Bullfighting in Venezuela: Socialism Struggles with Contradictory Remnant of Colonial Past

Why have Venezuela's self-identified revolutionary authorities failed to ban the brutal and reactionary spectacle of bullfighting in Merida, and what can this teach us about the contradictions in the Bolivarian process?

Over 40 bulls are slaughtered every year in Merida City
Over 40 bulls are slaughtered every year in Merida City

Every year grassroots campaigners stir from their slumber in the sleepy, opposition-controlled Andean town of Merida and take to the streets to protest for the banning of an activity which has been described by the current government as “a tourist attraction”, but which the local people of Merida despise, and which only 4% of the local population actually attends.

It is an activity which leaves any conscientious tourist deeply disturbed, which contributes nothing to the local economy, and which the vast majority of local residents neither support, enjoy, nor benefit from.

We are talking about the bullfighting, and more specifically the eclectic anti-bullfighting groups, of which there are a wide variety in Merida.

Earlier this year, Merida – which is the most famous bullfighting city in the country and whose fights form an intrinsic part of the Sun Festival (Feria del Sol), local Carnival celebrations – saw bullfights in its central ring from the 8th to 13th February. More than forty bulls were slaughtered. The white-skinned, well-off, Queen of the Carnival Beauty Pageant was present (alongside her losing competitors), as was the head of the Catholic Church, Balthazar Porras, the right-wing state governor, and the similarly right-wing mayor.

Every day saw two to five bullfights, in which the “majestic” matador pranced around the ring in his colonial-style outfit trying to kill his foe. It is worth noting that the matador held a certain advantage, given that firstly he is armed, secondly he is trained, thirdly he is sometimes on horseback, fourthly everyone was cheering him on (no one goes for the bull!), and fifthly, and crucially, the bulls were brutally stabbed and weakened before coming into the ring so as to “infuriate” them.

Should a bull do well (and by this experts in the area mean put up a good fight, worthy of his matador and the “important” spectators), once sacrificed he will be dragged around the ring by his tail to the cheers of the crazed, drunk crowds. If a bull has done exceptionally well, his tail, ear, or other body part may be cut off and gifted to the Queen of the Feria or the head of the Church in honour. Who knows what the Queen of the Feria does with this tail or ear afterwards… display it on her mantlepiece?

Propelling the city and certain sectors of its population every year back to the times of Spanish colonial rule, this activity bring up a painful history of a period in which thousands of animals were massacred for sport in the economic interests of their European masters.

It is widely accepted amongst anthropologists and historians that violence and the use of violence in sport were important social instruments of domination that maintained Spanish colonial hegemony in Latin America. Such disturbingly “light-hearted” violence was applied to both the local fauna as well as the local indigenous population, whom the colonialists considered little more than beasts.

Going even further back in history, one may be mistaken for comparing the drunken heat and crazed cries of the bullfighting ring in 2018 Merida with a scene from the Gladiator film, or any other more accurate depiction of the heated passion and bloody sands of the Roman Colosseum and all the social control which it brought to the Caesars of the time.

The use of “Bread and Circus” to distract people from daily hardships, to appease the local business class, and as an attempt to demonstrate human domination over “nature” and all of its beasts are aspects which undeniably existed in 1st Century Rome, and, one can argue, are intrinsic (if horrendous) elements of the bullfighting spectacle in Merida, Venezuela.

Venezuela is currently governed by a political movement which preaches the breaking of historic, imperialist, colonial ties. The government frequently talks of promoting local, endogenous traditions, of giving power to the people, of prioritising the poor and excluded over the rich and powerful. In 2013, the Maduro administration created the social project ‘Mission Nevado’, which looks to protect, safeguard and guarantee a dignified life for the animals of the country. How is it possible that, under these conditions, the holding of a blood-thirsty, cruel, and tortuous activity like bullfighting is still permitted?

How, one may ask, is this spectacle compatible with the construction of socialism, or 21st Century Socialism (as Chavez called it)?

The answer is complex, multifaceted, and this article will inevitably fall short of covering all of the relevant elements. However, to begin, one must see the holding of bullfights as just one of the many contradictions which characterises the Bolivarian process and the party at its helm, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV).

