Reviving Venezuelan Punk, the Music of Revolution
On September 19th, José Guillermo Mendoza was driving through northeastern Caracas, Venezuela, toward the office of a human-rights organization called Provea, to deliver a thousand printed inserts for a new record dedicated to the history of Venezuelan punk rock. Mendoza was forty-three and worked for the printer that had made the booklets, but he didn’t know what was in them and had never heard of punk music. Around noon, a couple of policemen stopped him at a routine checkpoint, noticed the booklets, and asked to review them. “This is subversive material,” an officer said. They arrested him and took him to the Helicoide, a building that was envisioned as a mall but is now a detention center and a headquarters for Venezuela’s intelligence police. Shaped like a pyramid and sitting atop a hill overlooking the city’s slums, the Helicoide has become infamous as a location where political prisoners are detained and tortured. Word of Mendoza’s arrest soon got back to Provea. “He managed to call his boss at the printer, and that person called us right away,” Rafael Uzcátegui, who is forty-six and runs the N.G.O., told me. Uzcátegui sent lawyers to the prison to learn more. “I thought maybe the officers wanted money, or maybe an exchange: that they would agree to release him in order to detain one of our people from Provea,” he said.
Venezuela is in the middle of a political crisis. In 2017, President Nicolás Maduro created a new law-making body to delegitimize the opposition-led National Assembly. This led to mass protests, which the government met with repression, and the jailing of opposition leaders. In 2018, Maduro held (and won) a rigged Presidential election. (Dozens of countries now refuse to recognize Maduro as the legitimate head of state.) Provea, which documents arbitrary detentions of the opposition and extrajudicial killings, is an old enemy of Maduro’s government, which accuses it of being “financed by the empire.” (Provea has received financial support from the U.N., European countries, and the Ford Foundation, among others.)
For two years, the N.G.O. had worked to produce a new record that compiles punk songs from the eighties and nineties protesting corruption and repression. What caught the police’s attention in the booklet, Uzcátegui learned, was a picture taken by a famous anarcho-punk photographer named Nelson Garrido. The photo, which was inspired by a famous punk-rock song calling out the corruption of a government minister, showed a military officer in a red beret (a trademark of Hugo Chávez, the former President), with the head of a pig and U.S. dollars in his breast pocket and electric cables dropping from his shoulders. “It means he’s an enchufado,” Garrido told me—meaning a well-connected politician profiting from government funds. The officer is flanked by two masked paramilitary soldiers holding guns. The three stand before a dinner table laid with a skull, broken dolls, bananas, and two miniature statues, one of Chávez and one of another former President, Carlos Andrés Pérez, who ruled Venezuela in the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-nineties.
Uzcátegui panicked when he learned the reason for Mendoza’s detention. Maduro’s government has no sense of humor and hasn’t hesitated to jail those who mock the President. Among critics, Maduro is sometimes referred to as Maburro, a play on the Spanish word for “donkey.” Last year, military-intelligence services arrested two firefighters after they shared a video on social media in which one of them led a donkey into a fire station, pretending the animal was the President on an official visit. (Both men denied having made the video.) They were charged under a 2017 law called the Anti-Hate Law for Tolerance and Peaceful Coexistence, which allows the government to imprison a person for up to twenty years if he is accused of instigating hate. The firemen were released a month after their arrest, but Uzcátegui feared that Mendoza could be charged under the same law.
Uzcátegui contacted Garrido, and the two decided to spread the word. At the time, the government was trying to improve its international image by freeing political prisoners, and they hoped to use this to their advantage. Uzcátegui alerted the U.N., the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, and several activists. Garrido contacted artists in Venezuela, Chile, and Argentina, who posted about the arrest on social media under the hashtag #LiberenAJoseMendoza. The campaign worked. Twenty-four hours after his arrest, Mendoza was released, unharmed, without trial or further explanation. Photos of Mendoza were shared on social media, smiling outside the Helicoide, although he refused to discuss what happened with the press. (He did not respond to a request for comment.) According to Uzcátegui, during Mendoza’s twenty-four hours in the Helicoide, he was questioned about the booklet, though he didn’t know who had written the inserts or who had shot the photo. “He didn’t know what Provea was,” Uzcátegui told me. “He didn’t even know what the word ‘punk’ meant.”
