The Philanthropic Ogre

[17/04/2017] Rafael Rivero’s article “El Ogro Filantrópico” was published in the Venezuelan magazine Exceso in March 1994. It is one of the most revealing articles to be published in the Venezuelan media about José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema’s founder, though another contender would be Roger Santodomingo’s 1990 article “Conac: Tocata y Fuga,” to which Rivero makes several references.

The title of Rivero’s article was borrowed from Octavio Paz’s 1978 book of the same name, which examined the inherent contradictions of the Mexican state: an entity that showed humanitarian concern with its people, particularly the poorest, while simultaneously acting in a regressive and violent manner, censoring and persecuting and closing political spaces. It is thus a heavily laden and highly suggestive phrase for Latin American readers, pointing to a profound duality to Abreu that has been overlooked by most more recent accounts, which have tended much more towards hagiography. Rivero draws a fascinating comparison here from the very start, then, one that tells present-day readers much about how Abreu was perceived at the height of his political career, more than a decade before he was “discovered” by the general public in the global North though the success of his disciple, Gustavo Dudamel, and his brainchild, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra.

The style of the original Spanish is very peculiar and rather baroque, which makes translating it quite a challenge. I’m sure a professional translator could do a better job, but hopefully what follows conveys the gist.


The Philanthropic Ogre

by Rafael Rivero

He is the orchestra man. He puts out fires and has the sharp hearing to tune up a musical project of international proportions and a steely resolve that has earned him the praise of the intellectual ghetto, his epic victories eulogized in the otherwise impoverished little world of culture. José Antonio Abreu – the only survivor of the last regime’s wreckage – remains undefeated in the face of every headline, and his prestige as the demiurge of the boom of the arts continues to be such that the ruling bosses hesitated when it was time to look for a worthy successor. However, according to recent scores, this glittering career is losing its sparkle. Some discordant notes follow.


Neither a scherzo, nor an allegretto or a staccato; José Antonio Abreu’s latest existential movement has been more of a requiem, and one that is out of tune as well. A gloomy and unrhythmical torment for his privileged ears. A bad streak. He went from a hyperkinetic and tireless worker to a poor, listless creature. The curtain rises and he looks trapped in a depressive web. The minister is sad; “what is wrong with the minister?”, sing his subordinates in their cliques at the Teresa Carreño centre during coffee breaks.

It is worth pointing out that this obvious transfiguration is not simply the whim of a temperamental genius. No, there are reasons behind it. At the tip of the iceberg of his uneasiness is the controversy that was sparked off, sotto voce, by his confirmation in the highest post he has held in his career. After some arduous years at the helm of CONAC, dealing with the torment of a bad digestion, a surgery and the uncomfortable stigma of being a perecista minister, with old age just around the corner and no children, no commitments or known partner, the polarizing struggle between the two camps that have taken sides – they either admire his ambitious work as a promoter of music, something that has been barely matched in Andean countries, and consider him a colossus, or they see him as someone with Machiavellian intentions, hungry for applause regardless of the cost, and ask for his head – has affected him tremendously, even if it is clear that he has got away with it.

Undoubtedly, out in the open, beneath the chorus of contradictory and unbearably elevated words that reveal no consensus, the most disturbing thing, the final straw that put an end to his proud demeanour, is a story of blood, both gruesome and close to hand, and one that has come to complete the fatal symphony that so threateningly flirts with his most profound fears: a negative public image and public scandals. These fears, it is worth mentioning, are nothing new. His head of publicity at CONAC confirms it. “Yes, he is obsessive when it comes to the media,” acknowledged Ernestina Herrera. “He would have no problem in calling me at three in the morning over a simple detail on a news article, and I think he reads the newspapers in the small hours of the morning, sifting through the cultural section. I really don’t understand why he cares so much about the press.”

