbolic of national values and identity.9 In some ways, corporations had replaced the role of the state in patronizing national-popular culture and disseminating vernacular forms.

An important shift took place during the 1990s, with the election of Carlos Andres Pérez and the neoliberal turn ushered in by his government. In this period, culture was resignified as a product or merchandise for consumption. As Yolanda Salas argues, “the pueblo, the subject and actor of the popular, is substituted by the product that should be advertised via the mass media.”10 The “popular” was being transformed into the “consumer.” At this time, other corporations were pursuing programs in popular culture, introducing competition for Bigott. It was a field that included the Fundación para la Cultura Urbana (Foundation for Urban Culture), affiliated to the Grupo de Empresas Econoinvest; the Centro Cultural Corp Banca, funded by the private bank Corp Banca; Fundación Pampero, a program of Pampero Rum; and the Fundación Polar, founded by the beer company Polar.11 In a neoliberal climate of greater openness to foreign investors, private foundations were less interested in promoting national identity as a way to market themselves, and more direct about publicizing their products. The new director of Bigott, Antonio López Ortega, told Guss in an interview that after 1991, “the foundation decided to completely abandon its old course and start coming out in public and begin speaking really clearly about our programs, our achievements, and the various objectives we’ve accomplished.”12 Bigott became more frank in its language of publicity, integrating its cultural activities into a promotional campaign.

But the transition that took place was more than the resignification of culture as a commodity; as George Yúdice argues, in a neoliberal era the field of culture itself becomes regulated by an economic rationality based on utility. Instrumentalized art and culture are actively recruited by states and foundations to improve social conditions, support civic participation, or spur economic growth.13 Along these lines, Pérez’s VIII Plan of the Nation proposed to deal with poverty and create economic efficiency through deepening cultural development, as promoted by international foundations such as UNESCO and the World Bank. Under a section headed, “The new strategy of cultural change,” the plan lists the nature and contributions of culture in development, including: “culture as a factor and means of development,” “harmonization of growth with social wellbeing,” “culture as a distinctive end of economic growth,” and “culture as a right and public service.”14 Another policy released a few months later as the Plan of Sociocultural Participation proposed to “Develop a culture with strategic value, that is, one which permits a more positive insertion into social life and the field of labor.” 15 As compared to culture as an end in itself, culture was increasingly seen in instrumental terms as a means for promoting development and economic growth and ameliorating social problems. As state expenditures in the arts were reduced, private foundations like Bigott were given an expanded role to play in meeting these goals.

Cultural Policy under Chávez

After Chávez was elected in 1998 with the aim of bringing about a Bolivarian revolution in the spirit of independence leader Simón Bolívar, cultural producers encountered conflicting rationalities in cultural policy that included both the use of culture for political gain and integration—especially as state financing of the arts was revitalized—and a utilitarian approach to culture as a resource to be invested in. Fiesta organizers, cultural producers, and residents countered these logics of the state with alternative views of culture as a way of being, and as linked to their everyday lives and religious cosmologies.

Chávez implemented new policies for arts funding. The Proyecto de Ley Orgánica de la Cultura (Project of the Organic Law of Culture, PLOC), jointly designed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport and CONAC in 2000, established the approach of the Chávez government as contrary to dominant neoliberal models by increasing state patronage of culture, and it highlighted the importance of the state in protecting and preserving cultural patrimony.16 The Chávez government channeled oil revenues into the sponsorship of culture, making greater funds available to municipal governments. Local-level councils such as Fundarte, the Foundation for Culture, and the Arts of the Mayor of the Libertador Municipality played an increasingly important role in the funding and stimulation of cultural forms such as the urban fiestas.

Chávez funded and promoted culture as a tool for national cohesion and political integration. But at the same time, the field of culture continued to be oriented toward foreign and private investment. According to Title V of PLOC, “With the goal of incorporating private investment as a substantial source of financing, it [the law] establishes a regime of fiscal incentives in agreement with the principles, criteria and procedural norms envisioned in Chapter II.” Early on in the Chávez administration, relationships were established between cultural institutions and corporations. In October 1999, the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport signed an agreement with the Fundación Bigott, offering technical assistance to specialist instructors working in the areas of traditional dance and music. Over 1,200 instructors were funded to travel across the country holding culture workshops. Each workshop cost Bs 1 to 1.5 million.17 In 2000, the director of Bigott, López Ortega, was appointed to the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport. Bigott, along with the Central Bank of Venezuela, the Fundación Polar, and the Corporación Andina de Fomento (CAF) lobbied for the formulation and approval of a Law of Mecenazgo, to provide fiscal incentives for private companies to invest in the arts. López Ortega argued his case in terms of the financial benefits of encouraging private investment, “The Law of Mecenazgo in Brazil, approved in 1993, has converted Brazilian culture industries into the second largest product for export in Mercosur.”18 These corporations pushed for the development of culture as an export industry and for its conversion into a profitable activity in Venezuela.

