Archive for March, 2008

An innovative form of eco-friendly housing is taking off in Venezuela.

“Petrocasas” is the name given to a new kind of house built with waste generated by oil production. A plastic derived from the process of refining crude oil is filled with concrete to create durable homes with a high degree of flexibility of design, not to mention a very low environmental impact.

As the world’s fifth-largest exporter of oil — over 3 million barrels per day! — Venezuela faces unique challenges with regard to achieving environmental sustainability. Part of the solution is being found in initiatives like the government-funded “Petrocasas” project, which helps low-income Venezuelans begin to prosper by replacing the precarious homes found in poor barrios with eco-friendly ones that last longer and cost less.

On Sunday, 459 “Petrocasas” were granted to families in the coastal state of Carabobo. There are plans to build 60,000 of these economical and environmentally benign dwellings. This is all part of Venezuela’s “Energy Revolution,” a plan to to develop new industries around the processing of raw materials like oil. Read more about this program here.

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Once again, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela is on tour in the U.S. and making a big impression on music fans and critics alike. Last night, the Venezuelan group performed in Los Angeles.

The star of the tour is clearly Gustavo Dudamel, the renowned young conductor who was tapped to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic starting next year and who was recently profiled on 60 Minutes.

Dudamel is known as a maverick of classical music, an innovative composer with a unique style and boundless energy. Though most of the reviews of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra performances focus on Dudamel, he has attributed his own success to “El Eistema,” a government-funded youth orchestra program established in Venezuela in 1975. Still today, it continues to bring music education to low-income children who would otherwise lack access to involvement in the arts. Founder Dr. José Antonio Abreu was awarded the Glenn Gould prize this year.

To read glowing reviews of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra’s recent performances in California in the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, and the Oakland Tribune. Next week, they head to Chicago and London.

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Here is a story incredible enough to inspire a book, a film, and a franchise of motivational audio CDs. A woman named Lisa Tylee is bicycling 9,000 mile route around the U.S. to raise funds to benefit street children in Venezuela. She is a co-founder of the organization Veniños, which is dedicated to protecting disadvantaged young people from poor urban areas of Venezuela.

Amazingly, Lisa will complete her journey with the use of just one leg. She was born without a left knee, and so she refers to her trip in Spanish as “Bici Sin Rodilla 2008.” She estimates that she will spend 171 days on her bicycle and average 50 miles per day.

To find out when Lisa will be rolling through your town, read her online diary. Here is a sample from a recent entry: “I can’t say the first week was the easiest of experiences with the wild variation in weather conditions, including a tornado watch, mice in motel room, lack of evening meals and long days. They all took their toll… Although there was no shortage of adventure and entertainment.”

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Venezuelan music is replete with diverse influences, from Andean, Caribbean, and African rhythms and traditional folkloric instruments, to North American and European rock, jazz, and electronica trends.

Babylon Motorhome is a ska and reggae band that is making a splash right now in the local music scene in Caracas. The 12-person group blends different styles to come up with a unique and varied sound. On their Myspace page, they describe themselves as “a collective that presents the vibe from Caracas in a varied and multicolor form through the combination of music, graphics, technology, improvisation and ideas.”

This video clip is Babylon Motorhome’s re-mix of a classic by the Venezuelan musical great Simón Díaz. It is included in the compilation Simón Díaz Remixes.

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In Venezuela, as in many other Catholic countries around the world, Easter Sunday has historically been celebrated with the “Quema de Judas,” or the burning of an effigy of the traitorous apostle from the Bible, Judas.

According to some, the activity allows worshipers to let out resentment, anger, or other negative feelings, which are symbolically destroyed with the burning of the figure of Judas. Participants strive to make the most grotesque version of the Biblical man, which is then displayed in a public plaza. Sometimes, the effigy is made to resemble an individual — often a politician — disliked by the community.

Although the ritual is no longer practiced very widely, it has been memorialized as an important part of folk traditions in Venezuela. For example, the painting shown above portrays the “quema de judas” in a rural town in what looks like the Andean countryside.

Of course, the “Quema de Judas” also remains a part of Venezuela’s living culture. For many communities of faith, it is still a meaningful practice in the present day. At right, the event is celebrated in a modest urban neighborhood.

To read about the “Quema de Judas” in the Caracas neighborhood of El Cementerio, click here (English) or here (Spanish). It seems that this year, locals dressed up their Judas to look like “Mr. Exxon,” complete with a business suit, a tie, and dark sunglasses.

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Read all about it!

In recent days, news came of two major triumphs: the overturning of ExxonMobil’s $12 billion asset freeze against Venezuela’s state oil company, and a resolution by the OAS rejecting Colombia’s deadly military raid into Ecuador. At the heart of both issues is the question of sovereignty.

First, in the dispute with ExxonMobil, Venezuela went to court to stand up for its decision to bring oil projects in the Orinoco region under the legal framework for majority state control of the oil industry that was established in the 1970s. ExxonMobil challenged that decision in UK courts, but a judge ruled the firm’s move was inappropriate.

