Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey

Venezuela's Cultural Heritage

by Olivia Kroth

In the first week of December 2012, UNESCO decided to honour Venezuela's Dancing Devils of Corpus Christi by granting them the status of Immaterial World Culture Heritage. This unique Afro-Venezuelan tradition is several hundred years old, a colourful rite, full of spiritual and hidden magical meaning.

The Dancing Devils have Hispanic roots, but also ties to indigenous Latin American shamanism and old African secret societies of magic. The central motif is religious, since these devils dance on the Roman Catholic holiday of Corpus Christi, Latin for "Body of Christ." The liturgical feast of Corpus Christi is celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity, nine Thursdays after Holy Thursday before Easter.

The Dancing Devils' tradition involves drumbeats and devilish masks, made of painted papier-maché. They dance around the main plaza of their towns and finally stop in front of the church door, where they kneel down to receive the priest's blessing. The symbolism is clear, Christ has subdued Satan, good prevails over evil.

Of course, the church officials in former centuries reprimanded the Dancing Devils as expression of African heathens, but later they tolerated the ritual, because they were able to integrate it into the liturgy of Corpus Christi. Today, the Dancing Devils are a celebrated institution, attracting many tourists. This custom has become an integral part of Venezuelan folklore.

The historic background is not joyful, though, dating back to the slave system of colonial times, when black African slaves who protested against the rigid colonial system were ostracized by the predominantly white society. The first African slaves in Venezuela were Ewe-Fon, brought in 1528 by the Welsers, German bankers who had a concession to exploit Venezuela.

Later Bantu from Angola and the Congo were brought, also Manding from the Gold Coast. Most European nations participated in the lucrative slave trade. French, English, Portuguese and Spanish ships transported slaves to Venezuela. The Africans were treated as units of commerce. Prices were fixed according to their size and potential for hard labour.

In the 16th century, they had to work in the copper mines of Coro, state of Falcón, and of Buría, state of Yaracuy. Furthermore, the slaves were trained as pearl divers on the Island of Margarita, which now belongs to the state of Nueva Esparta, and on the Caribbean Coast in Cumaná, today state of Sucre.    

In the 18th century, large shipments of slaves went to Barlovento, state of Miranda, to work on cacao plantations, and to the area around Lake Maracaibo, state of Zulia, where they were used on the sugar cane plantations.

Slave resistance, however, began quite early in Venezuela. There were insurrections, and many slaves simply ran away from their owners. The first documented rebellion happened in Coro, in 1532. Another one followed in the Buría mines, in 1552. This rebellion was led by El Negro Miguel, who later founded a "cumbe," a settlement for escaped slaves. He became famous because he raised an army of 1.500 escaped men to attack colonial settlements. 

The cumbe communities grew fast in the 16th and 17th centuries. By 1720, around 30.000 escaped slaves were living in Venezuelan cumbes, compared to 60.000 slaves who worked in the mines and on plantations. Barlovento in the state of Miranda became a centre of strong resistance, with several active cumbe communities such as Curiepe and Caucagua.

Interestingly, two of the current Bolivarian governor candidates, nominated by the Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), were born in these towns.

Aristóbulo Istúriz, of Afro-Venezuelan origin, was born in Curiepe. A former Minister of Education in the Bolivarian Government of President Hugo Chávez, he is currently campaigning as governor candidate for the state of Anzoátegui.

Elías Jaua, the Vice-President of Venezuela, was born in Caucagua. He stepped down to campaign as governor candidate for his native state, Miranda, which PSUV wants to win back from the opposition.

The word "cumbe" is derived from the Manding term for "separate" or "out of the way," a safe place where the runaway slaves could hide. These cumbes were hidden out of sight, located in swamps or remote mountains. They usually housed about 120 residents. Often they were helped by the local indigenous tribes of Venezuela.

Afro-Venezuelans played an important role in the country's struggle for independence. Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, realized their strategic importance. In the Declaration of Independence (1810), trafficking of slaves was forbidden.

In 1821, the "Ley de vientre" (Law of the Belly) was passed. It stated that all Venezuelan children, whether born of slaves or free parents, were automatically free. Finally, in 1854, slavery was officially abolished in Venezuela.

Black citizens, however, continued to face subtle forms of racial discrimination up to the 20th century. In the 3rd and 4th Republics of Venezuela, the underlying policy of "blanqueamiento" (Whitening) favoured the white, Euro-dominated elites. The contrasting term was "negrear," which denoted the marginalization of Afro-Venezuelans.

Since 1999, with the arrival of the 5th Republic under President Hugo Chávez, who has Afro-Venezuelan roots, too, this part of the population has been treated as equal citizens with equal rights.

In 2004, on the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Venezuela, the Museum of Fine Arts in Caracas featured an exposition with the title "Obscurity, Silence and Rupture." The network of Afro-Venezuelan organizations commemorated this important date by raising public awareness and increasing social recognition of the cultural contributions of African descendents in the country.