The Chávez administration defended its alliances with the tobacco company in the promotion of culture. Salas, an anthropologist who was the director of FUNDEF from 1998 to 2001, relates that during her time in this position she encountered an attitude of complacence among high cultural officials in the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Sport toward the contradictions represented by the dominant involvement of Bigott in cultural programs, and the “strategic alliances” between the state and this transnational corporation. In her dealings with cultural officials, Salas encountered “silence before my proposals, defense of the excellent quality of the activities of the Bigott Foundation and, in addition, arguments that defended the importance of the income received by the state from the collection of taxes on the sale of cigarettes.” In Salas’s experience, state officials mimicked the promotional discourse of the company about its success in cultural affairs and excellence of production, ignoring the implications for public health of addiction and illness caused by smoking.19 From early on, private capital was assured a stable environment to continue investing in culture.

The orientation of the arts toward private investment has encouraged the prevalence of market-based calculations within state-sponsored programs. The utilitarian approach to culture as a service or product with the end of enhancing growth and development is clearly outlined in PLOC. Article 133 of the law declares, “The state, by way of the Cultural System of Culture, will promote the creation of Cultural Agencies, with the goal of increasing the offering of cultural goods and services and to promote economic growth.” As Yúdice argues, the utilitarian idea of culture as a resource entails its management. There is a subordination of technicians to administrators, and artists are required to manage the social. Arts administrators as “managerial professionals” become intermediaries between funding sources and artists or communities.20 This technocratic management of culture by arts administrators was apparent in the policies and practices of cultural institutions under Chávez.

Under a Plan of Cultural Funding, the Chávez government created new administrative bodies to determine the allocation of resources for culture, the distribution of the population, the degree of importance of certain cultural traditions, and the areas that should be promoted.21 Although the idea was to democratize the sphere of culture, it continued to be managed and regulated by technocratic principles. In 2006, Fundarte had begun implementing a program known as “Joint Programming, Operative Plan of Diagnostic Revision.” Like Tania Murray Li argues in the context of World Bank development programs in Indonesia, informal practices and relationships have to be rendered technical to prepare for an intervention. Experts must identify groups and enroll social forces, and then these groups could be funded, counted, legitimated, and replicated.22 As cultural practices and communities were rendered technical, they were also prioritized according to instrumental ends.

A Cornerstone of Chávez’s Cultural Policy: The Misión Cultura

We can see how the instrumental goals of cultural policy are expressed in the mission statement and storytelling manuals created by the government-sponsored Misión Cultura. The Misión Cultura project is based on a static and utilitarian notion of culture as a set of traditions that need to be rescued in order to fulfill certain goals such as promoting literacy, bolstering electoral participation, and fostering identification with the Bolivarian project. The storytelling component of the mission was oriented toward producing engaged Bolivarian subjects who would mobilize to defend Chávez and a state-led project of social transformation. While the mission was guided by this notion of culture as rescuing traditions, my analysis of Guerrero’s story told through the mission also reveals other notions of culture implicit within the everyday experience of people on the margins that exist in tension with the more official notions of culture that were promoted by the trainings.

The social missions, a series of publicly funded poverty-alleviation programs that ran parallel to established social institutions, were a central component of the new social policy introduced by the Chávez administration in the post-2002 period. Following on from the adult-literacy and elementary-education programs, Misión Robinson I and II, as well as the work-study program Misión Ribas and the university program Misión Sucre, the Misión Cultura program was introduced later in 2004. The mission consists of a program of study to train teams of cultural promoters who would work to educate the people about local and regional cultural traditions. The program was piloted in the Caracas parish of Macarao with fifty-one participants. Shortly thereafter it spread to other parishes and sectors across the country, with local facilitators guided by DVDs, workbooks, and other materials. In 2005, the government allocated $US 5.58 million (Bs 12 billion) to the mission, and in 2006 that amount went up to $US 8.37 million (Bs 18 billion).23 As of 2008, there were some 32,335 promoters receiving training in the mission, beyond the figure of 28,000 that was initially projected.24

