President Hugo Chavez has announced the creation of a national circus company while launching the cultural mission, Inside the Heart (Corazón Adentro). At a ceremony some days ago in Caracas, he said: “The idea of shaping a Circus of the South appears marvellous to me, uniting the potential of Cuba, Venezuela and all the countries of South America. We are going to have a big tent… to tour South America and the Caribbean with a circus that will be a wonderful synthesis of our magic of this new world”.
He wanted the new circus company to strengthen national art, national magic and inventiveness. “We want to take Misión Cultura to a new and higher step… because the country is within us, because the country is pure heart, pure happiness… The construction of socialism requires many things, but one of the fundamentals is love,” the President said.
He made this announcement at the performance by the Cuban children’s theatre, La Colmenita, and of Cuba’s National School of Circus in Caracas on April 27 and 28 where he joined the children in the singing and made the announcement from the stage.
Chavez’s call for a Circus of the South is more than a quirky idea. The Venezuelan President understands popular communication forms much better than most on the Left. His pioneering television programme, Aló Presidente, has informed, educated and reached out to millions of Venezuelans. In March this year, following Bogota’s attack on Ecuador, Chavez showed his mastery of television in inflicting a stinging diplomatic defeat on the Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe, that had the latter scurrying to multiple apologies at the Group of Rio summit. Millions throughout the continent watched this compelling political theatre live. It is no accident that Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua are starting to remodel their television and radio addresses on similar lines.
The idea of a continental circus troupe is situated within what President Chavez calls the battle of ideas with the North American culture industry. The corporate media-culture complex in Latin America, seamlessly linked to North American interests, is deployed to soften up popular governments before a coup. The Argentinean President, Cristina Kirchner, spoke of how the Right came after her during the recent agrarian strike, not with tanks but with “generals of the media empire”.
In Mexico, Peru, El Salvador, Colombia and Bolivia, television channels and newspapers have mimicked the Venezuelan corporate media in fomenting hostility towards popular movements and the indigenous people. The dominant media took great pleasure in spinning the rescheduling of The Simpsons on a Venezuelan television channel to portray the Chavez government as a cultural killjoy. The Chilean author, Ariel Dorfman, has chronicled how Disney cartoons were used in the campaign against the Allende government. It took a lot of protest to thwart the marketing of a video game that had set out Venezuela as a terrorist regime. Hollywood actors and Hispanic pop singers were manipulated against Cuba during the Elian Gonzalez return saga.
The circus is one way of reclaiming the streets. President Chavez is drawing on both current and older traditions in wanting to craft a Circus of the South. The Soviets understood the propaganda value of circus within and beyond the borders and drew on the great love of the Russian people for the circus tradition stretching back to at least the court of Catherine the Great. There were no less than 50 travelling troupes in the Soviet Union, where circus was king. Oleg Popov, the Sunshine Clown, was not only among the best in his genre but also privileged by the status of clowns who were excused their steady stream of subversive jokes.
Acrobats, unicyclists, stilt-walkers and clowns have played their part in the counter-globalisation mobilisations. More recently, Jo Wilding, British human rights lawyer and trained clown, led circus artistes to Iraq just after the war, bringing smiles to traumatised children, and documented the first savage attack on Fallujah in her book, Don’t Shoot the Clowns. Her experiences formed the basis for Julia Guest’s film, Letter to the Prime Minister. The Boomchucka Circus (formerly Circus2Iraq) has toured Israel and Palestine since and contributed to setting up the First Palestinian Circus School in Ramallah while still working with Iraqi groups.
Cuba has a circus training school, Latin America has a rich tradition of indigenous street entertainment – which is why Chavez particularly wants Evo Morales to join the initiative – and Venezuela has the resources to promote the continent’s very own mestizo-indigenous travelling circus.
As Chavez said at the ceremony, and something of which we are likely to hear more, “Let’s have a grand circus, from Mexico to Argentina”.
More Latin America reports at Meeting Point