But if his fascination with the media seems to be an indecipherable mystery – perhaps to those who have not read The Bonfire of the Vanities –, what is beyond question is that the tenure of the latest president of CONAC will be overshadowed by his peculiar horror vacuis of information, where he would become anxious both when the dogs were barking and when they were silent. Indeed, it would not be going too far to suggest that his status as the best culture man since Paéz – according to the Cabrujian hyperbole – is based, to an extent, on a pre-emptive labour of self-promotion; of surreptitious steps within news circles that soften, whitewash, surrender. “Abreu is actually a newsprint official,” timidly offered an art and show business journalist, who preferred not to reveal his identity. “Achievements aside, it is unpleasant to discover how he has manipulated information: I think that, without exaggerating, you can measure the positive headlines on the wonders of his administration in kilometers.” But, on the other hand, there are those who have a similar theory, but use as its basis the tragic end of the director of CONAC’s chauffeur. This is the affair behind his dejection; around it a wall of whispers and gossip has been erected, containing journalistic dissemination.

According to people close to the situation, the ill-fated driver was Abreu’s right-hand man and someone who accompanied him everywhere, even on tours on which a driver was unessential, taking care of matters like his boss’s outfit or keeping track of his credit card expenses. Married and with a young child, it seemed, according to wagging tongues in the cultural world, that his wife, waging a confused conjugal crusade, had some time ago begun to resent her husband’s inability to resist being absorbed by the famous baton. In the small hours of December 25th, after a dramatic argument, the drama reached a climax worthy of a Greek tragedy: the Othello-like lady takes out a revolver, shoots her husband in the head, and immediately afterwards commits suicide. Since preserving appearances is key, the event was not mentioned except in the crime reports of a tabloid paper.


In 1979, José Antonio Abreu was 40 and, for four years, he had been the founder and head of the youth orchestras project, and he had even been tarnished by a ridiculed campaign to bring violin lessons to Pemón children. The son of a music-loving cobbler from Trujillo who settled in Barquisimeto (Calzados J.M. Abreu), he had behind him a stellar professional, political, and musical career. A summa cum laude economist, he became a congressman for the FND and an assistant of Arturo Uslar Pietri at 25; at 20 he had already directed his first concert at a gala in Caracas; before he turned 30 he had won two national music awards, which he “gave himself,” according to a composer and contemporary who admits that he hates Abreu “to death.” Whatever the case, his biography could not be considered impeccable: by then, Abreu had suffered the unpleasantness of two public uproars, and he was yet to face a third one, the most painful of the three.

In the early seventies, the Developmentalist Movement and Pedro Tinoco signed him up for an unusual diplomatic task: he was to establish a dialogue with the condemned, convicted, and confessed former dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, in his autumn years in Madrid, and try to win over the bulk of voters who were still fond of the failed and damned general. But the preparations for the interview got delayed and the brilliant young politician – who nevertheless already sported a shiny balding head – did not have time to put his name down on Venezuela’s electoral register. Newspapers in the capital would later, with predictable cruelty, rake over this muddled of case of fake IDs and compulsive registration processes.

Something different but with similar consequences took place in the following decade – the years when the nightmarish illusion of the Great Venezuela was still alive – when a novel but confusing social game became popular. “The Pyramid” was the name given to a kind of scam that created happy millionaires overnight, but at the expense of unsuspecting victims who were deceived and impoverished. It was a spiraling centrifuge in which three people gave a sum of money to a fourth one; then each one of the original contributors had to recruit three others to give the same amount of money, thus allowing them not only to recover their initial contribution, but also to triple it, and so on, while someone was in charge of organizing the transactions ad infinitum. But the spiral broke down when someone was unable to get their three recruits, and at that point began the complaints, the regrets, and the well-known accusations. One of Abreu’s sisters became involved in a similar situation and she had to face some consequences, but a malicious journalist hinted that a brilliant mind had to be hiding behind the whole thing.

