“The Venezuelan musical miracle needs a miracle”

[09/12/2016] So began the El Sistema teacher Pablo Hurtado-Mazza this week in a post on social media. He described the feeling of being “manipulated and exploited” by his institution because of the pitiful wages that hourly-paid teachers receive, and criticized “the ugliness and cruelty that can characterize its administrative behaviour.” He alleged that El Sistema is currently failing to honour an agreement to provide staff with a substantial pay rise and medical insurance. Silence from the institution is echoed by staff, who are afraid of losing their jobs, since those who speak up are, he claims, “persecuted and intimidated” and branded “enemies of El Sistema.” According to the author, the indifference of the leadership and the desperation of the teachers combine so that nothing happens, “and El Sistema enjoys worldwide success while treading on dead consciences.”

Reading Hurtado-Mazza’s words, which echo so many that I have heard and read before about low pay within El Sistema, I realized that the hourly pay for the program’s rank-and-file teachers has dropped by around 99% since I did my fieldwork 6 years ago. They earned roughly 5 dollars an hour back then; it has now dropped to more like 5 cents an hour, due to hyperinflation.*

This is the kind of detail that you won’t find in the newspapers or the Sistema-inspired newsletters with their stories about the “Venezuelan musical miracle.” But then we live in a “post-truth” world in which objective facts have less traction than emotional stories.

The rapidly falling value of wages is one reason behind the current exodus of musicians from Venezuela, along with the deteriorating standard of living and clouds hovering over El Sistema’s leadership. It’s very hard to find out how many are leaving and where they are going, but I’ve heard stories that the orchestras of Guadalajara and Jalisco in Mexico are filling up with Sistema refugees. The latter boasts at least two well-known Venezuelan figures on its roster: William Molina, head of El Sistema’s cello academy, and Katherine Rivas, winner of the first flute competition and star of the Universal Music infomercial “The Promise of Music.” If musicians at this level are abandoning ship, then the Venezuelan musical miracle may indeed need a miracle.

* It is hard to calculate precisely, as the value of the Bolívar is fluctuating wildly against the dollar, and wages seem to vary across núcleos – but it may be nearer 3 cents an hour in some places.