CONAC: Toccata and Fugue

[21/06/2015] This article, “CONAC: Tocata y Fuga—Abreu y Su Partida Secreta” (CONAC: Toccata and FugueAbreu and his slush fund) was published by the journalist Roger Santodomingo in the magazine Viernes on September 21, 1990. At the time, José Antonio Abreu – El Sistema’s founder – was minister of culture and president of the National Council for Culture (CONAC). Santodomingo went on to serve as president of the National College of Journalists. He now lives in the US, where he is executive producer of the TV program Efecto Naím on NTN24. The original article (in Spanish) can be found on my Spanish blog.

CONAC: Toccata and Fugue—Abreu and his slush fund

The culture sheikh has spent more than one billion bolivars of the arts treasure on a fleeting show: there is no sign of them. An audit of the budget’s implementation reveals reckless spending and diversion of funds. Congress is investigating. The show is about to begin.

“Culture has not stopped, nor has it been affected by the financial crisis; it has not even been intimidated by the difficult circumstances”. That is what José Antonio Abreu, the Minister of Culture and president of CONAC, told journalist Luis Losada to celebrate “the highest budget for culture in the history of the country.”

The Budgetary Act for 1990 details a budget of over a billion bolivars (1,102,485,400) for the National Council for Culture (in Spanish, Consejo Nacional de Cultura or CONAC). If we add the 300-million-bolivar loan awarded to Abreu to this figure, plus the 670 million allocated for culture, but spread around the ministries of the Interior, Energy and Mines, Labor, Education, Health, and Family, the total figure for government culture spending this year is over 2 billion bolivars (2,072,485,000).

The budget is higher than it has ever been, although it is not even 2 per cent of the total government budget, as is recommended by international organizations such as UNESCO. Economist Emeterio Gómez criticizes this situation, pointing out that there have been changes in the Venezuelan economy, but culture remains in spendthrift Saudi Venezuela. Yet, it is important to analyze how much of this “historic budget” is really directed to culture. Out of all of CONAC’s expenses, more than 66 percent is used to feed a hungry bureaucratic apparatus. Furthermore, the spreading of resources among other ministries has made it incredibly difficult to evaluate results and effectively control the implementation of the budget.

Without trying to evoke any sort of nostalgia, it is interesting to recall CONAC under José Alvarenga, who was its second president before the institution was merged with the Ministry of Culture. According to Maritza Jiménez in Cultura en la Venezuela Contemporánea, 1974-1989, Alvarenga was one of the officials who was able to clearly identify the causes of the cultural malaise of a decade ago: a budget deficit of 30 million bolivars and an absence of real cultural policies. In 1978, CONAC received 60 million bolivars and an additional 18 million for the following year. However, it had been dragging debt worth 18 million from the years of the Inciba. Its ordinary expenses – rent, subsidies to Monte Avila, scholarships, job boards and awards – were of 111,390,000 bolivars. By then, most of the dynamics of culture in Venezuela depended on CONAC.

Irregularities. A review of CONAC’s budgetary implementation shows delays in the awarding of subsidies, irrationality in the allocation of resources, an increase in the value of certain funds and reckless spending in areas not included in the budget to the detriment of programs that have strong potential.

Sources close to CONAC’s internal comptroller claim that this office does not operate as an auditing body and its role has been reduced to that of simply handling payments. “Many of the checks only go through a simple preliminary control; however, by law, these kind of procedures can only be carried out under exceptional circumstances. Here, this has become the norm and there is no guarantee that the money is being spent correctly”. On August 3 of this year, the Comptroller’s Commission of the Chamber of Deputies was informed that seven programs with budgets allocated by the Finance Commission had been cut by 50,205,777 bolivars, which were to be transferred to account 80, called “Transfers”, which is a “temporary fund, not well defined, which the minister (Abreu) himself administers at his own discretion”, according to a CONAC source who preferred to remain anonymous.

More specifically, the money was transferred to program 01 of the Higher Management and Coordination to two special sub-funds with rather similar names: “Transfers to persons” and “Various transfers to persons”.

The programs that were cut are, first of all – and interestingly – program 01 itself, which is part of Management, whose funds for Personnel, Materials, Services and Repairs were cut by 515,875 bolivars; the program “Support and Administrative Services”, whose funds for personnel, materials and “Public Debt and Other Financial Obligations” lost 678,421 Bs; “Cultural Planning and Research”, which is the one that was hit the hardest with a cut of 26,974,855 Bs; “Training and Education of Human Resources” (7,064,603 Bs); “Promotion and Dissemination of Cultural Events” (13,745,014 Bs); and the “Cultural Heritage” program (182,534 Bs).

Most of the cuts were made to the personnel account of each program. This includes salaries and affects social security. The source points out that 50 million were spent in the first week of August, in a “strange, improvised” movement of funds. The informant warns that one of the things that Abreu is criticized for is “squandering” resources on professional fees.

