Anti-bullfighting campaigner Jordi Casamitjana gives an overview of the current situation of bullfighting in Venezuela to see if the end of this cruel spectacle in this South American country could be around the corner.
There are nine countries, not eight.
If you read anti-bullfighting literature from animal protection organisations, you often see that they say there are eight countries in the world where there is still bullfighting. It’s nine, actually. They always forget one: the United States of America. No, I am not talking about rodeos, but about actual bullfighting (although in its Californian style, a variation of the Portuguese style). But perhaps soon, it would be eight again. Bullfighting is in a steep decline in all countries where is still happening, so perhaps one of the bullfighting countries will see the complete end of this barbaric spectacle soon.
Could it be in Europe? It will not be Spain, because although in the north of the Iberian Peninsula bullfighting is only hanging out in the Basque countries (it is already banned in Catalonia, about to go away in Asturias and it’s just incipient in Galicia and Aragon), it’s still common in the centre and the south. It will not be France, as although it is banned in most of the country, all attempts to ban it in the South have so far failed. It will not be Portugal, because although they haven’t been killing the bull in public for decades — they still kill it in private, sometimes two days after having been tortured in the arena — there are still many bullfights all over the country.
Could it be in America? It will not be Mexico, because although several states have already banned it and Mexico City could ban it soon, Mexico remains one of the most bullfighting countries in the world — if not the most. It will not be Peru, because although bullfighting has declined, there are still twice more bullrings than football stadiums, and in 2020, the country’s Constitutional Court shot down a class-action lawsuit to ban bullfighting. It will not be Ecuador, because although in 2011 the country voted to ban bullfighting in a referendum — now threatened to be overruled — the industry found some loopholes and still hangs up in some regions. It will not be Colombia, because although the recent on-and-off bullfighting history in the capital Bogotá seems to be in its “off” phase now, the country’s Constitutional Court is notorious for successfully stopping any attempt for a national ban. It will not be the US, because most animal protection groups there have not even bothered to campaign against the bullfighting industry that has been operating in California for many decades. It could be, in fact, Venezuela.
I used to work for animal protection organisations that had anti-bullfighting campaigns, so as part of my anti-bullfighting work, from 2006 to 2010, I visited these countries several times investigating the bullfighting industry and meeting the local anti-bullfighting movements. Therefore, I have enough knowledge and perspective on this subject to believe that, although most citizens of each of these countries want theirs to be the next one to end bullfighting, I think the Venezuelans may get there first. In this article, I will explain why.
Bullfighting in Venezuela, 15 Years Ago
I first visited Venezuela in November 2006, when I was the hunting and bullfighting campaigner of the then London-based League Against Cruel Sports. I had persuaded my boss Mike Hobday to start an anti-bullfighting campaign because I felt it would fit the organisation’s remit and I had the skills and knowledge for it. But to do that, I needed to understand in detail the socio-politics of each bullfighting country and the differences of all the national bullfighting industries. The plan was that I would travel to all those countries, do my research and investigations on the ground, and devise nation-tailored campaign strategies that I could share with the local anti-bullfighting groups.
When I arrived in Venezuela I had already been to Peru and Ecuador, so I was able to focus my attention on the right things. After my tour, I concluded that from all the Latin American countries with a bullfighting industry, Venezuela was probably the one that had the weakest. Although the city of Valencia (the same name as the Spanish city) that I had visited held one of the biggest bullrings in South America, there were not many towns with bullrings compared with other countries. In addition to this, the capital Caracas did no longer have an active bullring, which was abandoned and in disrepair (something I love to see).
When the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela began in 1992 with the military uprisings in February and November, about 250 bullfights were held in Venezuela. The revolution led to Hugo Chávez becoming the president, and neither his government nor the general population seemed to support bullfighting. However, the industry survived, and did not decline much then. In 2000, there were still bullfights in 20 out of the 22 states. When I visited the country, the industry was still relatively strong, possibly by relying on corporate sponsorship and with the support of wealthy fans. For instance, Francisco Cabrera, the Mayor of Valencia, openly supported the industry, and his local government subsidised it. There were eight bullfights a year in Valencia for the festivities of the Virgen del Socorro.
After Valencia, the next bullrings size-wise were the ones in Maracaibo (Venezuela’s second city), Mérida (the most touristy city), San Cristobal, Maracay (it had a bullfighting school) and Barcelona (no, this is not the Catalan city where I was born, but another one). They were all northern municipalities, as there was no bullfighting neither in the rainforest areas in the south nor the mountain areas of the West.
