El Sistema, politics, and citizenship (again…)

[05/12/2015] Within the space of 24 hours, two new testimonies emerged this week that definitively blew apart the suggestion that El Sistema is separate from or above politics. This has been the repeated claim, of course, of the program’s leaders and international advocates. Only a month ago, Gustavo Dudamel claimed in a LA Times article:

El Sistema is far too important to subject to everyday political discourse and battles. It must remain above the fray.

Inconveniently for Dudamel, Luigi Mazzocchi recalls how more than 20 years ago, El Sistema’s leadership issued directives as to how orchestra members should vote in elections:

When I turned 18, I remember the first presidential election that I was going to participate in; I was told for whom I should vote. I thought at the time that it was expected, because that would assure me that my program, and perhaps myself, would have more funds. Years later I was told to vote for the guy who was against the president that had named Abreu as the minister of culture and who funded the creation of El Sistema [Carlos Andrés Pérez]. But we were told by Abreu’s closer musicians that we should be voting for that guy this time. That told me that the principles of El Sistema are very fragile, are very malleable, depending on where the resources are coming from. That’s probably why there’s not a defined doctrine [of] what El Sistema means. It’s just that we go with whoever is going to give us money.

Almost simultaneously, by chance, the story came out that núcleo directors have just been given orders to take musicians to vote for the government in the national elections on Sunday. The orders allegedly came from the top of El Sistema. Given that the stock of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution has been sinking in the international arena, this story has potentially serious consequences for El Sistema’s global reputation.

It also makes a mockery of the suggestion that El Sistema is focused above all on citizenship rather than musicianship. As I’ve argued before, drawing on political scientist Richard Bellamy, citizenship has historically gone hand in hand with political participation. Bellamy describes

the distinctively political tasks citizens perform to shape and sustain the collective life of the community. Without doubt, the commonest and most crucial of these tasks is involvement in the democratic process—primarily by voting, but also by speaking out [and] campaigning in various ways.

If El Sistema, rather than training up young people for political participation, has been manipulating them to pursue the goals of the organization, then its citizenship credentials lie in tatters.

With good reason, Mazzocchi states:

So it is not true the claims of El Sistema that the system’s purpose is to create better citizens. They want to create good orchestra musicians regardless of what the students want.

There also appears to be a continued use of Sistema orchestras in political events, something that has been going on for a long time. A couple of days ago, it was reported that a youth orchestra played in Diosdado Cabello’s TV program and closed the electoral campaign of the PSUV in Monagas state. Another of Mazzocchi’s key points – that El Sistema is not an education program – is borne out. Young musicians appear here not as students, broadening their horizons and gaining a rounded education, but as political accessories, playing the same music over and over again and providing attractive window-dressing for the pursuit of adult ends.