Cultural diplomacy is a tool that the United Kingdom has been able to use in the Venezuelan scenario with a view to imposing an agenda that projects its interests in areas that many might consider “harmless,” but which have undeniable roots in the collective imagination, such as artistic and symbolic expressions of various kinds. These have been instrumentalized in what intellectual Raymond Williams called “cultural policies of display,” directed by a form of diplomacy oriented not so much towards governments but towards audiences and publics in different countries all over the world.
It is increasingly understood as a transnational process in which not only governments and their institutions can participate but also stakeholders from civil society and the private sector. British cultural diplomacy, as a foreign policy mechanism, has become increasingly important. The strategic use of such relationships has been a fundamental way for the ex-empire to communicate and establish its convenient narratives in the social fabric of other countries, which in turn builds external perceptions of its traditions. For the United Kingdom, cultural institutions lead the changing landscape of international relations; the British Council, through its various initiatives, has played a relevant role in installing London’s discourse around issues such as identity, foreign policy, and physical and symbolic borders.
This investigation on the cultural diplomacy activities of the British Council in Venezuela is a case study on the implementation of English language teaching as a policy in Venezuelan public education, not without first exposing the purposes of British cultural diplomacy and the deployment of its work in light of these considerations.
1. Cultural diplomacy of the British Council
The British Council (BC) has had a branch in Venezuela since 1941, the second such branch established by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) of the UK in the region, after Colombia. In addition to offering English language courses and learning tools, it started providing funding and coordinating support for cultural activities in the country since a little more than a decade ago.
The political nature of the British Council is closely associated to the foreign affairs of the British Commonwealth of Nations, a bloc founded in 1931 and created by the United Kingdom to provide binding continuity, territorially and politically, with those countries colonized by the British Empire, or which had some economic nexus, but over which they no longer had so much power because of the wave of independence movements.
The activities of the British Council contribute to the achievement of British political objectives, using culture as a stellar tool of Foreign Office influence. Its role is mediated by the politicization of the cultural body through the “export of values,” with components of economic interests in the process.
The flow of BC’s administrative procedures is based on a certain strategic plan devised in London, by the Foreign Office of the British government. The country branches then design the local programs. For example, if the overall strategy is to change, that is, overthrow, a government, the British Council conducts a plan that can create the conditions to try to achieve the ultimate goal. In short, it operates as a cultural arm of the British government.
According to the British Council’s 2018 annual report, its funding is divided into two parts: one is government grant, through agencies such as the FCDO and the Overseas Development Administration; and the other comes from its own operating income. Approximately 78% of the income comes from tuition and exams, bidding contracts and partnerships, and the other 22% comes from FCDO grants and contributions.
In this context, it is appropriate to review the broad public agenda that the British Council has in Venezuela, especially in Caracas, using culture as a bridge and a mechanism of entry into the communities to strengthen its own political interests. This work is based on the concept of cultural diplomacy as a method of building relations and a tool of soft power with an aim of influencing societies through academic initiatives, artistic events, and other similar activities.
In 2005, the US State Department’s Cultural Diplomacy Advisory Committee issed a document entitled “Cultural Diplomacy: The Linchpin of Public Diplomacy,” which explained that the role of this kind of diplomacy is “to plant seeds—ideas and ideals; aesthetic strategies and devices; philosophical and political arguments; spiritual perceptions; ways of looking at the world—which may flourish in foreign soils.” So, it is not directed at governments in the first instance, but aimed at societies or specific communities, in the case of the United Kingdom for purposes of divide and rule that is so dear to the instrumental rationale of the old Empire.
Broadly speaking, the British Council in Venezuela offers various programs in the areas of film, dance, music, festivals, literature, architecture, photography, and “social justice action.” It may therefore be inferred that the construction of international cultural relations is not apolitical, and that the British position about the Venezuelan government is openly oppositional, with a record on its back that adds, in general, the recognition of Juan Guaidó as “interim president,” the theft of $2 billion worth of Venezuela’s gold reserves under the cloak of a UK court ruling, and the historical theft of the Venezuelan Essequibo through the fraudulent Paris Arbitration Award of 1899.
2. British Council’s agenda in Venezuela
In 2021, the British Council developed a timeline for the commemoration of its 80th anniversary in Venezuela, and published a series of interviews with the authorities of BC’s Venezuela center. The center director, Soraya Colmenares, stated that she currently has a project to “help introduce English in the public sector.” She added that she continues to work in the cultural sector, targeting young people.
Similarly, former official of Cultura Chacao and cultural manager of BC, Albe Pérez, in an interview of the commemorative series, described some of the projects implemented, among which she highlighted the Busca tu espacio [Find your space] program, launched in 2014 together with the European Union and the NGO Collectivox. The program focuses on providing information and advice to young people to carry out their cultural and recreational activities for free. At the launch of this program, Colmenares explained that its main objective is “to provide opportunities to young people living in areas lacking infrastructure to carry out these activities.” In this way, the BC takes advantage of its logistical capabilities and Collectivox’s network of young people in order to facilitate direct access to these spaces, especially in vulnerable areas of the five municipalities of Caracas.
