Can Gustavo Dudamel and El Sistema Navigate Venezuela's Upheaval?

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As the Los Angeles Philharmonic arrives in New York to give a pair of concerts on March 16 and 17 at Lincoln Center, its music director, Gustavo Dudamel, faces an increasingly difficult political situation back in his native Venezuela.

It’s been a month since violent clashes between opposition demonstrators and government forces in Venezuela first grabbed global headlines. Protests rage on with no sign of ending. Dudamel himself has been pressured to speak out on the situation, notably by a fellow Venezuelan musician, pianist Gabriela Montero.

Montero and others have said that Dudamel should use his global stature – and exercise his ethical responsibility as an artist – to take a stronger stand against what they see as a repressive government.

But others argue that Dudamel can’t afford to get involved in partisan politics because of his close ties to El Sistema, Venezuela’s vast, state-funded national music education system.

Tricia Tunstall, author of Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, says that El Sistema’s mission has always been “to stay out of partisan politics and to continue in the work that is their highest priority, which is to work with hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan children, giving them safe haven, musical training and an environment where they can learn to be productive citizens.”

El Sistema was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, a musician and economist, and it has flourished under eight different governments while aiming to keep many impoverished kids on the straight and narrow.

“Yes, they are funded by the government but [Abreu] does not identify the Sistema with any political program and that is why the Sistema has been able to flourish, survive and grow from eleven kids in 1975 to almost 600,000 kids in 2014,” Tunstall added.

Mark Swed, the classical music critic of the Los Angeles Times, interviewed Dudamel after the conductor led a controversial concert in Venezuela on February 12, the same day that three people died in anti-government protests there. Dudamel told him that he was unaware of the nearby protests, and insists that he’s firmly opposed to any violence from either side of the conflict.

“Ultimately, we have no idea how Dudamel, maestro Abreu and others are functioning in El Sistema,” Swed said. “Abreu’s way of working has always been to try and influence the politics subtly from the inside. The second he takes a public stand, he can’t do that anymore.”

Meanwhile, other musicians are taking a firm political position, albeit from a distance. Venezuelan conductor Carlos Izcaray is organizing a “Concert for Peace and Liberty” in Berlin this Sunday, which will feature a number of fellow expats including Gabriela Montero. Izcaray says that the goal of the concert is to raise awareness for victims of political violence, including several musicians who he says have been “detained, beaten, tortured and threatened by the national police.”

Izcaray says he doesn’t hold any bad feelings towards Dudamel or other Venezuelan musicians who aren’t speaking out, noting that being a musician in Venezuela means usually relying on the government for support. “I’m pretty confident a lot of this has to do with fear of losing support for the institution, maybe they’ll cut their funding or be fired.”

He adds: “As far as artists go, we do have to defend each other.”

Listen to the full podcast above and tell us what you think below: what is the responsibility of artists in times of political unrest? Should art and politics remain separate or do creative people have a duty to speak out?

Photos: 1) People shout slogans as they protest against the government of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in front of riot policemen outside the Cuban embassy in Caracas on February 25, 2014 (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images) 2) Gustavo Dudamel, Jose Antonio Abreu and Venezuelan president Nicholas Madura.