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Venezuela crisis

US tour of Gustavo de Dudamel’s Venezuelan youth orchestra canceled

President Nicolás Maduro punishes famed music director for “sticking his nose into politics”

Here come the consequences. Youth orchestra conductor Gustavo de Dudamel’s questioning of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has cost him a tour. When Dudamel spoke out against the murder of 17-year-old Armando Cañizales, a violinist in the orchestra, he knew his words would burn deep. Cañizales was shot dead during a revolt against the president. But the matter did not end there.

Gustavo Dudamel, with members of his youth orchestra in February 2016 in Caracas.
Gustavo Dudamel, with members of his youth orchestra in February 2016 in Caracas. AP

Dudamel went even further, by publishing an article in EL PAÍS further critiquing the country’s controversial new Constituent Assembly, a body Maduro says will help bring peace to the crisis-hit country but which many believe is a veiled attempt by the leader to cling to power at all costs.

After Dudamel published his article in this paper, the persecution began. Maduro issued Dudamel a warning on television on August 18. In one of his monologues that are broadcast across the country, the embattled president said: “Welcome to politics, Gustavo Dudamel.”

The system of orchestras only exists thanks to the revolution

President Maduro, after canceling the tour

“It’s very easy to believe the cool lie, the easy lie, and take aim at President Nicolás Maduro. It’s okay Gustavo Dudamel. May God forgive you for letting yourself be deceived,” Maduro continued.

On Monday afternoon a major act of retaliation was confirmed. The tour of the United States involving some 200 young musicians from Venezuela would no longer be taking place.

“The system of orchestras only exists thanks to the revolution,” Maduro had said in his speech, referring to the changes wrought by the left-wing regime of deceased president Hugo Chávez.

That’s not entirely true. Venezuelan musician, educator and polymath José Antonio Abreu, now ill and retired from public life, created the system more than 40 years ago. It’s true that Hugo Chávez greatly supported him economically during his years in power. But the ruinous economic state of Venezuela in the wake of Maduro’s drift toward authoritarianism undermines the musical institution further each day. The current president may cause lasting damage to the orchestra, converting it into an relic of the past.

It breaks my heart to see the cancelation of the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela’s tour of four US cities

Gustavo de Dudamel, in a tweet

The government’s political interference within the system of orchestras is unstoppable. It’s forcing many of the young people who form the backbone of the system to abandon it. Many of them are angry too. Wuilly Arteaga, for example, was detained for protesting against the government with violin in hand.

The tours depend on government funding. For years now, management has remained under government supervision. This leaves the people responsible for the group with their hands tied. And this is why Dudamel’s criticism hurt more than that of his opponents. Until recently, the government considered him to be one of their own, but the musician has permanently split from the party.

This Monday, he took to Twitter to share his story, albeit with discretion. He wrote, “It breaks my heart to see the cancellation of the National Youth Orchestra of Venezuela’s tour of four US cities.”

He also thanked the four institutions where the group was going to perform for their support. These included Virginia’s Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, The Ravinia Pavilion in Illinois, The University of Berkeley in California, and the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, California, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which is also led by Dudamel.

There was going to be 180 musicians between the ages of 11 and 18, coming from some of Venezuela’s most punished neighborhoods

Orchestra representatives said 180 musicians between the ages of 11 and 18 from an organization that brings together 800,000 youths from some of Venezuela’s poorest neighborhoods had been going to take part.

Maduro says the organization will swell to include 1 million, but growth has been stagnant. And a lack of resources over the last five years has seen the group reduce the number of tours it goes on.

This time, though, the reason for the cancellation of the tour is political. The tour of the United States would have been a potent exhibition of young talent to the whole world. Its Simón Bolívar and Teresa Carreño orchestras have triumphed throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

Sometimes the younger talents get a chance to star as well, as would have been the case with the suspended tour of the US.

A few weeks earlier, Dudamel’s criticism of the Maduro regime had been devastating. Previously his comments on politics had been generally lukewarm. But he urged the Chavista regime to halt the elections for the Constituent Assembly and to begin negotiations with the opposition party.

Judging from Maduro’s reaction, he is already an enemy. The punishment is sufficiently eloquent that, for the moment, Dudamel won’t be making any more comments. He is beginning to pay dearly for taking a step forward.

English version by Debora Almeida.

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