Vaseline is rubbed into the bull’s eyes, cotton stuffed into his nostrils, a needle stuck into his genitals, and after two days of drugs and laxatives, the bull runs into the ring and before a jeering crowd is speared and stabbed until it bleeds to death on the arena sand. The streets outside the ring are covered in beer bottles, plastic cups, and drunken men in cowboy hats.
Each year around February everyone here has their annual vent about the Sun Fair and the bullfighting, the noise and sleepless nights, the borrachera (drunkenness) that shuts down one of the main city roads, the disruption, the lack of values, the barbarity. Most of the city is against the bullfights, and there’s certainly nothing very socialist about them, so why haven’t they been banned yet? Contained in the answer are many of the contradictions, power forces, and dynamics that characterise this revolution and the counter-revolution.
Bullfighting’s imperialist history
The first bullfight held in the Americas was in 1527, just 35 years after Columbus first arrived on (invaded) the continent. The fight was held to celebrate the birth of King Phillip II. Spain didn’t just bring bullfighting though, it also brought the continent’s first bulls, cows, pigs and chickens, and saw the start of the cattle industry (and its consequences).
The first recorded bullfight in Merida, Venezuela, was in 1662, and that was to celebrate the birth of the future King Carlos II. Bullfighting quickly became indispensable to important occasions, and was initiated and regulated by custom and by mayors, governors, and priests. In 1967 Merida’s Bull Ring (Plaza de Toros) was built. Before that, bullfights were held in other key plazas such as Bolivar, Belen and Milla. Two years after the bull ring was built, the Sun Fair began, and the bullfights became a regular, annual event, rather than to mark a particular occasion. The Merida Bullfighting School Humberto Alvarez sends toreros each year to Spain to be trained.
It’s about the money
Meridian writer Tulio Febres Cordero defended Spanish traditions, but criticised bullfighting as “barbarous”. However he stated that “without bulls, there aren’t any public parties, and so this entertainment should be tolerated”. Of course there are many celebrations and festivals without bulls, but his argument is a commonly used one by supporters of the sport (torture), especially those who profit from it.
Ticket prices vary depending on the seat position and the type of show, but a minimum price for this year’s bullfights (before the inflation spike) was 120Bs (a bit less than a day’s wage), and people paid up to 1356Bs (around 2 weeks worth of pay for workers on minimum wage) for a front seat in the shade.
The bullfighting companies Hermanos Rodriguez Jauregui CA and Ramguertauro SA, together with Polar Beer and other alcohol companies make millions of bolivars in profits each year. They pay little in tax, and although some mayoral spokespeople will justify the event based on income generated for the municipality, only 0.2 to 0.3% of the mayor’s budget depends on the entire Sun Fair (including its other events).
Yet the municipality spent 2,735,000Bs in one week on the Sun Fair this year. The mayoralty is run by an opposition mayor (who argued he didn’t have the funds to collect rubbish, leaving the city a mess and on the verge of a health crisis), but previous Chavista mayors have spent similar amounts. Ferisol, the company which runs the Sun Fair, falls under the mayoralty, but Corealsa, the public company which owns and leases out the bullring is owned by Merida state; currently run by a Chavista governor, together with private stock holders (70%/30%). That means that the most recent bullfights had the moral, financial and logistical support of both Chavista and opposition politicians, for the benefit of private businesses.
Further, the Hermanos Rodriguez Jauregui company was awarded US$ 736,000 in Cadivi dollars to spend over eight days this year, as a “tourist attraction”. Cadivi dollars are awarded by the government at the official exchange rate (much lower than the parallel rate) to industries, companies, and institutes who need to import goods that the country needs.
Previous mayor, Carlos Leon, elected on a Chavista platform, but who quickly proved to be on the side of the business sector, created the first Bolivarian school for toreros (bullfighters). It would train boys from the age of 12 and older in bullfighting. The president of Ferisol said at the time, “This will be the first Bolivarian fight, for the municipality, and for the revolutionary community which supports the integration”. As many opportunists disguised as revolutionaries do, he spoke in the name of the community and lied about its support, without bothering to consult it or listen to its complaints.
For many politicians, supporting, or even just attending the bullfights, is not just about the money, but a chance to debut in so called “high society”. The bullfights are a place to connect with other powerful people, and another opportunist pretending to be a Chavista, the previous governor, Marcos Diaz, would proudly show his face at the fights.
And church support
This year, Baltazar Porras, the archbishop of the archdiocese of Merida, was also seen in the front rows of the bullfighting audience (He's standing up in white in the photo below). Porras is a charming character, who said a few years ago that Chavez’s project was “unacceptable”, that the Catholic Church felt that Chavez was “going after absolutely power” and compared Chavez’s “totalitarianism” to Hitler’s. According to cables leaked by Wikileaks and dated 2005, he also suggested the US government speak more “clearly” against Chavez. Further, he called Venezuelans who benefit from the social missions “parasites”.
The Church tries to give morality to the fights. Over the last five centuries though, it has both prohibited and supported bullfighting. Porras however, attends the fights every year. He believes they are in “Hispanic tradition, of which we are inheritors. Parties, and above all, religious parties, are and were tied to games, trade or livestock fairs and the bulls”.
