“False philanthropy” in the Sistema-inspired sphere

With 86 centres across Mexico, the children’s orchestra and choir program Esperanza Azteca may be the largest Sistema-inspired organization in the world. Behind it stands one of Mexico’s richest men – Ricardo Salinas Pliego – and his media company TV Azteca. Its image, in Mexico and beyond, is glowing, and the businessman and his corporation reap the reputational rewards. Yet according to an exhaustive and prize-winning journalistic investigation published earlier this year, entitled “The false philanthropy of Salinas Pliego,” there are important question marks over this “model” music education program.

The author, Carmen García Bermejo, claims that despite its fame as a philanthropic enterprise, most of Esperanza Azteca’s funding in fact comes from the state, and that its wealthy backer has used his youth orchestral program to whitewash the image of his corporation and to avoid taxes (one of his many claims to fame is his appearance in the Panama Papers). Among the more serious allegations is that the program has received millions of pesos for two orchestras that do not exist.

A central conclusion of the research is summed up by the headline “Culture suffocates; the Azteca orchestras flourish.” Salinas’s youth orchestra program has received large sums of public money while state culture budgets have been slashed, decimating many other arts organizations and activities, and even other classical music ensembles. “The flourishing of the Esperanza Azteca Children’s Orchestras and Choirs […] has gone hand in hand with the cancellation of theatre, music, dance and film festivals, the disappearance of symphonic orchestras, and the struggle for survival by community culture programs.”

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In 43 years, there has never been a similar probing of El Sistema, but on the basis of smaller investigations in the 1990s by journalists Roger Santodomingo and Rafael Rivero, one can only wonder what might be uncovered. A single micro-investigation last year revealed that José Antonio Abreu did not actually hold a PhD, as long claimed in official sources. What would an exhaustive trawl through financial records and external contracts throw up? What might a Venezuelan equivalent of the dogged and thorough Carmen García Bermejo discover? The mind boggles.

But even without such a thorough journalistic investigation, one can spot several parallels between the Mexican and Venezuelan cases. Students of El Sistema will be well acquainted with the notion of a program that ran on public money but operated in effect as a private organization for the greater glory of its founder. They may not be surprised to see a powerful figure using youth orchestras to construct a reputation as a Great Benefactor. The idea that such “philanthropy” might have a dark side was explored 24 years ago by Rivero, who labelled Abreu “the Philanthropic Ogre” (coincidentally, borrowing a term from the Mexican Octavio Paz). Both cases reveal the instrumentalization of young musicians, whether in the interests of politicians (in Venezuela) or the private sector (in Mexico).

The issue of the expansion of a single project at the cost of many others is also familiar from Venezuela. I dedicated a whole chapter of my book to the impact of El Sistema on Venezuelan cultural life, and explored how Abreu’s monopolizing tendencies affected other musicians and arts institutions. In Venezuela, as in Mexico, the fundraising efforts of musicians not affiliated with the dominant (and dominating) organization were often met with the response “there’s no money available.”

This report underlines a point that a number of scholars and I have been making for several years now: that all is not necessarily as it seems in the world of “social action through music,” and that it pays to dig deeper.

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Leaving aside the details, I’m delighted simply to see a significant piece of investigative cultural journalism on youth orchestras. So much journalistic writing in this area is simply hagiography, rehashing institutional propaganda and press releases (and not just journalistic writing – some scholarship is little better). In her excellent research on two youth orchestras in Buenos Aires, Gabriela Wald neatly skewers the romanticization characteristic of so many journalistic reports – or more to the point, the young musicians do the skewering, mocking the exaggerated rhetoric of a magazine article about their program. But García Bermejo’s investigation shows what is possible when a cultural journalist takes their job seriously, and no one is going to be laughing at her findings.