Bullfighting was legal in Venezuela because there was no national (federal) or state animal protection legislation that prohibited this or any other cruel activity towards animals (such as coleo, a type of very popular rodeo-like bull abuse). In April 2005, a bill was proposed by Congressman Jesus Castro, but a year later it had not even been revised by any Congress members. As a result of this situation, in 2006 there was a big demonstration organised by local animal protection groups asking for the national Animal Protection Bill to be taken seriously by politicians.
After analysing the situation on the ground, I met the different animal protection organisations, and we discussed the different strategies we could take to abolish bullfighting. Before my trip, I had devised four main strategic routes to abolition, and after visiting a country I could advise which one I thought would work there. In Venezuela, I advised that the ‘unpopular route’ (which includes targeting sponsors and fostering public opinion against the industry) was the one with the most potential in Venezuela. In addition, I also advised that the ‘non-replacement’ route (preventing the creation of new bullfighting aficionados), in particular, trying to enforce the current legislation prohibiting children attending violent spectacles, and supporting the young anti-bullfighting generations, should be also developed. I did not think that the ‘embargo route’ (aimed at tourists) and the ‘legislation route’ (aimed to create national or state bans) would be as effective then. I thought that although the fact that Chavez did not like bullfighting would increase the chances of the viability of a national ban, as he came from an area of “coleo’ (the Latin American rodeo) he may perhaps avoid a ban in case it affected this more popular “sport”.
Bullfighting in Venezuela, 12 Years Ago
In December 2008, I returned to Venezuela to see how the campaigns were progressing and to carry on my research. This time, though, I was representing the Dutch organisation CAS-International — at the time the biggest solely anti-bullfighting organisation in a non-bullfighting country — as their Campaigns Coordinator.
This time, I managed to get more detailed information about the industry. I identified the following big bullrings: Monumental in Valencia, Pueblo Nuevo in San Cristóbal-Tachira, Monumental Román Eduardo Sandia in Mérida, Monumental in Maracaibo, Maestranza Cesar Rincón in Maracay, Valle de Pascua, Tovar, and La Victoria. And then 55 municipalities that had in recent years organised bullfights in small bullrings, often mobile (like a travelling circus).
The abandoned bull ring Nuevo Circo in Caracas was now being rebuilt, not for bullfighting, but for other cultural events. However, the industry claimed that they planned to do some bullfighting there when it would be completed.
One of the most important bullfighting festivals in Venezuela was the Feria de San Cristobal, in the state of Tachira, close to the Colombian border. It was the city that historically introduced bullfighting to the country in the 19th century, and its festival was sometimes described as an “international festival”. Other bullfighting festivals in this state were the Feria de la Frontera in San Antonio and the Feria de Tariba. Although Maracay was not a very bullfighting city, it was said that the state of Aragua from which it is the capital was the “base” of the Venezuelan bullfighting industry — since this is where the most bullfighting family, the Jirón family, lived. Its bullfighting festival was celebrated in April and was called Feria de San Jose. The state of Carabobo was the first in the number of bullfights, since Valencia, with the second biggest bullring in Latin America, is its capital. In the state of Mérida,the main bullfighting festival was the Feria del Solar, in the capital Mérida, in February. In the petrol-based state of Zulia, in the Northwest, Maracaibo organised two days of bullfighting during its ferias in November.
There were 42 registered professional bullfighters, 25 farms breeding bullfighting bulls, and three bullfighting schools. The industry had now organised itself to protect bullfighting from its detractors, and in 2007 the society Sociedad TaurinaBolivariana and the Plataforma Taurina were created to defend bullfighting. The general perception was that, in the two years since I last visited, the industry had received more subsidies, but fewer people attended bullfights.
As far as the anti-bullfighting movement was concerned, the had been some progress. The grassroots activities seem to increase with several demonstrations and protests occurring all over the country. In Mars 2007, a bill for a new animal protection law that would ban bullfighting was tabled. This was a proposal written by the lawyer Edith Varela and presented by Luis Tascón Gutierrez, a member of Congress part of the Chavez party at the time (this changed later). The Bill, who stated that bullfighting was allowed only if the bull was not hurt, had strong opposition from the Coleo industry, which lobbied heavily against it. It was approved in the first debate, but it did not progress.