The overall goals of the mission were fairly broad but fit closely with the aims of cultural policy that had been set out by the Chávez administration in PLOC. In its mission statement, the Misión Cultura applies these cultural policies toward specific programs that promote the “cultural development of the Venezuelan people.”25 The notion of culture employed by the mission is static and reified, as compared with the more fluid understandings of culture that are employed by cultural producers in Venezuela. The verb rescatar, or rescue, is used frequently in the mission statement. “The citizen must be involved in the rescue of the values, beliefs, dances, their patrimony,” says the statement in the introduction. In the following section, the mission statement says that the Bolivarian revolution comes to “rescue the national identity, values, and creation of the Venezuelan public.” It is also local identity that must be rescued, as the mission statement says: “provide professionals to the community to rescue the identity of the residents of the parishes,” and “rescue the traditions of the parish.” The project of writing personal and local histories is directly related to the “rescue of memory.” Rescue implies loss, and the statement attributes the loss of these items to the adoption of foreign customs by Venezuelans. Ironically, one of the suggested activities of the mission is to distribute to every sector a copy of Don Quixote—a Spanish novel seen as one of the founding works of the Western literary canon. The statement sets up an opposition between the national and the global, with a fortified national identity acting as a bulwark against neocolonialism and globalization. The complex ways in which globalization has bolstered and constituted forms of local and national identity is missing from this conception.

Who is the agent who is doing the rescuing? At times it is the citizen, or professionals, or the Bolivarian revolution as described above who is rescuing cultural traditions. At other times it is an “alternative cultural educational project that rescues our national identity.” Although state agents are not directly seen as responsible for rescuing cultural traditions, the association of “rescuing culture” with “educating the people” implies that this is a top-down process whereby people must be instructed in what their culture is. This notion of an a priori existing culture that has been lost, and of a professional or expert who needs to step in to re-educate the community in their cultural traditions, runs counter to the history of cultural movements in Venezuela, which have syncretically created and re-created their practices drawing on elements from their past and present.

The procedures for rescuing culture are quantitative and classificatory in nature, much as James Scott describes the rationalizing functions of modern statecraft.26 The mission statement lists the following as its objectives: “Detect, know, and adequately register all of those cultural manifestations that are characteristic of each place and have meaning for its population” and “Elaborate an exhaustive registry of cultural patrimony, with emphasis in the values of each region and community.”27 The mission purports to undertake the first ever census of Venezuelan cultural patrimony. These procedures set up hierarchies of knowledge production, where quantified and codified forms of knowledge are held above those that are already latent in the historical memory and shared practices of different urban and rural communities.

The Misión Cultura views the rescue, classification, and reconstitution of cultural traditions as justified by certain instrumental ends. One of these ends is economic, oriented toward “incentives of tourism, the generation of employment, and the improvement of the quality of life of human beings.” According to the mission statement, the planning of the mission in each sector must be accompanied by a socioeconomic census that indicates the needs of the community and develops projects that resolve the issues being faced by the community. Another one of the ends is political. Through strengthening regional cultural traditions, the mission aims to promote national cohesion and identity. It encourages the participation of the people in electoral processes, as part of a “new electoral strategy.” Given the focus of new leftist governments in the region on attaining and wielding the tools of liberal democracy, including elections, and constitutions to enact change, they also sought to demobilize and channel the energies of organized popular movements into an electoral agenda.28 Social movements for their part sought to maintain their autonomy while collaborating with the state. The tensions produced as a result of these countervailing tendencies are reflected in the Misión Cultura storytelling project. While the Misión seeks to harness the stories of the urban and rural poor toward a nationalist project of state-led transformation channeled through electoral politics, social-movement actors produced narratives that were part of a broader activity of building spaces of popular power based in the networks and experiences of everyday life.

The Misión Cultura trainings aim to produce a team of cultural promoters who will graduate after four years with the title of bachelor of education, specializing in cultural development, from the Simón Rodríguez National Experimental University. As part of their training, the promoters pass through four stages. These include the writing of their personal stories or autobiographies in the first three months of the program, the construction of a personal educational profile that identifies educational achievements and areas where training is required, the accreditation of learning that has been gained through experience, and finally, the carrying out of neighborhood projects that propose solutions to local issues. During the course of study, the promoters must also carry out a census of cultural patrimony in their neighborhood, interview residents, and write a local history of their community.

