Writing El Sistema’s history

After 42 years, hundreds of millions of dollars of funding, and the achievement of global fame, there is still no written history of El Sistema. This is a surprising gap. The closest thing is Chefi Borzacchini’s Venezuela en el cielo de los escenarios, but this book in fact says little about the 1980s and 90s and makes no attempt to construct a comprehensive or linear narrative. The program’s history is thus curiously hazy.

A former close associate of José Antonio Abreu told me: “José Antonio doesn’t like things to be written down because then it is hard to adjust to the political interests of the moment.” In this informant’s eyes, then, the haziness is no coincidence, and is in fact a source of strength because it makes realignment an ever-present option.

The most important moment of history writing – I want to say rewriting, but I can’t for the reasons spelt out above – occurred in the mid-1990s, when El Sistema was rebranded as a social rather than musical institution. Since there was no history to contest, it simply claimed that it was a social program – not that it was becoming one, or was going to focus more on social aspects, but that it was one. This had a particular advantage: if it was a social program, then not only did it deserve support from social funds, but also it did not need to make any changes to its practice.

I have the sense that a second pivotal historiographical moment is upon us now, one that focuses on the political rather than the social. Two articles have appeared in national newspapers in the last two weeks seeking to put clear water between Venezuela’s government and El Sistema – the first by Marshall Marcus in the Guardian, the second by Osvaldo Burgos in El Nacional.

Both authors treat the recent spat between Gustavo Dudamel and President Nicolás Maduro as a sign of an imminent rupture or downfall of El Sistema. Yet at the time of writing, Dudamel has neither resigned nor been fired as musical director of El Sistema, and a tour to China and Hong Kong with the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra is still in his official schedule for next month. Both authors are thus in a rush to declare and analyse a split before it has even happened, which is quite revealing; they seem to be champing at the bit to disassociate El Sistema from the government, and their articles seek to write the program’s history accordingly, providing a suitable historiographical foundation for a post-Chavismo future.

Like Marcus, Burgos tries to distance El Sistema from Chavismo by painting the ties between the two as a recent phenomenon and a purely negative one, manifested in the form of political pressure or even a kind of coup. So for him, 2011 is the pivotal year, when El Sistema moved to the President’s Office and Abreu stepped back from the front line due to ill health.

This is the only mention of Abreu in the article, which is a clear sign that a very selective history is being constructed. In order to present the current situation as the result of a power-grab by the government, Burgos has to portray Abreu as a peripheral figure, and also elide important developments in the period from Chávez’s assumption of power in 1999 until 2011.

In fact, Abreu was a key protagonist throughout this period. He made eager overtures to Chávez and his wife, starting with the concert for the president’s inauguration. He and Chávez found agreement in the form of a focus on social inclusion, which became central to Abreu’s vocabulary from then on. This opened up the possibility of an alliance between El Sistema and the Chávez government that produced results including rapid expansion of the program, the government’s underwriting of a $150-million loan from the IDB in 2007, and the creation of the Misión Música in the same year (even though the latter turned out to be something of a ghost project). And Abreu did not simply fade away in 2011; in 2013, he was a front-row guest at Maduro’s inauguration, and the following year, the journalist Diego Arroyo Gil, reacting to Abreu’s closeness to the new president, described him as a “courtesan,” “buttering up the regime’s leaders” and “smiling like Caesar’s special guest.”

But none of this can be glimpsed in Burgos’s vision, determined as he is to distance El Sistema from Chavismo; for him, the achievements of the first decade of the century are other ones – all traditional musical achievements, it should be noted – and they are all attributable to previous governments. Abreu’s 15 years of working with Chávez and then Maduro disappear in order to allow Burgos to argue that “El Sistema and the current government in Venezuela are incompatible entities.” In fact, they have been strikingly compatible for most of the time since Chávez came to power, which is one reason why the program became an object of such favour from the government.

There is a very different history that could be told, then – one that took into account the developments above, and also included such moments as Abreu and Dudamel’s accompaniment of the closure of RCTV, their prominent role at Chávez’s funeral, the infamous Day of Youth performance in February 2014, and the plans for a Frank Gehry-designed Sala Dudamel in Barquisimeto. Such a history might also look more critically at Dudamel’s recent change of stance. After all, the conductor’s justification for his silence from 2014-17 was not that he was in agreement with political developments, but that he was a musician not a politician, and that his priority was protecting El Sistema. One might well then ask why such arguments were valid during the civil strife of 2014 but not 2017. Does he now think that music and politics should mix, and that El Sistem is no longer the top priority?

But Burgos, an ardent Sistema fan, shows no interest in probing such issues. Given that no rupture has actually occurred to date, his article is image-management masquerading as history, part of the efforts by El Sistema’s supporters in the media to prepare for possible futures that include a major breakdown in the organization (which can then be blamed on the government rather than internal problems) and a post-Chavismo future (in which some intensive airbrushing of Chávez/Maduro associations is likely to be important). Complicity between El Sistema and Chavismo has been an awkward topic for anti-Chavista classical musicians some time, so the program’s supporters like Marcus and Burgos have leapt on the first signs of a breach that opens up the possibility of historical erasure.

What Burgos, like Marcus, has produced is a pro-Sistema, anti-Chavismo version of recent history. Given the popularity of El Sistema and unpopularity of Chavismo at present, this particular story is likely to go down well, but it’s important to be fully aware of the significant contortions that are required in order to tell it. The article is a political act – the creation of distance between a program that the author supports and a government that he does not – rather than a thorough account of the topic of El Sistema and politics.

Nevertheless, this history is one that will appeal strongly to many organizations and influential figures around the world that have backed El Sistema and been dismayed by recent developments in Venezuela. They will be only too keen to propagate the idea of a hijack by Maduro and to support attempts to excise the Chávez-Abreu alliance from the program’s history. With powerful backers and fewer opponents, it is entirely likely that this fiction will become just as pervasive as the one about the program’s social focus, and will come to be seen, like its predecessor, as simply the history of El Sistema. Once again, it’s not a rewriting of history, since the history of El Sistema’s relationship with Chavismo simply hasn’t been written – which is, I’m sure, no accident. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if that history, like that of El Sistema in the 1980s and 90s, were never written.

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