In addition, one must consider the powerful neo-colonial culture which persists in Merida, and equally one must recognise the failings of the local anti-bullfighting movement, which has undoubtedly contributed to the continuation of this activity. As with the ruling political party, which has the power to ban bullfighting, the other force capable of bringing about the prohibition of the activity – the anti-bullfighting groups in the region – suffer from plenty of internal contradictions, struggling to unite and act as one.

The anti-bullfighting movement encapsulate a diverse range of activists, including vegetarians, vegans, animal protection activists, anti-cruelty activists, socialists, anarchists, conservatives, working class, middle class, and even the odd upper class citizen, all pushing in their own way, manner, and style, for a single objective: the abolition of the yearly bullfighting festival which dates back to 1662.

“Some of these movements focus on the cruelty to the animals, others on lack of culture, some focus on armchair politics and others push for more direct action,” explains Juan Rondon, a local mathematics teacher, supporter of President Nicolas Maduro, and leader of one of these groups, the “Anti-Bullfighting Coalition”.

Other reasons which may partially explain why this activity has been allowed to continue in a country which claims to be marching towards socialism include looking at the powerful vested interests behind the activities by both high-placed members of the opposition and Chavista forces, and the lack of a serious alternative proposal to fill up the days of the Feria.

But, as Rondon argues, one of the primordial reasons is the social makeup of Merida itself, which has a class makeup with important elements similar to those in other regions of the world where bullfighting has flourished.

Understanding Merida

Merida is a city which, bar a brief exception between 2004-08, has been ruled by right-wing forces, with its population repeatedly voting by significant majority for those political parties which represent the traditional right, the conservative, landed, travelled, and wealthy sectors. Those who make up these parties (at the vanguard of their social class, as Gramsci would say) are the large landowners, the important religious men, the deans and high professors of the prestigious Andes University in Merida, and the large business owners, nearly all of whom are – particularly in Merida’s case – cosmopolitan, multilingual, and often feel much closer to their Spanish descendants than the rest of the city’s population.

“In Merida the bullfights form part of a cultural imposition which, for us, dates back to Spanish colonial times,” explains Rondon.

Bullfighting did not begin in Spain though, he elaborates: “Tracing the history of bullfighting, one can see how it started with the Romans, who took it to Egypt, France, Portugal, and yes, Spain.” Cultural, colonial, imposition, it seems, brought bullfighting to Spain, just as Spain bought it to Merida.

“In the Roman empire, it was, as it still is in Merida, ironically seen as a cultural activity of the more “civilised” peoples, those foreigners who are more “enlightened” and “advanced” than the local, indigenous population. For us here in Merida it forms part of the continued imposition of imperialist colonial culture over our own, local culture,” he continued.

Anyone who has “enjoyed” the Feria del Sol in Merida can testify to the truth of these “neo-colonial complexes”.

As the Spanish flamenco sounds out, and the spectators proudly drink Spanish sangria from their “botas” (leather bags which are filled with alcohol) and shout “ole”, one would be forgiven for thinking that they were in Madrid, Pamplona, or Valencia rather than the tropics.

Rondon explains that Merida is a city whose middle and upper classes in particular maintain strong connections to Spain, be they family ties, travel, or business, and whose heavily alienated working classes often aspire to such class mobility, replicating such traits from the “civilised homeland”.

“Merida has a middle class which has lived for a long time from the state through the University of the Andes,” explains Rondon.

The university is largely financed by the public budget, despite assuming a hostile attitude to the current government.

“This class alternates between being an intellectual left and a fascist right, but always claims to be superior to the rest whilst receiving their paycheck which stems from the public national budget,” he continues.

“This bourgeois class owns great areas of land and businesses in the state, and requisition a large percentage of the national oil income. They are unproductive and generally own non-monopoly based service industries,” he adds.

These middle class sectors, who aspire to join – or often simply to be seen with – the real upper classes of the city, are most often those who enjoy the spectacle, who fill the seats whilst tracing back their family lineage to find their last European “civilised” descendant and talking about them as if it were yesterday.

“[Merida’s working class] has a low level of class consciousness, doesn’t form part of an industrial sector, and generally works in construction or service industries,” explains Rondon.

In its majority, the “rural working class” in the Andean state are similarly “used to observing life in the city in a critical form, but rarely assume a class-based position to confront these problems. The right-wing who control the city and state constantly offer them Bread and Circus so that they are formed in their values,” he evaluates.

