Page last updated at 11:34 GMT, Sunday, 2 August 2009 12:34 UK

Venezuela's revolutionary reading

By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas

President Hugo Chavez seen speaking on 18 June
Will Hugo Chavez's list make encourage reading?

At April's Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez surprised many by giving President Barack Obama a gift.

It was a book entitled The Open Veins of Latin America. Within hours, the left-wing classic by Eduardo Galeano had shot up to number two in the New York Times bestseller list.

Now the Venezuelan leader is trying to promote much more than the bible of the Latin American left.

"Today we launch the Revolutionary Reading Plan," he announced live to the nation in April. "Read, read, read, read. That should be our slogan for every day."

Since the announcement, the pace of the reading plan has quickened. A key component is a series of free book distribution events, which have been held in public squares across the country.

The government has given out tens of thousands of free copies of Don Quijote by Cervantes and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, saying that such events "promote reading for the construction of socialism and humanist values".

'Blinkered'

At a big book give-away in the Plaza Bolivar in the capital, Caracas, the queues for a copy of Les Miserables trailed back a hundred metres.

Boys look at a pile of books in Venezuela
The government says it has boosted literacy levels

"I'm really pleased," one man told me as he emerged from the scrum with his copy in his hands. "I've seen the film but never read the book, so this was a great opportunity as they're giving them away for free and it's too expensive to buy."

But far from everyone is convinced that the Revolutionary Reading Plan is the right idea.

A number of prominent Venezuelan academics, including the former president of the National Culture Council, Oscar Sambrano, have described a list of 100 texts which make up the first stage of the Revolutionary Plan as "blinkered".

Titles on the list include The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, Selected Speeches of Hugo Chavez and State Terrorism in Colombia.

"There are lots of accusations that we're somehow indoctrinating people which I think is completely false," says Edgar Roa, who organised the book event in capital's main square.

"What we're doing is putting books within everybody's reach, including children's literature with absolutely no political content. Or Les Miserables by Victor Hugo which can be interpreted in many different ways depending on your political colours."

Benefits

Beyond the book give-aways, another key part of the Reading Plan are thousands of "book squadrons".


It's incredible that a government which is promoting reading has the most expensive books in the world

Victor Garcia
Random House, Venezuela

These are basically roving book clubs that are intended to encourage reading on the metro, in public squares and in parks.

Each squadron wears a different colour to identify their type of book. For example, the red team promotes autobiographies while the black team discusses books on "militant resistance".

The government say they will spread the word of the benefits of reading to the rest of the community. The opposition say they are the thought police.

The coordinator of the Revolutionary Reading Plan is a young Venezuelan called Carlos Duque.

"When Fidel launched the literacy plan in Cuba in 1961, he told the people of Cuba the plan's slogan was 'We don't tell the people to believe, we tell them to read' and that's kind of the idea here too," he says.

As Mr Duque thumbs through the titles produced by the government-run publishing house, El Perro y La Rana, he points out the presence of international authors such as Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allen Poe which, he says, undermines the accusations of indoctrination.

"I know a lot of those academics making those claims as many were my teachers at university. They're treating the Venezuelan people as though they were simple, as though they can't make their own choices about what they're reading," he says.

But the state control of reading material is only one of the complaints levelled at the Revolutionary Reading Plan.

Unloading books in Venezuela
These books are free but not all reading material comes cheap

"They're not promoting reading, they're giving away free books. That's something quite different" says Victor Garcia, the commercial director of Random House publishers in Venezuela.

"Reading is promoted by the state in the schools. First in the nursery, then the primary schools, and then later at the high schools and universities. That's not what's happening under this plan. This isn't strengthening the education ministry or the culture ministry."

Not a priority

Mr Garcia also says there is a serious contradiction at the heart of the government's plan to promote literature in Venezuela.

"Venezuela has the most expensive books in the world. It's incredible that a government which is promoting reading has the most expensive books in the world," he says.

Mr Garcia says that while the government can afford to produce cheap books through national state-run publishers, the situation for foreign editorials is much tougher.

Since the oil price fell, fewer and fewer economic activities are receiving the foreign capital they need to operate. Books have been reclassified as a "non-priority sector" meaning getting hold of the dollars needed to import them is increasingly complicated.

"I think there's a great contradiction there," says Mr Garcia. "That a government which on the one hand is promoting reading, giving out Les Miserables in a public square, but doesn't allow the free importation of literature - not, it should be said, for any ideological reason, but because of currency controls."

Ironically enough, he says, the government in Venezuela doesn't have the necessary rights to mass produce and distribute The Open Veins of Latin America, the book which Mr Chavez recently popularised.

In the main square in Caracas, the queues of people stayed out until it was dark to pick up a copy of Les Miserables.

The Venezuelan government is fiercely proud of its efforts to eradicate illiteracy, naming as one of its leading achievements during President Chavez's 10 years in office.

But whether the Revolutionary Reading Plan can succeed in making Venezuela a nation of readers is another story.



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