This scandal was nothing, however, compared to the one he was involved in in 1979: on one side were the youth orchestras, on the other Gustavo Tambascio, a music critic. He was an intellectual from Buenos Aires who had found refuge in Venezuela. At the time, there was a terrible secret police organization in Argentina called the Anti-Communist Association of Argentina – the triple A –, which was tasked with persecuting, capturing and, if possible, torturing every politician or intellectual who showed any signs of turning red, which gave rise to a sort of Southern diaspora, people who were generally highly qualified and chose “Saudi” Venezuela as their preferred destination. Tambascio, a leftist philosopher and music lover who was well respected among his peers, wrote stinging and very pedantic music reviews for the legendary Section E of El Nacional. On a fateful day, Sunday 11 November, he struck out at a concert by the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra: “An orchestral chaos,” Tambascio wrote, “which reminded me of the final moments of a child’s birthday party, when children throw cake at each other, slide across the floor, and fight over what is left of the piñata; perhaps I should have done the same as a well-known pianist who left the concert at the interval in an indignant fluster. Even with all the sympathy that Abreu’s kids evoke (although the concert master is old enough to be in an adult orchestra), I cannot help pointing out the egregious lapses in tuning. An uncontrolled cascade of sounds,” concluded the columnist cruelly.

The day after, Abreu was overtaken by a frenzy of nationalistic and xenophobic rage in his response. “Dear director of Section E, today I have confirmed the existence of a growing number of adventurers, traffickers, and upstarts,” said Abreu, starting his counterattack. “In his ridiculous style, plagued with nouveau riche intellectualism, Mr. Tambascio spewed a repulsive piece mocking the magnificent concert conducted by Maestro Alberto Grau. He should know that in Venezuela there are many legal means to hit back hard in every sphere against those who try to insult or denigrate the country. Seeing his name at the end of such long list of stupid jabs at our national values hurts us Venezuelans very deeply, and we will make any gatecrasher who expects to spit on our values and institutions respect us. His little article will not go unpunished…”

His loyal supporters signed an announcement in his defense, but Section E carried out a poll among intellectuals and most of them reproached Abreu for his chauvinism. The harshest one of these intellectuals, the ineffable Pedro León Zapata, produced two biting caricatures: “now Abreu is spelled with a triple A,” and “when the mothers of the Pémon children read Abreu’s letter, they threw away their violins.” Luis Alberto Crespo and Nabor Zambrano, who at the time worked for Section E, were there when Abreu personally dropped off his supporters’ notice and said at the entrance of El Nacional: “I have to start writing, the press is so powerful!”

Ten years later, in the early years of Carlos Andrés Pérez’s second and short-lived term in office, after Abreu was appointed president of CONAC and Minister of Culture – a Ministry that was abolished after the 4-F coup, and triggered a campaign by artists for its reinstatement –, cultural journalists got together at the Teresa Carreño centre to address an issue that was starting to become a problem. From the high echelons of CONAC, their reports, news, and columns were being sprinkled with indulgent notes by the less-than-critical gaze of the top cultural institution. One example was the events that transpired after an ill-fated concert of the great Russian cellist Mtislav Rostropovich. He performed apathetically on two occasions, at the Aula Magna and the José Felix Ribas hall. At one of these concerts, however, the innocent and clearly uncultured Caracas audience asked for the obligatory encore, but the maestro did not oblige, even after a prolonged standing ovation. It is known that the organizers tried to force him to come out again, but nobody was able to meet his outrageous demands: his da capos, he muttered, cost a mere 5000 dollars.

A few days later, the critic Enrique Moya from El Nacional made a biting reference to the aftermath of the concert, which had been announced as the cultural event of the century. The phone call did not take long to arrive, and Moya had to leave and write his reviews elsewhere. But this was just one in a series of “impasses,” until one day, out of love for professional dignity, the journalist Carlos Ortega made public his dissatisfaction with the constant presence of public officials who softened critical journalism. It was then that a group of outspoken reporters drew up a public statement. A journalist who joined the fray at the last minute sharpened some adjectives that seemed lacking in energy, making the document mordant, irreverent, and memorable, a document to make journalistic history, “which would have been the Red October of the Venezuelan press,” recalls one of the signatories. However, something unexpected happened. Apparently, the president of the College of Journalists, Nela Carmona, sister of Ramón Carmona, minister of the Secretariat at the time, managed to cool the mood of half of the signatories through phone calls, whispered words, and monetary mediations, to the point that the statement was released three days later and only in the back pages of El Mundo. “We feel exposed,” said one of the conspiring journalists, but by a coincidence that raises suspicions, almost all of those who withdrew their signatures were given, sooner or later, positions as consultants at CONAC.

