“Without culture there is no revolution” Interview with Farruco Sesto

Venezuela's vice-minister of Culture talks about the democratization of the decision making process in the Cultural sector and the current plans to reach the majority of the population

Francisco Sesto Novas is an award-winning architect and retired Design professor at the Faculty of Architecture of the Central University of Venezuela. Also known as “Farruco”, Sesto is a poet, essayist and painter who had held several positions in the public sector in the last decade. He is now the vice-minister of Culture of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport. He is also the president of the National Council of Culture (CONAC) and a member of the Presidential Commission for Literacy.

On November 21st, Farruco inaugurated the Mega Exposition, an impressive retrospective of 20th century Venezuelan art, that is being carried out in 66 different galleries and museums throughout Venezuela, and that offers to the public more than 3000 works of the great contemporary masters. It is without a doubt a titanic and admirable effort. Venezuelanalysis.com took advantage of this opportunity to ask Vice-minister Sesto a few questions:

VA: Vice minister, the Mega Expo is an event without precedent in Venezuela due to its proportions.  However, what is being done so that the people traditionally excluded from the academic world of the arts, can get motivated to visit the museums and the galleries?

FS: Well, the Mega Expo is a non permanent event that will only last four months; we have set a minimum goal of getting at least four million people. For it we are activating a big campaign of promotion through the state media, the community radio and TV stations, and other media at our disposal. Also, we coordinated with the Vice ministry of Education Affairs so that schools implement a system of constant visits to allow students to get to know the art that the last century left for them. But evidently, that is not enough, it is not sufficient. We must convince the common people, those who have been permanently excluded from the events of the museums, their museums, so that they make them theirs forever. Among other things, we are asking state museums as well as all those that receive financing from us, to revise their strategies of promotion and advertising, in order to multiply the number of visitors that they currently have. Within a year, when we review the numbers, we will be able to tell if we have advanced in that direction.

VA: You once said publicly that “without culture there is no revolution, culture is the vanguard of any process of change and it is also its consolidation…” how can that statement be put into practice?

“It is necessary to leave behind all the technocratic visions and the elitist criteria that still dominate the average government employee working in the cultural sector”

FS: Culture is made collectively, and individually, and here, of course, it is being made by the people. Indeed, without Culture there is no Revolution. The permanent discussion around the project included in the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, before and after its approval, is a cultural event of great magnitude. In the same way, the popular appropriation of the political spaces is a cultural event. So it is the creativity that is emerging everywhere related to this process of change: poems, newspapers, chronicles, audio-visual testimonies, web pages, street theaters, posters, songs, and a whole universe of cultural manifestations. However, from the point of view of what public administration of cultural affairs can do to propel this revolution from culture (and to propel culture from revolution) we are trying to catch up so that we are not left behind with respect to relating to people. In order to achieve that, it is necessary to leave behind all the technocratic visions and the elitist criteria that still dominate the average government employee working in the cultural sector.

We are implementing strategies of democratization, decentralization and massification, so that public the cultural action can reach all the national territory and interact with the twenty-five million people who inhabit the country.

VA: There has been great controversy on the subject of the “Project of Statutory Law of Culture”. In fact, we understand that there exist at least three different projects of law. What can be done so that we can have a consensus so that the amplest sectors of the Venezuelan population can feel identified and protected by this new legislation? And when do you think that this important and necessary law could be approved?

FS: In my opinion, there is no reason for disagreements on the Project of Statutory Law of Culture among the sectors that support the process of change that we are experiencing in our country. In last months, a multi sector commission has been created by representatives of the National Assembly and the National Council of Culture (CONAC), and it made great progress in the drafting of a project of consensus. To be defined are some articles referred to the instrument of application of the law. Particularly, I consider of great importance to design the structure of the governing entity in accordance with the realities of the states and municipalities, because nowadays that structure does not exist. In my opinion, the true reason why the discussion on this project of law -and many others- has not advanced and hasn’t been approved in the National Assembly (NA), has to do with the existing political situation in the country and the correlation of forces in the legislature. In Venezuela, in order for a statutory law to be approved it must have the vote of two thirds of the NA deputies, that is, an absolute majority.

The Mega Exposition at the Tulio Febres Cordero Cultural Center in the city of Merida.

