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This week will focus on Social Commentary in Venezuela. This will be my last country for the series but definitely not my last post for the blog!
Araya (1959) is a documentary about an old natural salt mine located in Venezuela and the people that work on it. The film meditates on the effects of colonization, the monotony of exploitation, and the future.
El Trienio and Perez Jimenez
From 1908 to 1935, Venezuela was led by General Gomez and his puppets. On the day after Gomez’s death, the Council of Ministers appointed General Eleazar Lopez Contreras, a longtime supporter of Gomez, as the new president. He introduced significant changes in governmental administration that allowed for the founding of new political organizations. These efforts included establishing a central bank in 1939 and opening new petroleum fields for exploitation. A greater emphasis was also placed on higher education. Several parties were either founded or reorganized but not all were supported by the government. The Communist Party was banned in the 1936 constitution and many were exiled. 1941 proved to be an important year.
General Medina Angarita was elected president by the Venezuelan National Congress through a dubious election process. In addition, the year marked the return of many of the exiles of the Gomez and López Contreras era. The year also marked the foundation of Accion Democratica. This party wanted direct and secret universal suffrage, the modernization of public service agencies, the eradication of corruption, and greater national participation in the benefits of the oil revenue. Modern politics in Venezuela began with the October 1945 coup by the AD and the Union Patriotica Militar or the Trienio period. The junta was presided over by Accion Democratica leader Romulo Betancourt. From the onset of the October Revolution until its collapse in November 1948, the country experienced a period of great political change.
During the Trienio, national-level participation and control were increased and previous efforts to modernize were revitalized. The government began a program of land distribution with a plan to expand the program into full rural development in the Agrarian Reform Law of 1947. Many Campesinos received land under the law, which transformed them from sharecroppers and tenant farmers to landowners and local unions were set up so they could finally become engaged in politics. The government undertook several cases of political corruption against public officials who had served in the Gomez, Lopez Contreras, and Medina Angarita administrations and created a new constitution that assigned the state more active roles in solving the country’s socio-economic ills and fostering national development. The next president Romulo Gallegos was overthrown, and with that one event, the political system was annulled, legitimate elections and political guarantees were interrupted, and the constitution of 1947 was renounced. The opposition parties, trusting the golpe’s good intentions to correct the course of action that the AD had started, waited in vain for the restoration of democratic freedoms, until even they were banned by the new military regime. There may be numerous reasons for the coup but the main one was the rupture of the alliance between Accion Democratica and the armed forces.
The military coup canceled all their planned reforms and unions were abolished. The years from 1949 to 1952 were turbulent. In November 1950, President Delgado Chalbaud was assassinated, and many Venezuelans claimed that Marcos Perez Jimenez had a hidden hand in the plot. Even today, Perez Jimenez’s involvement remains unclear. Marcos Pérez Jiménez became the de facto leader of the junta in 1950. Perez Jimenez remains one of Venezuela’s most ruthless leaders. Due to popular demand, he allowed elections in 1952 but results were highly contested and members of the junta resigned. The new government repressed secondary and university students and used force to ensure order and compliance. Thousands of Venezuelans were tortured and murdered during his administration and labor unions were disbanded, the press was censored, and universities were shut down. His greatest achievement was investing in the ministry of public works and creating transportation infrastructure. By 1958, students began rioting on the streets of Caracas and Pérez Jiménez was overthrown. Democracy was on the horizon and Venezuelans were optimistic but still wondered if the good times would last.
Narratively, the film is split into three parts: the prologue, the central narrative, and the epilogue. Thematically, the film is split into two: the effects of the past and the promise of the future. The prologue menacingly depicts the land and the sea. It seems like something out of a Twilight Zone episode. The voice-over emphasizes the fact that this is a barren wasteland where nothing grows and nobody lives. This remains true until the arrival of the Spanish who discover salt and suddenly this city becomes a hub for piracy and workers and slaves are shipped in. They call this place Araya. The following scenes are all set in the 1950s but they would fit in the 1550s. Nothing seems to have changed in this town. Images of the workers going up a salt hill to drop their basket of salt appears like a Sisyphean task. They will repeat it until they die and then a younger generation will continue to do the same thing. The presence of children in the mine is especially disturbing. Young boys are there with the men cleaning the salt and learning to handle the grueling sun. It’s clear that the emphasis placed on the foundation says a lot about its present. A city founded on colonization can only reap exploitation. The days repeat themselves and the nights are the same. The salt mine is never alone. There are always tired men and boys there.
With all this gloom and despair about the monotony of the lives of these men, the future invites a lot of possibilities. It’s clear to say this film has no nostalgia for the past of this land. When this land was populated it was only ever populated by colonizers and exploited people. The advent of machines is a source of optimism for the director. Is there a possibility that mechanical arms will replace real ones? The previous machines that were introduced to this world were cars. The cars transported the salt away from this land never to return. Could that happen to the men of Araya? Maybe one day they won’t need Araya. This is an apt question for the time. With the fall of the Perez Jimenez regime, many Venezuelans were wondering if the country could modernize and not need a power-hungry strong man to run things. They could reform and no longer be slaves to the powerful who want salt or oil or whatever other natural resource is ready to be taken. This is a documentary of its time. It may be talking about Araya but the whole country feels like these people. Though the film isn’t entirely optimistic, it simply poses the question of what will happen next and knows that it could not be any worse than the present. The final question is could something finally grow here? Could Venezuela really be democratic?