Locally, some municipalities banned bullfighting from their areas, such as Naguanagua (which also banned circuses), close to Valencia in the state of Carabobo. In San Antonio, in the South, and Mérida, the entrance of minors to bullfights was banned. But perhaps most symbolically, Carrizal, in the state of Miranda, became the first town in the country officially declaring itself anti-bullfighting. Although such political declarations had been common in Europe since the 1980s, only one town in America called Baños de Agua Santa (in Ecuador) had done so, making Carrizal the second. During that trip, I visited both towns to congratulate the local authorities, events which were recorded in the press.
In Valencia, things seemed to be at an interesting turning point. Valencia had a pro-Chavez Council, but there had been a change of Mayor. Paco Cabrera, the pro-bullfighting one, was now gone, and amazingly, the Valencia’s Council was even debating the possibility of declaring the city anti-bullfighting. As part of it, I was invited to the plenary of the Council to give a presentation about the abolition of bullfighting. During that meeting, with the press present, no Council member dared to defend bullfighting in public, even those known to be in favour.
After my second visit, I advised that the strategic ‘legislation route’ seemed to be more possible now, so getting local, regional and finally national bans could work in the medium term.
Bullfighting in Venezuela, 6 Years Ago
I never returned to Venezuela as I moved to work on other animal protection issues, but I kept in touch with the local activist there, who informed me about what was happening.
In Caracas, the ex-bullring Nuevo Circo had now been transformed, taken over by the younger generations as a space to use for “true” artistic events. The Fundación Cultural Nuevo Circo is a group composed of artists (musicians, dancers, painters, performers and even chefs) who were very supported by the Government (which supports a policy of ‘endogenic cultural centres’, or initiatives to develop culture “from within”). All their members are very young and had their headquarters in a TV channel station in the centre of Caracas. This group — it appears that by presidential order — was given the task to organise the activities to take place in the Nuevo Circo once rebuilt. All members of the Fundación Cultural Nuevo Circo, for being young, urban and progressive, were also anti-bullfighting, so they decided to use the building for only cruel-less cultural activities. President Hugo Chavez died in 2013, but the centre, and the city, continued rejecting bullfighting.
Finally, in 2009, Venezuelan politicians approved a national animal protection law, but unfortunately, it did not ban bullfighting. Instead, it allowed the citizens of each state and municipality to decide if they wanted to ban these spectacles in their territory. Divisions within the anti-bullfighting movement prevented a better law to be presented instead and ban bullfighting everywhere, but the realisation of this disappointing outcome led to a more unified movement. Anti-bullfighting and animal protection groups such as Animanaturalis, Grupo Ecologico de Aragua, APROA, Ecofauna, ASOGUAU, COPESMIN, or FRAMPROA, continued capturing more hearts and minds of the Venezuelan population.
As a result, the popularity of bullfighting kept going down everywhere, with fewer bullfights and more municipalities turning their backs from the industry. Since 2015, there have been bullfighting only happening in the cities of Mérida and Tovar in the state of Mérida, in San Cristóbal, Táriba and La Grita in the state of Táchira, and in Valle de la Pascua and Altagracia de Orituco in the state of Guarico. No more bullfights anywhere else. From around 60 ten years earlier, to less than ten. Things were looking better for the bulls and cows.
Bullfighting in Venezuela, Today
In the last couple of years, the bullfighting industry has been depleted even more. Since January 2019, there have only been bullfights in three cities: Mérida, San Cristóbal and Altagracia, and in none of the events, there was more than 30% attendance. There was also a small bullfight in Yaracuy, but this was more of a private event without physically injuring the young bulls.
In 2004, Maracaibo had 14 bullfights, in 2019 only one, and in 2021 none as the city confirmed a ban. Valencia has not had a bullfight since 2015. Several Bullfighting Schools have been closed, such as those in Caracas, Valencia, and Barquisimeto. The number of bullfighting farms that had reached 30 in the past is now less than half a dozen. Mérida is the last bastion of the industry, but it has a strong anti-bullfighting movement too which is changing people’s attitudes. The latest provisional results of the surveys undertaken by the Centro para la Investigación Social (CEIS) in the city show that at least 77% think the festivals can happen without including bullfights, and 57% agree in banning bullfighting.
