Poetry and Revolution: A Conversation with Gustavo Pereira

The eminent poet who wrote the preamble of Venezuela’s Constitution reflects on the role of culture in the Bolivarian Process.
Gustavo Pereira poetry
Gustavo Pereira (Venezuelanalysis)

Hailing from the island of Margarita, the poet Gustavo Pereira wrote the preamble to Venezuela’s 1999 Constitution. Pereira, whose poetry displays his intimate connection with his homeland, its people, and its landscape, has received numerous prizes, including the National Literature Prize (2001) and the Casa de las Américas’ José Lezama Lima Poetry Prize (2023). In this exclusive interview, Pereira reflects on making poetry in the Global South, on the writing of the Constitution’s preamble, and on the role of culture in a revolutionary process.

You developed a poetic form that is known for the brevity of the haiku but without its formal restrictions, called somari. Arguably the Left libertarian spirit of the Caribbean is expressed in the freeform it embodies. What does it mean to make poetry in these rebellious lands?

Poetry, like life, has endless meanders and paths. It is life itself that charts our reality and our paths in it, and that’s why it isn’t the same to write poetry in a European nation as in what were – or still are – its colonies. The human condition is one and many at the same time, and being a poet means opening one’s eyes to life, not closing them – the contrary of sleeping or being dead.

There are Eurocentric codes that embody a way of being in the world and a way of looking at the world; these codes were imposed in Nuestra América during colonization and have come to be questioned even in Europe and by Europe’s beloved child, the maker of the American way of life.

For better or for worse, we sometimes evaluate our actions through these codes, including our literature and our poetry. Our mission, however, is to decode them in such a way that we coexist with them, when doing so doesn’t contravene our way of thinking, but when the codes go against our sensitive and autonomous being, then we must rebel.

Colonialism left many scars in the so-called Third World, and while it is true that humanity is one, the diversity of its cultures and histories makes us different. Poetry is an expression of that diversity, and the very act of us writing is an insurrection. This is all the more important in this time of insanities, decadent imperial hegemony, and impudent subordination.

A recent collection of somari poems. (Alba Ciudad)

You are not a poet who is foreign to the world of politics. On the contrary, you’ve always been a leftist, and you were committed to the people and the Bolivarian Process from the beginning. A notable moment was when in 1999, as an elected Constituent Assembly representative for the rights of Indigenous peoples, you decided to read a poem before those assembled. Please tell us about the debates that took place there in the Constituent Assembly.

The representatives there defended Venezuelan Indigenous peoples’ rights, which have been transgressed over the years, with passion and propriety. They generally got support even from their opponents, except on a few crucial points. This included considering their languages a cultural heritage of the Nation and of humanity, and therefore the languages’ official use in their territories of origin.

There was also pushback regarding the constitutional recognition of their social, political, and economic organizations, and their ethnic, cultural, and educational identity. The recognition of the Indigenous peoples’ original rights over the territories they ancestrally inhabit was also disputed. The latter [recognition of their land] unleashed the most intense controversy: some argued that assigning those lands to the Indigenous communities was to decree the fracture of Venezuela’s territorial integrity.

In addition to belonging to the Culture Commission, I was also a part of the Indigenous Peoples’ Commission. I felt compelled to intervene on this matter, which is not the same as debating what I considered obvious. What I did instead was to read a poem of mine, “On Savages.” I don’t know what effect it had in the debate, although the poet Luis Alberto Crespo dedicated his “El país ausente” [The Absent Country] column in El Nacional [the largest newspaper in Venezuela at the time] to it.

The most memorable thing to me, however, is that since that day, I’ve been the holder of an Indigenous citizenship letter. The Constitution’s article that consecrated the Indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands was approved on that day. Then, when the session concluded, the Indigenous leaders and spokespeople gathered around the Legislative Palace fountain and granted me the letter. I will forever cherish that moment!

“On Savages” by Gustavo Pereira. (Translation, courtesy of the author)

There are many things worth highlighting about the Constitution’s preamble, which you wrote. However, I would like to ask you about how you came to write that brief but beautiful text, embodying the spirit of the constituent process. How did the task come about?

It was not of my own initiative and, if the truth be told, I did not want to do it because I didn’t have the conditions I needed: I was far from home, away from my books and my typewriter… and it had to be ready in less than 24 hours! However, I wrote a draft at the request of dear and respected friends who were also constituents.