The CONACs. It seems like a new CONAC parallel to CONAC has been created. One is made up of the bureaucracy of the Simón Bolívar Centre, and the other one revolves around the Teresa Carreño [Centre] and includes more than 500 professional consultants from different areas of the arts and, in particular, the media.

Photocopies of checks and contracts show evidence of an explicit policy of hiring journalists who work in the cultural field, many of them in charge of publishing information in their respective media outlets. There are more than forty names in the lists of professional fees for consultants. All of these efforts are part of an information strategy that will go to any length to ensure that “the image of CONAC”, and that of the minister, “starts to change for the better”.

Up to a point, the strategy of investing money in consultants had been successful: there is a very long list of favorable opinions on its management in the most important media outlets in the country. Criticism is scarce, since “the minister is sensitive, and he is very well connected” – words that are commonly heard in editorial offices.

A third CONAC is represented by the Advisory Council. The musician and philosopher Joaquín López Mujica, an acting member of this Council representing CTV, who worked with Abreu for years, said that nowadays “Abreu’s management has been characterized by covert control of information. It’s what could be termed a totalitarianism of cultural information. It is very hard to find an article that is critical of him or his friends. The minister has around 40 journalists among his consultants”.

Imbalances. It is 1974 and the failure of Inciba (Instituto Nacional de Cultura y Bellas Artes, in English, the National Institute of Culture and High Arts), which was founded by a group of prominent individuals such as Picón Salas in 1964 with a modest budget of 11 million bolivars, is now widely acknowledged. In a period of economic boom and optimism, CONAC is then founded, backed by an Advisory Council, and entrusted with the responsibility of executing the cultural policy of an oil-rich Venezuela.

“But fifteen years have passed and CONAC is far from being close to its original intentions. Its role, in this period, seems to have been limited to the awarding of subsidies, in amounts that have increased in inverse proportion to the availability of resources in the country, so that up to this day it is not possible to speak of clearly defined objectives and much less some sort of continuity of programs” (Maritza Jiménez).

For the Financial Commission of Congress, however, CONAC does have very clearly defined objectives at this point: “regionalization and training of human resources”. Deputy Anselmo Natale, president of the Subcommittee on Education and Culture of the aforementioned Commission, said the following when referring to CONAC’s budget: “We recommend increasing the budget for the museum system and the new programs, as well as an increasing subsidies, especially for the groups working in the provinces”.

“We also recommend that both CONAC and Congress centralize the budget in a single ministry, so that CONAC, which is the most qualified agency to manage cultural spending, be the one to coordinate its implementation. This final recommendation, although it was agreed upon, could not be incorporated in the budget due to our time limitations, but it will be included in it next year”.

Joaquín López Mujica, who is also an advisor to the Subcommittee on Education and Culture, deals with figures, analyzes results and with the skills of a chess player, sets up a positional game. He concludes that “Abreu is definitely divorced from the reality of the country. He is floating on a planet made of candy. The problem is that underneath there are great inequalities in the allocation of resources and priorities are neglected. Money is being spent and spent but results are scarce.”

A critical tide is rising. Just as planning in the cultural sector is a new reality that dates no further back than the Fifth National Plan, the study of these problems is also of recent tenure:

“Pérez’s program is quite extensive, unlike the one run by Abreu. The minister barely even considers the idea of dialogue and decentralization. A cultural policy should consider at least three aspects: entertainment, which is culture as spectacle; instruction, which involves the training and professional development of human resources and the production of new talent; and research, as a route to creation and the search for answers, or the expansion of horizons at any rate”.

But, according to López Mujica, Abreu’s plans are focused on entertainment and, when they are not, they involve disruption of the natural educative process, in both popular and academic realms. “Culture for Abreu is spectacle”.

“I was there during the minister’s questioning”, said López Mujica, “and the justification of his project revolved around an insistence on the provinces being its priority. However, we were told by his director of Regional Development, Judith Villamediana, that only 50 percent of their goals had been fulfilled. When evaluating services, an official who only fulfills 50 percent of their goals is not good, it is within a range which would disqualify them.”

“But the numbers are very illuminating. If regionalization is a priority, why is it that out of a budget of more than 1.4 billion, only 41 million is allocated for it, less than 4 percent of the total, while dance receives 71 million and the Youth Orchestra receives 90 million? And, to be honest, the orchestra is not what it used to be. Its regional núcleos are not working and nowadays it is trying to gain prominence, but through bad execution. I believe that the priority here has been the show, the spectacle. And that is not cultural policy.”