VA: Immediately after you assumed your position in the CONAC, you convoked diverse sectors of society and asked them to cooperate with the reconstruction of the CONAC. You said literally: “take the CONAC by assault.” What kind of results did you obtain from this initiative?

FS: I believe it gave us very good results, for the CONAC, as for the intellectuals and artists who participated in the discussions. On a personal level, it gave me great satisfaction to see the teams working voluntarily all afternoons next to my office. Also I analyzed very carefully the proposals that came out of the workgroups and many of the things that we proposing now, came out of those proposals. I also suppose that, in most of the cases, the people who participated during months in those brainstorming and analysis sessions do not feel that they wasted the time, because they managed to construct for themselves an enriching space of interchange. However, as I made it clear from the first day, the times of the public management during a revolution like this one are not the same as those of academia. Contradictions arose when some people, forgetting about this, wanted to turn the discussion ignoring the realities that we are living, and place it into a theoretical framework. Some smaller contradictions irritated some people. Fortunately, it is my understanding that those annoyances already are surpassed. On the other hand, the takeover of the CONAC continues. Its spaces are open for any group that wants to make new proposals or discuss the current ones.

VA: You announced that the budget of the CONAC for year 2004 will triple the one of this year, which was of about 155 billion of Bolivars. What will you do so that these resources don’t end up diluted in the formal institutions and can indeed reach those who not always have benefited from the governmental plans?

FS: I requested 455 billion of Bolivars for the Culture vice ministry. Nevertheless, when the federal budget is finally decided, it might be possible that only 252 billion are approved. It is less than what we need according to our calculations, but I have the promise of the President, as well as the Minister of Education, Culture and Sports, to take care of the needs of the culture sector by means of additional resources. I must say, on the other hand, that 252 billion is not little money. We need to learn to use those resources efficiently and to demand productivity from them. For example, there is a system of subsidies to support theater that surpasses eight billion, but in spite of this, the number of spectators per year in Venezuela does not surpass three hundred thousand people. That means that each spectator costs the state, through these subsidies, more than 26.000 Bolivars, you see? Also, there are some museums in which (according to a similar calculation) each visitor costs the state 60.000 Bolivars. Definitively it is necessary to review many things in the culture sector. After all, these resources belong to all Venezuelans, and they must be destined to a massive and balanced cultural development.

VA: Could you explain how did the subsidies-based cultural policy worked in Venezuela in the previous 40 years? What are your proposals on that matter?

FS: I understand that there were some legitimate and illegitimate reasons in the development of the policy of subsidies. Among the illegitimate ones was the idea of silencing or bribe -so to speak- the intellectual and cultural movement, by making them depend excessively on public funds for their activities. That way, criticisms of the governments at the time were kept at a minimum. One of the legitimate reasons was trying to compensate the states through the subsidies for the excessive centralism. The CONAC and all major national cultural institutions are located in Caracas. In any case, the system of subsidies got distorted throughout the years for many reasons such as the lack of productivity, clientelism, the lack of social control and the impossibility to monitor projects from a centralized entity such as the CONAC.

Now we are changing the system in a radical way. A criteria of association will substitute the concept of subsidy, and on the states and localities we will rely on participatory budget, involving the communities in the decision making process. This will be channeled through the National Committees of Public Management of Culture in each state and with the dialogue and participation tables. Also each state will be asked to develop their own plans for the culture sector in synchrony with the national plan of culture. In general terms, we are subdividing the financing plan of in several components existing consolidated institutions, consolidated events, projects in association, of co management public agreements and a system of small loans or micro credits.

VA: What will be done so that the government programs for the culture sector reach the broadest sectors of the population?

FS: Evidently that is the challenge. It is not easy, because it requires a lot of cooperation and synchronization with regional and local governments, as well as with all the institutions of the central government. And it demands on the other hand, a real will to really serve the people. The central government must now take care of regional and local needs that have been neglected, sometimes due to the lack of resources, sometimes due to institutional weakness, sometimes due to the incompetence by government employees, and sometimes due to the complexity of the centralist culture. Developing and building a different scheme is a complex task that we are committed to accomplish. We know that this will not be possible without the amplest participation of the people in all instances.

