If the nation of Venezuela and Hugo Chávez had official Facebook pages (they probably do, in fact) their relationship status might be “It’s complicated.” No question, Chávez loved Venezuela, but the other half of the dyad, the 29.95 million Venezuelans, remains deeply divided in its feelings towards el Comandante. The common depiction of the country is one of a vast majority held hostage by a tiny cadre of privileged political extremists (No, that’s the USA, in reality) but Chávez and his administration have always enjoyed broad popular support, particularly from the poor. By a number of independently assessed measures, (i.e.: Gini coefficient) Chávez’s policies have benefited the impoverished. During his tenure, income inequality in Venezuela declined to a point on par with the US, and access to health and welfare services was greatly expanded. In last December’s municipal elections, widely viewed as a referendum on Maduro’s leadership, the government coalition earned 54% of the vote, a number higher than the slim 1.5% majority they earned in the March federal elections. Notwithstanding serious allegations of electoral fraud both times, a large segment of the population continues to identify with the Chávez vision of Socialism.
For better or for worse, that vision actively embraces the Fundación Símon Bolívar, better known as el Sistema, through generous financial support of its activities. This money constitutes an inescapable relationship baseline between the giver and recipient: like it or not, Sistema and the government are connected, and the optics of this connection are proving increasingly problematic.
I’m not, nor have I ever been, an apologist for Abreu or Dudamel. But I found the simplistic armchair punditry of Gabriela Montero (whom I greatly admire as an artist),and her public naming and shaming of Sistema’s two figureheads as distasteful as it was naïve. Her open letter was written from a place of great sorrow and great frustration, emotions shared by many in the expatriate community, but not from a perspective of great pragmatism. What outcome does she envision, were the two to “speak out” against the “dictatorship”? Perhaps she truly believes that the late Chávez and his successor are universally despised, and that one judicious word from the Maestros will foment sufficient public outrage to induce Maduro to resign.
Breaking down the options
But that simply won’t happen, given the degree of support the government continues to command. Even if Venezuela were a tinderbox of oppression waiting for a spark, it would hardly be consistent with the mission and values of the Fundación to advocate for the overthrow of the administration, in the certain knowledge that bloodshed would ensue. The only alternative Montero might have envisioned is that Abreu and his disciple resign publicly, thus taking a stance that would deny them any opportunity to influence the course of the nation, and deprive them of the authority to safeguard the Fundación and its charges at a time of crisis. It would be at best a grand gesture. A pointless one, but grand nonetheless. Maduro would accept the resignation with a public expression of regret, thank them for their service, and promise to continue the work. And the work would continue.
Damned if you do…
The reality is that Abreu’s political position is dangerous no matter what he does. With public sentiment so divided, political alignment in any direction would only serve to incur the enmity of the other half of the nation. For every child withdrawn from a Sistema núcleo because of the latter’s perceived anti-government bias, another is probably enrolled as a gesture of approbation and solidarity by pro-Chávez parents. Switch “anti” and “pro” in the preceding sentence and it still holds true. The least comfortable seat is the one on the fence, but that’s where the Fundación needs to be right now. The monetary policy of a fixed exchange rate, as instituted by Chávez in 2003, was an attempt to buy time for the government, quite literally, to extend otherwise unsustainable economic policies. As the Bolívar continues to devalue on the black market, its purchasing power in temporal terms has waned from years to months, perhaps even weeks.
I’ve said this before: at some point, the party in Venezuela will be over and it will be time to pay the pipers. The social unrest, crime, inflation, scarcity of necessities and the electricity outages (in an energy rich nation?) are all escalating and may ultimately tip the balance in favour of the opposition. In the event of a national reversal along the political spectrum, how kindly disposed towards the Fundación will the new administration be, if it perceives Abreu as being an ardent supporter of Chávez’s Revolución Bolivariana? Strategically, neither Abreu nor the Fundación can benefit from a perception of strong alignment with any political party. The relationship that is visible, the relationship to which Montero objects so strongly, is the expansion of the relationship between any not-for-profit and its principal sponsor. The Fundación has obligations towards the government, not the least of which is expressing its appreciation publicly. And having bankrolled the massive expansion of Sistema’s domestic and international activities, the Chávez/Maduro government rightfully claims some association with its success. Negotiating this extremely fine line without angering someone is simply impossible.
A Hypothetical Scenario
Imagine if this situation were unfolding in the United States. A President installed via electoral fraud (it happened) institutes policies that grossly violate the rights of the citizens (it happened). The economy tanks as a result of extremely poor oversight of the financial sector (it happened): thousands of people march in the street to protest the situation (it happened) and are met on multiple occasions with violence and further violation of their rights (it happened). Suddenly Rocco Landesman, then Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts, or Christoph Eschenbach, Music Director of the National Symphony, steps forth to explicitly decry the situation and government.
It sounds ridiculous. It sounds pointless. It is both. So why are these expectations levied at Gustavo Dudamel and Maestro Abreu?
The Bottom Line
Dudamel and Abreu have never explicitly divulged their political leanings. Montero’s letter is rooted in one base assumption: that Dudamel and Abreu are among the 50% (+/-5%) of the Venezuelan population who oppose Chávez/Maduro. This may simply be wishful thinking on the part of the dissenters; it’s equally possible the two rank among the other 50% who are supporters, in which case two important points need to be made:
- It is entirely their right to hold such a view.
- Their personal politics don’t change anything.
Political alignment by the Fundación towards the current government still risks alienating a significant proportion of the people, and does not negate the strategic need for Sistema to think beyond this administration to the next, and the next after that.
It’s easy to buy into the illusion that everyone within the Fundación, from Abreu right down to the 5-year old in a recorder choir, shares the generally liberal values that characterize the Sistema movement internationally. But politics are as controversial and divisive in Venezuela as they are in America or Britain. In my last blog entry I wrote of “introducing a few shades of grey into bichromatic dichotomies” … in other words, appreciating the fact that not everything is black and white. Like most of the international community, I’m concerned about the situation in Venezuela. I’m concerned for my friends across the nation. But I’m extremely hesitant to draw hard and fast conclusions about the actions of Abreu or Dudamel without any understanding of the challenges they face. Clearly Dudamel has acquired some diplomatic skills from his teacher: his response to Montero deplored the recent violence without apportioning culpability. And even if I find his assertion that “Music is the universal language of peace” to be untrue on all counts (Not universal, not a language, and a very long association with war) I still appreciate the sentiment, and the deft evasion of politicizing the Fundación further.