Music in Times of Dictatorship: Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Crisis in Venezuela

Amongst Venezuela’s internationally recognized figures, 35-year-old Gustavo Dudamel is especially unique: he is a global celebrity in the world of classical music. Currently heading the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, he is one of the most accomplished and recognized classical conductors in the world. He is frequently invited as guest conductor in symphonies and orchestras of the highest order and has collected a plethora of awards, including a Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance. Dudamel is a poster-boy for government-funded “El Sistema”, The System, through which he rose to fame, yet he consistently describes himself as ‘apolitical’. After years of silence, Dudamel has recently spoken out, breaking his long record of reticence; his pronouncement, however, consisted of a weak acknowledgement of the current crisis – without daring to point out its possible causes. His reluctance to speak up while maintaining close relationships with the authoritarian governments of Chavez and Maduro has fostered a multitude of critical voices. They question his intentions and integrity during an increasingly complicated historical moment in Venezuelan history, in which it is extremely difficult to remain non-political.

The government-funded program “El Sistema” has successfully trained hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan children, mostly underprivileged, in classical music, skill and technique for the last 41 years; the program’s motto, Social Action for Music, summarizes its mission succinctly. José Antonio Abreu, the founder of the program, along with Dudamel, are national figures of the highest order. The former, at 77, is perhaps the most important personality in contemporary Venezuelan culture. Abreu’s savvy political maneuvering has brought El Sistema unprecedented success. He has managed to maintain the program’s support across several administrations with radically different political tendencies. This is due, in part, to Abreu’s labeling of the program as apolitical, a label to which Dudamel also adheres. Over the years, however, this impartiality has come under question.

The Chavez and Maduro administrations have heavily appropriated “El Sistema” into their populist regimes, turning the supposed ‘apolitical’ program into a propaganda tool on the national and international stages. During a majority of its lifetime, “El Sistema” had been overseen by various ministries. In 2010, however, Chavez took it under direct control. This would allow him to exploit the program for political ends, a practice that would also continue under Maduro. While Chavez advanced authoritarian measures and Maduro now piles up accusations of human rights violations, both Abreu and Dudamel remain silent in the name of neutrality. Nevertheless, their system continues to piggyback on government funds while their orchestras consistently perform for politically loaded government events. Dudamel himself led the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in the national anthem in 2007 as the signal of RCTV, one of Venezuela’s most popular television channels, came to an end. Chavez had baselessly accused the private network of supporting the 2002 failed coup against him and unilaterally denied the renewal of their broadcasting license, effectively shutting it down. This was a highly symbolic and dismal moment for the nation, as Chavez put a definitive marker on his suffocation of press freedoms, and Dudamel was there to give it music.

Dudamel and Abreu’s decision to remain in a supposedly neutral stance should not simply be accepted at face value.

The network closing was not the only moment in which Dudamel and Abreu appeared in official government ceremonies. Abreu appeared next to Chavez in “Aló Presidente”, the president’s weekly TV show, as the ‘supreme commander’ announced the creation of a government program which would pour funds into and expand El Sistema. Dudamel, again conducting the Bolivar Orchestra composed of El Sistema musicians, played at Chavez’s highly publicized and politicized funeral. These instances have not gone unnoticed by critics of Abreu’s system, who use them to point out the hypocrisy and falsehood of the ‘apolitical’ label. By appearing and performing at these events, both Dudamel and Abreu send a harmful mixed message to the Venezuelan population. They give off the impression that the social change for which they clamor through music can only be achieved through the current government, regardless of the administration’s deep flaws. As writer Eduardo Casanova stated, “Now dictatorship has a musician who sings it praise.”

Paradoxically, however, the international recognition for these figures only grows. In 2014, for example, Maduro held a reception for famous architect Frank Gehry, famous for designing the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles. He was in the country to discuss plans with the president for the building of a musical facility in the city of Barquisimeto. Composed of rehearsal studios, educational spaces and a concert hall, the facility would serve as the headquarters for El Sistema. Its name: Dudamel Hall. “There’s still two years left,” Maduro said, “and we will inject the resources necessary to build this wonderful project in Barquisimeto.” He later added, “very soon we will see this facility, which is a gift from Dudamel to the youth, to the Venezuelan children, and to future generations.”

Today, two years later, the hall hasn’t been finished and little information can be found regarding its progress. Venezuela, on the other hand, has nosedived into a crisis deeper than it has ever experienced before. Inflation is projected to hit 482% by the end of this year with food shortages rampant across the nation; the country’s murder rate is also one of the highest in the world, 82 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, while an estimated 98% of crimes do not end in prosecution. U.N Secretary General, Ban-Ki Moon, declared that the country is living a humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, although Dudamel’s self-entitled hall hasn’t been finished, the conductor, residing in Los Angeles, attained another major achievement: conducting the opening and closing motion soundtrack sequences for the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens.

This question, then, of Gustavo Dudamel and Jose Antonio Abreu’s places in all of this, is a difficult one for Venezuelans to face. During a period in which the country has undergone undeniable amounts of suffering and turmoil, Dudamel presents a breath of fresh air.  He is a national figure from an improbable background who was able to succeed and thrive in the highly sophisticated realm of classical music, a world alien to most of the country. He defied all odds in a field in which custom and pedigree are deeply entrenched, all the while proudly carrying the name of his country with him. Abreu’s achievements are just as laudable: he was able to build, from the ground up, the platform that allowed this most improbable of narratives to occur. Yet, as unprecedented as they are, these achievements cannot and do not acquit the men themselves. In the face of such a dramatic national crisis it is the duty of both the nation, and international onlookers, to press and question people of power and influence, especially those closely linked to the governmental machine. Dudamel and Abreu’s decision to remain in a supposedly neutral stance should not simply be accepted at face value. They have benefitted from extensive funds from the government and are inevitably tied to its actions, and thus must answer for them, at least by speaking openly. It is true that the life of El Sistema might be endangered by the two men breaking away from their apolitical posture; however, as millions of Venezuelans continue to literally starve, the nation begs for voices of reason and influence to speak up. Dudamel and Abreu have already inscribed their names into Venezuelan history. Hopefully, they will place themselves on the right side of it.

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