Taking a stand for what?

Marshall Marcus is one of the most intelligent and articulate figures in the Sistema field, so the weakness of his recent article on El Sistema in the Guardian underlines just how deep the problems run in this sphere.

It would be wrong to make too much of the portentous title – “The whole world must join the battle for Venezuela’s El Sistema” – given that Marcus almost certainly didn’t write it. His point is actually that the global Sistema-inspired field should take a stand, which is considerably more limited and reasonable, though it seems that few readers grasped this distinction. (The title has now been changed on the Guardian website.) And he’s right to pinpoint the LA Phil’s Take a Stand festival, which recently failed to live up to its title and confront the multiple problems facing El Sistema at present, preferring to remain in la-la-land.

However, Marcus’s tone is dramatic elsewhere: “To lose El Sistema would be to lose one of the most precious commodities Venezuela has ever produced.” Two immediate questions arise: (1) do the events of the last few days suggest that El Sistema is about to be lost? (2) What is the Sistema field supposed to take a stand for or against?

To recap what has actually taken place to date, behind the flurry of media interest from around the world: Dudamel criticized the Venezuelan government; President Maduro criticized Dudamel back; the government cancelled the upcoming tour to the US by the Venezuelan National Youth Orchestra.

What has NOT happened, at least so far, includes: Maduro firing Dudamel from his positions in El Sistema; Dudamel resigning from his positions in El Sistema; the cancellation of Dudamel’s tour to China and Hong Kong with the Simón Bolívar orchestra; Maduro declaring Dudamel to be an “enemy of the people” (as Norman Lebrecht claimed); or Maduro threatening to axe El Sistema. The government has not even given a reason for the cancellation; lack of funds and worsening political relations between Venezuela and the US may also be contributory factors. Some of these things may yet happen, but at the time that Marcus penned his article, they had not, making his suggestion that El Sistema is at risk of being lost over this dispute considerably overblown.

In fact, Maduro has reiterated his longstanding support for further expansion of El Sistema, which seriously complicates efforts to squeeze recent developments into a simple story of good guy vs. bad guy, and makes it far from clear what precisely people should be taking a stand for or against. “It is time for all of those people to voice their support,” writes Marcus – yes, but for what or whom?

The closest we get to an answer is:

“Maduro will have trouble trying to barge his way into ownership of it. So long, that is, as people resist.”

So Marcus seems to be calling on fans to express their support for El Sistema by resisting the man in whose hands the immediate future of the program lies and who has repeatedly declared his intention to expand it to hit the target of 1 million participants. The sense that Marcus hasn’t really thought this through is underlined by his omission of any clue about what “taking a stand” might actually entail.

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To take a step back, it’s interesting that there has been such a hullabaloo about the cancellation of a tour that will affect 150 musicians out of a program that – according to official figures – encompasses more than 850,000 participants. It must be a sore disappointment for those affected, but in terms of El Sistema as whole, let alone Venezuela, it’s a mere trifle.

We are constantly told that El Sistema is primarily a social rather than a musical program. Yet what has grabbed the world’s attention now is a relatively minor setback for the program’s musical elite – a highly selective orchestra at the pinnacle of hierarchical, competitive pyramid – rather than the deep social problems currently afflicting El Sistema’s base and Venezuela as a whole. Looking at how people respond to El Sistema news is revealing of their priorities. If the social were really paramount, the world would have paid less attention to this story and more to the bigger one that has in fact been ignored: the 2016 Inter-American Development Bank report.

If the social is so important, then why has there been a blanket failure to acknowledge and analyze the findings of a major study of El Sistema’s social effects? Why does Marcus repeat the line that El Sistema “seeks to empower underprivileged children” despite the IDB’s evidence that it is actually skewed AWAY from the poor? He seems to be ignoring the most detailed quantitative study of El Sistema ever produced.

It is striking that a cancelled concert tour has provoked international media attention yet there has been absolute silence over:

Why is no one starting a campaign, taking a stand or writing opinion pieces on such vital questions, if what really matters is social development not classical performance?

