While Rome (Caracas) Burns

I’ve been trying and failing to write an entry about the situation in Venezuela for months. The problem hasn’t been a dearth of information. If anything, so much has happened I simply don’t know where to start.

I’d normally begin by polling my network. The primary advantage I’ve had in the last few years in my role as a Sistema commentator is the multiple channels of communication I could engage, be it the 18th floor of Parque Central (the headquarters of the Fundación), the núcleo leadership across the country, all the way down to the students in Mucuchiés. The official spokespeople, the unofficial boosters, the detractors, the loyal, the divergent, and the (largely indifferent) core constituents of students– I had access to them all.

That network is almost entirely gone. The majority of the administration and faculty I knew have fled the Fundación, unpaid for months, or unadjusted salaries now worthless thanks to triple digit inflation. The remainder send me letters imploring my help to leave the country or asking for American dollars. As for the students, the impact has been primarily within the upper echelon. Many of the musicians of the Teresa Carreño have left both the orchestra and the Fundación. For many of them, the great value of being in the orchestra, beyond the once-reasonable but now insignificant pay, was the international touring. Those activities have now been essentially consolidated within the Símon Bolívar, and the TC largely abandoned by the Fundación, no longer being young enough to impress anyone, and not famous enough like the SBSO to drive attendance on its own. Compounded by an edict from the 18th floor forbidding the musicians of the TC to teach privately or within núcleos, to preserve existing jobs and avoid flooding a depressed market with additional labour, there was no reason to remain. The Fundación has been indifferent to this outflow: there’s no shortage of desperate replacements either. Those musicians blessed with dual citizenship have already emigrated, and a number of American university music programs are the immediate beneficiaries of this exodus.

I wouldn’t call myself a Sistema researcher. (Marshall Marcus once called me a Sistema Philosopher, but my objection to that title is that it implies inaction, when the last 5 years of my life have been devoted to the development and refinement of an informed practice.) Since I’m not a researcher per se, I don’t interview the students with prepared lists of questions or have them complete quantitative assessments. I hang out with them. Age permitting, I drink beers with them. And I always listen to them. And the stories they typically revealed were infinitely richer and more nuanced that any single volume on Sistema I’ve seen. And even though most of them have left the Fundación, what they have to say is still instructive.

The general sentiment now is one of disappointment, or even betrayal. The odd, recurring refrain across all levels, from the Centro de Acción Social in Caracas to the plains of Portuguesa, is that “Maestro is no longer in charge.” I wonder to what extent he was in charge even when I first met him in 2010.  At that point he had already been relegated to an office on the periphery of the ground floor of the Parque Central complex, far from the hub of decision making 18 stories above. Having met with Maestro there, I can confirm that the sense of isolation is palpable: the minimal technology, the functional and inelegant Central American architecture, furniture and décor evoking, if not a sense of the absolute stoppage of time, at least a decade long since past. Whether Abreu’s recent withdrawal from the public eye is a function of his age and reported infirmity, or effectively enforced by the Fundación, the result is the same: a complete internal loss of confidence in the artistic, pedagogical and managerial direction of Sistema. Whether the situation would be any different were he still in charge is pure speculation, but Abreu continues to serve as a rallying point for the many disaffected.

Probing for details beyond this general unhappiness yields another surprise. Even the students professing the greatest sense of betrayal will not speak ill of the Fundación: ask a pointed question and a thick velvet curtain of omertà immediately descends. Conspiracy theorists might infer a gag order. I might suggest a continuing sense of loyalty to an ideal, and a “once bitten twice shy” reaction to the highly negative publications in recent years.

There is a genuine sense among the departed musicians that there is still something within the Fundación worth preserving, that the current deplorable state of affairs cannot last forever, and that at some point the organization will be restored and reclaim a small measure of its lost glory. That is a highly optimistic assessment. There is a small minority hell bent on doing as much damage to Sistema as they can, but the largest group still has positive associations with their time in the program and see value in it. This sentiment of respectful silence is not restricted to the chosen, the elite of the Caraceño orchestras, but seems pervasive across all levels, even those musical dilettantes in the small towns who would never be the beneficiary of the Fundación’s largesse.

