A pact with the devil

[08/04/2015] Last week I posted about the government’s propaganda video “Venezuela is hope,” with its prominent participation by a Sistema orchestra. Since then, the politicization of El Sistema has become more obvious still, as reports are emerging from Venezuela that Sistema employees are being obliged to sign the government’s petition against Obama or risk losing their jobs. Not for the first time, the pianist Gabriela Montero has been the only musician to speak out and voice what many are thinking. Her protest has been picked up by Norman Lebrecht and the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio – though not, so far, the Venezuelan media (little surprise there, since it usually serves as the PR arm of El Sistema rather than a source of critical reflection).

Both the video and the forced petition signing are significant developments, yet they are also unsurprising. While the precise origins of the program’s mixing of music and politics may be debated – I would argue that it has been there since the start, since it was founded by a politician who thought politically from day 1 – it’s clearly not new. The overt politicization of El Sistema by the Chávez and then Maduro governments has been going on for 15 years, and I’ve been writing about it since 2012.

It has been perfectly obvious for a long time that Abreu and Chávez did a deal: a big increase in government support for Abreu’s project, leading to its rapid expansion, in return for unquestioning public backing for Chávez, including the use of El Sistema’s young musicians in pro-government ceremonies and propaganda. All the money that has poured into El Sistema over the last 15 years came with strings attached, and now those strings are fully visible. They tied music education to politics and made it a conduit for state power and propaganda.

To use the language that many Venezuelan musicians use, Abreu made a pact with the devil. He and the upper reaches of El Sistema benefited hugely as a result in the short to medium term, and the consequent boom turned the program into a global sensation. But the devil was always going to come back and claim what he was owed.

Today, neither of the architects of the deal is fully at the helm. Chávez is dead, and Abreu is housebound through illness. Whatever one may think of them, both were exceptionally talented politicians in their prime, and one possible explanation for the latest developments and rising discord over politicization is that matters are now in the hands of their less skilled successors. Only time will tell whether these successors can avoid their mutual support becoming a death embrace.