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Thursday, April 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:27 A.M.

Artists swept up in nation's political turmoil

By Gary Marx
Chicago Tribune

Hugo Chávez
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CARACAS, Venezuela — Pedro Leon Zapata is one of Venezuela's most accomplished artists, but he also is a cartoonist whose depictions of President Hugo Chávez as a dangerous and empty-headed strongman have placed him at the center of this country's vicious political battle.

Along a major Caracas highway, the artist's most visible work, a towering and colorful mural decorating a wall, is defaced with a crude epithet denouncing the artist. The "Z" in Zapata's name is written to look like a Nazi swastika.

Traditionally removed from the trench warfare that characterizes Venezuela's struggling democracy, the nation's artists, writers and filmmakers have taken center stage as Chávez carries out a self-described "cultural revolution" as part of his efforts to reshape this South American nation.

The strategy has come under withering criticism from Zapata and other artists who say the president has hijacked the nation's cultural institutions for political gain.

Critics say government officials have damaged museums by replacing experienced curators with political allies. They also accuse the government of censoring works that are critical of the president.

Francisco Sesto, Venezuela's vice minister of culture, said the president is seeking to "democratize" art, film, music and theater by taking it out of the hands of the elite and making it available in poor urban neighborhoods and elsewhere across the country.

The government also is nurturing "popular" culture originating from the barrios and from Venezuela's numerous Indian groups.

One benefit of the intense conflict is that Venezuelan art has been infused with an urgency and relevance not seen here since the 1960s, when the government was battling a leftist guerrilla movement.

Miguel von Dangel, a prominent Caracas painter, has completed several large canvases depicting in graphic and often religious terms the street clashes that have characterized the political turmoil here since a brief coup in 2002.
 
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But von Dangel said he opposes artists like Zapata who have openly taken sides in the conflict. He said an artist's role in society is to "generate a reflection."

"A painting shouldn't be converted into political propaganda," von Dangel said.

A former paratrooper elected in 1998 on a pledge to redistribute the nation's vast oil wealth, the combative and charismatic Chávez has taken on labor unions, the judicial system, industrialists and even religious leaders, launching verbal attacks against the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. The president has dismissed his church critics as "devils in vestments."

But the years of vituperative rhetoric, street clashes and periodic strikes have exhausted and divided this nation of 25 million people even as the conflict now is focused on whether a recall referendum on Chávez's presidency will be held in the coming months.

Nowhere are the differences more surprising than the once-tightknit and insular arts community, which has produced some of Latin American's finest contemporary painters.

Fernando Rodriguez, a culture columnist for the daily Tal Cual, said the Venezuelan arts community traditionally has been leftist even as it was nurtured for decades by a Venezuelan state flush with oil revenues.

But he said a "climate of harmony and eclecticism" began to erode after Chávez took office and in 2001 fired the heads of 16 major museums and other cultural institutions.

Rodriguez said the purge has accelerated in the past year during Sesto's tenure as the nation's top cultural official.

"He has gotten rid of anyone who is not with the government," Rodriguez said. "This has created a total confrontation."

The latest scuffle took place in January after the nation's most important film institute refused a last-minute request by government officials to alter a festival of Czech and Mexican films to include works by Cubans. Cuban President Fidel Castro is a key ally of Chávez.

Javier Guerrero, former president of the film institute known as Cinemateca, said he resigned in protest. He said other top officials also resigned or were replaced.

"They are trying to take control over these cultural organizations and make it part of their (political) programs," Guerrero said. "We can't be a part of this."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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