For well over a decade Venezuelan politics have been dominated by the controversial figure of Hugo Chávez and the unpredictable twists and turns of the Bolivarian Revolution. Clouded by the deliberately provocative discourse of its foreign policy, the nature and extent of the Government’s internal development strategies are often overlooked or taken at face value. Recently, President Chávez launched a public initiative to instil and promote reading habits among the population, ostentatiously dubbed the National Revolutionary Reading Project. The scheme has been portrayed by Government officials as the second stage of a wider plan to achieve the ‘democratisation of culture’, which began in 2001 with the deployment of the ‘Robinson Missions’ – literacy centres designed to reach illiterate adults, particularly in rural areas. The success of these ‘missions’ was acknowledged at the end of 2005 by UNESCO, when it declared Venezuela a territory ‘free of illiteracy’ – a status granted to countries where literacy levels soar above the 95% mark. However, while almost three quarters of the population expressed their support for the ‘Robinson Missions’, public opinion seems to be evenly divided when it comes to the Reading Project, amid fears that the initiative might develop indoctrination as well as reading habits and might undermine the private publishing industry in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s publishing industry has a long tradition and enjoys a solid reputation in the region, with brand names such as Monte Ávila Editores and Biblioteca Ayacucho counting among the leading players in the market. Much like PDVSA, the country’s oil producer, both these publishing houses were subsidised by the state, but operated within an autonomous corporate structure that insulated them from the constant changes of leadership and policies at the helm of the country.
Following Chávez’s victory in the presidential elections of December 1998, there was a dramatic increase in the popularity of journalistic and academic texts dealing with the realities of Venezuelan politics, past and present. Consequently, authors previously recognised only in intellectual circles, such as Elías Pino Iturrieta (El divino Bolívar, 2003) suddenly broke into the country’s best-selling lists. It is noteworthy that this initial surge in sales of local non-fiction texts was relevant for authors who expressed their discontent against governmental policies, such as Alberto Barrera Tyszka, as well as for left-wing politicians disillusioned with the latest developments, such as Teodoro Petkoff (Chávez: una segunda opinion, 2000), and for apologists of Government, such as Luis Britto García.
Meanwhile, the substantial growth in the publishing market led to an increased interest from foreign publishing houses to boost their presence in the national scene, expanding their role from mere distributors to the production of new texts. Thus, round about 2003 major names in the Hispanic publishing world, such as Grupo Planeta, Grupo Editorial Norma, Random House Mondadori and Grupo Santillana, all were promoting original work, fiction and non-fiction, in Venezuela. This led to the latest boom in the Venezuelan literary scene, which proved beneficial to a whole range of writers, from emerging fiction authors, such as Salvador Fleján, to established figures, such as Eduardo Liendo or Roberto Echeto, to transitional writers, such as Alberto Barrera Tyszka, whose journalistic work served as platform for him to launch a successful career as a fiction writer.
Unwittingly, Hugo Chávez had served as catalyst to trigger a capitalistic bonanza in the publishing business in Venezuela, which improved its performance steadily during a boom that saw its peak in 2003. Then came the intervention of the Bolivarian state, which eventually absorbed the public publishing houses Monte Ávila Editores and Biblioteca Ayacucho in 2005, integrating the former to a Governmental publishing group called Librerías del Sur, and adapting their profile to more accurately reflect the ideology advocated by officialdom.
While censorship has not been formally established, the left-wing tendencies of Monte Ávila and its Librerías del Sur becomes evident with just a quick glance at its publishing list. Dissent among major literary figures who had been linked to Monte Ávila before 2005 has led to their dissociation from the brand, provoking a phenomenon of self-exclusion which has none of the negative connotations of censorship, but which shares many of its causes and consequences.
Meanwhile, private publishing houses suffered after the instauration in 2003 of regulatory measures for the acquisition of foreign currency. Furthermore, protectionist policies in the country hampered the possibilities to purchase basic materials overseas for the production of books. Additional restrictions have been applied since, relevant not only for the flow of cash and materials available to publishers, but also for the titles they are allowed to print and distribute within the country.
The Final Verdict
The constellation of the publishing market in Venezuela is complex and varied. Private enterprises which have made significant investments in their businesses over the past decade face a crisis that, given the size of the market, has more political than commercial overtones. Meanwhile, the quality of products published by state companies can rarely compete even with the impoverished goods produced by private publishers. In this respect, the emergence of the public publishing house, El Perro y la Rana, which is in charge of printing the list of one hundred books sanctioned by Government for free distribution through the National Revolutionary Reading Project, is unlikely to provide anything but confirmation that the quality of books currently made in Venezuela is sub-par.
Which might well be forgivable in a fully subsidised initiative that seeks to promote reading habits through the distribution of free books. Such initiative has clear, though muted, parallels in the previous Christian-left government of Luis Herrera Campins (1979-84), which established a Ministry for the Development of Intelligence and put forward a successful plan (‘ACUDE’) to increase literacy levels in the country. (When Chávez came to power, in 1999, literacy levels in Venezuela were recorded at 92,6%). What would not be forgivable, many Venezuelans argue, would be to transform a social initiative into an ideological practice of indoctrination – and a list of books that includes titles by Andrés Bello, Horacio Quiroga, José Martí and Rubén Darío simply does not provide conclusive evidence in either direction as to whether this will be the case.
Once again the jury is out in Venezuela. Unfortunately, it seems certain that its verdict will be directly influenced by its opinion of a Revolution which has polarised the country’s population for the past decade.
The authors wish to thank Carlos Sandoval, lecturer at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and Universidad Católica Andrés Bello for his thorough and expert advice.
A PIECE WRITTEN IN COLLABORATION WITH MY GOOD FRIEND ADOLFO CALERO ABADÍA AND PUBLISHED IN THE LATIN AMERICAN REVIEW OF BOOKS IN ITS ISSUE OF OCTOBER, 2009.