Why not take a stand over the poor pay and working conditions that have dogged El Sistema’s teachers throughout its history, or the treatment of employees who have fallen out of favour? Why not take a stand over the deteriorating conditions in many núcleos, even while a hugely expensive new HQ is being built in Caracas next door to the current one, itself only a decade old? Why not take a stand over the dedication of eye-watering sums to concert halls in the new facilities while students across the program lack access to sufficient food or adequate healthcare? Why not take a stand over educational quality, children’s rights, safeguarding, or democratic participation?

But the Sistema advocacy sphere shows very little interest in such fundamental social issues. It waxes about social action and inclusion, yet turns a blind eye to social injustices going on in front of its eyes. Given the vagueness of his article, it seems as though Marcus just wants his fellow Sistema fans to give up cheers for El Sistema and boos for Maduro rather than confront the deep-lying problems that the Venezuelan program faces and the glaring contradictions that underpin it.

And contrary to the implication of Marcus’s article, El Sistema’s problems are not new. I repeatedly raised concerns in my book, which I began writing in 2011. My recent research with Ana Lucía Frega reveals that similar problems date back at least to 1997, and were known about then at the highest level. What’s new is that they are getting harder to ignore.

I was skeptical about the sustainability of El Sistema, since it seemed to me that the program was over-expanding and its boom depended on a combination of factors – high oil prices, strong political support, and the silence of critics – that could change at any point. Marcus is right that El Sistema is at risk, but not because of the cancellation of a tour or Dudamel’s tiff with Maduro – it’s at risk because of a shrinking budget due to low oil prices, the state’s inability to provide so many musicians with decent working and living conditions, the consequent hemorrhaging of personnel at all levels of the organization, and the growing criticism of Abreu and Dudamel for their close ties to Chavismo, which has seem the program lose some of its shine in Venezuela.

The last point leads us on to a key problem with Marcus’s depiction of El Sistema. Any vaguely-informed Sistema-watcher will spot the flaw in his central image of Maduro “trying to barge his way into ownership” of the program. In reality, it is a partnership that Abreu himself sought out and encouraged, and it goes back to the earliest days of Chávez’s presidency. I have seen video footage of Abreu eagerly showing off a Sistema orchestra to a recently anointed Chávez and his wife. What Abreu’s alternatives were would be the subject of a different conversation, but the notion that in 2017 the government is suddenly attempting to take ownership of El Sistema is not just false but worryingly so, coming as it does from a senior and influential figure such as Marcus.

El Sistema has been operating out of the President’s Office since 2011, and has been close to the heart of government for much longer. So what we see today is not a case of an outsider “barging in”; it is an internecine struggle between a musician, a music program, and a political movement that have been joined at the hip throughout the era of Chavismo. Dudamel has influential supporters within the international media who are now busy polishing his image, but their efforts to conjure up a nice clean dichotomy of hero and villain, “Sistema family” and usurper, rests on downplaying these tight bonds that all parties embraced for many years.

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Lurking beneath the surface of Marcus’s article are two deep issues. One, that very few seem willing to admit, much less face up to, is that what we are seeing now is the playing out of a boom and bust cycle; that the boom was as politicized as the bust (if more subtly so); and that the seeds of the bust were there in the boom that Marcus and others heralded so loudly a decade ago. It suits Marcus’s agenda as a prominent, long-term Sistema booster to present El Sistema as something that worked brilliantly until Maduro came along and ruined it, but this is about as accurate as claiming that Gordon Brown caused the global financial crisis of 2007-2008.

What is most immediately at risk with the current brouhaha is not the survival of the program itself – which continues to be backed by the government – but the aura of the El Sistema brand around the world and the reputations of those who declared the program to be the great new hope for classical music. A scenario in which the tiff between Maduro and Dudamel becomes a permanent split, and Maduro keeps El Sistema while Dudamel gets the jet-set conductor career, is one that few Sistema-inspired programs or advocates will anticipate with any relish. And Marcus is of course one of the top advocates – something he omitted to mention in his Guardian article. His call for fans to take a stand is as much as anything an attempt to defend the international Sistema franchise and the myths on which it rests.