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.
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.