The New York Times
by Daniel Wakin
17 / 2 / 2012
CARACAS, Venezuela — In a country sharply divided by its blustery populist president, Hugo Chávez, Venezuelans can agree on one thing: El Sistema, its training system for young musicians, is a cherished vehicle for social uplift and a source of national pride.
But in recent years cracks have been appearing in that musical consensus. The way Mr. Chávez has embraced El Sistema has angered some of its supporters and has been seized on by Chávez opponents, provoking rare criticism of two of Venezuela’s most celebrated and popular figures: the movement’s revered founder, José Antonio Abreu, and its most famous product, the conductor Gustavo Dudamel.
“A lot of us are upset that Chávez has taken Sistema as his own child, and it’s not,” said Gabriela Montero, a Venezuelan pianist with an international career who has written a piece, “Ex Patria,” denouncing the Chávez government and the fraying of civil society here. “It’s almost like he’s stolen something that we lived with for the past 40 years and dirtied it with his presence.”
El Sistema still has a huge reservoir of good will, and most people are loath to criticize anything associated with it publicly. It was founded in 1975 by Mr. Abreu, 72, a musician, economist and former cabinet minister who has built it into an effective social program for disadvantaged youths, bringing hundreds of thousands of them off the streets and into musical ensembles. It has also become the darling of the classical music world. Mr. Dudamel, 31, is its music director, a position he also holds with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is on tour here.
Various ministries oversaw El Sistema until two years ago, when the president’s office took direct control. El Sistema’s mission runs parallel to Mr. Chávez’s program to provide subsidies and services to the poor. “The government doesn’t see this as an expense but as one of the strategies for overcoming poverty,” said Andrés Izarra, the minister of information.
The suggestion that Mr. Chávez is using El Sistema to burnish his image, Mr. Izarra said, “is off the wall.”
“Opposition people have appeared very creative in denigrating Chávez,” he added.
Mr. Dudamel has acquired heroic status among most people here. Mr. Abreu, his mentor, is a beloved figure and has been showered with international awards and with attention from the classical music world.
But in the eyes of some musicians and public figures, their positions have been harmed by associations with Mr. Chávez, who is known for his efforts to consolidate power and nationalize businesses, as well as for the social programs that the government claims have raised the standard of living for the poor.
The situation evokes age-old questions about the intersection of art and politics: Should they remain separate? Should artists denounce politics they don’t agree with? At what cost should culture be kept alive?
The critics cite numerous examples of what they call manipulation of El Sistema.
When the president of the National Assembly introduced three string-playing children from the program to the body last month, for example, he made sure to point out that they had been “born in revolution”: the revolution of Mr. Chávez.
The official, Diosdado Cabello, a former military associate of the president who took part in Mr. Chávez’s failed 1992 coup attempt, noted that the children were younger than the regime of Mr. Chávez, who came to power in 1999. They represented “the beautiful homeland that is being built with Bolivarian socialism,” Mr. Cabello said, referring to the South American hero of independence.
Photographs of Mr. Chávez meeting with Mr. Abreu and Mr. Dudamel “reminded us of other sad times, like Chamberlain’s meetings with Hitler” and “Ezra Pound’s with Mussolini,” wrote Gustavo Coronel, a former Venezuelan member of Congress and government oil official, in an editorial in Petroleum World, an online publication.
The opinion columnist Saúl Godoy Gómez wrote in El Universal, a daily, that Venezuelan orchestras were being used as “facades, as a grotesque spectacle to cover up one of the governments of the world that most violates human rights.”
Eduardo Casanova, a Venezuelan writer commenting on a blog, said that the “buying of consciences has come to the last missing bastion: music.”
“Now dictatorship has a musician who sings its praises,” Mr. Casanova added, referring later to Mr. Abreu’s appearance several years ago on “Aló Presidente,” Mr. Chávez’s rambling Sunday television show.
Ms. Montero, the pianist, said: “When you’re dealing with a man who is a complete kleptocrat and tells lies and believes his lies, it is up to the artist with a public voice to make truth be known.”
Mr. Abreu, in an interview, deflected the suggestion. “We are in a free country where everyone can express their own opinions,” he said. “But our relationship with the state is very simple. Our kids have the right, the constitutionally given right, to musical education.”
He also rejected the notion that he should take a political stand, as sought by anti-Chávistas. “I respect the opinion of any other person on this matter,” he said. “But I live in a country where a few days ago the Chávez opposition attended a vote in a massive and peaceful way,” he said, referring to the presidential primary on Sunday. “I feel I am in a country where democracy is being felt through votes and continual freedom. I’ve never felt any pressure of a political character.”
Another connection that rankled Chávez critics was Mr. Dudamel’s conducting the national anthem for the opening broadcasts of a government-financed television station. The station replaced an anti-Chávez channel that the government had effectively shut down.
Mr. Dudamel also led a rousing version of the “Mambo” from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” in a giant outdoor celebration of Venezuela’s bicentennial that was dominated by images of Mr. Chávez and the phrase “Onward, Commandante!”
In an interview Mr. Dudamel said the music had been played for all Venezuelans.
“We as an orchestra, as citizens of the country, we have to bring the best for our country,” he said. “We are giving an education to our children. People love to politicize, and that is not the right thing to do.”
Some Chávez opponents say that while it is important to point out that El Sistema quietly flourished through six governments before Mr. Chávez’s election, it is unfair to condemn Mr. Abreu and Mr. Dudamel, whose main concern is to keep El Sistema going and expanding for the sake of children.
“I don’t want him to go to war against Chávez,” said Moisés Naim, a former Venezuelan minister who is now a senior associate in the international economics program at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, referring to Mr. Abreu. “If that happens, Sistema will suffer. But I as a Venezuelan have to lament the fact that the only way El Sistema can survive is that the head of that remarkable institution has to stay silent about the government.”