Ignacio Iribarren Borges was the first president of CONAC who shared the position with that of Minister of State for Culture. One of the first tasks he sets for himself was to “make the field more decent”. He is called “the first cultured minister” and, with those credentials, he claimed that “CONAC’s structure is useless”. He had three key objectives: to incorporate the proletarian masses into the cultural sphere, to engage the private sector in the production of art, and to structure CONAC as a centralizing agency for all the resources and programs in the field, in order to allow simultaneously for the decentralization of the state in cultural matters.

Iribarren complained that 90 percent of the budget was allocated to 62 institutions in Caracas. CONAC was subsidizing 110 groups, out of which five were walking away with 70.36 percent of the budget. His efforts to change this reality brought him up against powerful vested interests that tried to isolate him. Today, it is important to ask ourselves once again how prevalent this reality still is.

“Culture has been concentrated in the capital. Taking paintbrushes to Acarigua for one day may be nice, but that is not regionalization. What we have here is an effort to separate cultural practices from social needs, from the needs of the regions. For that reason, the sub-commission decided to raise some subsidies to the regions. However, it is sad to see that CONAC does not allocate resources adequately.”

“Nowadays, when there is a tendency in the whole country, especially in the industrial and commercial sectors, towards privatization and a consequent need for profitable results, as well the introduction of planning and methods for monitoring the attainment of goals, the cultural sector looks like candy land. But it is because spectacles are being shown, but no future is being built. Money is spent in areas of the high arts that can very easily finance themselves, and things that carry great potential for immeasurable culture and economic value are neglected.”

José Antonio Abreu was known as “the maestro” (el maestro). He has been a man of music his whole life, and he is the father of the youth orchestra project. Those who have seen him conduct his orchestra might remember how a mystical explosion flies high in the sky following his baton. He is also known as a man who seduces with his skills and polite attitude, with his culture. But today, the word which best identifies him seems to be “power”, and with it he is capable, just like Mephistopheles, of drawing in Faust.

Abreu loves the press. His tenure has seen a record number of press conferences, since he likes to be the conductor in front of an orchestra and let the music flow in marvelous harmony. His students remember him as a zealous man regarding his work: “he would not allow a single impressionistic slip in a violin’s performance”. Sadly, the minister still has not met with me, even after a twenty-day wait after I requested an audience with him through several channels. There was no response to my request, and much less to many of the questions I wanted to ask him.

One of the questions I would ask him is why, if his education has come mainly from the musical world, music schools are so neglected nowadays. The Rafael Suárez Basic School has a budget of 60 thousand bolivars, Chivacoa Basic School’s budget is 24 thousand bolivars, and the Vicente Emilio Sojo Conservatory received a meagre 48 thousand bolivars.

It looks like the youth orchestra project, once real, is now an illusion. We can no longer talk of dozens of núcleos working on a national scale. Word within the music sphere is that the pedagogical idea of learning while playing, along with the democratic opportunity for youth to access high culture, which were characteristics of the project in its early years, have now been displaced by the unfair competition of the Simón Bolívar Orchestra, led by a desire to upstage other orchestras and some private music organizations.

During a European tour, the Simón Bolívar Orchestra had to cancel concerts in Paris and in London because “the instruments did not arrive in time.” A tremendous waste of government money: sending and maintaining 200 people in Europe, covering all their expenses, only for them to do some sightseeing. This also translates into an image problem on an international level.

“The youth orchestra has been on the decline”, argues Joaquín López Mujica. “In musical terms, it is in disarray and it has stopped being a pillar of the nation’s music, which makes it disproportionate that such resources are being allocated to it when there are other programs out there that have a much more significant geographical, quantitative, and qualitative reach.”

Another policy that has been put forth during Abreu’s tenure has been the signing of agreements with multiple institutions. The Inter-institutional Programs strategy seemed very interesting. The only problem is that many of the agreements exceeded CONAC’s real capacity, generating an “artificial and pointless expansionism that ended up spreading CONAC’s personnel too thin.”

The CONAC-CTV agreement, the only one that is included in the Budget Act with an allocated subsidy of two million bolivars, in spite of having been in effect for 10 years and have yielded some positive results, has been practically sidelined in this period.

The New Programs, another crucial element of cultural policy, received a large chunk of the budget. It included programs such the National Dance School, the National Film School, the Hector Poleo School of Visual Arts, the Armando Reverón School of Visual Arts, the National System of Youth Theaters, and the traditional Popular Culture Program. One hundred and thirty million were spent on programs that fulfilled the requirement of being focused on training and had national coverage. Nevertheless, according to López Mujica, “many of the institutions and programs have ended up as phantom institutes or programs that never took off, or their capacity has been limited and they have been unable to serve the whole country as intended.”

“Abreu has created a rift between the realm of freedom and the realm of necessity. We have had enough resources to try to create spaces of freedom within the realm of necessity. But this administration has neglected popular culture, which in itself is an opportunity to better appreciate what is distinctively ours, and has neglected research and education. And more than a billion has been invested in a great spectacle. That is Abreu’s style.”