On May 28, I shared some documents on Twitter that I obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a quasi-governmental agency created under the Reagan administration in 1983 to carry out US foreign policy efforts abroad, much of which was formerly performed by the CIA. The group and its affiliated agencies, including the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, provides funding and training to both political parties and nongovernmental organizations abroad, many of whom oppose governments at odds with the United States.
One of the approximately two dozen agreements in 2011 I received involved funds for youth rock bands to perform and record songs with CD distribution. Under the agreement, Venezuelan bands competed against one another in a national contest, and winners performed in a final concert in Caracas. In this particular agreement, the NED references how its project objectives included “promot[ing] greater reflection among Venezuelan youth about freedom of expression, their connection with democracy, and the state of democracy in the country.” Inside Venezuela, the NED teamed up with its grantee, Un Mundo Sin Mordaza (SM), to organize and host the competition.
While SM is technically a nongovernmental organization, it is far from nonpartisan, and its affinity for the right-wing political opposition in Venezuela, as well as the US government, is evident from a cursory glance of their webpage. Even more, the NED has publicly shown their own mutual affinity for the group by publishing a glowing story on their executive director, making their relationship more than clear to the public.
In doing so, the NED has presented SM as one of the true guarantors of democracy writ large in the country, instead of one group advancing a vision of “democracy” that aligns with the United States’ own vision and interests in Venezuela and throughout Latin America.
Rock Against Democracy
Similar to other NED grant agreements, this particular agreement contains references to how the Venezuelan government has attacked democracy and how young students are leading protests pushing back against it. At the same time, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), an official US foreign policy agency created under the Kennedy administration to advance US political-economic interests abroad, had, by now, long worked with student groups that had become key bastions of protest against Chávez, particularly from 2007 onward.
What’s more, in interviews, USAID members have said that their main goal with student groups in the country was specifically to help them to form durable organizations. One USAID administrator told me that the agency’s
objective was that you had thousands of youth, high school, and college kids . . . that were horrified of this Indian-looking guy in power. They were idealistic. We wanted to help them to build a civic organization, so that they could mobilize and organize. This is different than protesting.
The comment is a revealing one. If it’s true that the young people the USAID staffer is describing “were horrified of this Indian-looking guy in power,” he unabashedly displayed the racism that is central to the upper-middle class Venezuelan opposition.
Some individuals with anti-Chávez sentiments have dismissed this particular program as inconsequential and undeserving of attention. Social scientists and humanities scholars, however, have long recognized the power of music – in protest, in forming friendships, in defining oneself.
The fact that groups like Pussy Riot, among others, have become the face of opposition to governments in countries like Russia should not be lost on anyone. Music contains the possibility to incite and inspire people to action, becoming the public voice of social movements.
All of this, of course, transpired throughout the year 2011, in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential elections featuring Hugo Chávez against opposition governor Henrique Capriles, a candidate who SM, the organization that received the grant money, explicitly championed. Chávez defeated Capriles in elections generally deemed free and fair, similar to the previous presidential election in 2006 when Chávez defeated Manuel Rosales.
US policy-makers surely did not believe this program alone would bring down the Chávez government. But the program was a piece of a much broader and expansive agenda to cultivate anti-government voices throughout the country. Could the songs they funded become anthems for street protests and further resistance to the Chávez government? Maybe. There’s certainly a long history of protest songs utilized by an array of social movements on both the Left and Right.
In March 2008, in fact, former ambassador Patrick Duddy requested not just USAID support, but Department of Defense (DOD) funding to “to influence the information environment within Venezuela. The strategy’s goal is to counter the active and deliberate campaign by the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (BRV) to instill in the population a negative perception of the US and distort more than 100 years of close and mutually beneficial relations between our two countries.”
In doing so, Duddy requested funding for “rock concerts . . . and musical festivals.” Whether or not the DOD funded such endeavors is not clear.
The Racist Rock Music of Global Empire
One final question seems to have generated some interest: Who were these bands that received funding? I do not imagine these bands knew that funding was coming directly from the US government. My sense is that SM appealed to young bands with the promise of playing a large concert in Caracas, alongside a national act (Viniloversus), and to have their music recorded. What young band would not want such national exposure?
Still in the end, SM selected Antigravedad, a group with no name recognition as their first place winner in their contest, for their song titled “Primates.” The group has the same “horrified,” upper-middle-class disposition toward lower-class citizens that the quoted USAID member recognized above.
In their song, and in their 2011 performance, the band laments the alleged criminal activities of Venezuelans, who they describe as “gorillas” and “primates.” During their live performance, one of the members even sports a white shirt with a gorilla featured on it.
Much like in the United States, those who colonized what is now Venezuela enslaved Africans and indigenous people. The ramifications of these efforts persist today, with a light-skinned elite inhabiting upper-middle-class areas and many darker-skinned Venezuelans living in poor neighborhoods throughout the country.
The racist tones of the song could not be clearer. From the beginning of the Chávez era, scholars have noted the way “civilization” versus “barbarism” was a guiding framework for opposition to Chavismo — and how the opposition itself often likened Chávez to a gorilla.
There can be no objection to young folks writing songs decrying their governments, and Venezuela has a long trajectory of anti-authoritarian rock bands. And there can be no objection to nongovernmental groups hosting events and music festivals, most of which do so without NED funding. As a global empire, however, the United States has the disproportionate ability to amplify some voices and marginalize others to boost their own interests and distort democracy in the region — even through the funding of a music festival and a no-name rock band.