Pérez also pointed out that the global program Active Citizens was created to support citizen participation from different areas and communities, which generates conditions to motivate people to take action for resolving their most immediate social needs. This program functions in the Petare, Catia and La Vega parishes, working hand in hand with the NGO Mi Convive.
The web portal of the Active Citizens program explains that in Venezuela, BC is providing young people with “technical and creative entrepreneurial skills,” working with the NGO 1001 Ideas Para Mi País.
Pérez claimed that the British Council’s relation with the NGOs is “the only way to propose a change in a very complicated moment.” In addition to this, the organization has a program to rehabilitate spaces in the city since 2018, called Reframing Green Spaces Caracas, with the aim of addressing local urban problems through “citizen participation.”
A review of the BC’s activities in this matter, which have been published through its official social media from 2020 to the present, the trend is oriented towards calls for proposals, mostly in association with NGOs, as a method of voluntary participation and recruitment of young people in the different modalities it offers. From that moment on, a non-public phase of recruitment of specific organizations begins under the BC mantle in terms of funding and logistical promotion.
In 2020, the BC, together with the 100% San Agustín movement, invited citizens to a discussion on “African roots.” In March-April this year, it sponsored the La Movida dance festival in the San Agustín sector of Caracas, with a broad agenda focused on women. The festival was selected as a beneficiary of the Circular Culture Fund program, which creates exchange networks with the United Kingdom and offers economic subsidies.
The BC has a political agenda tinged with the cultural agenda, a characteristic that was reflected in a May 2019 interview with Soraya Colmenares, that expresses what she believes could happen in Venezuela:
Nobody knows what is going to happen. But there are perhaps three basic scenarios: 1) the present regime stays in power and everyday hardships continue; 2) a transitional government is set up and calls for fresh elections, as a result of negotiations or a military coup; 3) virtual civil war erupts following violent mass protests and/or military intervention.
She further commented that her organization had “interpreted this scenario as an opportunity rather than a deterrent.” She added that they have had to “narrow the focus of our projects, harnessing our arts activity to the work of local NGOs and local authorities and keeping a low profile in our relations with the Education Ministry.” [italics ours].
The links between cultural niches in Caracas and the British Council go back even to the lapse between 2011 and 2015, when the art collective Tiuna El Fuerte convened several events in which the BC was involved with its own logistics and funding. The BC also entered the Teresa Carreño Theater, again hand in hand with Tiuna El Fuerte and other artistic collectives, which denotes a high degree of insertion not only in street cultural groups but also in state institutions such as Fundarte, the executing arm of the public policies of the Mayor’s Office of Caracas.
3. Case study: British Council in the Venezuelan Education Ministry
In 2021, Mark Gregson, British Council’s former project manager in Venezuela, commented in an interview that there has been an English language learning plan with the Venezuelan Ministry of Education since 2012. He stated that the BC was “the only external organization that the Ministry of Education uses to provide English language learning opportunities for children in public schools.” Although the BC’s website states that its activities with this ministry began in 2014, when Elías Jaua was the education minister, it may be inferred that preparatory meetings were held in previous years to implement the plan in question.
The British Council’s entry into an institution of the Venezuelan State is relevant because its 2018 report for the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons shows its participation in the Ministry as an opportunity, and confirmed that it is “currently the only foreign organization to work” with Venezuela’s governing body of education.
That report highlighted that the focus of BC’s work in the region is “to support the reform of the education system,” whose evident aim is to sow the seed of its political agenda in the teaching base. The report added that working in Venezuela’s public primary education system can facilitate an education reform led by the United Kingdom with a theme-based curriculum, and training for 8,000 teachers, which would reach 1.5 million children in all state primary schools in the country.
In 2019, director Colmenares, following the political lines devised in London, confirmed this figure: “we are working with the Education Ministry to train 8,000 teachers with a view to introducing English into Primary Education in Venezuela—we are the only European cultural organisation with this sort of access to the Ministry.” [italics ours].
Based on this, the report recommended to the British government that, given China’s competitive influence in the continent, and if the UK wanted to maintain its presence and importance in the region, it should “recognize the competence of others and increase investment in soft power activities accordingly.”
These plans in conjunction with the Venezuelan Education Ministry cannot be considered alien to the political interests of the British government that does not recognize the legitimacy of the Venezuelan government in the international arena, so it is an open and direct pathway for the mechanisms of influence and political interference of the British government to do the same without the need to outsource the operation through foundations or NGOs.
In this regard, the BC published a report in 2017 (!) entitled Change is Breathing: Transforming English Language Teaching in the Venezuelan Education System, which states that it has worked on two Education Ministry programs, namely:
- National Training Program (PNF) in Foreign Languages: English Area under the Simón Rodríguez Micromission (MMSR).
- National Advanced Training Program (PNFA) for Specialization in Foreign Languages: English for Primary Education.
The report claims that teachers in Venezuela have little clarity in their approach to teaching English. Therefore, the BC offers training to teachers to improve linguistic and pedagogical skills with the language. Its results were:
- 98.9% of the participating teachers surveyed agreed that the program does represent a change in language teaching.
