The tightening of the screw

[28/10/2016] At a recent large meeting at El Sistema’s Centre for Social Action through Music, a government representative, the Vice-Minister of Supreme Happiness (!) Carolina Cestari, reminded the institution’s employees that their funding came from the President’s Office, and they should therefore support the government’s revolutionary process or find a new job. They were told not to sign the petition for a recall referendum that has been the main focus of opposition efforts in recent months. It appears they are also now expected to join pro-government marches, and according to one source, they have since done so.

There has been consternation in the capital’s classical music scene as a result. However, and in line with the long history of El Sistema, so far no employee has come forward to make a public declaration or denunciation. The levels of pressure and fear are high, and 40 years of top-down orchestration and strict control by founder José Antonio Abreu, who believes in the orchestra as a school of social discipline, have left musicians without a political voice or a capacity to self-organize.

Despite the existence of several audio recordings and photos of the meeting (e.g. this short extract), there has been no word from the press (apart from a journalist’s summary of the meeting, in Spanish), and nothing from Sistema commentators and boosters overseas. The former do, admittedly, have their hands pretty full right now with the wider political turmoil. The latter have always tried to paint El Sistema as non-political, and may well try to avoid the topic. If they are obliged to respond, I expect they will try to spin this event as a radical shift. It is not. It is simply the latest phase in a decades-old process – the tightening of a political screw.

El Sistema has always been political. Abreu was a politician long before he created El Sistema, and he has always thought and acted like one, even if his political manoeuvring was largely invisible for considerable stretches of El Sistema’s history. However, for several years he combined running the program with serving as Minister of Culture. More recently, he secured El Sistema’s survival by striking a deal with Chávez. Direct funding and huge loans were provided for the program’s expansion, in return for serving (directly and indirectly) as a political tool. Nearly a decade ago, in 2007, the closure of the opposition-slanted RCTV (Radio Caracas TV) made the tightening bonds between El Sistema and the government visible. On the stroke of midnight, the channel went off the air, to be replaced immediately by a Sistema choir and orchestra conducted by Dudamel (who was flown in from Scandinavia on a government jet) performing the national anthem, inaugurating the government-run TVES channel on the same frequency. Many Venezuelans understood this as a politically charged move and were highly critical of Abreu as a result. El Sistema moved to the President’s Office in 2011, and it was pretty obvious (as Cestari spelt out last week) that funding from this source came with strings attached. In December 2015, according to a report in the newspaper El Nacional, El Sistema’s leaders allegedly pressured directors of music schools to mobilize their employees to vote for the ruling socialist party in the elections. (There have been other similar examples in the last few years, as I have blogged about here.) In other words, recent events are signs of intensification, but also part of a clear, long-term pattern, and may be seen simply as the government demanding that El Sistema fulfil its side of the bargain. The idea that El Sistema was suddenly politicized last week doesn’t stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

However, the public conversation in the global North has been led by people with either personal and professional interest in El Sistema’s success or limited knowledge of Venezuelan realities (or both), and their denials and obfuscations have allowed this central feature of El Sistema to go unnoticed to all but the closest of observers. Mark Swed of the LA Times, for example, has repeatedly let Dudamel off the political hook, most recently just last week. Someone with greater understanding and a more investigative bent would push Dudamel harder, and would grasp that El Sistema may have been a state foundation for nearly 40 years, but the issue here is its relationship with the current government. They would also grasp that Dudamel is not the “mere musician” that he likes to play when faced with such questions, but is in the thick of the political scene. Foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra appeared together at the UN in early 2016, with the former declaring that Dudamel was “our best ambassador to the world.” President Maduro has shown personal interest in and backing for the plans for a Frank Gehry-designed Sala Dudamel concert hall in Barquisimeto. The hatching of such an extravagant plan in the midst of an economic crisis speaks volumes.

Dudamel has managed to evade the politics question pretty well up to now, thanks to less-than-intensive questioning by the likes of Swed, but things have just got harder for him. Within the space of a week, the Venezuelan government was branded a dictatorship by news outlets around the world because of its blocking of the recall referendum petition, and El Sistema was declared to be part of the government’s political program. It will be very interesting to see how Dudamel and his PR team respond if a journalist asks them about these developments, given that the party line – that El Sistema is non-political – now openly flies in the face of facts.

These recent events will only exacerbate the flow of employees out of El Sistema – another story that’s been going on under the radar for a while. Even members of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra are slipping quietly away and popping up in other parts of the world. This is an extraordinary development, considering that these musicians were a much-envied economic elite when I did my core research 5-6 years ago. Now, rampant inflation and shortages have left them in a worse place financially, and many are as concerned by the political currents as anyone else. Things look likely to get worse before they get better – so Sistema musicians and administrators are jumping ship if they get the chance.

There is a strong rumour going around that there will soon be a very high-profile departure from the SBSO: Dudamel himself. My guess is that he sees diminishing returns and growing problems ahead with this association, as journalists and reviewers start to probe the politics question. Up to now, the SBSO has served him very well, but I doubt that an orchestra of decreasing quality and under increasing scrutiny could be anything other than a drag on his career. Working with El Sistema’s children rather than its adults would place him in a less uncomfortable position. What would happen to El Sistema’s range of professional orchestras without Dudamel’s star-power and the musicians’ former youthful appeal remains an open question, but I suspect that El Sistema has peaked as a force on the international concert scene.

However, there are more pressing issues in Caracas right now. Chickens are coming home to roost. More Sistema musicians are waking up to the fact that the program’s Chávez-era bonanza was a loan not a gift, and the government has now come calling. The biggest questions are: will El Sistema’s musicians finally find a collective voice? Will those who oppose the government take a stand and refuse to accept their obligatory incorporation into its revolutionary process? Or will fear, economic dependence, and the institution’s iron grip prevent any sort of organized response?