Rumbas in the Barrio: Storytelling in the Misión Cultura

For the storytelling trainings, the Misión Cultura produced a workbook called Trabajo con Autobiografia or Work with Autobiography. The authors of the workbook identify themselves as belonging to the Experimental Center for Lifelong Learning (Centro de Experimentación para el Aprendizaje Permanente, CEPAP). Under a section entitled “Elaboration,” the manual describes one method for writing one’s personal story as the “life line” method.29 The participant draws a line on a sheet of paper to indicate the trajectory of their life and then they mark the most significant events that have happened to them, with successes noted above the line and their challenges below the line. Examples of these significant events may be graduating from school, getting married, death of a grandparent, and so on. This linear method for mapping one’s life fits with another notion emphasized in the workbook, that of self-discovery. The workbook describes an interpersonal notion of self-discovery as part of the reason for writing one’s story: “It is a real and sincere meeting with ourselves and others. It is a pretext for true communication, the exchange in real human encounters, the meeting (of me) with myself, the meeting (of you) with yourself.”30 Various events in one’s life are presented as catalysts for self-discovery, and the recording of these moments in autobiography provides further opportunity for self-reflection. The idea that one’s life can be mapped out as a progressive linear path with successes, failures, and moments of self-discovery along the way corresponds to the epic narrative form.

The workbook also presents another, nonlinear, model for writing personal stories. It is a model that does not follow a chronological or temporal order, and rather represents one’s life in terms of spheres, where the individual is at the center and they are surrounded by the people, groups, communities, and organizations who have influenced their life, with the most important influences located closest to them.31 This style is similar to what Marcia Stephenson has described in the case of the Taller de Historia Oral Andina (THOA) in Bolivia, who presented the biography of a leading 19th-century Aymara intellectual Eduardo Nina Qhispi.32 Stephenson describes how the biography which began as a “Western-style biography centered on a unitary subject became instead an extensive collective history of the altiplano region.” Writing about Nina Qhispi required writing about his ayllu, a traditional Andean unit of governance, and then surrounding ayllus. The inclusion in the Misión Cultura workbook of an alternative narrative model that locates the individual among various spheres of people and communities is similar to this decentering of the unitary subject promoted by the THOA. The inclusion of this alternative model is significant, and in the personal narrative that follows we can see how this nonlinear model of storytelling might make available different kinds of registers for narrating one’s life.

The personal narratives composed in the autobiography workshops base themselves on the cultural and storytelling models offered through the training manuals, enabling the formation of ideal Bolivarian subjects. But the stories also reflect different modes of engagement as subjects grounded in community and local movements. I argue that what makes these different kinds of narration available are the location of these subjects within spaces such as the barrio, networks of collective culture, and everyday community-based struggles. In this section, I analyze a narrative by Guerrero, a cultural activist with a physical disability from the parish of La Pastora in Caracas. This subject, and his experiences of community organizing, of embodiment, and of life experience can give us insight into how cultural policy and state-sponsored storytelling trainings may enable a range of models of political agency and subjectivity.

Guerrero’s autobiography consists of eighty-three pages of typed, single-spaced prose.33 His narrative intersperses life events with the people, cultural groupings, and places that he has encountered in his life. In this sense, his narrative resembles more closely the spherical model of autobiography given in the Misión Cultura workbook than the linear and chronological model. Although the prose is edited for correct spelling and flows easily, it is written in lengthy sentences with only commas for pause and periods coming mostly at the ends of paragraphs. This style gives the text an oral quality, as if the narrative is being told rather than written. In my transcriptions, I have added in some periods to make the text easier to read.

At the start of his life history, Guerrero explains that he suffers from a congenital illness known as diastrophic dwarfism, which greatly limits his mobility and makes him more dependent on others. He describes the illness in great detail:

It involves knotted tendons in all joints of the fingers, elbows and knees, with deformities in the feet and the central trunk of the body. This occurs because of a deficiency of growth hormones, that are generated by a gland called the Pituitary. Here we find the hypophysis which we all have in our brain, that produces the growth glands of the human being.34

It is this illness, and numerous surgeries and hospitalizations, that makes Guerrero dependent on his mother in a way that at times he sees as unhealthy: “It gave more desire to my mother to overprotect me and spoil me, for most of my life, and often this limited and affected some aspects of my development in my infancy and adolescence.”35 His mother infantilizes and coddles him, partly as a way of protecting him from the hostility and harassment that he comes to suffer as a result of his disability.