VA: In a press conference that you gave last August you announced several important plans such as a census of all the national cultural patrimony, a registry of popular traditions, a plan of decentralization of culture, the rescuing of the Bolivarian historical patrimony, and an important investment in the field of archaeology, among others things. Do you really think that you are going to be able to achieve all those ambitious goals?

FS: Of course! What are we here for? There is the Earth waiting to be plowed, fertilized, seeded and then watered. If we do it and we take care of the crops with the appropriate care, what will prevent us to harvest? We have the ideas and the will, we have the resources (if we handle them with wisdom), and we have the will of most of the Venezuelan people that demands that things are made done the right way. What can prevent is from fulfilling these goals? I do not believe that these are ambitious goals. They are necessary goals.

VA: You think that in Venezuela there are parallel cultures coexisting at the moment, a popular one and one for the elites?

“Our Constitution recognizes Venezuela as a multicultural country, therefore the division between popular culture and culture of elites is too simplistic”

FS: Human culture, the one in these times we are living now, is a great mosaic made up of many cultures. There are cultural realities that are lived in a personal or family level and others that are lived at the local, regional, and of course national levels. There are cultural characteristics and manifestations that are developed in a Latin American scale. And, of course, we all make up that human, planetary culture. Culture of course, is not static, but it is alive and in permanent movement. It is an enormous fabric made up of multitude of threads that cross it vertically, horizontally and in the time dimension. Our Constitution recognizes Venezuela as a multicultural country, therefore the division between popular culture and culture of elites is too simplistic. What I can say is that the management of the cultural sector has made emphasis in the more universal cultural manifestations and has neglected the others. In social terms, in the past they preferred to take care of the needs and experiences of some sectors of the urban middle-class (specifically in Caracas), than those of the majority of the population. There has been a noticeable imbalance here; many resources have been allocated for very few people. That is the truth. With respect to the popular culture, which indeed exists, it is know as that rooted on the country’s traditions. Cultural manifestations of our people are received, and then they are transmitted. That is the popular culture. It is in some way, the very foundation of our identity, what distinguishes us as a society. Without it, without that popular culture, we would not be a country. We would be only a club, or something similar.

VA: Some sectors of civil society such as the Bolivarian Circles have been promoting the idea of a Cultural Constituency Assembly. Do you agree with that initiative? And how do you think it should be implemented?

FS: I am not very convinced that a Cultural Constituency Assembly in the way it is being proposed would work. The question is; what do we want from it?. Perhaps a statutory law of Culture? That would have to be clarified very well, so that it does not end up in endless discussions that usually begin well and then end up being diluted because the goals were not clearly defined. I am absolutely convinced (and it is one of our strategic lines) that the decision making process must be horizontalized to the maximum. For example, on December 5th, more than twelve thousand people in all the states of Venezuela discussed and made decisions in roundtables about the cultural plans for the year 2004. Isn’t that democracy and participation? With that spirit, I can join the idea of the Cultural Constituency Assembly. But its methods, and its objectives, must be determined clearly. It is time to act. The Venezuelan people, which have been excluded for many years, has a lot of unsatisfied demands in relation with the cultural articles in the Constitution. Those demands must be attended immediately. That is what we are trying to do.

VA: You are an architect, a profession that has set standards in the cultural sector during other revolutionary processes. Don’t you think that this sector is absent from the current Venezuelan revolutionary process?

FS: Yes, I believe so, but I can name a number not so small of revolutionary architects, who are also good architects by the way. But I share the idea that most of the architects they are not excited with this revolutionary process. I believe that it has to do with social class as well as with education. Few architects in our country assume their condition of being intellectuals, and much less their condition of independent intellectuals or free thinkers. I’m not even talking about architects who are serving the people, who are aware of the needs and realities of the country. That would be too much to ask. Most of them are just doing their own thing, trying to earn their money. In the case of most talented ones, they have egos so big that they step on them when they walk and, and that of course prevents them from doing other kinds of work. But in any case, there will be new generations that will appear. We believe in that.

VA: The CONAC has been accused of continuing financing elitist private institutions such as the Bigott Foundation, the Corp Group Foundation and even some which participated or supported the coup d’etat of 2002 such as the Gran Cine Circuit, which published an ad in a national newspaper celebrating the fall of the government of President Chavez. What can you say on the matter?

