What’s wrong with sending child musicians to play for the FARC?

In the latest in a string of controversies to hit El Sistema, El Nacional has just published a story about a rather unusual gig. A group of young Sistema musicians was taken to a FARC guerrilla camp in Colombia to celebrate the organization’s 53rd anniversary.

In a highly unusual move, El Sistema’s executive director, Eduardo Méndez, issued a swift and firm denunciation of what he claimed to have been an independent decision by the local music school’s director, who was publicly fired. Méndez is normally extraordinarily tight-lipped when controversy strikes, and I don’t recall a Sistema functionary being publicly sacked in the decade that I’ve been researching the program (they normally prefer the Church option of quietly moving people elsewhere), so the response suggests that El Sistema’s leaders were seriously worried about negative fallout from this story.

But what had the local Sistema director, Carlos Pinto, actually done wrong? According to Méndez’s statement, he had used the name of El Sistema irresponsibly and possibly put the young people’s safety at risk. Yet how much risk was really attached to attending the birthday party of a demobilized group whose invitation to the musicians underlined themes of peace and reconciliation? To be frank, many Sistema musicians run a greater risk simply by travelling to and from rehearsals in Caracas.

What’s notably missing from Méndez’s statement is El Sistema’s taboo word: politics. This is why Venezuelans are up in arms, not because of the kids’ safety. The real problem isn’t that the FARC was going to shoot the young musicians, it’s that they are Marxist revolutionaries. That’s a big deal in Venezuela right now, which is why Méndez is so worried. But of course his organization is funded by a socialist revolution, so he can’t mention the real problem.

It’s clear that El Sistema crossed the line. Even Eduardo Méndez admits that. But which line? There are several possible answers to that question. For some, the story begins and ends with the FARC. But for me the line is beyond specific political ideologies: it’s the use of child musicians, without their consent, in a high-stakes political game. And as Méndez knows, El Sistema crossed that line a long time ago, which is why he can’t mention it.

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