Taking a Stand?

I’ve asked myself whether I should be writing a post about El Sistema when the political situation in Venezuela is looking increasingly dire; but El Sistema has long claimed to be about Venezuelan society rather than just music, and there is no escaping the fact that the last week has been the most tumultuous for the program’s national and international image since I began my research seven years ago. For the first time, the hallowed figures of José Antonio Abreu and Gustavo Dudamel are being widely criticized in public, in both mainstream and social media, abroad as well as at home, in English as well as Spanish. In the light of these debates, some sort of comment seems to be in order.

For a music education program, El Sistema has many striking aspects – its size, its funding, its new buildings in Caracas (and soon Barquisimeto), its close relationship with the music industry – but the one that has come under the spotlight in recent days is its politicization. Gabriela Montero’s open letter to Abreu and Dudamel about their failure to react to the political upheaval going on around them sparked a stream of newspaper articles, blog posts, and social media commentary around the world. El Sistema’s foreign fans often describe the program as above politics, but it has become clear that large numbers of Venezuelans (and others) disagree, often quite strongly, arguing that the program has become a tool of state propaganda and that its leaders have a duty to speak out about current developments in their country. (There is considerable irony in the fact that there is a major Sistema symposium taking place right now in Los Angeles called “Take a Stand,” when El Sistema’s leaders are in the firing line for… not taking a stand.) Plenty of ink has been spilt already on the topic of what Abreu and Dudamel should or should not do, but I would like to approach recent events from a slightly different angle and think about the broader questions that have been raised about El Sistema, politics, and citizenship.

Much of El Sistema’s success has depended on its affiliation with a succession of governments – an affiliation that traditionally starts with a triumphal concert at the beginning of each new president’s tenure, underlining that El Sistema’s story is one of the music of power as well as the power of music. El Sistema has only become what it is because of its close ties to political leaders and the fact that Abreu himself has led a double career as politician and musician. (Will Sistema-inspired projects ever be more than a drop in the ocean in other countries without having a politician at their helm?) Unlike say the UK program Musical Futures, El Sistema is very expensive to run, meaning that it requires significant political support to operate on a large scale. That political support comes with strings attached, hence Sistema orchestras’ participation in numerous state ceremonies and events. The strengths of the project’s ambitious, expansionist approach have long been obvious to observers, but its weaknesses are only now coming to light. Such a program has to be tied to politics – and in a politically volatile country, that makes it potentially controversial and, over the long term, fragile.

In an illuminating article, João Luiz Sampaio notes that Dudamel’s PR handlers make it clear to journalists that the maestro does not like talking about politics. When Sampaio asked anyway, Dudamel dodged the question and responded instead with a string of his usual sound-bites, finishing with the well worn “we’re not producing musicians but rather citizens.” Dudamel’s response to Montero’s letter was little more convincing; one commentator (who once held a position of responsibility within El Sistema) opined that the maestro’s declarations, focusing on comforting words like peace, beauty and children, resembled those of beauty contestants. No doubt written by committee, they seem designed to say as little as possible.

Yet, as Sampaio asks, is it possible for El Sistema to be tied closely to Venezuela’s political process and neutral at the same time? The wave of commentary in recent days illustrates that there is fairly widespread understanding that the program is already politicized. Given the decisions that Abreu has taken over the last 39 years, and the regular performances by Sistema orchestras at events with a strongly political character, Dudamel can avoid talking about politics, but he cannot avoid politics.

More significantly still, Sampaio wonders whether by refusing to discuss Venezuela’s political situation, Dudamel is contradicting his own statement about citizenship. For the Ancient Greeks, from whom many of our modern ideas about citizenship derive, the mark of a good citizen was someone who participated in deliberative activities. By adopting a rule of silence, Abreu and Dudamel, it could be argued, are failing to uphold one of the most fundamental principles of citizenship: free and public debate, or more broadly speaking, political participation.

