Caracas, April 6, 2015 (venezuelanalysis.com) - Venezuelans are currently paying tribute to the life and legacy of revolutionary guerrilla leader, artist and ex-political prisoner, Paúl del Río, alias Máximo Canales, who died this past Sunday at the age of 72.
As the son of working class Spanish Republican exiles from Franco's Spain, Paúl del Río was born in Havana in 1943 before moving to Venezuela at the age of two. Both of his parents fought against the dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez (1948-1956), and Canales himself was radicalized by the oppressive and elite nature of Venezuela’s ensuing “Fourth Republic” (1956-1999).
This period of Venezuelan history was characterised by a political power sharing pact between Venezuela’s two main parties of the time, Democratic Action (AD) and the Christian Democrat Party (COPEI), which excluded and systematically repressed the vast array of social forces that had fought to overthrow the Jiménez regime, motivating many to take up arms once again.
Like many militants of his generation, Paúl del Río became active in revolutionary leftist politics at a young age, joining the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) at 17 and subsequently taking part in the guerrilla struggle two years later under the banner of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN).
As one of the top commanders in the guerrilla struggle, Canales led numerous clandestine operations aimed at exposing the hollowness of the country’s “pacted” democracy. He gained fame for his humanistic tactics and commitment to zero civilian and unnecessary casualties.
Among the most audacious of the operations to be undertaken by Canales were the seizing of the Venezuelan cargo ship Anzoátegui and the kidnapping of Argentine soccer star Alfredo Di Stefano, both in 1963.
For Professor George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chávez and specialist on Venezuela’s guerrilla struggle, Canales was “perhaps the most important guerrilla commando in Venezuelan history, playing a central role in high-profile kidnappings and hijackings that attracted international attention to the armed struggle against a brutal democracy in Venezuela”.
Subsequent to the defeat of the Venezuelan guerrilla of the 1960s, Paúl del Río went on to fight as a volunteer in the Sandinista guerrilla struggle against the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, inspired by "feelings of internationalism that we inherited from centuries ago.”
These feelings of solidarity were reflected in a number of portraits painted by Canales, who also drew fame as a revolutionary artist. Starting out as a political cartoonist in 1966, much of Del Río’s work featured human subjects and concentrated on the condition of working class Venezuelans, and particularly women, and their desires for a different kind of world. His style was influenced by Cubism, Latin American Modernism and Surrealism.
Like many revolutionaries of his generation, Canales was also imprisoned and tortured for several years at the infamous political prison known as Cuartel San Carlos, which operated under the Fourth Republic.
As a staunch supporter of the Bolivarian Revolution, in his later years Paúl del Río dedicated himself to the preservation of the historical memory of the revolutionary struggles and state violence that took place prior to the emergence of the revolution.
Living and working in the same Cuartel San Carlos where he was once confined, Canales headed the Naval Captain Manual Ponte Rodriguez Foundation, an organization of ex-political prisoners committed to restoring the prison as a solemn reminder to future generations of the heavy price paid by their predecessors for real democracy.
For Ciccariello-Maher, the fact that “he lived and died in the Cuartel San Carlos -- where hundreds of Venezuelan guerrillas were imprisoned and tortured from the 1960s to the 80s -- is both a testament to his struggle, and how much has changed in the past two decades of revolutionary transformation”.
As news of the guerrilla’s death began to spread across Venezuela, activists and government officials took to the media and social networking sites to pay tribute to Canales, who they consider to be one of the most important fore bearers of the Bolivarian Revolution.
“What a profound sadness due to the death of our comrade, Paúl del Río. Not long ago we spent time with him in the Cuartel San Carlos. Honor and glory," declared Culture Minister Reinaldo Iturriza.
Many of the tributes highlighted Del Río’s artistic capacities as a source of inspiration for the revolution and several stated that the guerrilla’s death had left a gaping hole in the Venezuelan political art scene.
“Hasta siempre, Paúl del Río, combatant Maximo Canales, brave guerrilla who, paintbrush in hand, sketched the face of a new world,” tweeted Elias Jaua, current Minister of Popular Power for the Communes and former member of guerrilla organisation, Bandera Roja.
“Paúl del Río, may a sea of colours and all those who sewed hope turn out to receive you. Fly high!” tweeted revolutionary singer and artist, Ali Manaure.
Following his death, a memorial service was held by Del Río’s family, friends and comrades in the Mountain Barracks where former Venezuelan leftist President, Hugo Chavez, is also laid to rest.
Those present remembered Canales as a guerrilla fighter who dedicated his life to the struggle for a more just world for ordinary Venezuelans.
“He left us an example of concrete commitment as a legacy, not just words…He never asked for anything in return, he gave everything for the people” commented comrade and fellow combatant, Lidice Navas, from the service.
Del Río’s remains are due to be laid to rest at La Guairita Cemetery in Caracas this Tuesday in a private memorial service.
Edited by Rachael Boothroyd