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Backstory: Venezuela's cultural revolution

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But critics, including many artists themselves, see the move as a political gambit – one that, in trying to promote a national cultural identity, threatens the very integrity of the culture itself.

"They [Chávez administration officials] have no respect for culture in Venezuela," says Beatriz Sogbe, an art historian here. "You can't hang culture within the law."

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Miguel Miguel, an art curator, thought he made a mistake two years ago when he visited the Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas. He attended what was billed as a "megaexhibit." It turned out to be a government-conceived show in which amateur artists were invited to hang their works next to modern masterpieces. On a recent day, half of the museum's 13 rooms, including one with famous Picasso sketches, were dedicated to a contest for Venezuelan artists.

"In Venezuela, we used to be the envy of Latin America in terms of the quality of our museums," he says. "Today it's grand populism, a grand confusion, and mediocrity.... I thought I was at the wrong place."

For Ms. Sogbe, the concern is not that the country will suddenly develop a taste for amateur or mediocre art. It's that people won't get to experience great art or great music or great film – especially the poor who don't have the means to visit world-class exhibitions and concert halls outside their own cities.

"If you don't know Bach, you don't miss Bach," she says. "Culture is not folklore; folklore is just a part of it."

But the Chávez administration and some others believe that government mandates can encourage more creativity and cultural distinctiveness. Sergio Curiel, a movie editor who has worked on such Venezuelan thrillers as "The Black Sheep" (1987) and "Shoot to Kill" (1990), believes it's time for more of the country's own traditions and talents to appear on the Big Screen.

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