After years of political alienation, Venezuelan freedom fighters show Crystal Chesters how to fight for the right to party
They could have been filming the new Bacardi advert the other night in Blackfriars. There was Latin spirit bursting from all corners thanks to twelve-piece revolutionary salsa band, La Redonda. “Venezuela! Venezuela!” they chanted as the sweaty crowd clapped and attempted to salsa.
Unfortunately I didn’t take the initiative to get on the bar and start pouring shots down the necks of innocent boys. I did however manage to catch up with the band before the show to find out what the ruckus was about.
It’s something to do with Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez according to La Redonda. His outrageous political performances, in particular his comments on the stench of sulphur that emanates from George Bush, have both mortified and impressed young Venezuelans. He almost assumes the role of an embarrassing parent. In that vein he has become famous for being able to relate to the needs of his poorest people, whether in terms of education, artistic encouragement or job creation. As enthusiastic participants of the revolution, La Redonda were keen to find out about movement towards social change in Scotland.
It was for this reason that I came to be sat patiently with earnest members of Scottish Socialist Youth as the band members barged in late in bright stripy hats brimming with Caribbean charm. I immediately felt pale and boring. They enthusiastically shook hands with everyone and we made our way to the sofas. Carlos Martinez and Alex Acosta stole the limelight while the Scottish contingent sat back and watched the show.
Alex unselfconsciously launched into fluid conversation in loud broken English, “La Redonda, our band, was formed around the time that Hugo Chavez came in to power in 1998.”
“We are more an artistic collective than anything else,” Carlos cut in smiling, with a thick Spanish accent, “We do street art, circus performances, and music.” Alex took over again, “Chavez is our first Leader to care about artists. He provides us with institutions and gives us funding, and TV channels where we can express ourselves!” He flaps his hands around colourfully while elaborating, “There is a huge art movement now — it has blown up!” he chuckles and looks over to the translator sitting with us, for approval; “exploded,” she corrects him.
“Our education system has changed so much, and the art has blown up!” he continues, “We now have the strongest education system in South America besides Cuba. We are taking inspiration from every good socialist movement in the world,” he grabs the air energetically, “and combining it to make our own system. Venezuelans have finally realised that they aren’t all about oil, baseball and bitches!” he grins. I assume he means women; somehow it’s endearing not offensive. Carlos, who has been sitting back, stroking his goatee and smirking leans in, “Yeah, Chavez has made us open our eyes! Before, we just sat around in a dream watching TV because we had no education. We grew up without being able to identify with our president Carlos Andres Perez”
They went on to explain in excited unison that the band was formed as a protest to the economic stagnation and political frustration experienced throughout eighties and nineties in Venezuela while their translator struggled to keep up, “Now we are with the government and we are benefiting from its riches.” Alex concludes heartily.
A member of Scottish Socialist Youth steals a quick moment to throw in a question, “So do you think Venezuela has got rid of corruption?” “No!” Alex zestfully starts, “Corruption is a sickness! Everyone wants to be rich and white! American TV sells us the dream. The only time it’s good to be Latin is in the club!”
The conversation was a whirling skipping rope and I took my chance to jump in with my question; “Obama! Will he change relations between the U.S and Venezuela?” Alex looks me in the eye, “Maybe, but it’s always impossible to tell how a leader is going to turn out. The most important thing is that he is black and that symbolises an international change. He shows that there is hope for everyone.” Carlos adds, “I think many people have good intentions but it will take a long time to change such a corrupt country.”
Alex continues, “Yeah I mean behind Obama there is Mac and IBM and the motherfuckin’ banks. But he is the symbol of a change among the people. In New York, what’s cool is being hip-hop but now there’s Obama, more people are developing a critical conscience because they can see things changing on a large scale.”
Kike, who has been smiling sleepily in his bright orange beret throughout the meeting, awakens and begins rambling in Spanish at perturbed James Nesbitt from Scottish Socialist Youth. It quickly becomes apparent that no one speaks Spanish so Kike turns to the translator who asks the Socialists what they are doing to achieve autonomy.
Finally allowed in to the conversation, James answers, “We are in favour of Scotland becoming a separate state from England. Britain is a huge world power and we don’t want nuclear weapons being stored twenty miles away from here; a third of the soldiers in Iraq are Scottish despite the fact that only one tenth of the UK population is made up of Scots. We don’t want to be part of the British Empire fighting abroad. We can’t have control over our oil either and it’s inspiring to see your example of how things can change for the better.”
Alex looks touched and replies, “We arrived five hours ago and there is this different energy in Scotland to that in England. People here look you in the eye and they talk to you. The U.S. are the motherfuckers with everything and it’s the same for Scottish people in the UK.”
Everyone chuckles slightly embarrassed and Kike moves on to ask what Scottish Socialists are heading towards. James replies, “Well there is going to be a referendum in two years but at the moment with the economic crisis, no one is really very certain and national momentum is slightly against independence.”
Kike continues, “It’s good for us to know what’s going on here so we can take it back to Venezuela with us. We are going to show this meeting on Avila TV to demonstrate to the people what we are doing abroad to support our revolution.” The camera man gives us a twirl in his Avila t-shirt. They all grin and point. “We are having a concert on Thursday night and we hope you all can come,” Kike continues.
The Scottish Socialists nod and say they’ll be there. James thanks the band and comments, “The passion and richness of your discussion was really inspiring and it’s great to see that you are part of a revolution, and it’s real, and it’s happening right now.”
The meeting comes to a close after two hours with a round of applause. The Venezuelans get us to repeat altogether, “Patria, Socialismo o Muerte.” We all shout it grinning. I had never considered myself a socialist but their enthusiasm and nerve was infectious. It was only on my way home that I realised what I had been chanting actually meant; “Patriotism, socialism or Death.”