Guerrero feels ashamed of his physical difference, when compared to his “normal” siblings, and from the neighbors and friends who continually tell his mother that he is abnormal and needs medical treatment. When he is brought to the local Hospital San Juan Dios in Caracas, a medical priest assures his mother that there is no need to operate, that doctors will only want to experiment with him. God has made his this way, says the doctor, and we should respect it.36 Nevertheless, with mounting pressure from others, Guerrero’s mother takes him to other hospitals, where he begins a lifelong experience of medical intervention, surgery, and treatments to correct his disability. As he grows older, he continues to encounter humiliations. The family of his first girlfriend pressures her to end the relationship with him, “simply because I was a midget, deformed, and ugly.”37 These humiliations were combined with the abuse he suffered when his mother worked as a domestic in the home of a wealthy family. He recounts the physical beatings and verbal abuse he received from Erasmo, his mother’s employer. At times the abuse was sexual, as when Erasmo was masturbating in the bathroom and called Guerrero to come inside and watch him.38 Guerrero’s mother finally takes the decision to leave after one day Guerrero is in the bath and Erasmo enters and slaps Guerrero on his buttocks with the palm of his hands.

After this experience, Guerrero and his mother moved in with his grandmother in the Caracas barrio of Las Torres in La Vega. It is in the space of the barrio, and the Callejón Ricaute, the alley where he plays with the other children of the neighborhood, that Guerrero comes to learn that he is equal and valued: “In the barrio I learned to feel equal to the rest of my friends. Or rather, they taught me, without knowing or proposing it, to feel myself in conditions of equality, where I often forgot my physical condition, although I was different to them.” He was not coddled or treated as lesser in capacity or humiliated for being different. Rather, “If we had to fight, we had to do it with the resources and conditions that we had.”39 Guerrero came to know all of the corners, alleys, sidewalks, and most hidden areas of the barrio, where he played, conversed with the neighbors, and came to feel part of a community. He describes the interconnection of people’s lives in the space of the barrio in these terms:

Every one of the residents was linked together magically, secretly, and in a strange way we all had to deal with one another. There existed ties and affinities that are hard to explain, although every person had their individuality and unique personality, although beyond the door of each house there was a very specific reality, and each of these have very definite shades. Despite everything that can be said of this and that, the barrio is only one. When I go into the streets and begin to explore its places and interact with people, there is another mode of amusement, a motive, a history that connects you with someone or something.40

Guerrero is speaking of the space of the barrio as a totality that comprises the unique lives and features of each individual, but that is also a space of interdependence where the social ties and links among these individuals based on history, culture, and coexistence produce a feeling of unity. At the same time, Guerrero does not idealize this space of the barrio as one of idyllic harmony, which over time he says became the site for gang wars and violence; he recounts that various of the friends he grew up with were killed by firearms. In his narrative, Guerrero presents what Margaret Mills calls a “networked collective subjecthood,” with the extended family and neighborhood as the basic social and economic unit.41

Afro-Venezuelan fiestas and culture are profoundly interconnected with Guerrero’s community organizing work. He recalls his mother taking him to an amusement park called El Parque Mecánico, where he would go on the rides and hear music from the legendary salsa orchestras Sonora Matancera, los Melódicos, Billo Caracas Boy, la Dimensión la Tina, and Beny More. Enjoying the fresh breeze high above the city, looking down at the people and cars in the city like little dolls, the music would invoke in him a nostalgia and profound sadness, “perhaps because I was living as a child the complexity of my being.”42 As a child, Guerrero liked to play the drums, and as he could not afford to buy one, he made one himself:

I would take a plastic container, one of those that the Parmalat milk came in, a kilo. I removed the bottom and it became a cylinder. I sanded the edges and I bought a red sheet known as Teype, like those that electricians use. I started wrapping it on one diameter, passing it on all sides, in myriad ways, making the sheet stretch until it covered everything, leaving a uniform skin. This is how I made my first drum.43

With few resources, Guerrero created his first drum, which had a deep and resonant sound. Along with his friends Gusano and Tico, Guerrero formed a Guaguanco band, in which they sang and played. Guerrero also liked to dance, and although he danced all different kinds of dance, he was known best as a rumbero, a specifically Afro-Venezuelan rhythmic style.