On nearly every bus, every street corner, and in most poor households, criticisms of this “Bread and Circus” can be heard, yet limited activism and a failure to take advantage of this discontent by the anti-bullfighting movement embellish these class-based issues Rondon explains.

Finally, in Merida, a city known for its violent extremist right-wing groups, there exists “a lumpen proletariat who showed their faces in February and March 2014, and more recently in 2017 during the guarimbas [violent anti-government street protests],” claims Rondon.

“It is a sector with an important violent component, making them susceptible to such expressions of violent domination and superiority as bullfighting.”

Bullfighting is not just financed by the bourgeois class, but also justified and promoted by other institutions of their cultural hegemony, principally the local press which is largely controlled by them.

One such example is ex-Mayor Fortunato Gonzalez Cruz in his well-circulated article The Bugles of the 2009 Feria in which in his exquisite vocabulary straight out of mainland Spain’s linguistic schools and with a neocolonial tint, Cruz explains how the bullfighting industry has developed.

Economic interests

One of the strongest arguments against this activity is economic.

Bizarrely, the Venezuelan state assigns copious amounts of foreign currency to finance the bullfights. The subsidy for this financing is a direct way of redistributing public taxes and the oil income, in this case to the organisers of the activities, the large landowners and the local bourgeoisie. For a revolutionary like Rondon, this is unacceptable and incompatible with a government which professes to build socialism.

“Some years ago, when we had plenty of national currency income, no one bothered to look at these accounts, but I have,” he tells VA.

“As a country, we are currently hard up, the drop in the price of oil has hit our national budget hard, and cuts are being made in public investment, hospitals, transport, education as a necessity. Yet at the same time, the national government continues to spend public money subsidising bullfighting, which is basically passing money from PDVSA [Venezuela’s state-run oil company] directly into the pockets of Merida’s landed bourgeoisie.”

Historically, bullfighting has always appeased the local large bourgeoisie, though not always through state subsidising. Roman businessmen and traders were the main benefactors when the Colosseum opened its doors, making copious profits from the slave trade, the supply of animals, providing accommodation, food, alcohol, and other services to the hordes who flocked to the capital. Large service-based business owners in Pamplona or Valencia, where modern day bullfighting brings in thousands, are those who reap the economic rewards from this activity.

Apart from state subsidies, significant private financing is thrown at Merida’s bullfighting by private companies, the Catholic Church, and important local individuals.

Private companies such as Rodriguez-Jauregui, who until recently organised the fights, imported the bulls, paid the matadors, and mixed companies such as Coremer, who own and lease out the bullfighting ring, channel such financing, creating huge profits for their directors and shareholders.

Private firm Rodriguez-Jauregui received $2,765,000 since 2012 at the subsidised exchange rate, which is normally used for medicine and food imports.

Coremer (previously Corealsa) is made up of shareholders which include the state government (51%), the municipal government (30%), and the University of the Andes (10%). The rest is made up of individuals, including the highest spokesperson for the Catholic Church in the region, Monsignor Balthazar Porras. Given this information, it is unsurprising that such powerful financial groups, who directly and indirectly benefit from the bullfighting activities, work so hard to stifle those campaigns aimed at banning it.

One of the arguments used by the business class refers to local trickle-down investment for the community and generating tax income.

“Most of those who benefit from the holding of the fights are the large businesses, or street venders, who make a fortune re-selling goods and beverages. The street sellers pay no municipal nor national taxes, and the large businesses generally have expensive accountants who find fiscal loopholes for them to pay the minimum necessary. The holding of the fights creates almost no extra jobs for Merida, and the profit made is highly concentrated in a few hands, nullifyitrickle-downle down economic argument in their favour,” he said.

“As the Feria is at the start of the year, year after year rightist mayors squander their entire budgets on it – it is a question of prestige for them. Thereafter, no money is left for rubbish collection, paying teachers, or the whole other draft of responsibilities of the mayor,” stated Rondon.

Merida has suffered from a rubbish collection problem for nearly two decades, but it seems that no-one really pays much attention to this, as long as they still have their Feria! Bread and Circus I hear you cry?

“[Bullfighting] makes [the bourgeois class] feel civilised, Spanish. They make huge amounts of money from it, be it through shares in Coremer, sucking the oil income of the nation through state subsidies, using the large extensions of land in the state for bull rearing, and even the week-long boom for everyone who owns a hotel, liquor shop, or who has enough money to invest in special merchandise which is then resold on the street, tax free, for a massive mark-up. But the average man and woman make nothing from bullfighting,” Rondon continues.

