When Eduardo Galeano wrote the Open Veins of Latin America four decades ago, he wrote of a continent mired in oppression and of a political, economic and social process that excluded the majority of its citizens. Today, something very different is taking place. Over the weekend, Venezuela played host to 33 presidents – indeed, the entire continent of the Americas, except the US and Canada, were invited to the first ever conference of Celac, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States.
On the streets of Caracas, the establishment of Celac meant much more than a rendezvous of leading politicians. Photo exhibitions displayed on central avenues in the preceding days expressed solidarity with the people of Cuba, Libya and Iraq, the workers movement in Argentina, the Palestinian people, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US. Films including The Road to Guantánamo were shown free at open-air theatres. The youth of Venezuela saw the convening of Celac as much as a part of their own future as that of their political leaders; as the conference moved into its second day the Hip-Hop Revolucion collective, which brings together like-minded young people from across the country, put on a show at the Plaza de los Museos, just across the road from where the presidents were meeting.
“We see the Celac as the most important development in the last 200 years,” says Jamil, a member of Hip-Hop Revolucion, and one of the organisers of the concert. The Venezuelan government provided support in the form of a huge stage and state-of-the-art equipment in the plaza, but HHR are keen to maintain political independence. “We respect [Venezuelan president Hugo] Chávez, because he understands our struggle, but we are always looking to be self-critical in order to keep our revolution moving in the right direction.”
The HHR movement has been working hard to ensure that the process they see as “their revolution” continues to develop. Last year, organisers travelled to every state in the country to set up 31 “hip-hop schools”, which teenagers can attend in conjunction with their normal day-to-day education. “We have four days per week of teaching the skills of hip-hop,” explains Gustavo, a founding member of the collective, “such as beat-boxing, rapping, break-dancing and graffiti, and one day per week of political discussion. In one of the schools, the kids decided that they preferred the ratio the other way round!” Once participants have “graduated” from the course, they are encouraged to become tutors to the next batch of attendees. Many graduates come from underprivileged backgrounds, and have gone on to establish more of the schools in their local areas.
Ibi, a teacher at one of the hip-hop schools and the host of the Caracas concert, agrees that the formation of Celac represents a historic moment for Latin America: “Just as the indigenous Mayan people predicted the alignment of the planets in 2012, this uniting of our continent represents the fulfilment of the dream of Simon Bolivar.” Bolivar has become an increasingly cited figure in Venezuela since Chávez was elected in 1998, and his popularity among young people is indicative of a growing political consciousness.
Celac was the brainchild of Chávez, and in his speech as host of the summit, he again emphasised the importance of “unity, unity and unity”. But the question is, why now, and what for the future? The student movement in Chile, which sent representatives to speak at the HHR concert in Caracas, continues to grow at an astounding rate and when the second summit is convened in Santiago next year, many will remember the overthrow of the democratically elected Salvador Allende in 1973.
It is almost 10 years since Venezuelan people took to the streets of the country to reverse an attempted coup against the elected president of their country, and only two and a half years since a coup successfully toppled Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. However, by including such a breadth of nations at the summit of Celac, and by engaging the youth in a participatory and positive manner, the people of Latin America have affirmed their determination to continue on a path of sustainable, independent development, free from the interference of external influences.
Galleano once wrote that the “rain that irrigates the centres of power drowns the vast suburbs of the system”, but the rain that fell on the hip-hop crowd in the Plaza de la Museos could not extinguish their passion, or their determination. To headline the event, HHR had extended an invite to Lowkey, a rapper of English and Iraqi descent, and his closing words expressed the sentiments of many present: “Hip-hop ain’t dead, it’s in Caracas!”