Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

VENEZUELA: Adios Lenin…and Other ‘Exotic’ Names

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Sep 12 2007 (IPS) - While Stalin led hundreds of students on a march in solidarity with Nixon, authorities in Venezuela were drawing up a law to prevent parents from giving their children names that are invented, difficult to pronounce in Spanish, or exotic.

It was pure coincidence that Stalin González, president of the students’ federation at the Central University of Venezuela (UCV) in Caracas, led the protest this year in support of Nixon Moreno, the University of the Andes (ULA) student president and an opponent of the government who has spent months in asylum at the Apostolic Nunciature (the papal diplomatic mission).

Politics aside, Venezuela has been overrun in recent decades by people called Max Donald, Engelbert, Cleiderman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Edison and even Supermán and Hitler, along with Yesaidú (Yes, I do), Yusnavy (U.S. Navy) and Yusleidy (U.S. Lady), or Taj-Mahal, Temutchin and Hochiminh.

Combinations of parents’ names are common, such as Yolimar (Yolanda and Mario), Ramcel (Ramón and Celeste), Ligimat (Ligia and Mateo) and Johenry (Josefina and Henry). Then there are the merely inexplicable, like Derbinson, Naily, Udemixon and Hemeyer, or combinations like Hitler Adonis and William del Espíritu Santo.

The National Electoral Council (CNE), given the job of reorganising Venezuela’s civil register, prepared a draft law stating that babies may not be registered with names "that expose them to ridicule, are extravagant, or difficult to pronounce in the official language (Spanish)."

Neither can names be given that are variants of other names within a family, "or colloquial variants that may lead to confusion in identification, or that generate doubts about the person’s gender."

To help them choose alternative names, the registrar will offer parents a list of the most common names, taken from the national civil register, to serve as a reference point.

The draft law makes exceptions for the names given to their children by indigenous peoples, and by foreigners, who can use names suited to their own cultures.

"I don’t see the point or the need to pester people with laws that undermine their right to give their children any name they want," Stalin González told IPS, as he prepared for assemblies to discuss the draft constitutional reform proposed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

González, a law student, said that instead of the law on names, there should be new legislation to allow people to change their name if they so wish. This has been prohibited in Venezuela ever since the civil and religious registers were separated, more than 130 years ago.

Benito Bello, a driver along the shores of Lake Maracaibo in the west of the country, is the father of Edison, Edinxo and Edicso. He told IPS that "their mother and I have the right to name our own children. No registrar is going to have better judgement than I."

The area surrounding Lake Maracaibo is Venezuela’s main source of names that sound strange in Spanish. The local people are extroverted by nature, speak loudly, use the familiar "vos" instead of the informal but correct "tú" or formal "usted," for "you", and are plain and direct in approach.

Fascinated by Greek and Latin names for boys, they have registered thousands of children as Virgil, Eurípides, Euclides, Cástor, Apolonio, Demetrio, Numa and Aristóteles since the 19th century.

But it was the oil industry there in the late 20th century that popularised English names like John, William, Marilyn, Richard, Anna, Roland, Grace and Margaret, and then their combinations, derivations and diminutives.

"This isn’t about parents’ right to give their child the name of their choice. Of course, that’s basic. But it should be within certain parameters. Some names confuse the sex of the child, or allude to genital organs, which is unacceptable," said Juan Carlos Pinto, the head of the civil register, when he presented the draft law.

The press and civil society organisations have so far shown limited interest in the draft law on civil registration, but several international media outlets have published articles that have been less than gracious to the proponents of the new law.

"To present the draft law as an attempt to limit parents’ right to freely choose the names of their children is a distortion and oversimplification of the effort to modernise the register," the head of the CNE, Tibisay Lucena, told IPS.

Lucena’s first name is that of the woman loved by Murachí, an indigenous leader who fought the Spanish conquistadors in the Andes, in the southwest of the country, according to a legend recorded and popularised in the 19th century by the writer Tulio Febres Cordero.

The new register "will provide each person with a single identity number, which will facilitate registration of vital events such as marriage, adoption, divorce and so on. It will computerise information so that citizens can access their registered details anywhere in the country, and it will allow names to be changed by an administrative procedure," said Lucena.

"The controversial article in the law, just one out of 190, appears to override parents’ individual freedom, but in fact it guarantees the right to an identity from birth, and aims to preserve the right to dignity and physical, psychological and moral integrity of children," she said.

Furthermore, Lucena said, the lists of names will be adapted to regional peculiarities and will be gradually extended. And besides, the draft law is only a proposal, which does not rule out exchanging it for an educational campaign, like those undertaken by the Catholic Church to urge the faithful to baptise their children with saints’ names.

The CNE released a comparative study of even stricter naming laws in countries like Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, France, Panama, Peru, Spain and Switzerland.

The proposal has led to atypical reactions from columnists in this politically polarised country. Ignacio Ávalos, often benevolent towards the government, called it a form of authoritarian suffocation. "I find it hard to swallow that a bureaucrat should know better than I what name my child should bear in life," he said.

In contrast, government opponent Alonso Moleiro said he agrees with the government, "for once in my life, because the names of people we come across daily paint a picture of a society with a disposable culture, a country without identity or reference points."

The draft law is pending approval by members of parliament – all of whom are government supporters, because the opposition boycotted the parliamentary elections in 2005 – who have names like Iroshima (no "H"), Earle, Desirée, Owee, Nagarith, Briccio and Aristalco.

It will then be signed into law by ministers named Willian (with an "N") Lara, of Communication and Information, Yuvirí Ortega, of the Environment, and Jesse Chacón, of Telecommunications and Information Technology.

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