The articles of the constitutional text had been approved but the preamble, which was to emobody the spirit of the constitution in a few words, was still missing. That being the case, the leadership of the Constitutional Assembly called on representatives to write drafts, which would be considered in the plenary the following day.

Several drafts were read, and the vote went for the manuscript that I had managed to write the night before. My draft had been submitted to the board by my friends… because I didn’t dare to do it myself!

One of the most memorable sections of the preamble is the reference to Aquiles Nazoa’s “creative powers of the pueblo” [poderes creadores del pueblo]. Our readers are English speakers and may not be familiar with Nazoa’s work. Who was Aquiles Nazoa and why does he become a reference in the constitutional text?

Aquiles was one of those brilliant figures whose writing was a mixture of humor, talent, and sensitivity. He was capable of awakening unexpected joy with his texts, and there was an inexorable tenderness to his poems, even if he was a somber person. Twenty years older than me, I met him in the late 50s and early 60s, at the Defense of the Cuban Revolution Commission meetings at the university.

One of his best-known poems contains the expression: “the creative powers of the pueblo,” and there can be no better words than those to open a constitutional text that resulted from immense popular participation and received majority approval in an overwhelming demonstration of popular commitment and determination.

Aquiles Nazoa (National Archives)

You say that the greatest virtue of the 1999 Constitution is that it makes historically invisible people visible, thus connecting with, in your own words, the “sensitive conscience.” Can you tell us about this?

“Invisible beings” make up the vast majority of humanity. They only become visible when, tired of being overlooked and tired of injustices, they rise from their apparent lethargy. These uprisings, which can be bloody or bloodless, will often be defeated, but the ongoing injustices will surely give rise to another uprising sooner or later. This cycle will go on until the history of iniquities ends and we achieve a peaceful world.

It is necessary to have a sensitive conscience – a soul – to not be indifferent to these injustices. Among the millions of invisible beings in Nuestra América – to say nothing of the invisible beings in the other America, whose history we know – the misnamed “Indians” (followed by enslaved black Africans and their descendants) have been the most invisible beings since the time of colonization.

When the colonizers did not succeed at annihilating the Indigenous peoples, their greed and racism erased them from society. This is the general trend, except when Indigenous people rebel against the plundering of their lands, as happened in Chile. In those cases, they are granted the title of “terrorists.”

I recently saw a television ad run by the Chilean government that closed with the slogan “Chile, a single culture.” This slogan in itself is proof that invisibilization can become the future erasure of some.

Finally, and this is the proverbial million-dollar question, what’s the role of culture in a revolutionary process like ours, with all its virtues and limitations?

Culture is a political issue insofar as it is part of the process of socialization and consequently of both coexistence and intolerance; justice and injustice; values and anti-values. Hence, access to culture’s attributes has, as I have mentioned before, both a little and a lot to do with politics, and issues relating to culture have to be solved politically.

A basic law of economics – that of supply and demand – is overturned by culture. In the sphere of culture, demand doesn’t determine supply, but instead, supply determines demand. If an important book is written and published but nobody knows of it because it is not promoted and distributed, it will remain in the publisher’s warehouse…

If a so-called revolutionary process does not work to guarantee access to cultural goods, along with efforts at poverty alleviation, poverty itself will not be eradicated. Why? Because mental poverty is as harmful as material poverty. Moreover, a cultured person can be poor but not miserable: where there is culture, there is no misery. Being cultured and sensitive allows us to identify subtle mechanisms of domination– those of the mind – such as those in the content coming out of the Mecca of imperial hegemony: audiovisuals designed to exalt violence and primal instincts.

The government can and must work hard to increase access to (and production of) cultural goods, if a true transformation of the country is the goal. This has to be done hand in hand with education – which should bring together humanistic and scientific knowledge and must open the doors to imagination. Both culture and education can and must play a determining role in the formation of consciousness and human sensibility.

Children with education and culture will be responsible and sensitive beings. “To be cultured is the only way to be free” [Ser culto es el único modo de ser libre], said Cuban independence hero José Martí. If this doesn’t happen, we are at risk of becoming the society of androids that is so desired by the hegemonic classes. Their attempt is to construct docile, indifferent, empty, and “happy” beings that follow their American way of life.