As he grew older, Guerrero came into contact with a wide range of musical influences and cultural activists who encouraged him to pursue a more radical agenda with his performance. One of these was a social activist in his barrio Nelson García, who had formed a Cultural Center Las Torres. The way in which García talked, with a passion and revolutionary fervor, was exciting for Guerrero. He began to formulate a more critical attitude to the world, to express his own ideas, “in other words, I learnt how to become a critical thinker, dialectic, creative, and transcendental, a man who was a fighter, revolutionary, and rebel.”44 He worked with García on a play about social injustice in the lives of street children, and they went all over the city presenting the play in different barrios. Guerrero came of age at a moment of heightened cultural activism and regional political uprisings. He performed at a concert organized by the legendary revolutionary folksinger Alí Primera, where his theatre group dressed as guerrillas in solidarity with the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador. He performed with the radical cultural grouping Grupo Madera, asking Chu Quintero how to play the bongos. Together with García and another friend Javier Sánchez, Guerrero created a group of clowns, calling himself Payaso Pompon, and this became a way for him to earn an income. By connecting the collective space of the barrio with struggles for social justice, over the course of his story Guerrero transitions from networked collective subjecthood to what Mills refers to as the “activist collective subjecthood of the testimony genre.”45 This represents an alternative form of political agency to that represented by the self-reliant and individual revolutionary leader.

As the various urban communities confronted government plans for urban remodeling and relocation of barrio residents, Guerrero and García formed a drumming group known as “Los Tambores en Contra de Los Desalojos” (Drummers against Displacement). Later, with the Grupo Experimental Ejemplo de Amistad (Experimental Group Example of Friendship, GEEA) in the barrio Las Torres, they fought to name a park after Alí Primera, who had died in a car accident. Guerrero worked closely with a network of local organizations in Las Torres and La Vega, including the Cultural Center Los Torres, GEEA, the Grupo Caribes de Itagua of El Gordo Edgar. All of these groups engaged in specific local actions, but they met frequently to discuss and debate ideas, as well as starting up their own newspaper known as Los Incultos (The Uncultivated). They also collaborated in the yearly religious festivals of Cruz de Mayo, the Comparasas, percussion workshops, and other activities.

Although Guerrero’s cultural activities and political involvement come from his location in the everyday space of the barrio, his narrative also traces the various state agencies and private foundations that guided his work. He studied in percussion workshops organized by the Fundación Bigott. He also worked as a cultural promoter under the Chávez administration with the cultural institutions Fundarte and CONAC. Although he was a supporter of Chávez, Guerrero does not mention any specific political affiliations in his work. Rather, he works with these institutions to ensure that he has the resources to continue his cultural work.

The key events in Guerrero’s autobiography consist of the cotidiano, the everyday experiences and struggles of those from the barrio. After living for many years in a crowded house with his grandmother, Guerrero moves with his mother and siblings to their own rancho, a precariously constructed house in the upper reaches of the barrio Las Torres. He recalls that it cost his mother 4000 bolívares, it was assigned the number 0017 by the National Guard, and it was like a little matchbox, with a toilet behind it.46 Guerrero describes the problems of transport for those living in the ranchos. They have to wake up at five in the morning or earlier to catch a bus and then train to go to their work. As a result, many have developed “a level of patience, of tolerance in the midst of disorder and noise that all of this generates.”47 Then, Guerrero recounts how in December 1999, the rancho collapsed during a storm:

On December 15 at 9:00pm, in the year 1999, a large tree behind our house at the top of Los Mercedores and Las Torres collapsed. It had been raining a lot for the three days prior. The rancho was inundated with water and mud. I was out of it, stunned in this moment. I didn’t want to leave the rancho and lose everything. Before the walls collapsed, I rushed out, thanks to Wuilfredo, a neighbor and Morao’s brother-in-law, who shook me out of it and made me react by letting out a loud scream. Five minutes passed after I left the rancho and suddenly, in fractions of a second, the walls fell in of what was my home. I was in shorts and without a shirt, with the rubber boots that I had on in this moment. All of our belongings were now in the mud.48

The collapse of his home is a defining moment in Guerrero’s life, forcing him to live with many others in a makeshift camp that was to become his home. It is these daily struggles—of housing, transport, sanitation, and then dislocation—as well as the collective space of the barrio and the cultural activities he is involved with that shape a specific form of consciousness and agency that undergird his narrative.

