Corruption and Power in El Pez Que Fuma

Para la versión en español, clickea aquí

Synopsis

El Pez Que Fuma (1977) follows La Garza, a madam of a bordello who uses her lovers to help her run her business. Jealous lovers and dirty money ruin the deal and the film ends in disaster for La Garza as her new lover rises to her position.

Democracy and the Oil Boom

Romulo Betancourt

Romulo Betancourt, the AD candidate, won the election in 1963. His presidency established a coalition-style government, the successful completion of the December 1963 national elections, and the transfer of power from one constitutionally elected president to another. Leftists had great expectations. Even the Cuban government expressed solidarity with Venezuela. Unfortunately, he inherited a bad economy as the national treasury was empty due to excessive spending and corruption. During the Betancourt regime, the state’s interventionist role was solidified, the expansion of a decentralized public administration was encouraged, and several new state-run enterprises were created. The Accion Democratica government also took steps to ensure that it did not repeat the errors of the Trienio.

For example, the military was appeased by improved equipment and amnesty for certain crimes committed during the 1948-1958 military dictatorship. The Agrarian Reform Law was adopted in 1960. The new program was of such magnitude that it has been cited as the most extensive non-revolutionary and reform program in the Western Hemisphere. In foreign affairs, the Venezuelan government refused to recognize any regime that came to power by military force and was active in the creation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). 

FALN Sign

Still the right and the youth of AD who had ideological differences dissented. Some, inspired by Cuban revolutionaries, formed the FALN. Many were trained in Cuba. One of the most significant acts of mass terror was the killing of national guardsmen on a passenger train en route from Caracas to El Encanto in September 1963. The terrorists shot the soldiers while the train was passing through a tunnel. Many innocent women and children were on the train and it turned the people against insurgents and in support of Betancourt. Still, the CIA reported that 300 guerrillas and 500 urban terrorists operated in Venezuela in 1964 and were a force that the next president, Raul Leoni, had to contest with. Divisions grew and led to a very pluralist election in 1973. 12 candidates pursued the presidency, with political ideologies ranging from the far left to the far right, but it was the AD candidate, Carlos Andres Perez who won. He strove to complete the nationalization of the oil industry and in 1976, the government nationalized the 19 oil companies operating in Venezuela. At this point, the petroleum industry was so important to Venezuela that by 1980 it accounted for 26% of the total GNP. He also created a scholarship program that sought to train Venezuelans to take technical or executive jobs held by foreigners. Even with its positive results, the scholarship program was plagued with problems from the outset. Among the more serious problems was the fact that as early as 1980, the projected number of qualified personnel for many of the positions would exceed the maximum demand expected. This led to widespread concern about the specializations that were being emphasized within the program. 

Despite his relatively wide influence, Carlos Andres Perez ended his first term in office with conspicuous difficulties, not only in the exercise of governmental affairs but also in dealing with his own party. The drastic increase in fiscal abundance allowed corruption to reach unprecedented levels during the 1970s. Two years into the Perez administration, it was reported that over 500 cases of maladministration or corruption were being prepared by the Office of the Comptroller General, although few believed it would actually go to court. At the end of his first term, public denunciations were made against Perez and his administration regarding the abuses of public funds, the most publicized being the overpriced purchase of a Norwegian freighter.

Carlos Andres Perez

The government purchased it for $20 million when it actually cost $11.9 million. In a joint session of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, the Congress voted to declare Perez politically responsible. The surplus money had been distributed to several people in his administration. Another example of corruption had to do with a group that allegedly utilized their prominent positions for personal gain. Known as the twelve apostles, they received payment in corruption, filling their pockets for the millions they had given to the Perez campaign. Perez would always claim the accusations against him were a part of a witch hunt. The only thing that remains true is the Venezuelan government was plagued by inefficiency, waste, and corruption.

Dark Oil

El Pez Que Fuma

The entire film can be viewed as a criticism of the Perez government in an era that is often applauded for creating an economic paradise. The first shots of the film prove that is not true. We are introduced to two starkly different realities right off the bat. The first scene shows us the brothel and the surrounding neighborhood. The women seem ecstatic when La Garza’s lover Dimas brings new mattresses. You would have thought he brought them gold because of the way they react. It’s an utter carnival and outside the children play and run around the old, burning mattresses. That night, Dimas has to carry out a deal for La Garza and goes to the other side of Caracas. This one is filled with high rises and swanky hotels and it is also where Dimas loses the money gambling. This oil boom has only brought economic progress to a select few and it screws over the other half. Even La Garza’s past is haunted by this boom. In a private moment, she tells Jairo that oil makes her sad because the government found oil on the land where her mother’s grave was located and she can no longer visit. This tender moment leads to Jairo getting a more prominent role in her organization. He offers her false promises and easy words but changes nothing. He becomes wrapped up in the glamorous world of Caracas drug deals with Americans and in the end, usurps her. Dimas, trying to kill Jairo, ends up just killing La Garza. Imagine that. A random accident leads a corrupt, power-hungry liar, to run the brothel. In effect that’s all the oil boom has brought: random violence and corruption.

La Garza & Music

El Pez Que Fuma

Music is a very important element in the story. It does not just connote a mood but offers an overall theme to the film and sometimes even foreshadows events. The use of different forms of music like salsa and especially tango emphasizes the idea that this is a Pan-Latino film. This movie deals with things that affect all Latin American countries. La Garza’s proclivity towards tango is very telling. It connects Venezuela to Argentina in a very real way. Argentina at that time was famous for its unstable government, unlike Venezuela. Tango is a melancholic genre not meant for a boom era. Maybe the director is trying to show us how bad things really are. The sheen on the outside is going away. The tango also foreshadows certain events in the film. One of the prostitutes sings a famous tango song “Sus Ojos Se Cerraron” by Carlos Gardel. It was recorded the year that he died and has become a symbol of his martyrdom. This is sung at the party where La Garza is eventually shot and her eyes close for one last time. It cements her fate and her importance as a beloved figure who is doomed to a tragic end. She was a Pan-Latino hero for this community, but she can no longer continue. Her rival, Selva, on the other hand, takes a liking to tango but of a different variety. She is seen singing “Beso de Fuego” which is a Spanish translation of the English song “Kiss of Fire” which is an English version of the Argentine song “El Choclo”. Her song is a Latino-American bastardization. It doesn’t represent the people but a darker alliance.

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