- 97.4% of the teachers stated that the program has a great influence on the activities and strategies they develop.
- The perception of the students interviewed coincides with the teachers’ considerations. Most of the students observed clear differences between the teachers with traditional teaching training and those who were trained by the BC.
In summary, the report points out that the BC in Venezuela has served as a strategic ally in the training of teachers in English for the Education Ministry, supporting the organization of nationwide eight-hour workshops during 2015 and 2016.
The report added that Gregson, on behalf of the BC, was invited in 2013 by the Venezuelan teacher of the Education Ministry, Rosa López de D’Amico, to be part of the edition of the English textbook, My Victory, for the Bicentennary Collection of the range of teaching and student support books.
Nevertheless, the report argues that although the Bicentennary Collection had been in circulation since 2013, teachers were not trained to use the books. However, in 2015, when the BC workshops were offered, it was done based on that collection and, in this way, “we helped more than a thousand teachers in 18 cities of the country.”
This plan within the Education Ministry’s public policy should not be minimized, given that by April 2019, the BC had constituted a significant teacher training base:
- 26 tutors had been trained.
- 189 facilitators of the National English Foreign Language Teacher Training Program (PNF) were trained.
- 2,211 program participants were registered, 153 facilitators had been trained and 1,268 participants registered for the National Advanced Training Program for Primary English Specialization (PNFA).
The BC, based on its studies, considers that the participation of more groups and sectors is needed to improve teacher training, and adds an adage of the South African Xhosa people, which the English claim as their own, in order to plant the idea that the education system is not enough: “It takes a village to raise a child.”
Looking at how the BC administers its policies, it is difficult to rule out that the proposal is aimed at involving certain NGOs or individuals willing to implement the ideological-cultural arsenal, including those groups that are openly alienated from public education, to get them involved in these pedagogical spaces with the excuse of improving the public policy in education that has already been implemented and for boosting British political interests.
This way of insertion in schools, with its intention to broaden the range of groups, is important for the British Embassy, which was subtly reflected in the participation of Rebeca Estefano, member of the NGO Ser Inclusivo, in the National Meeting of ELT in Education in November 2022, where teachers reviewed the benefits of the BC’s English teaching program in the country since its implementation in 2014.
It should be noted that this event was supported by the Venezuelan Education Ministry, the Cenamec Foundation, the Samuel Robinson National Experimental University of Teaching, and British experts, in addition to the participation of the head of the British mission in Caracas, Becks Buckingham. According to the BC, this teaching program has trained around 65,000 students and 10,000 English language teachers.
The BC was also able to hold a meeting with Education Minister Yelitze Santaella to “discuss national-level strategies for the implementation of educational policies that help improve the teaching of English throughout the basic education subsystem,” which clearly shows how important the BC considers its continued involvement in Venezuelan public education.
In the bilateral political context between Venezuela and the United Kingdom, it is clear that the political agenda of the FDCO in Venezuela has been pushed through the cultural agenda focused on Caracas and through a broader educational agenda, since the bridge built by the Education Ministry catalyzes the interference of the British government’s cultural arm in the Venezuelan public education structure.
These maneuvers are not unrelated to the outbursts of teachers’ union protests in Venezuela. One of the main characteristics of soft power is that political objectives are designed to be felt in the long term.
Therefore, the BC’s insertion in the Venezuelan public education system since 2014 sets off alarms because there is a degree of influence through education that has been nurtured for almost 10 years and, of course, the intentions may correspond to the UK’s agenda against the Venezuelan government. Soraya Colmenares’ bias and analysis of the possible scenarios in Venezuela do not mark a peaceful tendency, and her discourse is related to the essence of the BC’s political objectives, which ultimately focuses on planting the idea of political change.
Just as Elsa Castillo was the face of the recent teachers’ demonstrations, Rosa López de D’Amico has served as a liaison between the Education Ministry and the BC.
The current agenda of La Movida, in the Caracas parish of San Agustín, promoted by the 100% San Agustín movement and sponsored by the BC, is another good example of covert insertion that is part of a gradual process of interference in this low-income area, not only by the BC but also by each of the European embassies through the cultural diplomacy of the European Union.
Están invitados al Festival la Movida de San Agustín 2023 este #19Mar donde se estará desarrollando la Feria de Mujeres en Guaguancó, para continuar impulsando el Motor Emprendimiento del país y las 4F orientadas por nuestro Pdte. @NicolasMaduro ¡Te esperamos!#ChávezHechoMillones pic.twitter.com/pHIueOFCPi
— FONPYME S.A. (@FONPYME_VE) March 15, 2023
The context of political controversy between Venezuela and the United Kingdom is not isolated, especially with regard to the over $2 billion worth of gold that remain frozen in the Bank of England under the political shield of non-official recognition of the Venezuelan government. The seizure of assets of a State, illegal in the light of international law, remains in the background, or is diluted by imposing the cultural and/or educational façade in relation to various local and trade union sectors in Venezuela, and thus the British government is able to take advantage of a context of conflicts that propel British foreign policy.
Translated by Orinoco Tribune.