The understanding of culture in Guerrero’s narrative differs in important ways from that found in the cultural policy statements of the Chávez government. Rather than seeing culture as something to be rescued, quantified, classified, or put in the service of various ends, Guerrero sees culture as a space for encounter and collaboration. He gives a detailed description of the Velorio of Cruz de Mayo, a religious fiesta linked to the agricultural cycle that was re-created in the barrio Las Torres for the first time in 1983. The ability to have the fiesta depended on the networks of collaboration that existed among families in the barrio, which would allow them to house visitors and serve them food, make toilets available for the evening, and see to other necessities that arose. Guerrero says that in each passing year they put together a more beautiful altar, with an alcove made of bamboo and palms, flowers, fruits, and harvests from the land that represent the multiple colors of nature, abundance, and light that illuminate the path forward. He describes the impact of the event in the following terms:

We were able to invite many Afro-Venezuelan musical groups from Caracas . . . Also attending were social and community organizations, social fighters and revolutionary youth from distinct places and distinct organizations. We try to convert the Velorio de Cruz into a great meeting of brothers, of friendship and solidarity and full of commitment to struggle. It is not only the magical-religious, the mystical, the deity, and the devotion to the Cruz de Mayo. It also implies organization, the search for spaces to share as a community, and recognize each other as brothers united by a single topographical identity, with the same needs and sharing the same reality.49

There are many definitions of culture in Guerrero’s description. There is culture as spirituality, culture as a way of being, culture as a means of organization, culture as the space of collective life, and culture as a vehicle for cultural identity. Culture is intrinsically connected with the everyday life of the barrio, from where alternate modes of subject making and radical forms of agency can become available.


In closing, cultural policy under the Chávez government saw a shift back to funding and patronage of the arts after years of defunding and commodification of cultural production. However, despite leading to a renaissance of cultural activity, Chavista cultural policy also retained a modernist rationality that sought to treat cultural production as objects to be classified and quantified. Meanwhile, barrio-based cultural groups drew on alternative conceptions of culture that stemmed from their everyday organizing work, while still engaging with cultural state institutions. By looking at the life story of a cultural activist narrated within a state-sponsored storytelling workshop, we can see the importance of the space of the everyday as a counterpoint to cultural policy and conceptions of culture devised from above. The narratives produced in the storytelling workshops are defined by the strength of local barrio-based movements that take everyday struggles over housing, transport, food, and sanitation as the core of their organizing work. It is at this level of the everyday that we can see the emerging possibilities that define cultural movements in search of social change.

Further Reading

Fernandes, Sujatha. Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Guss, David. “The Selling of San Juan: The Performance of History in an Afro-Venezuelan Community.” American Ethnologist 20.3 (1993): 451–473.Find this resource:

Guss, David. The Festive State: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism as Cultural Performance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Marcia, Stephenson. “Forging an Indigenous Counterpublic Sphere: The Taller de Historia Oral Andina in Bolivia.” Latin American Research Review 37.2 (2002): 99–118.Find this resource:

Salas, Yolanda. “En Nombre del Pueblo: Nación, Patrimonio, Identidad y Cigarro.” In Políticas de Identidades y Diferencias Sociales en Tiempos de Globalización. Edited by Daniel Mato. Caracas: FACES-UCV, 2003.Find this resource:

Saldaña-Portillo, María Josefina. The Revolutionary Imagination in the Americas and the Age of Development. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Scott, James. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

Wisotski, Ruben. El Pueblo es la Cultura: Conversación con Farruco Sesto, Ministro de la Cultura, Caracas: Fundación Editorial el Perro y la Rana, 2006.Find this resource:

Yúdice, George. The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.Find this resource:


(1.) George Yudice, The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 70–71.

(2.) David Guss, “The Selling of San Juan: The Performance of History in an Afro-Venezuelan Community,” American Ethnologist 20.3 (1993): 456.

(3.) David Guss, The Festive State: Race, Ethnicity, and Nationalism as Cultural Performance (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 100.

(4.) David Guss, The Festive State, 42.

(5.) David Guss, The Festive State, 94–96.

(6.) David Guss, The Festive State, 96.

(7.) David Guss, The Festive State, 111.

