Looking under El Sistema's hood

What’s behind those smiles?

I apologize for not posting about this sooner. Nonetheless, make sure you read The Guardian’s scorching takedown of El Sistema.

British academic and musician Geoffrey Baker did what few people have been able to do: go to Venezuela and take a careful look at El Sistema’s claims of being a flagship model of social integration. What he finds is something much more complex, much less rosy than propaganda would have us believe. He is even coming out with a book on the issue, and he also has a blog on the topic.

The stand-out part of the piece:

Seen overseas as a beacon of social justice, at home the program was characterised variously as a cult and a corporation. There were numerous allegations of irregularities around its financial affairs, and I also heard claims of sexual abuse and relationships between teachers and students, presaging stories that subsequently emerged from specialist music schools in the UK.

I found many Sistema musicians unconvinced by claims that the project was aimed at Venezuela’s most vulnerable children. Pointing to a lack of mechanisms for consistently targeting this demographic, they suggested that most musicians came from the middle levels of society. They doubted that many children from truly deprived families would remain long in such a demanding program.

Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema’s superstar conductor, describes the orchestra as “a beautiful model for a society”. Ordinary musicians were more sceptical, however, seeing it instead as the world in miniature, with its problems intact or even intensified. “Yes, it’s a model”, said one, “of absolute tyranny: a society where someone will always be telling you what to do…. It’ll be organised, of course, because you have someone with lots of power who tells you exactly what to do, and you keep your mouth shut, end of story.”


Baker goes on to question the claims that the system is for the poor, and he ends up calling it “a model of tyranny.”

El Sistema has become an integral part of the Revolution’s international PR machine, despite the fact that the system of orchestras predates Chávez. For example, few people are aware that José Antonio Abreu, the headmaster of the system, was actually a minister for Carlos Andrés Pérez, the same man that Hugo Chávez violently tried to depose. He even sat in on the Cabinet during the Caracazo, fer cryin’ out loud. None of this gets a mention in Abreu’s Wikipedia pages – in Spanish oEnglish.

Abreu’s work deserves to be looked at critically, particularly when so many of our petro-dollars are at play. Just because a social program is (literally) music to our ears does not mean it’s sensible social policy. Costs and benefits have to be looked at, just like in any other program.

I don’t know to what extent Baker is looking at the numbers, but anything other than unconditional fawning has to be welcome news.