Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Culture, Peace and Contested National Identity

“Normally, the traditional politician has in his house a beautiful bar, but he does not have a library, they are enemies of the written word, they do not know Honduran music, they are fans of the narco-corrido, of ranchera and música procaz, and the proof of this is that this is the music they use in their political campaigns because it is the best representation of them and best identifies them...."

So, who might we imagine made this provocative statement? One of the Artists in Resistance who have kept the spotlight on the erosion of public culture that began with the appointment of Myrna Castro by the de facto regime, to replace Minister of Culture Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle?

Would you believe maybe a cartoonist who was elected to the Honduran Congress in 2009 as a Liberal representative in Congress?

Ángel Darío Banegas has been a political cartoonist since 1985. His work appears in La Prensa, and has been recognized internationally.

When he began his run for the Congreso Nacional in 2008, he was quoted as saying that he wanted to clear out the "monsters and dinosaurs that have discredited politics for years". He also made an apparently serious proposal at that time that Congress members receive only minimum wage.

Starting in 2000, Banegas began to teach courses on drawing and painting, especially for children. His latest move, described as "a permanent cultural activity to stimulate youth so that they stay away from idleness and violence", seems to be closely related.

It also highlights the contested nature of "culture" in the aftermath of a coup and a de facto regime that made cultural institutions central targets for attack.

As announced in La Tribuna this weekend, using his new position in Congress as head of its "Commission on Culture" Banegas has promoted the first Honduran "Festival de las Artes, Congreso, Cultura y Paz" (Festival of the Arts, Congress, Culture and Peace). Taking place in Danlí, it is supposed to be the first of a series in all departments of the country, "to convert public areas into spaces of expression that will contribute to the formation and consolidation of peace, as a culture".

Invoking "peace" as a culture echoes a public discourse in Honduras that predates the coup, but is strongly linked to it. Public concerts and marches as early as May, 2008, explicitly framed as attempts to persuade young people not to take drugs or become involved in street gangs, were organized with the support of the Catholic hierarchy and the business community.

In July 2008, we watched one of these marches in the former colonial capital city of Comayagua, ending at stages set up in front of the cathedral where inspirational speeches were given and Garifuna musicians and dancers performed, explicitly urging teenagers to adhere to "peace". The crowd included large numbers of people dressed in white.

Both before and after the coup, marches using similar rhetoric and clothing were mobilized against President Zelaya and later in support of the de facto regime by the right-wing Unión Civica Democratica and its allies. The rhetoric used in these marches equated "peace" with more intensive policing. As press coverage on June 5, 2009 of a demonstration in Choluteca organized by the Chamber of Commerce described it, marchers were "in favor of peace, security, and democracy and therefore asked for an end to high indices of violence and insecurity that afflict the country".

Banegas' campaign advances a second emphasis, on national identity. The first event in Danlí, and the other festivals of arts to follow, are described as intended to help identify students with artistic talent "who will contribute to local and national culture in the forge of identity".

Banegas personally emphasizes the link between art, national identity, and the outsider political stance on which he ran:
“Because of my critical attitude towards traditional politics, I committed myself strongly to not be the same and to be different; ...I was charged with presiding over the Commission of Culture and Arts, for which we are pledged with a group of partners to make a meaningful effort to manage to fortify national identity."

The first program to this end is the festivals of art. The second is equally ambitious:
"we have created an National Identity Prize that will be given every year, on the 20th of July, in the City of Gracias, Lempira, with the honor in 2010 going to the singer/songwriter Guillermo Anderson."

What is left unstated here is what stands as national identity.

Both programs represent incursions by Congress onto terrain of the executive branch's Ministry of Culture. Banegas seems to be directly taking aim at the Ministry through the Casas de Cultura it coordinates, saying that he will promote congressional initiatives
related to strengthening the Casas de la Cultura in all the country that... in many cases are empty shells, entities abandoned to their own luck.

Banegas repeatedly defines cultural activity as aimed at reinforcing a uniform national agenda and a singular national identity:
“culture is fundamental for the development of a country since it contributes to national identity and we ourselves regain faith in what we do, what he have and our own way of being".