FS: That accusation is true. In the list of institutions that receive financing from the CONAC appears some institutions that have had a questionable behavior from the technical, political and economic point of view. However, I must clarify that the present directory of the CONAC is functioning since April of this year. Also, that list of institutions, which was proposed by the previous administration of the CONAC, was approved in February of 2003 by the Finance Commission of the National Assembly, which demanded us not to change it, since is part of the National Budget for 2003. Of course, next year things will be different. Again, those criticisms are well founded.

VA: You ordered to remove an art piece that represented Venezuela at the last Biennial of Venice arguing that it offended the image of the President. That decision has been  questioned in the national artistic world both by members of the opposition as well as by some personalities who are sympathetic the process of changes led by Chavez. What made you take that decision?

FS: I made the decision without consulting the Minister [of Education, Culture and Sports] or the President, so I assume it personally. I understand that some people could question it, although were many artists and intellectuals who, nevertheless, showed their support for the decision. And I took it for reasons that I explained publicly through a press release. The best thing than I can do is to reproduce the entire note:

“I made the decision to cancel the representation of Venezuela at the Biennial of Venice. It was an absolutely meditated and consciously made act.

I assume for that reason, personally, all the responsibility of a decision that, from the first moment, I knew that it was going to be used to continue seeding the lands of the intolerance.

The story begins at the moment in which a jury of four members selects two projects among twenty-nine of different artists, in order to send them to Venice.

Afterwards one of the artists declines its participation alleging political reasons to not represent the government of Venezuela. The other person continues with his participation, but apparently, and according to the jury, he decides to introduce elements that were not present at the moment that his project was selected.

In the final version of the work, which consisted of an interactive audio-visual installation, they are, among others, some scenes that I will try to describe. A figure representing President Chavez, with his own voice taken from one of his speeches, is assassinated with a blow to the head with a frying pan. A bunch of flies surrender an image of the Constitution. The same or similar flies fly around Simon Bolivar [Venezuela’s independence hero] whose face is represented in a coin.

After watching those scenes, I made the decision.

I want to say that I understand that freedom of expression and creation exists. That I understand that there is political freedom. And that I understand, also, that, throughout history, art of political content has always existed, as a perfectly valid option, that sometimes has even managed to reach very high degrees of quality. At all times and places there have been paintings and writings in favor and against the established power.

But in this particular circumstance, there was no revelation against  power. There is no message being stated. There is not even courage. This was an attempt to take an abusive advantage of a cultural circumstance, with the only goal  to continue fighting in the cultural world, a political battle that already met defeat in other scenarios. It  is the same arrogant spirit of the April 2002 coup d’etat, with his bloody dictatorial show for 47 hours, the same cynical spirit of the sabotage to the oil industry in December of 2002, the same fascist atmosphere of those gangs of rich kids who riding their expensive motorcycles, forced businesses to close by force during the strike. I say it and I maintain it. In this case there is an incitation to the violence, or even to assassination, insult to a person or to many, ridicule and offense to the Constitution and, of course, a disrespect to the will of the majorities. Just politics disguised as art, as it was recognizing the author when, in evident analogy with slogans of the opposition occupied Plaza Altamira, he “not a pixel back”.

I mean really to say here that, in my opinion, there is a crime being committed here, that the office of the Vice-minister could not endorse.

At heart, I think that this issue is about of liberties.

An artist exerts his freedom of conscience to turn his work into an instrument of elementary political fight. I do not question that. I do not judge it either. It is up to him to look for his own opportunities and markets. I’m sure he has all figured out. Only that, in this case, a high government officer also exerts his freedom of conscience and prevents that work of art becomes an official representation of an entire people and of a country.

I have received the support of many artists and intellectuals as well as from the Directory of the CONAC after making this decision. I do believe, and I have demonstrated it repeatedly, that culture offers the best possible space for understanding and for the debate of ideas. For that reason I lament that, in this case, the obfuscation, bad intentions and a certain degree of fanaticism, have taken that space by assault. Thus, reading the treatment that the media have given this subject, I must ask: from what side is censorship coming from?”