Regarding municipalities officially declared anti-bullfighting, we have seven now: Carrizal (2008), Caracas (2009), Valera (2011), El Hatillo (2011), Cabimas (2013), San Felipe (2015) and Maracaibo (which in 2017 became the first officially anti-bullfighting city in the world with more than four million habitants). In 2016, the Agrarian Tribunal of the state of Aragua (the most bullfighting state) banned bullfighting in all their territories. That was achieved because the local Veterinary College stated that the bull suffers during bullfights (it’s obvious to us, but this non-brainer has been disputed by Spanish vets linked to the industry), and the Institute of Cultural Patrimony said that bullfighting is not part of the culture. The Agrarian Tribunals of the states of Trujillo and Carabobo followed suit and also banned bullfighting, but the Tribunal Superior of Justice repealed the ban of the latter after the pro-bullfighting Governor appealed (there hasn’t been any bullfight there since 2015, though).
All this has been achieved by an increase of grassroots tactical anti-bullfighting campaigning from the organisations already mentioned in the previous chapter, plus new ones that have joined the movement, such as Asodepa, Asoprofasil, Azul Ambientalista, Colectivo Nevado Zulia, MatarNoEsArte, Venezuela Antitaurina, or Coalición Antitaurina (formed by 50 groups), supported by international groups such as CAS-International, Animanaturalis or the International Network Against Bullfighting (which in 2009 had its annual summit in Caracas), among others.
We then have the current Venezuelan Attorney General of the Nicolás Maduro regime, Tarek William Saab (nicknamed by Chavez as “the Revolution’s poet”). Since 2017, he has been quick to penalise animal abuse or wildlife trafficking. In November 2021, he announced the suspension of thebullfighting festival ‘Traditions of Spain Bullfighting’ that was to take place in December in the bullring of the Hotel Marriot in Maracay, in the state of Aragua. He also ordered the withdrawal of any advertising of the event in the outskirts of the city. This is the first time that a high official of the Venezuelan State took an openly anti-bullfighting position and applied judicial measures to prevent it.
Then, in January 2022, the Attorney General asked the Táchira state courts to suspend the San Sebastián International Fair, where a bullfight was going to take place starting on 27th January in San Cristóbal. And in early February some bullfighters were arrested for several hours at the Mérida state National Guard checkpoint for carrying banderillas (the ornated sticks with sharps hooks used to stab bulls during bullfights). The guards claimed that they were under orders from the Attorney General of the Republic.
In an interview for Misión Nevado, Roger Pacheco Eslava, the Executive Director for Venezuela of the international animal protection organization Animalnaturalis, explained that a few years ago a survey was carried out to find out the opinion of the residents of Caracas regarding the bullfighting practices that are still allowed in various states. He said: “Our surprise was to discover that 80% of those surveyed were certain that this practice had already been abolished throughout the territory.”
Roger is a friend of mine, who helped me when I visited the country, so I contacted him again to find out what is the current situation regarding bullfighting. He replied:“Bullfighting in Venezuela has been reduced to the smallest expression in the last 20 years. From being something recurrent in 20 states of the Republic, it only remains in four or five cities at most. Important bullrings, like the one in Valencia (the second largest in the world), Maracay, San Felipe, or Maracaibo, have not been active for at least 5 years. And the few that are being used for bullfighting events do not even reach 20% of capacity, generating considerable losses. In addition, bullfights are no longer a lucrative business to invest in, and politically, it is a stain for those who seek votes.”
When Tarek William Saab was an ombudsman, he announced that he was going to present a national bill to ban bullfighting in 2015. It did not happen. However, on 20th January 2022, he stated that he would soon present a bill to ban these practises before the regime’s National Assembly. Ten days later he repeated his intentions to the Ultimas Noticias news outlet, saying that this practice “is part of an inheritance of Spanish colonialism, which historically — it has been proven — is not part of the Venezuelan tradition. That comes from another culture…There are few countries left where this animal torture actually exists…I feel that the spectacle of seeing a fighting bull in the middle of a square, alone, being sliced little by little, stabbed with all the disadvantages, then brutally taxed, is a fact that has nothing to do with tradition or with Venezuelan culture.”
Strong words by a country’s Attorney General where bullfighting is now only being practised in three cities at an economic loss, and the immense majority of the population is now against it.
In a couple of years or so, if I had to add another chapter in this article titled “Bullfighting in Venezuela, Tomorrow”, it may be quite short.
It may just say: “there isn’t any.”