But Merida’s local rentier bourgeoisie is not the only force behind maintaining bullfighting. As we’ll see, the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, powerful family interests, the university and the church have also given its tacit support to the feria.

Political failings

In light of such an apparently strong case against this remnant of colonial times on account of its clear contradiction with the stated goals of building socialism and promoting endogenous Venezuelan culture, what stops the leftist authorities in Caracas from banning it?

Reaction to such campaigns within the governing PSUV has always been mixed. This is partly due to vested particular interests (ex-Governor Marcos Diaz Orellana, for example, was an open supporter, whilst numerous PSUV politicians have shares in the lucrative activity), and partly due to the lack of a serious proposal to replace it in the context of the cultural festivities of Carnival.

Despite significant agricultural production, scarcely populated Merida has historically been ignored by Caracas in the course of national and regional policy-making.

The only regional political force which has openly taken a stance on the matter has been the Communist Party of Venezuela, and even this came after years of internal struggle against certain members of the party who enjoyed the spectacle.

There is, however, precedent for a successful struggle, as Rondon explains.

Caracas’ former socialist mayor, Juan Barretto, banned bullfighting in the capital in 2005 and gave the municipally-run bullfighting ring over to animal rights groups that later evolved into the Nevado Mission.

In other localities, conscientious PSUV mayors have also banned the activity, such as in San Felipe in 2015.

An interesting case is that of Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city in the far west of the country. Maracaibo has been governed by right-wing forces for numerous years. Yet, in the recent municipal elections, PSUV candidate Willy Casanova surprisingly overturned this opposition majority and won the city back for the PSUV. As his first decree, he banned bullfighting from this extremely wealthy city, making a name for himself in the anti-bullfighting movement nationwide.

These isolated examples of Chavista authorities who have banned this horrendous spectacle stand in sharp contrast to the right-wing opposition’s complete and utter support for the issue, not just, not just in Merida, but across Venezuela.

What’s next for the anti-bullfighting movement?

It is hard to say what combination of local activism and shifts in the national political scene is necessary for this activity to be finally banned.

Local efforts to mount an “alternative festival” have largely failed, due to the monopoly which the pro-bullfighting sectors hold on the media and the weaknesses of left-wing cultural organisations in the region.

Regional chapters of the PSUV and Communist Party will have to take a firmer and more consistent stand on this issue as it is probable that they will have to play a key role in any future ban, which can be brought about through a state-wide referendum. 

In 2013, local anti-bullfighting forces reached arguably their highest point of popular organisation when they achieved enough signatures to legally request a local referendum on the question from the electoral authorities (CNE), using Article 14 of the Law for the Protection of Domestic Fauna (Free and in Captivity).

The legal mechanism was, however, “buried” according to Rondon due to the “complex situation of the time”. The “situation” to which Rondon refers to was the unstable period immediately following President Maduro’s narrow electoral victory in April 2013, in which the Merida CNE office, like many across the country, was besieged by violent groups of opposition militants and terrorists, collapsing the city and the institution and forcing the activation of all contingency plans.

Uniting the diverse anti-bullfighting currents may well be doomed to failure, due to the multi-class nature of their members, and the internal differences of opinion not just on how to approach this issue, but on a whole range of other tactical questions.

It is probable that whilst Merida remains a city ruled by right-wing forces, bullfighting and all the profits it brings its benefactors will continue. Hence, one may tentatively conclude, that only by installing a left-wing mayor (as the Maracaibo case shows), can these anti-bullfighting movement really fulfill its goal.

In the meanwhile, this case study raises interesting questions concerning the relationship between federal and regional forces in the PSUV, the internal power battles between factions within the ruling party, and with regard to the struggle of grassroots movements based in the communities against powerful economic interests.

It also brings to the fore contradictions between the discourse and action of the current government, problematizing the strategies of confrontation and appeasement of powerful local groupings pursued by both President Chavez and Maduro.

Whilst the anti-bullfighting movement grapples with these many contradictions, bulls continue to be slaughtered, and the local population continues to be appeased with their bloody bread and circus spectacle.

This article was compiled from numerous interviews with Juan Rondon, as well material taken from his blog: