In Venezuela, even Christmas carols get political

On the street corners of Caracas, seasonal songs known as gaitas ring out in praise - and protest - of the government.

"Hallelujah, Mr. President," one blares out. "Stay firm fighting for our fatherland."

"The nation is in debt and there's no money to buy anything," responds the other. "Send [President Hugo] Chávez to Cuba to stay!"

Political opponents shouting from soapboxes? Try boomboxes. And in rhyme.

It is the sort of political debate possible only in Venezuela's capital, Caracas, where politics have intruded into nearly every aspect of life, including music, theater, and art. Even the country's distinct Christmas carols - called gaitas - are not immune from politicization this year.

Gaitas, the lively seasonal music often performed on street corners with a-cappella harmonies, are built around a fast, simple rhythm. They comment on romance, regional pride, and social justice. While politics have long been part of the gaita genre, in this highly politicized season, as Mr. Chávez's opponents push to hold a referendum on his rule early next year, gaitas have taken on a new prominence - and new stridency.

"Many, many gaitas are coming out these days, because so many bad things are happening in the country," says Ruben Yssa, leader of the band Guasinca Zuliana, which criticizes Chávez. "It's a medium of protest."

Originating in music brought here by African slaves, with contributions from Spanish and indigenous cultures, gaitas blasting from sidewalk CD players ridicule, parody, denounce, and satirize.

"They [the government] violate the Constitution, there's no flour, crime is unchecked," complains an anti-Chávez gaita. "When the referendum arrives, don't make a mistake."

But a pro-Chávez gaita recalls that the opposition failed to oust Chávez last year with a coup and a petroleum strike, and predicts more Chávez victories. "With the force of a home run, [the opposition] will lose by a knockout," it says with more enthusiasm than meta- phorical purity. "They failed against the pitcher, let them go wait for balls in the bleachers."

With unemployment close to 20 percent, Venezuelan sidewalks are crowded with informal vendors offering pirated CDs of gaitas and other music. Rafael Aponte, who sells CDs in downtown Caracas, says pro-Chávez gaitas outsell the opposition's. "There are more people in favor of the government," he says, contradicting polls which show Chávez's popularity at only about 35 percent. "And they are happier, more united people."

Music is only one example of how politics have infused Venezuelan art. Satirical paintings adorn Caracas's sidewalks, and soap operas integrate - and ridicule - real-life politicians. Both the government and the opposition, which includes many mayors and governors, promote themselves by funding competing artists.

Pablo Barreto, in charge of theater for the mayor of metropolitan Caracas and an ardent Chávez foe, says antigovernment entertainers don't receive contracts or resources from the federal government. On the other hand, the mayor's own musical events feature anti-Chávez musicians.

Mr. Barreto, an actor and theater director, is rehearsing a play about a president who turns into a dictator. With many of Chávez's opponents accusing the president of displaying demagogic tendencies, Barreto acknowledges that the play could be interpreted as anti-Chávez.

"Maybe they'll stone us," he jokes. "But [controversy] isn't our intention, it's only to do interesting work."

Folk singer Fernando Mosquera has strummed his guitar on Caracas streets for decades, and credits Chávez's "Bolivarian revolution" for injecting a new political consciousness into Venezuela's art world. "The human being is a political animal," Mr. Mosquera says. "But only now are we [artists] displaying it."

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