From Vienna to Caracas

[05/04/2017] On Tuesday 28 March, as part of Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar orchestra’s European tour, El Sistema put on a forum at the United Nations office in Vienna in conjunction with the Venezuelan embassy. It began with some words by the ambassador, Jesse Chacón, who hailed El Sistema as a model for constructing a culture of peace. Eduardo Méndez, El Sistema’s executive director, echoed the ambassador’s words, inviting the assembled dignitaries to see El Sistema as a model for peace.

On Thursday 30 March, the government that Chacón and Méndez represent dissolved Venezuela’s elected National Assembly, in what was widely described as a coup d’état.

On Tuesday 4 April, during protests against the government, a young Sistema musician on his way to an orchestra rehearsal was beaten and arrested by police, who were suspicious of his French horn case. Fortunately, he was released within a day.

These events are not unconnected. In Vienna, Méndez and El Sistema were transparently doing PR for the Venezuelan government, promoting an image of order and peace in the full knowledge that the reality back home is very different. Chacón, like foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez at the Organisation of American States the previous day, waved El Sistema’s numbers at those present as proof of the government’s beneficence. (Whether those numbers are real, and what kind of educational experience lies behind them, is of little importance to either politician.) El Sistema’s role is to whitewash the government’s image overseas, as that image becomes increasingly tarnished.

The absurdity of Chacón and Méndez’s fine words about a culture of peace could hardly have been clearer a week later in the widely distributed film footage of the young musician being beaten and taken away by the police, despite the fact that he wasn’t even involved in the protests.

Once again, El Sistema’s political silence and tacit alignment with an increasingly authoritarian government is firmly in the spotlight. Social media has been abuzz with this story over the last 24 hours. In recent years, there has been a lot of looking the other way by musicians as El Sistema’s status as a favoured program of the government has shielded it somewhat from the harshest realities. Many of its musicians mutter about politicians, but its ensembles perform at political rallies and in propaganda videos. But state aggression towards one of its musicians raises uncomfortable questions about how far the institution is willing to go in order to keep the funding tap open, what costs are justifiable in the name of mass orchestral training, and what it would take for Venezuela’s classical musicians to say that enough is enough. How much longer will El Sistema continue to preach about a culture of peace while supporting a government that perpetuates violence of various kinds on its citizens?


El Sistema’s representatives also took advantage of their stay in Vienna to call in on OPEC. They sent the Arcadia wind quintet to serenade OPEC’s president, Mohammad Sanusi Barkindo, who was also presented with an El Sistema medal and the famous Venezuelan jacket. This was not just a courtesy visit – it was the program’s way of saying thank you to OPEC for its support for El Sistema.

I’ve been intrigued by the relationship between El Sistema and oil for several years. I posted on it a couple of years ago. I recall the words of a senior figure in the Venezuelan music education world, who commented on El Sistema’s habit of organising intensive courses in plush facilities: the young musicians “didn’t go to school, they didn’t do anything else, they were just stuck there, enslaved, from first thing in the morning ’til last thing at night. Of course, after two months, it sounds good. In what other country could they do that? The expense of having 200 people in that kind of place—that’s oil money for you.” Creating an orchestra like the SBYO required not just “slave labor” but also high salaries, expensive instruments, and first-class accommodation. He concluded: “it’s primitive, and it’s unrepeatable, because it’s extremely expensive . . . it’s paid for by oil.”

With oil prices now low and the Venezuelan government in dire financial straits, it appears that El Sistema has gone looking for oil money overseas. This raises the question, not for the first time, of whether a program like El Sistema could exist without petro-dollars. How sustainable and reproducible is this model?