It seems pointless to comment on the political and social situation in Venezuela. Both Reuters and the BBC maintain sections devoted purely to coverage of the nation’s death spiral. A severely financially overextended government continues to engage in monetary contortions and economic distortions to retain its grip on power. With currency almost worthless and a starving populace, food has become the new tender. By transferring control of the only meaningful resource remaining to the military, Maduro has essentially bought their support, until such time as even that asset is depleted. There will be no relief from the oil market: the supply glut isn’t going away and OPEC production cuts still only nudged the WTI and Brent Crude benchmarks to barely half of what Venezuela requires to service its debts effectively, and only a third of what is necessary for the nation to meet all domestic and international commitments.

With a politically-stacked supreme court, and the military still on the side of the feckless Maduro administration (for now), change is very unlikely. The much-predicted economic default has yet to happen, and the citizenry has been reduced to a figurative bobo doll, with the international community staring and wondering just how much more abuse the population can take and still keep on getting up.

The future pulse of the nation?

It’s Latin America. The next stage is probably not popular insurrection and restoration of democracy, but a coup the moment Maduro is unable to continue paying off the military. The future of Sistema is very unclear. As the nation migrates from a kakistocracy to a khakistocracy, it’s worth remembering the recurrent role music has played in establishing and undermining dictatorships. With Sistema having so close a relationship with the existing government, it seems likely its future role will fulfill the prophecies of its harshest critics as an instrument of control, rather than subversion. The choice of political bedfellows was always a gamble. Sometimes when you gamble, you lose.

If I’m not a researcher, I’m definitely not a prognosticator either. If you want predictions on Sistema, look only to the oil market: it cannot be a coincidence that every step in the program’s ascendancy was preceded by a spike in oil prices, starting with the 1973 oil shock. In retrospect, it’s easy to identify Sistema’s zenith: the years immediately following the historic high of $156 in 2008. In January of 2016, oil tanked at $29. Whether the current moment in time represents the program’s nadir has yet to be seen but the caution remains: the situation can still get worse.


11 thoughts on “While Rome (Caracas) Burns

  1. Thanks Jonathan for a startlingly good essay on the unfolding disaster that Venezuela has become – and especially as it pertains to El Sistema and the Fundación. This is worth submitting to something like the New York Times or the Washington Post. Thank you…

      1. I’m just being silly. Appreciate you visiting. I have a feeling that an article on music education would be of little to no interest to major media, however.

  2. Interestingly, the line about El Maestro – if only he knew what was going on / if only he were still in charge / the problem is that the people around him are pulling the wool over his eyes – has also been used extensively by disaffected Chávez supporters (who obviously now add “if only he were still alive” to that list). It suggests that what’s going on here has less to do with El Sistema than with the way that people understand power and powerful individuals in Venezuela.

    It looks like a way of being both idealistic and realistic at the same time. It shows a refusal to give up on a closely held ideal while acknowledging that reality currently falls far short. With Abreu, as with Chávez, the question that needs asking is whether that ideal ever had much currency without unlimited flows of petro-dollars and whether it was always in fact corrupted in its actual workings, meaning that it was only a matter of time before it collapsed.

    1. I don’t think playing the psychological game of “what if” or “if only” is limited to the Venezuelans: both Britain and the US are in the throes of speculating on what might have been while ruing present outcomes.

      You’ve made the point in the past that the ideal of Sistema was always something of a moving target, evolving in response to the political and financial exigencies of the moment. I think I find this less disturbing than you just on a pragmatic level, although I agree the frequent retroactive application of the current mandate to Sistema’s inception to be misleading and unnecessary. If an ideal has been corrupted, it was in the last decade when the embryonic social agenda was derailed by a quest for international fame. Much of the derailment was precipitated by those petro-dollars – to play the “what if” game yet again, had oil prices reached historic lows instead of highs in 2008, the current outcomes in Venezuela could be quite different. With international touring not possible, they may have focused instead of matching their practice to their rhetoric.

