President Hugo Chávez was an avid reader and an educator. In fact, one of his legacies in the cultural realm is Venezuela’s annual International Book Fair [FILVEN for its Spanish acronym]. From November 10 to 20, the National Art Gallery in Caracas hosted the 18th FILVEN, which brought together almost 80 booksellers and publishing houses from Venezuela and around the world.
We talked with Ernesto Villegas, Culture Minister, about cultural life in Venezuela and about the most recent FILVEN book fair.
Hugo Chávez promoted reading as nobody else has done in Venezuela’s history. I remember the massive distribution of Don Quijote and Les Miserables and the creation of several state publishing houses. Can you tell us a bit about this history?
Yes, Chávez was a great promoter of books. While the right accused him of being a dictator or a tyrant, he committed himself to promoting the cultural rights of the pueblo, including reading. What dictator does that!
Chávez not only supported the free distribution of hundreds of thousands of copies of El Quijote and Les Miserables, but he also promoted the creation of Robinson Mission, where millions learned to read. In fact, UNESCO declared Venezuela to be an Illiteracy-Free Territory in 2005.
President Nicolás Maduro, who on taking the reins of the country made Chávez’s legacy his program, has adapted government policies to the times: he continues to promote the free distribution of books, but now free access is mostly online. Also, he uses his Twitter account to promote reading by sharing at least one book title every week. Finally, like Chávez, President Maduro is also a promoter of the FILVEN book fair and stimulates literary creation with prizes and scholarships.
Of course, when it comes to culture, our policies are perfectible. The criminal blockade has left its wounds in the cultural sphere, but we are going forward and our commitment remains unaltered.
Could you go further into the effects of the blockade on the cultural sphere?
The unilateral coercive measures are a weapon of mass destruction targeting Venezuelan society as a whole. In fact, Venezuela has denounced the policy as a crime against humanity because it impacts the population in the exercise of its rights, from healthcare to education, from the right to housing to the right to food. It also has an impact on cultural rights.
The blockade has limited the state’s ability to get its production, including oil, to market, and this has limited the state’s ability to finance policies, including cultural ones.
Even so, the Venezuelan state is stubbornly working to preserve the population’s cultural rights. Of course, we have had to adapt to changing circumstances but we continue to advance.
For instance, it would be very petty to not recognize that in the sphere of music, Venezuela remains a powerhouse: we have kept the Simón Bolívar National Youth Orchestra and Choir System alive. Around the world, this initiative is understood to be a landmark project, opening doors to working-class youths and offering a beautiful path for international cooperation.
We have also worked hard to preserve and make our cultural heritage known around the globe. In fact, since 2013, nine Venezuelan cultural activities have been recognized as Intangible Heritage by UNESCO. This is part of our defense of the nation, and it requires the government’s active commitment to achieve this kind of recognition.
Over the past few years, in addition to promoting digital books, we have also focused on theater. Last year we organized the International Progressive Theater Festival, which made the country’s performing arts visible. Moreover, the festival didn’t just have one seat: national and international groups performed around the country.
If we hadn’t built a robust foundation prior to the imperialist attack, these initiatives would not be yielding results now, but the fact that people continue to create is a collective feat. Cultural producers have displayed resilience and a deep commitment to their identity, their roots, and their country. We know that we can count on them in the battles to come.
Some cultural critics identify a recent process of mercantilization of culture. From your perspective, is this actually happening?
It depends on what they mean by “mercantilization of culture.” There may be some perspectives that are tangled up in the rentier logic and have a very narrow viewpoint, but the fact is that we are one of the very few countries with free museum access and, when it comes to the broader cultural sphere, we promote equity.
However, there are circumstances that have changed. While Chávez distributed one million free books, we cannot do the same, as oil revenues have shrunk. Instead, we offer free books through our digital platforms. All that being said, the prices in the Librerías del Sur [state-run bookstore network] are much lower than in your regular bookstore.
It is true, however, that there are new factors in the cultural sphere. On the one hand, there is a reactivation of the private entertainment industry. Now, high-profile national and international figures are giving concerts and the cover charge may be steep. Nonetheless, these are not central when compared to the popular cultural activities that are common in our society.
I should also add that in recent years we have seen the emergence of smaller entrepreneurial cultural initiatives, which don’t rely on state subsidies. These initiatives operate according to a logic of production that is self-sustaining, and they charge a fee for their cultural services.
The cultural sphere is very diverse, and there is room for everyone. While this is an open debate, we see the development of new cultural initiatives that have a productive horizon with good eyes.
Now, since culture is a diverse territory, when you go to the field of poetry, state support is necessary. The same happens with the preservation of our cultural patrimony. In those spheres, an extra-mercantile logic is necessary. Here we are not going to destroy museums to build skyscrapers or malls!
One of Venezuela’s strengths is its cultural diversity. There is commercial music and theater, but there are even more musical and theater projects that are not organized by a market-driven logic. At the end of the day, we celebrate this diversity.
The FILVEN book fair concluded a few days ago. Can you give us some highlights?
The 2022 FILVEN is the result of 18 years of book fair history coming together with the ingenuity and hard work of the staff that made the event happen with very limited resources. As the book fair was about to open, you could see vice-ministers carrying boxes and working on the stands to make it all come together. In these times of blockade, we have had to make things happen with much less, but I think the 2022 FILVEN has been one of the best book fairs to date.
I should also add that, even with the limited resources available, we have made inroads when it comes to projecting the book fair and its roster of events: Canal Cultura Venezuela, our online digital channel, streamed every panel and every cultural event. We’ve jumped from an analogic to a digital book fair. One of the virtues of the streaming modality is that anyone can watch it, but it also makes us less reliant on traditional media to make ourselves heard.
Africa was the focus of the 2022 FILVEN book fair. How did that come about?
For the first time, this year’s FILVEN didn’t focus on just one country, but on a whole continent: Africa. The focus on the African continent goes hand in hand with this year’s slogan: reading decolonizes. The book fair also paid homage to two extraordinary Venezuelan anthropologists, Iraida Vargas and her late husband Mario Sanoja, whose work approaches the discipline with an insurgent perspective. The book fair also rendered homage to Carmen Clemente Travieso, a historical feminist who was born at the turn of the 20th Century.
The 2022 FILVEN was nested in the work of the Commission for the Clarification of Historical Truth, Justice and Reparations that President Nicolás Maduro launched on October 12. The objective of the commission, which I have the honor of presiding over, is to examine the impact of the 300 years of colonization and promote a decolonizing pedagogy.
In other words, the orientation of the book fair is part of President Maduro’s promotion of decolonization.
In addition to the participation of Angola, Senegal, Egypt, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Ghana, Tunisia, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Algeria, the book fair saw the launch of a collection of books with afro roots. Its focus is histories of struggle past and present.
For us, decolonization is not just part of the past. It’s also part of our present.