Montero vs. Maduro – and why the truth matters

The last few weeks have been interesting for Venezuela, although the news is understandably dwarfed by the larger multinational concern of the moment. On March 26th, The US Department of Justice announced criminal charges against Maduro and other senior members of his administration for “narco-terrorism”, accusing individual cadre members of co-operating with Colombia’s FARC terrorist group to traffic cocaine into the US for the twin goals of individual profit and the destabilization of US communities. On March 31st, five days after the Department of Justice antagonized Maduro personally with the criminal charges, the US Department of State presented a framework for a transitional government in Venezuela without either Maduro or Juan Guidó as leader, a proposal that was swiftly rejected. Then on April 2nd the US deployed its navy to the south Caribbean coast, with the overt objective of suppressing the drug trade.

There were few outcomes to the announcement of criminal charges. Barring the unlikely prospect of Maduro surrendering to the US Venezuelan Affairs division in Bogotá (the Caracas embassy is shuttered) the act by the DoJ was primarily symbolic, an undiplomatic irritation to the state and ill-timed prelude to a failed diplomatic overture, even as it opened up certain legal avenues in the US, like seizure of assets. The indictment did produce a strongly worded Facebook endorsement from Venezuelan-American pianist Gabriela Montero, reproduced below:

“Now the musical world can know for certain that the El Sistema/Dudamel global propaganda machine was funded by narcos. Music did not save Venezuela. It was hijacked cynically to mask a criminal state enterprise. Intentionally and willfully. In fact, Venezuela’s transformation into a failed state coincided with two decades of historically lavish music funding. It’s time to abandon the fantasy narrative. Music must report the truth and reflect our best values. It can never again be used by malevolent forces to obfuscate and conceal.”

One idea at a time please.

“Now the musical world can know for certain….”

Now? The link between Venezuela, Colombian terrorist groups and cocaine goes back to the early 2000s. We’ve known about this for a long time.

“That the El Sistema/Dudamel global propaganda machine was funded by narcos.”

Wait, what? How did we go from personal charges of corruption and drug trafficking to El Sistema being funded by drug money? Drug traffickers and corrupt politicians tend not to publish quarterly reports, so parsing out the finances here isn’t simple, but it defeats the very point of corruption to use such gains for national social programming. The US indictment references the seizure of $450 million in assets in South Florida belonging to individuals charged, so money was not going to state coffers. Sistema predates Chávez’s (fickle) embrace of FARC and the drug trade by almost 25 years. It ascended and descended in parallel with the oil market, and while the marginal involvement of drug money remains possible, the suggestion that Sistema was a direct beneficiary makes little sense.

The real beneficiary of the drug trade is the military. Their involvement is incontestable: the Guardia Nacional controls the land, sea and air borders of Venezuela, and therefore controls trade. The international illegal narcotics market is highly lucrative (worth $37 billion in the US alone) and is significantly more stable than petroleum indices, so it represents a consistent income source for Venezuela’s military leadership. The military hasn’t turned on Maduro yet, despite the  massive going humanitarian and financial crisis, because they continue to benefit, provided Maduro remains in power. The arrival of a detachment from the US Fourth Fleet has jeopardized that benefit, however. Successful suppression of the drug trade would eliminate the primary motivation for the military to continue to back Maduro and hasten the collapse of his administration. The US governmental attitude of “maximum pressure” as applied to Venezuela might yet prove to be the sole successful foreign policy – or any policy, for that matter –  in the tire fire that is the current US administration. (Don’t expect the collapse to happen soon – but when it happens, expect it to happen fast, as Rudiger Dornbusch noted.)

Venezuela is broke. Escalating US sanctions compelled China’s CNPC to stop exporting oil back in August, and in early March Russia’s Rosneft, the last major international player (apart from US-based Chevron, exempt from trade restrictions) divested all Venezuelan holdings to the Russian government, an entity better able to shield operations from sanctions. With legal sources of income restricted, the US is now choking off the illegal sources.

“Music did not save Venezuela.”

On this Ms. Montero and I are in complete agreement.

“It was hijacked cynically to mask a criminal state enterprise. Intentionally and willfully.”

The relationship between Chávez/Maduro and FARC/ELN and cocaine has been known since well before Sistema’s period of greatest fame. The drug connection wasn’t masked before, so why would a multi-million-dollar distraction be required later? And if anything, the distraction is needed more than ever right now, yet Sistema orchestras have all but withdrawn from the world stage, although that may be a function of the fact that there are few audiences sufficiently self-delusional to find orchestral choreography in technicolor jackets palatable in the context of the human suffering witnessed in Venezuela now. Sistema may have been a convenient public face co-opted by Chávez, but of the three conditions I once stipulated that needed to be met before it could be deemed politicized, only one (the replacement of Dudamel with the terminally unimaginative but highly compliant Vásquez) has occurred.

“In fact, Venezuela’s transformation into a failed state coincided with two decades of historically lavish music funding.”

True, but correlation is not causation. The Sistema critics who point to the economic crisis as proof-positive of the failure of Sistema itself are disputing the false rhetoric that abounds over the program, not the program itself, since no one reasonable would propose that a music education network could rescue a nation from gross economic resource mismanagement.

“It’s time to abandon the fantasy narrative.”

Agreed, but which one? The latest apparently is that Sistema is a PR subsidiary of a narco-enterprise.

As for the prevailing fantasy narrative, good luck with that. To this day Sistema programs around the world cling to a concept of social progress through conventional orchestra training that has been ruthlessly critiqued and largely discredited. To acknowledge the fundamental failings of the program in Venezuela would be to admit that their figurative houses/empires (the colonial reference is deliberate) were built on nothing more than sand. Sensing the crumbling foundations, the booster club went so far recently to commission an inspirational paean to glories of Abreu’s vision – without addressing the social or pedagogical realities in any substantive way. Facts remain inconvenient.

“Music must report the truth and reflect our best values. It can never again be used by malevolent forces to obfuscate and conceal.”

Agreed, in principal, but good luck with that. The weaponization of music, its deployment to cause deliberate injury, the ubiquity of the power systems within music education that actively invite abuse – these aren’t going anywhere, especially the last one when it comes to Sistema.

I am a tremendous fan of Montero, and consider her a musician of capacities infinitely superior to my own. I’ve addressed her advocacy before, and my sense remains that her intemperate wrath over the abuses of the Chavista era and the indifference of the international community, while entirely warranted, has also weakened her capacity to argue effectively. There are many legitimate grounds to criticize Venezuela’s Sistema, but involvement in the drug trade, whether as financial beneficiary of or PR façade for a narco-state, is not one of them.


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