Cuando el libro solo sirve para apuntalar una mesa coja / Israel Centeno

When the Book Only Serves to Hold Up An Uneven Table

The State publishing houses, although they incorporated a few independent voices, became institutions of governmental propaganda

Hugo Chávez came to power 14 years ago with a political project that in the name of inclusion systematized the exclusion of anyone who did not enroll in the “revolutionary project.” This did not leave out the cultural spectrum. The period that preceded Chávez’s government, with all its mistakes that can be pointed out, specifically in the editorial sector, was diverse and inclusive. One could find the most plural currents of thought and the promotional and informational platform treated them with a transcendent vision.

In order to understand the topic of Venezuela, we must note that the country lives off its petroleum rent. The State monopolized, since before the Chávez era, the book industry along with many other things. What happens when the State comes undone in the government, or is mixed or fused into it? It begins to demand in exchange first solidarity and then unconditional allegiance to the political project incarnated by the government.

If it’s true that before Hugo Chávez the policies of the State could alienate the production and distribution of the book, since 1998 up to now, the state of the politics, that is, the ideology, propaganda and an excessively populist and authoritarian sense of Chávez’s project, demanded to subordinate any of these disciplines to the Bolivarian project.

In the name of the people’s inclusion the people were excluded from the possibility of contrasting an ample catalog, and of authors of being part of it and enriching it. The State publishing houses, while they kept up appearances by incorporating a few independent voices, created ideological strategies, made their production biased and turned themselves into institutions of governmental propaganda.

I have heard the argument that the book sector grew, that we now have a national printing press, a literary agency, a book distributor and an organization for the promotion of the book. With the return of the independence of powers and if a serious comptroller’s office were to look into these institutions, more corruption than benefits would be revealed.

The International Book Fair (FILVEN), which had seven editions before Chávez, and in which I had the honor to work, was impoverished in its offerings, year after year we saw it become a monochrome fair, similar to the one put on in Havana.

The prestigious Rómulo Gallegos literary prize maintained its quality, but a condition was added to the verdict: it’s preferable, underlined, that the author be someone from the left.

Many things survived despite it all, maybe we can glimpse a positive aspect. Some literary biennials were able to maintain their independence. It’s worth noting the Mariano Picón Salas Biennial in Mérida. Others were swept out of the country, like the José Rafael Pocaterra Biennial of Valencia. The Venezuelan author found himself forced to knock on the doors of publishing houses outside the country. Independent editorial projects that have had to struggle against the obstacles the governmental control of access to dollars has imposed: a lack of materials and higher printing costs.

Critical spaces were closed.

There were no critiques without consequences.

We could say that this inclusive project that ended up excluding the plurality of authors and readers who seek a universality of ideas had a positive effect: it made the artist and the author reflect on how corrosive absolute dependence on the State can be and it moved them, perhaps touching their core survival instinct, to go out into the world and struggle for a space beyond the official orbits, to put forth editorial projects and to reinvent themselves in order to stay afloat.

Despite the propaganda and the effect caused by the free distribution of multitudinous editions of certain classic works, today no one can affirm this wasn’t populist squandering: those books ended up serving the most unusual functions without promoting reading. For the promotion of reading, one needs a coherent strategy that is sustained over time, alongside the inclusion of the amplitude of signifiers of human thought.

During these 14 years we saw revenge, an exhibition of resentments, a great deal of noise and “revolutionary” propaganda.

Israel Centeno (Caracas, 1958) is a novelist and editor. He has published the novel Hilo de cometa (Barcelona: Editorial Periférica).

{ Israel Centeno, El País, 13 March 2013 }

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