“Authoritarianism and talent flight: cracks in the System of Orchestras”

The journalist Sérgio Moreno has just published an article entitled “Authoritarianism and talent flight: cracks in the System of Orchestras,” in which he details allegations of secrecy, coercion, mass desertion, falling standards, frustration and apathy within the Simón Bolívar orchestra, and tensions between the orchestra and Dudamel, who threatened to resign last year. None of this will be news to anyone who follows events in Venezuela closely or who reads my blog and Facebook, as I’ve been telling the same story since last year (and in many ways since my book was published), but it’s good to see the media finally starting to catch up. (The article is in Spanish, so if you don’t read Spanish you should crack out your Google Translate. It’s worth it.)

The impression of a climate of pressure and intimidation is underlined by a recent interview by the now-famous “violinist of the protests” Wuilly Artega. He spent two years in El Sistema but

After a short time El Sistema oppressed him.

[El Sistema’s line was:] “I put a violin in your hand but you support and preach that the government has given you the opportunity. That happened to me and not just me, to all the musicians of El Sistema. We felt frustrated”

Moreno’s article provides a welcome contrast to recent and distinctly flawed attempts, in the wake of Wuilly’s rise to prominence, to link El Sistema with political resistance (such as this and this). It shows that the picture is much more complicated, and that desertion has been a much more significant response to the political and economic crisis, if one that has been taking place for some time underneath the media’s radar.

However, the article also has flaws and omissions, both of which hinge on the sentence that refers to a government strategy “that seeks to benefit from the virtuous image of the musicians and the prestige that the project has in the eyes of the international community.” The big flaw is the portrayal of Abreu and Dudamel as unwilling victims of politics. Yet have they – and indeed many other musicians – not benefited enormously from government support? Was this not for many years a mutually beneficial quid pro quo? Was it not one that Abreu actively sought out as soon as Chávez came into power, one that led to the fastest expansion in the program’s history?

The article finishes with the claim that, for the government, “the ideal slogan would be to play and to be silent” (riffing on the official slogan of Tocar y Luchar.) Yet to play and to be silent has been Sistema policy from the start, and refusal to talk in anything more than clichés and generalities has been a hallmark of Sistema discourse since at least the mid-1990s. Dudamel is infamous now in Venezuela for his silence. Every time he told a journalist “I’m a musician not a politician” he was choosing to play and be silent.

The article quotes Dudamel’s recent Facebook post about the death of Armando Cañizales at great length, but it says nothing about his policy of silence before or since. His closeness to senior Chavista politicians is well known; less widely known is the allegation by a top-level figure – Diego Arria – that the conductor only spoke out over Cañizales because he was pressurized to do so by the board of the LA Phil, in damage-limitation mode. Certainly, his subsequent reticence suggests a decision to say the bare minimum to get critics off his back (the international media duly obliged) rather than a change of heart. So it is much too simplistic to set up El Sistema and its leaders as victims of the revolution. The bottom line is that Abreu is a politician; he made a political gamble by allying himself with Chávez, one that paid off handsomely in the short and medium term; now the chickens are coming home to roost.

The major omission is the question: what happens now? As the journalist notes, following many others before him, the government’s support for the orchestras is predicated on their burnishing of its image in the international arena. Maduro said this openly when he granted $9 million for overseas tours earlier this year: the aim was to “amaze the world… to make the world fall in love with Venezuela.”

Now these international tours are on the horizon: the National Youth Orchestra in the US in September, the Simón Bolívar in China and Hong Kong in October-November. There have been patches of turbulence around Armando Cañizales and Wuilly Arteaga, but at the level of the institution and its orchestras and musicians, it looks suspiciously like (propaganda) business as usual. It appears that Dudamel’s Facebook post does not mean that he or his orchestras are going to stop serving as the government’s cultural ambassador-in-chief. If so, those stories about El Sistema and resistance may have to go back into storage.