A determined, but limited movement against bullfighting
The movement to ban bullfighting in Venezuela then is up against a range of powers; opportunist politicians, big business, and the church. However, with mayoral elections coming up in December, the movement has a chance to put the issue high on the agenda.
Every year in the lead up to the bullfights a range of animal rights organisations have joined together to march in protest. This year hundreds marched, demanding a proper distribution of resources, pointing out that the money spent on the Fair was much more than is spent on entire communities. Marchers suggested the money could be spent on alternative cultural events such as sports, music, and theatre, or on other causes such as sterilising street dogs.
In Merida this year, the banner says "For our own culture, free of fights and violence"
The march ended at the National Electoral Council (CNE), and demanded a reply to a request made in November last year to hold a referendum on bullfighting. The anti-bullfighting movement is only asking for the paperwork in order to begin collecting signatures to hold a referendum in the Merida city municipality, as mandated by the constitution, but has already faced a number of obstacles.
Movement representatives met with the state legislative council, who said they were concerned that if a referendum were held, it may not win. Other institutions haven’t helped either, nor has the PSUV. The movement has also proposed that the bullfighting ring become a Socialist Production Company (EPS), meaning that communal councils could become involved in decision making over its use, but with no support there either.
The movement itself also contains some contradictions. It faces a lot of apathy, with many Meridenans happy to vent, or even to sign petitions, but not willing to march. It also has yet to relate better to, or involve, revolutionary parties, the huge range of cultural organisations, and community councils. Its protests around the time of the Fair are persistent and consistent, but authorities know that once the Fair is over, the marches, mural painting, forums and so on, will stop too. Finally, for some its perhaps hard to be motivated to support the movement against bullfighting, when at the same time, as part of the Fair, consumerism is promoted, and beauty competitions that degrade women are also held, yet not protested. Perhaps the movement needs to diversify its focus towards the whole Sun Festival and the sort of “culture” being promoted.
However, there are also some strong, encouraging factors. Across Latin America there’s a developing rejection of abuse of the environment and in Merida and around Venezuela there’s a slowly growing movement against GMOs and in favour of urban agriculture. The growing awareness of taking responsibility for the pachamama combines with new legislation here which protects some animal rights.
The Animal Protection Law was passed at the end of 2009, and officialised on 4 January 2010. Article 14 of the law stipulates that all public spectacles using domesticated animals are regulated by the municipality, which “at the request of social organisations, will determine the activities which require public consultation to be carried out”. Article 66 states that all acts of cruelty to animals, including acts that cause pain, suffering, or affect the animal’s health, as well as death using a means that involves prolonged agony, and so on, are illegal. That means, though it’s not directly spelt out, that bullfighting is already illegal.
Also, this year a Merida court prohibited children under 12 from attending the bullfighting, and ordered that the company refund any tickets sold to them. Lawyer Maryur Mora said at the time that the measure was taken “with the intention to protect the rights of all children to be free of any behaviour that could damage the free development of their personality”.
Banned in other countries
Further, bullfighting has already been banned in other regions or countries, with no clear negative economic or social repercussions. Catalonia, Spain, prohibited it in 2010, and in 2011 Ecuador held a constitutional referendum where, among other things, its citizens voted in favour of banning the killing of animals for entertainment. That meant that bullfights could still be held, so long as the bull wasn’t killed at the end. But without the final blood, Quito’s annual bullfighting festival cancelled it, for lack of ticket sales. Also, in May this year the Mexican state of Sonora banned bullfighting by passing a law against cruelty to animals.
Caracas’ bullfighting ring put to alternative use
A cultural collective has taken over Caracas’ bullfighting ring and turned it from a place that cheers for death, that celebrates an unequal fight, and that was a fiesta of money, arrogance, and litter, into a cultural space with ongoing and free workshops.
The Nuevo Circo bullfighting ring, which seats 12,000 people, first opened to the public in 1919. Apart from the bullfights it was also used for theatre and cinema, but it was gradually neglected, especially once the larger, sheltered Caracas Poliedro opened in 1974. In 1997 its owners closed it down, and in 2004 the city mayor began a process of expropriation and restoration. The Cultural Nucleus for Endogenous Development (NUDEC) activated the space. The collective describes itself and its project as a “space of socialist construction...which aims to strengthen the creative powers of the people, socialise the cultural means of production, promoting national and Latin American cultural values, as a response to the capitalism’s hegemonic domination of culture”. Now the ring is host to dance, theatre, music, film, photography, painting, yoga, capoeira, juggling, clay, puppet, and circus workshops as well as concerts and exhibitions, every day and all completely free. The cultural activities bring people and communities together, exercise body and mind, and promote self expression rather than the torture of animals.
But the Caracas collective is up against similar pressures as the obstacles the anti-bullfighting movement faces in Merida. Although the Caracas municipal council declared Caracas an anti-bullfighting city in 2009, the bullfighting companies have still been pressuring NUDEC to “share” the stadium with them and allow them to restart the practice there.