Politics and El Sistema

I recently heard news of a family that I know in Venezuela, one that was immersed in El Sistema when I was there. The two children played in the orchestra, and the parents were pillars of the local núcleo. The news was that they had all left. The children had stopped playing in the orchestra – a surprise in the case of the older one, as he looked like he was going all the way with El Sistema, but lots of children drop out. Yet what really caught my attention was that the parents had cut off ties as well. Apparently they had protested to the núcleo director when the orchestra was required to take part in a political event, as they were firmly against mixing music and organized politics. The director apologized, but shortly afterwards the orchestra took part in another political occasion, and the parents said enough was enough.

Overseas, El Sistema and politics are two terms that are generally considered like chalk and cheese. Yet I sometimes wonder whether this myth of the program’s supposed apolitical nature is sustained partly because most foreigners don’t follow closely what’s going on with culture and politics in Venezuela – for example, by reading current debates on blogs and other social media.

Venezuela has been going through a tense political moment since the New Year, with Chávez gravely ill in hospital in Cuba and therefore missing his inauguration on January 10, and it has been possible to observe two rather predictable occurrences: Abreu playing both sides of the political field; and Chavistas and anti-Chavistas alike reacting against his manoeuvres.

On January 10, as part of the official events to mark the non-inauguration, Abreu, Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra offered a concert for Chávez’s health at the Teresa Carreño Theatre, performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (much to the annoyance of many traditional musicians, who would have liked to see Venezuelan music at the core of the occasion). Abreu expressed his solidarity with Chávez and thanked the president, as well as wishing him a speedy recovery, noting that the government promoted “the revolutionary rescue of 400,000 and up to a goal of one million children and young people of middle and low incomes.” Abreu seized the chance to underline his firm conviction “that the President will continue to offer his enthusiastic support to this musical project,” and Vice-President Nicolás Maduro rewarded him for his musical and rhetorical efforts with a promise to continue expanding El Sistema.


This enthusiastic display of support for Chávez, right down to the insertion of the word “revolutionary,” was too much for many from the other side of the political spectrum. It was in many ways a repeat of the closure of Radio Caracas TV in 2007. The opposition-slanted channel was replaced by the government-run TVES, on the frequency that had previously been occupied by RCTV – and the opening salvo of the new channel was the national anthem, performed by a Sistema choir and orchestra conducted by Dudamel. This politically charged move unleashed a barrage of criticism against Abreu from Chávez’s opponents, and his public intervention on behalf of the president five years later had a similar effect.

Yet, ironically, Chavistas were also railing against Abreu. Just two days earlier, and equally controversially, he had been photographed warmly embracing two VIP guests of El Sistema, the Colombian singer Juanes and the Spaniard Miguel Bosé. What could be so controversial about these three musicians meeting to plan a concert for peace? The fact that the two visitors are well-known and outspoken critics of Chávez.

Chavistas and leftists were immediately up in arms, bombarding the social networks with letters and comments of protest. A single Facebook post criticizing the three ringleaders received more than 350 comments, and I saw dozens of posts. The political website www.aporrea.org saw article after article lambasting Juanes and Bosé for their views, and Abreu for supporting them. One began: “Señor Abreu, you have wounded us terribly.” The leading folk singer Cecilia Todd told them to take their concert for peace to the U.S., where it was really needed. (Her views on El Sistema’s negative impact on Venezuelan folkloric music are also worth noting.) The journalist Lil Rodríguez wondered why these two popular musicians had been to see Abreu, a classical conductor, rather than the minister of culture, and why Abreu had lavished praise and hugs on two well-known critics of Chávez.


146 musicians, professionals and activists signed a petition criticizing those involved and stating:

“We repudiate the participation of Dr. José Antonio Abreu, founder of El Sistema […], in this action which, disguised as ‘high humanistic values,’ attacks the image of our country in the world.”

“We demand that Dr. Abreu give an explanation that justifies his invitation to two enemies of Comandante Chávez and the Venezuelan people at a particularly sensitive moment for the Bolivarian Revolution.”

A few days later Abreu, who had initially described plans for the concert as well underway, announced that it would not happen after all, at least not this year. Apparently El Sistema was too busy.

My point is not to enter into the rights and wrongs of these postures, but simply to point out that they exist, and vocally so, in Venezuela. The polemics around El Sistema, which normally bubble under the surface, have become visible for a moment, and you don’t need to go to Venezuela to see them (though you do need to read Spanish).

Abreu made two very public, very political, and very contradictory gestures in the space of three days, unleashing a flurry of debate in Venezuelan cultural and political circles. Far from being seen as apolitical, Abreu’s every move is scrutinized by both sides for its political meaning: is his support for Chávez genuine, they ask, or is he just after the money? Does his meeting with Juanes and Bosé show his true political colours, the same ones he wore as a minister in the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez? Did the volleys of criticism persuade Abreu to change his mind? His explanation that El Sistema was too busy did not convince everyone – after all, there are supposedly 400,000 musicians in the program, and the top orchestras seem to have no problem fulfilling engagements overseas, so the suggestion that El Sistema could not raise a single orchestra for a concert in Caracas rang somewhat hollow.

Abreu is regarded in cultural circles as a politician, and through his overt association of his project with Chávez, he has – for better or for worse – politicized El Sistema. Abreu did a deal: unquestioning public support for Chávez, including the use of El Sistema’s young musicians in pro-government ceremonies, in return for unlimited government support for Abreu’s project. This deal was in full view on January 10, and as Abreu’s public display of loyalty at a political rally earned him a public promise from acting boss Maduro, the political nature of the deal could hardly have been clearer.

You might say that politicization is all but inevitable in contemporary Venezuela. You might say that Abreu’s deal was a good one for El Sistema – or that he had little choice under the circumstances. But if you think that Abreu, Dudamel, and El Sistema are above politics, and above political criticism, you may need to think again.

(My next blog post was supposed to be response to comments to the last one, but that can wait a little longer – this seemed more topical.)

Here are some links for this post, though there are many more articles on Aporrea – I can’t keep up with them all. (However, much discussion took place on Facebook and in private forums):










One thought on “Politics and El Sistema

  1. Thank you for your detailed evocation of the complexity of the political context in which El Sistema grows. Both sides in this polarized situation are hypersensitive and hyper-reactive to actions that do not adhere to their view. Maestro Abreu has, as you report, both pleased and displeased both sides as he and his team navigate the politicized complexities with their eyes clearly on the goal of enhancing the lives of the greatest number of youth in the best possible ways they can. Some describe the choices he faces as “no win” dilemmas; I see them as “400,000 kids win” decisions taken for the best possible reasons. I marvel at his laserlike focus on the right prize, and am grateful for his 37 years of adept navigational skills through endless political rapids.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s