Building for an uncertain future

[02/12/2016] Three stories from Venezuela have grabbed my attention recently. (1) The current exodus of Venezuelans from the country – most strikingly by boat, as reported in the New York Times. (2) The halving of the value of the Venezuelan currency (the Bolívar) in relation to the dollar in the space of a week. (3) Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra playing in hard hats in the half-built new Sistema centre in Caracas.

The first story is depressing; the second bewildering; the third is (supposed to be) uplifting. Yet can one really feel uplifted by the third when it is placed alongside the other two?

Performing in the building site was part of Dudamel’s PR work during his recent visit to Caracas, alongside workshops with child conductors, and the photo-ops were duly beamed around the world. Only a cynic would think that this was an attempt to drown out the escalating rumours of his impending departure, which have now made it into print. (He has one more tour with the SBSO in March in his official diary, and I’d be very surprised if he were still the orchestra’s head conductor after that.)

But even a non-cynic ought to ask: what is this half-constructed building where the orchestra performed? Who is it being built for, and why? As usual, the Venezuelan press seems to be operating as a publicity arm of El Sistema (announcing the program’s grand plans) rather than holding it to account (asking basic questions about those grand plans). (Yes, I know, Venezuelan journalists are scared of El Sistema, but still…) So I’m going to ask the questions.

1. Why is such an expensive centre – costing hundreds of millions of dollars – being built in the midst of one of the world’s most dramatic economic crises? There are acute shortages of food and medicines. Is more classical music infrastructure really what the country needs? The rising of this extravagant temple in the midst of a disintegrating city symbolizes both the power of the cult of El Sistema and the folly of expecting orchestral training to resolve serious social problems.

2. Why is this new centre being built next door to El Sistema’s spanking new headquarters that was opened only a few years ago? In fact, three major buildings will eventually stand side-by-side on this site, the third including a further three concert halls, seating 2000, 1300, and 500 respectively. Yet there are concert halls in the original building: why are these new ones needed? And what do all these concert halls have to do with the complex’s name and alleged focus, the Centre for Social Action through Music?

3. For the last two decades, external consultants and the Inter-American Development Bank have consistently recognized centralization as a weakness of El Sistema, and have urged decentralization. A major plank of the IDB’s 2007 loan of $150 million was the construction of 7 regional centres across the country. Where are those centres? Where has that money gone? Why has El Sistema ignored the calls for decentralization and instead deepened the centralization of the program in Caracas?

4. One of the new buildings in Caracas is intended to be a centre for teacher training. But who are the new teachers going to be, and who’s going to train them? Remember the exodus story from the New York Times? El Sistema is not exempt, and while the stories may be less dramatic and indeed unreported, the program appears to be losing employees at all levels, raising significant questions about the future of the program. Remember the story about the slumping value of the Bolívar? The real value of most musicians’ wages is low and rapidly declining as pay is not remotely keeping up with inflation. El Sistema’s hourly-paid staff were already earning below the minimum wage before the Bolívar fell off a cliff. Being a music teacher is not an attractive career option today, so it’s hard to see how this building is going to fulfil its stated purpose.

The decision to invest in fancy bricks-and-mortar rather than employees is pretty typical for our age – closer to home, universities are doing the same – but we need to ask this key question: who precisely is going to want to come and train as a music teacher in this fantastic and fantastically expensive new building if they look to their own teachers and see some leaving the country in despair and others struggling to survive on a few cents an hour and no benefits? This is hardly a picture to inspire young people to become music educators, and no quantity of state-of-the-art concert halls in central Caracas will change this.

El Sistema, like the government to which it is so closely tied, is in trouble right now, and it’s hard to see where the money is going to come from to turn classical music teaching into an attractive and viable career for more than a few privileged individuals at the top of the pyramid. The new Sistema complex in Caracas appears to be an expensive and unnecessary luxury, and a symbol of dramatically skewed priorities. This money could have been spent much better, even just within El Sistema, let alone in wider society: on decentralization and personnel, rather than an even more monumental Caracas HQ. Unless Venezuela’s fortunes change soon, there’s a real risk of this building becoming a white elephant. So excuse me if I don’t feel particularly uplifted by Dudamel’s latest PR stunt.