From that moment on, a series of raids was conducted to control information leaks, which led to polarization, persecution, the coming and going of journalists from one newspaper to another, and arguments and name calling between loyalists and critics. In this context, Mariveni Rodríguez published a summary of the distribution of CONAC’s budget in her column at El Globo, where she pointed out the existence of some blacked-out sections. Her career barely survived. There is also the case of Efraín Corona, who was working for El Diario de Caracas. He published the arguments of a person who complained about discriminatory practices relating to a certain cultural fund, and Corona was stung by this update. Later, he joined El Globo, and in one of his many press conferences, the minister, about to give a speech, noticed the familiar face of the reporter, widened his eyes, blinked uncontrollably, and asked his press officer Igor Molina: “Igor, what is Efraín Corona doing here?”

But those tentacles reach far beyond the capital and into the provinces: it is said that at CONAC’s press office there are people constantly checking on newspapers from other parts of the country. Manuel de La Fuente, the cultural spokesperson of the Universidad de Los Andes, was censored with a stern reprimand because of an unfortunate press release. There was also the case of the cultural director of the State Government of Sucre, who made public his dissatisfaction with some of the details of Abreu’s administration in a tiny newspaper in Cumaná. Eduardo Morales Gil received a call demanding the dismissal of the cultural advisor, but Morales not only refused to do so, he also took the opportunity, months later, to give a lecture on democratic spirit during a public appearance in Cumaná and in the presence of the beleaguered director: “Doctor Abreu, you need to learn that criticism is necessary.”

This attempt to create a symbiotic relationship with the press was denounced from the beginning, in late 1990, by the musician and philosopher Joaquín López Mujica in an interview with the now defunct magazine Viernes. There were strong rumours that a large proportion of that issue’s print run was bought by a hidden hand; nevertheless, the terrible stories published there caused a scandal of significant proportions. Aside from his discontent with the allocation of the funds, López Mujica pointed out “what could be referred to as totalitarianism of cultural information. It is very difficult to find an article that is critical of Abreu’s tenure or his friends; the minister has about 40 journalists among his advisors.” Three years later, he stands behind this statement, though the number he mentioned is now higher. He also claims to have copies of certain cheques that led him to that conclusion.

“Cultural delinquency” is how a journalist and professor in the school of Social Communication at the UCV [Universidad Central de Venezuela] brands a group of individuals who work for CONAC and, according to him, occupy multiple posts and suck out the funds obtained by the hard-working Abreu, his biggest and most recognized achievement when it comes to making a final assessment of his tenure. While it is true, say others, that CONAC’s budgets were miserable before Abreu’s arrival, as statistics show, “whatever has been obtained has been squandered anyway.”

That history of success at securing budgets, which at CONAC have reached the astronomical sum of 10 billion bolivars, adds a comical note when it comes to assessing Abreu’s work. People close to him say that it was very entertaining to watch the tricks that every minister, regardless of their department, had to endure for five years as José Antonio Abreu employed his irresistible snake charmer qualities. Everyone, without exception, had to put at least one item on the sacrificial stone for the benefit of culture. Roberto Pocaterra, for example, confessed publicly that he was terrified of Abreu and every time he saw him walking around his office he would let out: “Here comes Abreu to ask me for money.” The scene at the Teatro del Oeste in Caño Amarillo was legendary. He was invited and received personally by Abreu himself, who went on and on about how excellent the venue was and how indispensable it was to remodel it. “Between the first and the second floor,” said a witness, “he extracted 80 million bolivars.” There were also a considerable number of buildings, new and old, which he was able to seize from other institutions.