The original mission of the Casas de Cultura was something quite different: "to provide conditions for the flourishing of local culture" through a "policy of decentralization of cultural material".

The Casas de Cultura were central to efforts under the Zelaya administration to promote pluralistic cultural identity; as Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle notes:
we almost tripled the number of Casas de la Cultura in capitals and important towns with their own identity and in remote ethnic communities, Garifuna, Cusuna, or Tawaka, each with bilingual libraries.

Politicization of culture is nothing particularly new, in Honduras or elsewhere. Pastor Fasquelle begins a review of governmental intervention in Honduran culture with the proposition that "the organizations of Honduran cultural institutionality, the Instituto de Antropología e Historia (I.H.A.H) and la Secretaria de Cultura (S.C.A.D.), were creatures of dictatorship":
The Institute was founded with the idea of glorifying ancient Copan as the historic navel of the nation, paradoxically by foreign inspiration, while the Secretariat was established with the primordial aim of co-opting intellectuals and creators. And it ended up deposited in the hands of the military, whose vision amalgamated a folk concept of the culture of the people and an elitist vision of bourgeois High Culture. These were its sins of origin.

Pastor Fasquelle writes that in his first term as Minister of Culture starting in 1994, he began "the professionalization [of these organizations] and the articulation of policy lines: decentralization, democratization, ethnic rescue and support for creators".

When he returned to that role in 2006 he again pushed forward an agenda of "diffusion [of information], rescue of the national patrimony, diversity, direct assistance to creators and decentralization of functions and resources".

Rather than aim to produce a single national identity by promoting a uniform culture, the Ministry of Culture in the Zelaya administration promoted projects designed to exemplify Honduras' cultural diversity.

Pastor Fasquelle argues (as does the former director of the Institute of Antropology and History, Dario Euraque) that the very direction of these policies-- pluralistic, democratizing, decentralizing-- is what brought on the de facto regime's suspicion, embodied memorably in the appointment of Myrna Castro, who denounced book distribution, labeled the Casas de Cultura "Casas de ALBA", and redirected funding to Fashion Week in Tegucigalpa.

But, Pastor Fasquelle argues, all of this "underlines as the moral that our principal function-- institutionally-- is to secure that the people appropriate their own patrimony". He notes that only when culture is locally produced and controlled can it actually survive, a principle that guided policies of the Ministry that encouraged mobilizing local historians and local stakeholders in presenting their own culture.

In stark contrast to the implicit argument that culture is weaker in Honduras today, Pastor Fasquelle suggests that resistance to the coup has awakened creators of the arts in Honduras to their role in public life:
the brave involvement of the great majority of the best thinkers and artists in the country in civic life is one of the unexpected fruits [of the coup], surprising and hopeful. ... our artists and intellectuals have subscribed-- for decades-- to skepticism, not just towards the public cultural institutions, but also towards the State and politics. This skepticism has been a problem for the culture and a headache for the public cultural institutions. But worse, it has been part of the civic problem. Because, to the degree that the critical and creative spirits absented themselves from the forum, politics remained orphaned of intelligence and imagination. The flourishing of culture in the Resistance has engendered a new consciousness, a new type of commitment, critical for the opposition and for the future reconstruction of a deeper and more authentic democracy.

So we have laid out for us a series of contrasts: decentralization versus centralization; State projects versus local appropriation of patrimony; an idealized culture of "peace" versus culture as the expression of critical consciousness.

A telling detail: the time and place cited for the new "National Identity Prize", on the Día de Lempira in the heartland of the Lenca people, implicitly invokes a national imaginary of mestizaje, but now stripped even of the nominal and token brandishing of the Lenca as the primordial people of Honduras.

In the aftermath of a coup that polarized the Honduran people, two models of cultural production are now in open competition. One argues for promoting a common Honduran national identity; the other to recognize the multiplicity of Honduran identities. In the absence of any coherent cultural policy emerging from the new Minister of Culture, the nationalist project enjoys the advantage of energetic promotion by a Congressional novice with a public profile and the means now to promote his own agenda on a national stage. Yet we cannot help wonder if it will prove so easy to put the genie of Honduran diversity back in the bottle of a uniform national culture.

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