What Matters in Criticizing Venezuela’s El Sistema?

by Sarah Swong:

Two weeks ago in Caracas, Venezuela, the Los Angeles Philharmonic was sitting in the audience instead of on stage. The American musicians watched brass bands, choruses, and orchestras of Venezuelan youth blasting horns and sawing at strings at the Teresa Carreño Theater.

The professional orchestra had just taught the children in master classes to support Venezuela’s anti-poverty music program, “El Sistema.” Since 1975, El Sistema has placed millions of underprivileged Venezuelan youth in orchestras and other ensembles in an effort to fight poverty with musical training. As early as age 2 or 3, children attend their local El Sistema center up to six days a week, four hours a day, all for free. The 280-center program serves 370,000 students in around 500 musical ensembles across Venezuela.

The Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra, pictured above, is the result of El Sistema. Here, they play at a concert in Athens, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. (Courtesy gichristof)

After witnessing young people fall into poverty’s traps of drug abuse and crime, musician, conductor, and politician José Antonio Abreu founded El Sistema in 1975 to give children the opportunity to learn music through a balance of disciplined hard work and the harmony of group music-making. The spirit of solidarity and friendship instills self-esteem and the ethical and aesthetic values of music. The primary goal of El Sistema is to inspire in children a better vision of themselves and to empower them to change their own lives. “Art in Latin America is no longer a monopoly of elites… it has become a social right, a right for all the people,” Abreu said in a TED talk in 2009.

Classical music educators, administrators, and musicians have celebrated and reproduced the movement around the world, including the United States and United Kingdom. Some alumni have become professional musicians. Most prominently, former El Sistema student Gustavo Dudamel now serves as musical director of the L.A. Philharmonic and El Sistema and will have collaborated on 24 classical recordings by 2015.

But the heavily government-financed program has faced controversy due to its affiliation with the populist president Hugo Chávez. El Sistema has received almost full financial support of its operating costs from Chávez’s government. Two years ago, the president’s office took control of overseeing El Sistema, which had been previously managed by several ministries. In recent months, Chávez has more explicitly aligned the program with his own subsidy and service campaign for the poor. Critics see Chávez’s moves as attempts to consolidate power, take credit for El Sistema, and cover up his human rights violations.

Abreu and Dudamel have also been too sympathetic to the president, some say, since they have refused to express their political views. Abreu asserts only that children have a constitutional right to music, while Dudamel discourages politicization of the program. “We are giving an education to our children,” Dudamel says firmly.

The feverish love for El Sistema borders on the religiously fanatic, argues New York Times classical music reporter Daniel J. Watkin. He observes that José Antonio Abreu leads El Sistema as if his “social mission of art” were a religion. Venezuelans truly believe in his credo and celebrate Abreu as their musical Jesus. The unmarried 72-year old leader, Watkin notes, considers himself a devout Catholic, a “servant” of God. Dudamel mirrors his charisma. The cult of Abreu and Dudamel, however, raise questions about the sustainability of the model. To what extent does El Sistema depend on its charismatic leaders? And what systemic problems is their popularity hiding? “When there are saints, there’s no room for dissidents,” one anonymous affiliate says to Watkins ominously.

Some also note that El Sistema is not unique. Many advocates emphasize the uniqueness of El Sistema’s group-based musical learning, but Tom Service from The Guardian points out that Britain has fostered such collegial music education since 1950. The Kodály method in Hungary and the Suzuki method in Japan have also predated El Sistema in using music for social change.

But the criticism misses the point. El Sistema has produced results. It has jump-started the careers of world-class musicians and has inspired a national love for music that has transformed Venezuela’s social attitudes. Quantitative surveys show that children show decreased cases of depression and damaged self-esteem, and increased positivity about their environment and self-esteem. Though not unique in its principles, El Sistema stands out for its magnitude and impact.

If the survival of the program requires conciliation with an undeserving socialist president, so be it — everyone know the true forces behind El Sistema. It is curious that Abreu and Dudamel so insistently divorce politics and art, given El Sistema’s dependence on the government and Abreu’s past political life as Minister of Culture and Congressional Deputy, but remains beside the point. Most likely they hesitate to engage in volatile politics in favor of stability for their program. In any case, the world needs more Abreus and Dudamels: more leaders who know how to cultivate the power of the arts for social change.

Sarah Swong ’15 is in Pierson College. She is a Globalist Notebook beat blogger on topics of international art and politics. Contact her at sarah.swong@yale.edu.