(8.) David Guss, The Festive State, 116.

(9.) David Guss, The Festive State, 102–103.

(10.) Yolanda Salas, “En Nombre del Pueblo: Nación, Patrimonio, Identidad y Cigarro,” in Políticas de Identidades y Diferencias Sociales en Tiempos de Globalización, ed. Daniel Mato (Caracas: FACES-UCV, 2003), 162.

(11.) These latter two companies had established cultural programs in Venezuela that predated Bigott by many years.

(12.) Guss, The Festive State, 123.

(13.) Yudice, The Expediency of Culture, 11.

(14.) El Gran Viraje: Lineamientos Generales del VIII Plan de la Nación, Enero de 1990. Presentación al Congreso Nacional, Presidencia de la República de Venezuela, Oficina Central de Coordinación y Planicifación CORDIPLAN, 113.

(15.) Felix Baptista and Oswaldo Marchionda, “¿Para Qué Afinques?,” BA thesis, Escuela de Antropología, Universidad Central de Venezuela, 1992.

(16.) Proyecto Ley Orgánica de la Cultura, 4 December 2000.

(17.) Salas, “En Nombre del Pueblo,” 167–168.

(19.) Salas, “En Nombre del Pueblo,” 164–167.

(20.) Yudice, The Expediency of Culture, 12–13.

(21.) Ruben Wisotski, El Pueblo es la Cultura: Conversación con Farruco Sesto, Ministro de la Cultura (Caracas: Fundación Editorial el Perro y la Rana, 2006), 21.

(22.) Tania Murray Li, The Will to Improve (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 235.

(23.) Fundación Misión Cultura. The conversion is calculated at the 2005 exchange rate of 2150 bolívares to the U.S. dollar.

(24.) Farrell, Michelle Leigh. “La historia local de la Misión Cultura: un componente clave en el proyecto contemporáneo nacional Venezolano,” paper presented at LASA 2010.

(25.) Farrell, “La historia local de la Misión Cultura.”

(26.) James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998). James Scott is a political scientist of agrarian society whose work on Indonesia was followed by important works on what he termed “everyday acts of resistance.” His work has come to be crucial for social scientists and humanities scholars seeking to understand the small-scale acts of resistance and sabotage that were lost in studies of large-scale protest movements and revolutions. His work on the rationalist underpinnings of the modernist state has also come to be widely known and used.

(27.) James, Seeing Like a State.

(28.) Chris Hesketh and Adam David Morton, “Spaces of Uneven Development and Class Struggle in Bolivia: Transformation or Trasformismo,” Antipode 46.1 (January 2013): 1–21.

(29.) Trabajo con Autobiografía, Fundación Misión Cultura, December 2006, 13.

(30.) Trabajo con Autobiografía, 5.

(31.) Trabajo con Autobiografía, 15.

(32.) Marcia Stephenson, “Forging an Indigenous Counterpublic Sphere: The Taller de Historia Oral Andina in Bolivia” Latin American Research Review 37.2 (2002): 108.

(33.) I know Guerrero personally from an earlier time doing field research in Caracas, and he gave me a copy of this narrative. The writing of the text took a long time, much longer than the three months suggested by the mission directors. While he finished it in 2014 when there had been a transition of leadership to President Nicolás Maduro, it was mostly written during the government of Hugo Chávez.

(34.) “Autobiografía,” Ricardo José Guerrero, Funcadión Misión Cultura, 2014, 6.

(35.) Autobiografía, 9.

(37.) Autobiografía, 45.

(38.) Autobiografía, 16.

(39.) Autobiografía, 29.

(40.) Autobiografía, 30.

(41.) Margaret Mills, “Victimhood as Agency: Afghan Women’s Memoirs,” in Orientalism and War, eds. Tarak Barkawi and Ketih Stanski (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 198.

(42.) Margaret Mills, “Victimhood as Agency,” 14.

(43.) Margaret Mills, “Victimhood as Agency,” 31.

(44.) Margaret Mills, “Victimhood as Agency,” 35.

(45.) Mills, “Victimhood as Agency,” 198.

(46.) Margaret Mills, “Victimhood as Agency,” 42.

(47.) Margaret Mills, “Victimhood as Agency,” 61.

(48.) Margaret Mills, “Victimhood as Agency,” 74.

(49.) Margaret Mills, “Victimhood as Agency,” 56.