Richard Bellamy, a leading professor of political science, explores how citizenship has historically gone hand in hand with political participation, indeed he writes of “the irreducibly political nature of citizenship.” According to this view, there would be a contradiction in making claims about strengthening citizenship while simultaneously ducking political questions. 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.” Speaking out is, of course, precisely what Dudamel and Abreu have been accused of avoiding, not least by Montero. El Sistema, both in its day-to-day educational system and in the example set by its leaders, promotes a form of citizenship that does not include deliberate political participation (or participation in political deliberation) – in other words, a neutered form of citizenship. Bellamy concludes that “the reinvigoration of citizenship […] depends on revitalizing rather than diminishing political participation.” For all his charisma and talent, it is hard to see how Dudamel’s claims about making better citizens fit with his evasion of politics.

In sum, Abreu and Dudamel assert that El Sistema fortifies citizenship, yet at a crucial juncture, they failed to exercise one of the citizen’s most basic rights and duties: political participation. Refusing to discuss politics and giving vague or evasive answers are hardly holding up a positive model of citizenship for young people to emulate. Tying El Sistema to the government has boosted its size and power enormously but curtailed the free expression of political opinions; in recent years, then, strengthening citizenship has been sacrificed at the altar of rapid expansion.

In an LA Times article, Dudamel made his familiar point about El Sistema making better citizens, yet when asked what it would take for him to speak out about the political situation in Venezuela, he took the Fifth, responding “I’m a musician.” A contradiction at the heart of El Sistema becomes apparent. When it comes to selling the project to the socialist government and transnational development banks, El Sistema claims that it is primarily a social rather than musical project and places its emphasis squarely on citizenship rather than musicianship; yet when the political situation heats up, it reverses its discourse and justifies its political silence by claiming that it is primarily about music after all. Claims about the program’s essence are thus revealed as strategic discourses rather than the simple descriptions that they are often taken to be. Those who trot out the line “it’s a social program first and foremost” ought to pay more attention to Dudamel’s readiness to stress the musical when it suits him.

As I write, it seems as though pressure on Abreu and Dudamel may intensify before it subsides. Firstly, the situation in Venezuela is getting worse, and criticisms of opposing views are getting ever more passionate. Secondly, another open letter, in a similar vein to Montero’s, has just been published by the young Venezuelan conductor Carlos Izcaray. Montero is the higher-profile musician, but Izcaray is closer to El Sistema, being a conductor rather than a pianist, and coming from a family with a long and close relationship with the program. Izcaray’s strongly worded letter will only increase the critical scrutiny of fellow conductor Dudamel’s silence or vague statements about peace and his participation in politicized events.

It is hard to see the current situation turning out particularly well for El Sistema. If the current government retains control, opposition sympathizers will be even more disgruntled than they are right now, so the groundswell of criticism directed at Abreu and Dudamel is unlikely to go away, even if it lowers in prominence. If the opposition gains sway, Abreu and Dudamel’s well documented support for Chávez and Maduro (in deed if less so in word) could be seen as a significant black mark against them. Either way, the untouchable status of El Sistema’s leaders in the national and international media and blogosphere appears to have gone, and that, as much as anything, may mark a turning-point in the program’s history.


No sooner had I posted this than I found the following article on El Nacional’s website. The fact that Abreu is the target of stinging criticism from an organ that has traditionally been one of his staunchest supporters seems to confirm some of the points I make towards the end of my post.

2 thoughts on “Taking a Stand?

  1. Dear Mr. Baker,

    Im working on a research project for my masters degree on El Sistema as a community music education project. I would like to include critical views but its hard to find. Could you help me with any research articles links that I can use? Id like to quote your blog too.

    Thank you

  2. Dear Virgil,

    I’m afraid there’s really very little that’s been published. Most of my sources are primary (interviews, newspaper articles from Venezuela, etc). There’s really nothing that I can recommend, but please feel free to quote my blog posts if you find them useful.

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