      What if…

      1. On your first point, yes – though there’s also something distinct about the veneration of a leader whose absence is blamed for the decline. I don’t see this in either of our countries.

        As for the moving target, my issue isn’t so much this shift of focus as the misleading – as you correctly put it – that accompanied it and that led to so much misunderstanding nationally and internationally about El Sistema.

        I don’t think the ideal was corrupted by a quest for international fame. If you look at El Sistema’s history, that quest started in 1976, a year after the program was created, when the national youth orchestra started touring overseas. Abreu said explicitly that his aim was to put Venezuela on the international map of orchestral music and compete with the best in the continent. The “ideal” – now I want to put it in scare quotes, because if it was a response to political and financial exigencies (as you correctly put it), then it’s debatable whether it was actually an ideal or in fact more a marketing tool – appeared 20 years later.

  3. It’s also worth pointing out that this narrative arc of high ideal followed by disappointment or even betrayal is not new in El Sistema, and therefore not a consequence of Venezuela’s current decline (much as it might look that way). Eva Estrada found the same thing – indeed, it was her main conclusion – in her independent report for the IDB in 1997. The report was unsurprisingly buried, but Spanish readers can find a summary of it in my article with Ana Lucía Frega here: https://revistas.unlp.edu.ar/Epistemus.

  4. It’s a very interesting (and depressing) dynamic that you describe, largely accurately. There is disappointment; betrayal; the number 2 orchestra (TC) being abandoned; its musicians being forbidden to teach; a complete internal loss of confidence. That’s a grim picture of any music program, let alone one that is globally famed for social action. And yet:

    “Even the students professing the greatest sense of betrayal will not speak ill of the Fundación: ask a pointed question and a thick velvet curtain of omertà immediately descends.”

    I think a psychologist would have a field-day with this; so would a sociologist. It’s something that has fascinated me for a long time. When I’ve asked Venezuelan musicians about it, they have compared it to Stockholm syndrome or an abusive relationship. Whether or not one agrees with such comparisons, I think it’s definitely worth asking what produces such a high level of identification in people who are, in many cases, treated indifferently or abusively by the object of their identification.

    One tentative answer would be simply that these are musicians whose identity as musicians is absolutely bound up with El Sistema, given the program’s all-encompassing nature. To respond appropriately to the institution’s behaviour would mean in some sense rejecting themselves – their own trajectory, their sense of themselves as musicians, their foreign tours, etc.

    The most detailed individual testimony of El Sistema to be published is Larry Scripp’s article on Luigi Mazzocchi (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/285598399_The_Need_to_Testify_A_Venezuelan_Musician%27s_Critique_of_El_Sistema_and_his_Call_for_Reform_Update). Among the many interesting details here is the insight that Mazzocchi did not fully understand his own experience in El Sistema until long after he left, and even then it took reading someone else’s account of El Sistema for the pieces of the puzzle to fall into place in his own mind. Up to that point, there was a disconnect between what he had experienced in the program and what he said about it to the outside world. So in this complex question, I think we need to take into account the extent to which we sometimes do not fully understand our own positions and can even spend a long time defending the indefensible.

  5. There is so much that is confusing and contradictory in El Sistema. Like many things Venezuelan, it is caught up in ego, machismo, filthy luchre and wild ideals. Among it all are many simple and worthwhile things of substance and value too – people who are idealistic, passionate and absolutely believe in its worth, and truly love it. I don’t think, with respect Geoff, that you can brush it all aside and claim they are all brainwashed. In any deliberate or kidnap victim sense anyway. There’s a real religious side to these folk where they see such things as music and the gift of it, spiritually, and therefore it is very important to them, and they in its service as their duty. We see this ‘religious’ fervour in other proponents of it around the world too. Also Venezuela’s El Sistema varies from nucleo to nucleo, so tarring the entire movement with the one brush is somewhat of an extension, and I think a mistake. And one more thing; what is going on in Venezuela is not a rational; clearly thought out world. It is getting to be an ‘every man for himself’ situation where ‘abandon ship’ seems like a really good thing – never mind the tyranny and totalitarian behaviour of the Maduro government and minions. The Fundación is still the tool of the government.

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