A second headline is the OAS resolution to reject Colombia’s March 1st raid in Ecuador, which killed a top guerrilla leader as well as two dozen others, including 4 Mexican university students. The resolution was approved unanimously by the 34 member states of the OAS. OAS representatives are pictured here applauding the decision.

Venezuela took the lead in denouncing the breach of sovereignty by Colombia. This is due to the fact that Venezuela shares a 1,500 mile-long border with Colombia — one of the longest common borders in the hemisphere. Also, refugees and communities displaced by the violence in Colombia are increasingly granted asylum in Venezuela.

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Yesterday, a free concert was held on the border of Venezuela and Colombia to reaffirm peaceful relations between the countries.

The BBC reported that the show was organized by Colombian pop star Juanes, who told about 100,000 fans, “We are all citizens who believe that the future of a country is not only a matter for a president, a government but also for us. We are part of it – the movement of citizens.” Another well-known Colombian singer, Carlos Vives, called the event “a celebration of the union between Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia.”

Headlines in the Spanish-language press read that Juanes was so overwhelmed by the turnout at the “peace without borders” concert and the enthusiasm of the crowd he wanted to cry.

It seems that, once again, all is well in the Andes.

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Venezuela’s Indigenous population makes up just 1-2% of the national population. In recent years, though, the government has made some noteworthy efforts to reach out to this historically marginal group.

A while ago, we wrote about a new initiative to promote Indigenous community radio. More recently, the state of Amazonas has revealed plans to create a public library focusing on Indigenous language and culture that will be designed in coordination with native leaders.

The governor of Amazonas, Liborio Guarulla (pictured at right), belongs to the Banvia indigenous community. The Banvia are one of 15 different ethnic groups that call Amazonas home, and all of them have distinct linguistic and historical traditions. The library will be located in Puerto Ayacucho, the capital of Amazonas.

Want to know more? Check out this article on the Guaicaipuro Mission initiated by the government in 2003 to restore the rights of Indigenous people in Venezuela.

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Venezuelan race-car driver Milka Duno rocketed to international stardom when she won the Grand Prix of Miami in 2004.

Last year, she was one of only three women in the Indy 500. Now, Duno has been signed for a second season in the IndyCar Series and is set to drive the #23 CITGO-sponsored Honda Dallara.

It so happens that Milka Duno’s talents go far beyond the race track: she holds 4 Master’s degrees in science and engineering, and has written a children’s book called “Go, Milka, Go!” Remember that old ’80s song, “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades”? Well, the New York Post recently reported that Milka Duno owns over 200 pairs of sunglasses. Sounds about right.

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Last Friday, Venezuela’s culture minister awarded the 2008 ALBA Prize to two of the biggest stars of Latin American arts scene.

And the winners are…

The esteemed Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, who is one of South America’s most famous living authors, and the legendary modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil (pictured here).

Niemeyer is best known for planning the capital city of Brasília. His comment upon receiving the ALBA Prize was equally as inspiring as his designs: “I will keep collaborating in the struggle for human solidarity, against misery, against violence, against the capitalist regime that generates the inequalities that we will someday overcome.”

This is the first year that the ALBA Prize has been given out, and the standards set by these first two recipients is very high indeed.

In case you forgot, ALBA is short for the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (or Alternativa Bolivariana para los Pueblos). It is a plan for regional integration championed by Venezuela that combines economic goals with social ones. The cultural fund oversees the ALBA Prize, and was created by Cuba and Venezuela in 2006 to help promote creative expression and preserve cultural diversity in the Americas.

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In a few days, Venezuela’s first ever independently produced soap opera will air on the new public television station, TVes (Televisora Venezolana Social).

Now, you may be asking yourself, “Didn’t Venezuela invent soap operas?” Not quite, but the country has a long and enthusiastic tradition around telenovelas, as the popular — and famously melodramatic — genre is called. And despite having created around 100 beloved programs of this nature, Venezuela has never before seen an independent telenovela.

“Caramelo e’ Chocolate” (actors pictured at right) is the first local, non-corporate effort of its kind. It is designed to give Venezuelan TV viewers an opportunity to reflect on their own history, traditions, and diversity.

The public channel TVes, which will broadcast “Caramelo e’ Chocolate” each Monday, was founded less than a year ago in Caracas. It is a result of attempts in recent years to “democratize the airwaves” in Venezuela by promoting more domestic and independently produced content. We say, bring on the drama!

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Having too quiet a Thursday? Need a pick-me-up soundtrack?

Get tuned into Los Amigos Invisibles, the funk band that is arguably Venezuela’s most successful musical export. On their website, you can listen for free to their entire 2004 album, “Venezuelan Zinga Son.”

According to the band’s official bio, Los Amigos Invisibles was formed in Caracas in 1991. The members left Venezuela to try their luck in New York City in 1996, “thanks to ex President Caldera’s economic policies.” In New York, “destiny threw the dice,” and they landed a record deal.

Since then, Los Amigos have been touring like crazy, so be sure to check out their schedule of concerts so that you can see them play live. In the meantime, watch this video for a taste of the action:

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