The exhibition presented photos and written personal accounts of former slaves. One elderly man remembered, "I was whipped a lot, because I was always running away." After his last, successful escape, he worked in pearl harvesting, salt farms and fishing villages.

A large poster attracted the curiosity of school-children, who visited this exhibition with their teachers. The poster showed an ad which had appeared in the Gazeta de Caracas on the 17th of January 1812. A reward was offered to the person who would return an escaped female slave to her owners, "Azú, from the Congo, strong of body, flat-chested, 30 years old, speaks only her native language, escaped the night of January 9." 

Visitors of the exhibition were offered to taste typical Afro-Venezuelan food, for example "bunuelos de ocumo," cakes made of the starchy tuberous root ocumo. They could drink a cup of chocolate, made from Chuao cacao.

Chuao, a small town on the Caribbean Coast in the state of Aragua, is inhabited by descendents of African slaves until this very day. They all work in cacao production on the "ruta de cacao" or in tourism. Chuao has preserved the tradition of the Dancing Devils.

All in all, there are eleven official guilds of Dancing Devils in Venezuela: San Francisco de Yare in Miranda; Turiamo, Cata, Ocumare de la Costa, Cuyagua and Chuao in Aragua; San Millán and Patanemo in Carabobo; Naiguatá in Vargas; San Rafael de Orituco in Guárico; Tinaquillo in Cojedes.

Each guild has its own colours and costumes. The masks resemble demons, Chinese dragons or various sea animals of the Caribbean Coast, presented in vivid hues of red, orange, yellow, green and blue. The guilds follow a strict hierarchical structure, which is shown in the costumes.

The "primer capataz," first foreman, wears a mask with four horns, the "segundo capataz" and "tercer capataz," foremen number two and three, have three horns, while the "promesos," pledged novices, may display only two horns.

Women are not allowed to wear masks, but red scarves and headbands. The women dance in separate groups from the men. This rule goes back to the times when the representatives of the Catholic Church found the mixed devils' dances too "sinful." So the women were separated from the men.   

Venezuela's Minister of Culture, Pedro Calzadilla, travelled to the UNESCO meeting, in order to explain the background of the tradition.

"The origins have been preserved for hundreds of years with great loyalty and devotion. The Dancing Devils of Corpus Christi are an authentic expression of the congregations our brothers held, the African slaves who were brought to Venezuela. The ritual of the Dancing Devils is a cultural and spiritual blend of Catholic faith and African beliefs. Furthermore, the guilds were institutions of solidarity, very old social organizations that people could turn to in need and ask for help," the Minister of Culture pointed out.

Rebeca Sánchez, Venezuela's Ambassador at UNESCO, said in an interview, emitted by Telesur, "The Dancing Devils show our cultural syncretism." The combination of Roman Catholic belief with African cults allowed an inclusive approach to all faiths involved, showing cultural acceptance of various contradicting religions, to facilitate coexistence and unity.

Syncretism reduced inter-religious tensions and enmity by creating a new system. Similar adaptation processes can be observed on the Caribbean islands, which share long periods of European imperialism and importation of slaves from Central and West Africa. They formed such syncretic cults as Santería in Cuba or Voudou in Haiti, incorporating and blending Christian and African elements.

UNESCO names five requirements for Immaterial World Culture Heritage: the rite must have a long tradition and have been handed down from one generation to the next; the participants must elaborate the presentation themselves; the rite must belong to the cultural heritage of the Latin American and Caribbean space; it must be supported by the Government and have been inscribed in the country's own list of cultural heritage.

All of these requirements were fulfilled by the Dancing Devils of Corpus Christi, as the extensive documentation of 22 photos, 11 masks and some videos showed, which were exhibited at the UNESCO centre. In addition, a delegation of Dancing Devils from Venezuela performed live in front of the UNESCO delegates.

This show was a great success. People got up from their seats, applauded, took photos and filmed the event. Even after the Dancing Devils had disappeared, the audience was so excited that it took quite a while to calm them down. Several calls for order by the chairman were needed before the UNESCO delegates were ready to continue with their agenda.

Afterwards, Venezuela's Vice-Minister for Cultural Identity and Diversity, Benito Irady, commented, "We ratified the condition of our multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, as defined by the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Since 1999, under the presidency of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela has undertaken immense efforts to safeguard our cultural patrimony."

The Dancing Devils of Corpus Christi are the first UNESCO Immaterial World Culture Heritage of Venezuela. The country has already two UNESCO World Culture Heritage Sites: the old colonial town of Coro and its Caribbean port, La Vela de Coro, both situated in the state of Falcón.

Furthermore, the National Park of Cnaaima, in the state of Bolívar, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its beautiful nature, with some spectacular waterfalls, Angel Falls, attracting many tourists from all parts of the world.    

Prepared for publication by:


Lisa Karpova