According to someone close to Abreu, during a walk along El Litoral, he was shocked by the condition of a crumbling building, so he immediately went down to ask what institution it belonged to and he was told the building was Fede’s. The following day he spoke with Beatriz Albornoz, who handed the building over to Abreu, and he turned it into a shiny theatre. But he was not content with simply asking for things, he would go from office to office making sure people followed through with their promises. “It’s that, as a musician, he is used to asking for things,” ruminated the doctor and composer René Rojas. “That is a tradition in the history of music, all the great composers kissed the feet of kings, from Haydn to Wagner, and especially the pitiful Jean Baptiste Lully, a consummate lackey, who – as it happens – was a lot like Jose Antonio Abreu.”

Due to his incredible industriousness – he never sleeps, pesters his employees at impossible hours, works in his car, and is always drowning in stacks of files – and his education as an economist, it is easy to understand why he has been so successful when it comes to budgets, but it is probably his modus operandi of persistently squeezing and shaking down people for money, with a dose of flattery thrown in, that has been the biggest factor. “When there are changes in government or in the cabinet,” continues Rojas, “the first thing he does is to offer a concert to the newly appointed authorities; he threw a concert for Pérez when he was sworn in, he was there at Ramón J. Velázquez’s Te Deum, and he had no problems preparing Mahler Eight for Caldera.” Others point out that we should not forget that the ridiculed CAP [Carlos Andrés Pérez] museum in Rubio was built on Abreu’s orders, and in addition, that his true role in the perecista package was to silence the voices of intellectuals in the face of the foreseeable neoliberal typhoon, which would also explain why (and this is something on which most agree) all these resources have been devoted to the benefit of an elite that has a tremendous influence on public opinion. “In a country where before the February 4 coup even shoeshine boys protested, culture was the only sector that did not suffer during the crisis and that is why its criticism was innocuous,” said Nabor Zambrano.

In cultural circles, it is no secret that during his tenure everybody traveled or received money for projects that, in many cases, were never realized. “Even if it was just a little trip to the Caribbean, everybody benefited from that great budget,” said Edgar Villanueva from the press office of the TTC. Some complain about the grand tours to Europe, where a great multitude of acolytes traveled in flocks, in most cases without really representing a Venezuelan cultural expression overseas. Such was the infamous European tour of the Simón Bolivar orchestra, which ended up not performing in Paris and London because its instruments failed to arrive on time, leaving over 200 people there doing nothing other than cultural tourism. Or the more recent and criticized case of the trip to Seville, in which a large number of family members accompanied the artists to exhibitions and phantom performances.

Another aspect of the quiet bacchanalia of Venezuelan culture is apparently bringing shows from overseas for minuscule groups of people, such as the invitation of the orchestral director Philip Pickett, at a cost of millions, for shows seen by only 300 people over three days; it seems that Isabel Palacios thought it was absolutely necessary to bring him to Venezuela. Or the burdensome gig by Zubin Mehta’s father, a rather average musician, simply because his son’s name carried weight. “For Abreu, culture is a fashion show, a swindle, without true quality, after which nothing will remain,” said the lawyer and culture enthusiast Salvador Itriago.

What is now being questioned is the existence of funds employed at the discretion of officials, which are being used for unforeseen expenses such as the humanitarian underwriting of the death throes of artists infected with AIDS and other necessities that are not so clear; from these funds, say the wagging tongues, comes the goodwill from the press. Thus, while Juan Nuño was closing up his diatribe regarding Abreu’s management by arguing that he is hated simply because he is intelligent and efficient, values that envy cannot forgive, a colleague from the cultural world had a very different take on the matter: “If we start from the notion that the only thing that unifies the broad conception that we now have of the word ‘culture’ is criticism, the fact that criticism has been muzzled means that under Abreu there has been no culture, just a lavish and self-congratulatory spectacle.”