As in most Latin American countries, Venezuelan radio is dominated by reggaetón. But, as Uzcátegui explains in “Previous Education,” a collection of essays about Venezuelan punk rock that Provea is releasing with the record, the country once had a large punk scene that was affiliated with a previous period of turmoil. In 1983, oil prices dropped and the country’s currency depreciated dramatically. In the following years, inflation skyrocketed into the double digits, salaries were cut by more than half, and the poverty rate doubled. The government announced austerity measures in 1989, prompting a movement of protests called the Caracazo, which was brutally repressed, leaving hundreds of people dead. In the middle of that crisis, middle- and upper-class teen-agers (including Uzcátegui) who were critical of the state and could afford to travel abroad and buy records, began listening to British and American bands, including the Sex Pistols and the Dead Kennedys. Among this milieu, the Venezuelan punk scene was born.
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Dozens of bands proliferated, but no group was as famous as Sentimiento Muerto (Dead Feeling). “We needed to express the anguish we had seeing the country turn to shit,” the lead singer once told an interviewer. The band created a kind of punk superhero named Doctor Death, who, in comics produced by the group, fought corruption in the Venezuelan Central Bank, evaded the police, and resolved street fights (sometimes with the help of his friend, Mr. Calipso). Other groups expressed similar anxiety and frustration, including bands like Public Disorder (“A lot of oil is produced here / A lot of money is robbed in portfolios”), the women’s group Psh-Psh (“Stop the repression / No more hyperinflation”), and Victims of Democracy (“We saw the cadavers eaten by the bullets of order/ Bodies, many bodies, buried alive, buried dead”).
The musicians in the groups weren’t virtuosos. “These were lyrics of young kids who were better at thinking than at playing, who preferred to read books instead of music sheets, who were better at living than at practicing scales,” Asier Cazalis, the lead singer of a band called the Cyanide Caramels, writes in the prologue to “Previous Education.” A few bands made it to Latin American rock festivals, but most remained underground, playing at public universities for other kids with similar frustrations. “We were happy, and we didn’t know it,” Cazalis writes.
When Chávez came to power in the late nineties, and the price of oil rose again, bringing economic prosperity, the punk scene splintered. Some groups continued to criticize the regime (the group Deskarriados released a song about living in a “damned military state,” in 2002), but other musicians aligned with the government. The lead singer of the punk band Los Residuos became the minister of culture and is now the president of a government-run TV station. According to Uzcátegui, this split “shattered the essence of Venezuelan punk,” and the form soon gave way to other genres, including neo-punk, which drew inspiration from bands like Green Day and focussed less on politics and more on teen-age angst.
The political crisis of the eighties and nineties pales in comparison to what Venezuela is going through right now. Hyperinflation is no longer in the double digits; some estimates put it at around one million per cent. Food and medicine shortages are common, and widespread protests have been met with systematic repression: a recent U.N. report documents thousands of dissenters who have been murdered by pro-government death squads. And yet there hasn’t been a resurgence of anti-government music. “Everybody used to sing angrily about how fucked up we were,” the prologue of Provea’s book reads. “And now, that we are really fucked up, nobody sings angrily. Because to sing angrily we need energy, we need money, we need dignity.”
Provea is attempting to revitalize punk for a new generation. Part of that effort was commissioning the album, which was recorded by a band called Agente Extraño (Strange Agent). “We are reactivating the Venezuelan punk movement,” Ernesto (Hard Strings) Rojas, the lead singer, told me. The album includes covers of the classic bands: Deskarriados, Victims of Democracy, and Sentimiento Muerto. “I think we did something similar to an exhumation,” Rojas told me. More than three million people (ten per cent of the population) have fled Venezuela in the past four years, including many of the country’s musicians. “A lot of those bands didn’t record their songs, they just played them in concerts,” Rojas said. “We had to contact the musicians that left the country, to learn how to play them.” Rojas and his band also included one of their own songs, “Mental Limbo,” which promises that punk music, unlike other art forms, will rise up to resist the state: “The Press is no longer writing / TV is not broadcasting / Radio is talking softly,” but music “will tell the king, who is naked, that his kingdom of blood will come to an end.” The musicians knew that they might face repercussions for being outspoken. “We were afraid when they stopped the guy from the printer,” Rojas told me. “We have to take care of ourselves. But we also think, They already took everything from us. What else can they take away?”
On Saturday, Provea hosted a free concert with Agente Extraño in Caracas, as part of a campaign called “Music for Medicine,” during which audience members exchanged leftover medications for a copy of the new punk record. Drugs for hypertension are scarce in the country, Uzcátegui told me, and antibiotics are too expensive for many to buy. Provea distributes the medicine it receives to health-care nonprofits around the country. “Family members of those who died, or those who left the country, can have something left to share with the rest,” Uzcátegui said. But it’s also an opportunity to sing songs that call out the government for its corruption and repression, and to send politicians a simple message: punk, in Venezuela, is not dead.